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Pit Crew

Diving Right In, Starting at the top: Part I

I’ll always have fond memories of the day I first went sailing. I was sitting on the bow of a friend’s 35’ Catalina, casually drinking a beer and taking in the spectacle of countless diamonds dancing on the water’s surface as we glided effortlessly in search of the horizon. It was a rare peaceful moment during turbulent times. No, it was more than that. It was also profoundly spiritual: a rare, peaceful, profoundly spiritual moment that I just had to be able to replicate whenever possible. And all it would require was a change of course. The fact that I had zero boating experience was of no consequence because I’d soon be diving right in.


Twenty-five years had passed, and I was quite possibly staring at yet another one of those pivotal moments in life. That’s because I was staring at a growing puddle of diesel fuel collecting underneath my now-leaky fuel tank in the bilge of my 42’ Sealine flybridge motorboat. My love for boating was starting to crack.


Fuel tanks on boats — just so you know — are not designed to be removed. Once they’re in, they’re supposed to stay that way. Put differently, the cost for a new fuel tank is a modest $3,000. Not so bad, right? Think again. The cost of extracting said fuel tank and putting one back in: an additional $30,000, depending on whether or not you also have to remove one or both of the engines to get them out of the way.


And then there was that issue of our cute, little Shiatsu puppy needing a place to do her thing while we were anchored out on a hook. And I’m not even going to mention the issue of trying to coerce my beautiful wife into foregoing swimming in our brand-new pool in order to venture out on the bay in a boat that apparently rocks far too often for her liking.


Yup, it was going to be one of those pivotal moments again, one that I hadn’t experienced in twenty-five years, ever since I gave up golf to pursue boating. Side note: golfing and boating don’t mix, it’s usually one or the other. So, if I was going to be giving up boating, a hobby that once defined me, what could possibly take its place? After all, I have to have a hobby, don’t I?


I’ve always loved sports cars — in theory, anyway — but never actually considered buying one until four years ago. That’s when I bought a Porsche 911 Cab for my wife and me to enjoy together. It was white with a navy top and navy interior (the Yachting package), which I traded in a year later for a grand tourer, a Ferrari California with squeaky ceramic brakes, which I traded in a year later for a newer California T, white with navy interior, less the squeaky brakes. So, it seemed perfectly logical to me, as I considered giving up boating forever, that starting a car collection might just be the perfect segue. But which car should I buy?


Without really knowing much about cars, I liked the looks of the ones from the fifties and early sixties. I liked the Porsche 356, Jaguar E-type, MGA, and Austin-Healey 100M. The 100M appealed to me because of its beautiful lines and coolness factor (folding windshield, no door handles on the outside, side curtains, louvered bonnet with strap). The fact that it was a somewhat rare limited-production model also appealed to me. So, it was no surprise that when I saw a perfectly-restored 1955 Austin-Healey 100M ‘Le Mans’ for sale in Old English White with navy blue interior (think nautical), I knew I had found the one.


I’d now be a car “enthusiast.” My new hobby would soon include becoming a member of car clubs, meeting like-minded individuals at Cars and Coffee gatherings, rallies, and casual drives to the Ice Cream Barn — I had hoped.


I even decided to apply for the prestigious 2021 Audrain Concours d’Elegance, to be held in October at the Breakers mansion in Newport, RI (an hour from my house, by the way). I figured, why not? What did I have to lose? But what are the chances of getting into such a distinguished event on my first try with my first classic car, my one and only classic car? Not likely, I surmised until Nic Waller from Audrain emailed me in May congratulating me on being accepted. Isn’t it normally hard to get into these things? I had never even been to a concours, not to mention actually participating in one. This was all new to me. Not only would I be diving right in, but apparently, I’d be starting at the top.


Now all I needed was the car. The autobody shop that did the PPI for me was tasked with fixing the items on the list. They originally told me that the car should be finished by early spring. April, however, would turn into May, which turned into June, July, and August. When I finally got my 100M at the end of August, I had missed the British Motorcars of New England’s main event in Bristol, RI by a few days. Okay, so I didn’t get to do that one, but I still had the main event coming up in a month: the Audrain Tour d’Elegance and Concours d’Elegance. There was just one minor technical difficulty I’d have to overcome: I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.


I figured that if I could learn how to dock a boat against wind and current, memorize Narragansett Bay like the back of my hand, obtain a 50-ton masters license, and navigate the surrounding sounds, I could learn how to drive a car with three pedals. I was certainly up for the challenge, anyway. Except the challenge was a little greater than I had originally anticipated because now I only had one month to become proficient in it, so I’d have to hurry.


Then there was the question of how do I go about learning on a stick? Do I know anyone who’d be willing to sacrifice their transmission or clutch so that my classic car from the fifties could survive to drive another day? Maybe I could rent a car with a stick? I called the local Hertz and Enterprise dealerships. Nope, they had none.


Luckily, a local drivers education company had a car with a manual transmission. I soon found myself sitting in the driver’s seat of a Hyundai plastered with “student driver,” stalling out at countless stop lights, stop signs, and speed bumps alike. After two embarrassing lessons in two days, my Austin-Healey finally arrived at my front door. I would continue practicing, but from that day on, it would be in my sleek, new 100M, and having a lot of fun at it.


With only one exception, I was glad that I had gotten all the bugs out in that other guy’s car. I just want to know why no one told me previously not to downshift into first gear while moving. I’m not complaining; it’s just that it’s information I could’ve used before I started driving my classic sports car.


My alarm clock went off at 4:00 AM on Saturday, October 2, the morning of the Audrain Tour d’Elegance. An hour later, I was driving on the highway for the very first time in my Austin-Healey. It was total darkness, the top was down, and I was freezing with temperatures in the low forties. I suppose I should have put the top up until I arrived at my destination, but it was too late now. Besides, I wasn’t really sure how to put it up by myself, anyway. I picked my friend up, and we made our way to Scarborough Beach. After that raw, white-knuckle drive getting there, all I needed was a pit stop, and the rest of the day would turn out glorious.


I signed in and started checking out all of the amazing cars. I happened to be drinking a cup of coffee while staring at a Triumph TR4 for no particular reason when someone in back of me asked, “Is that your car?” I turned around and told Jay Leno, “No, it’s not my car.” Jay asked if I knew who owned it. Regretfully, I did not. I think he may have wanted to buy it. Why couldn’t it have been my car?!


We chit chatted for a minute before he headed off. What was I thinking? I should’ve asked him for a selfie. (Is it even called a selfie when more than one person is in the picture?) Anyway, I was closing in on Jay as he walked just a few feet ahead of me. That’s when someone stepped in front of him, beating me to the selfie. And while I stood there awkwardly waiting for this other guy’s photoshoot to finish, other people started gathering around for the same reason. So, I backed off and walked away without ever getting the shot. I suppose I’m kind of shy that way. For what it’s worth, Jay Leno seems like a really down-to-earth guy.


There were about two hundred jaw-dropping cars lined up in rows of three in the foreground, with the sun rising up over the outstretched beach in the background. It was going to be a beautiful day for our rally. I looked around and took in the glory of these rare, gorgeous cars, many of them worth millions of dollars, like the four Ferrari convertibles from the sixties that I counted on my way back to my car. How did I get here? And how lucky was I?


A pretty girl walked by holding a large sign overhead that read “Start your engines in 5 minutes.” I felt like I was at a boxing match, kind of, not really. One by one, each car pulled out of the lot. The parade of million-dollar cars was on. Pretty cool, I thought. People lined the streets for a good portion of our little tour, all of whom had their phones or cameras out. I soon realized that if I honked my 1950s horn at them, they’d come alive. So, I pretty much honked whenever I saw anyone throughout the entire 60-mile rally. I hoped the automobile in back of me in the rally didn’t mind all that much, but since I loved my cute-sounding horn and the reaction I was getting from the spectators, I figured, why not?


We drove over the Jamestown Bridge (it was my first time driving over a bridge in my 100M), around Beavertail to a cheering crowd, and queued up, of course, at the toll booth at the foot of the Newport Bridge. Once over the bridge, it was a beautiful scenic drive through Middletown and on to our designated area at the Audrain Cars & Coffee event at Fort Adams.


Noticing that the needle on my fuel gauge was hovering near empty, I decided to abandon our place in the rally to make a pit stop. By the time we got back en route, there were no other tour-cars in sight. It was my buddy’s job, by the way, to read the map and tell me when to turn. He was a great navigator, I suppose, except for that one time he told me to turn only after I had passed the street. So, I honked my cute-sounding horn at some dumbfounded kid standing in his yard as I drove around his circular driveway, waving at him as I headed out the other side.


The traffic light at the corner of Memorial Boulevard and Bellevue Avenue was brutal as we waited in heavy traffic, anxious to rejoin our group. Only a few cars at a time were getting through the light each time it changed. To my co-pilot’s vociferous objections, I abandoned the rally map in favor of a shorter, more direct route to Fort Adams. My uncalculated risk did not pay off, however, as we came to a complete stop, not moving an inch for fifteen minutes as the parade that we had previously participated in passed by up ahead of us.


When the cars in front eventually started moving again, I made my way through a crowd of people meandering dangerously close to the front and sides of my car as I pushed through, stalling out only once or twice. Thankfully, I was able to rejoin my group, but now I was officially last in line.


Besides the two hundred exquisite cars in our tour, there were about 700 other cars participating in the event. An hour later, it was time for the state police to escort our group to our final destination in front of the concours village at the Tennis Hall of Fame on Bellevue Avenue. Now all we had to do was get there. Since I didn’t need any more gas, I felt my chances of arriving in good standing were much improved over the previous leg.


I’m guessing that the first 190 or so parade-cars had no trouble arriving at the destination without incident, especially with the police escort. However, the situation at the back of the line was slightly more bleak. That’s because spectator-cars started pulling out of their parking spaces before those last in line had a chance to squeeze by. Then there were those other cars pulling out of their parking spaces in front of them. And at every stop sign along the way, more cars pulled out in front of more cars.


My car and four other cars in the parade were stuck in traffic about a half of a mile from our destination when the police motorcycles suddenly appeared with lights flashing. Apparently, they had closed the lane of travel in the opposite direction so they could come back and rescue us, escorting us on the wrong side of the road to where we needed to be. It was a little embarrassing, perhaps, but it worked for me. By this point, our free buffet lunch at La Forge would be well appreciated.


About an hour or so later, it was time for all of us to leave. I deemed it necessary, of course, to beep my cute-sounding horn from the fifties one last time at the crowd gathered on Bellevue Avenue. I’d like to think that they enjoyed that. Then it was back over the two bridges and onto Interstate 95, where I came to a stop. Apparently, there was an accident up ahead, and it would be stop-and-go for the next few miles. All I could think of was, please, God, don’t let me stall out or drift back on the highway.


I eventually made it home, safe and sound. I had passed the test: I could drive a stick at night, over bridges, on the highway, in traffic, in a parade, and through crowds of people. I took an extended break, and then it was back to the garage to detail the car some more. It was 11:30 at night when I decided to call it quits and get some sleep. Tomorrow was going to be the big day, the 2021 Audrain Concours d’Elegance.