Welcome to Auto Club Speedway. 50 miles east of Los Angeles in the heart of San Bernardino County, is the city of action: Fontana. We arrive at the three-day Historic Sports Car Race that is part road course, part Super Speedway. This means long and fast stretches, followed by sharp and windy u-turns. This race, in particular, is for the vintage race cars; vintage stock cars, sports cars, sports- racers, and formula cars from all eras.
Driver : Nick Clemence
1967 Porsche 911S (No.81) w a 2000cc Engine
The race is still a few hours away, yet fans and big trailers have already filled the parking lot. I arrive early and make my way to Garage 2. It’s bright and sunny today, with haze floating in over the mountains. Drivers seem confident, but there’s an underlying rumbling of fear as there is an expected chance of rain tomorrow. It’s all anyone is talking about. “It’s all about survival,” the drivers say while racing in the rain. I make my way to European Collectibles’ garage where a beautiful white porsche is sitting outside, basking in the sun. Meet the owner, Nick Clemence. Race-car driver and owner of European Collectibles, Clemence has a big day today and everyone is eager to get to the starting line. Clemence is getting his helmet on and putting on his “monkey suit” — a black fire suit that doesn’t show grease. Tricks of the trade. Last minute pep talks are given. Seat belt is strapped. Soon, the crew and I run over to the stands and get into position. Rev your engines, the flag is going up… and we’re off.
Race day is exciting. It’s unpredictable and everything can change in the blink of an eye. The cars flying by send echos through the stands. Stopwatches click at each lap with intense assertiveness. The last lap comes before you know it, and we race back down to the garage to check the results.
European Collectibles is in the business of restoring Concours-winning European sports cars. Here, they specialize in not only cosmetic refurbishing but also drivability. And speaking of drivability… Clemence’s car can drive!
CLEMENCE: When I was 15 years old I bought a Volkswa- gen, fixed it up, and always wanted a better car… so I was kinda car crazy when I was a kid. You know, I’d buy a Volkswagen for 350 bucks and fix it up in the garage… in my parents garage… sell it, and buy another one. Gradually I’d work my way up the chain of cars. I used to tear them apart and paint them in my parents garage. There’s one disadvantage of painting a car in a garage…you don’t only paint the car… you actually paint the inside of the garage at the same time! Which made my father quite upset. Then I had this book which was, ‘Volkswagen for the Complete Dummy’… and I’d tear engines apart and transmissions apart. Maybe I’d have to do it two or three times the first time to figure out how to do it… but I would do it! Then I got into a job where I was a machinist, a tool and dye maker, so the engineering side of it helped out as far as the problem solving side of diagnosing cars and figuring out how to try and fix them. So the engineering background really helped out a lot. Then I came to the states when I was 21 to ski. I lived in Colorado for a few years and in the winters I would buy old VW’s in Denver, with 3 feet of snow on them… convertibles or camper vans… because no one wanted them! Then I’d drag them back to Aspen and fix them up. In the spring I had some ski-bum buddies who wanted a free ride to California. So I’d pay for gas, I’d drive one, my girlfriend would drive one, and they’d drive one or two cars… then I’d come to California and sell them. With that money, I’d go to Europe and bum around for six or seven months, come back and do it again.
CAYENNE: What made you come to California?
CLEMENCE: I had a friend here… so I didn’t do a demographic kind of study and decide California was the best place… I just knew someone here. California was also in the car culture. I got a job here because you know, I skied for 3 years… and got sick of being a servile, so I wanted to make a little bit of money. In California I got back into my trade, and then I just started wheeling and dealing in cars. The main thing that capitulated the full time side of the car thing was when Wall Street crashed, in October of ’87. It created this escalation in tangible assets, i.e. gold, classic cars, and artwork. The U.S. in general, had 60 or 70 percent of the world’s sports cars in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. And California had half of those productions… so California had approximately 35% of the world’s sports cars in 50’s 60’s and 70’s. And with the climate being so good the car survived with this capitulation and tangible assets, and collectible cars went crazy in Europe. I had spent quite a bit of time in London, with a good friend of the family who was a car dealer. He got into the industry pretty early, and got me involved in finding cars and shipping them straight to Europe. So, I met another guy who used to come over here in the summers… he was a Dutch guy, and he’d advertise in these little PennySavers, these throw away magazines, that end up on your door step and fly away… that you generally throw away… and he used to advertise in one region for a week or so, would come over here, fill a couple containers full of cars, and ship them back to Denmark. When I heard that, I advertised in all 36 regions all year long. So I ended up buying around 350 / 400 cars a year and ship- ping them all overseas. It was truly like treasure hunting. It was so much fun. You didn’t know what you were going to find. People would call you every day… this was before the internet…it was just as mobile phones were coming in. 39 cents a minute, incoming and outgoing, plus tolls. So, a couple bucks a minute. I developed this network of dealers in Europe where I’d buy a car through these PennySaver ads, bring it back to a warehouse that I leased, fix it up a little, clean it, maybe get it running, take a bunch of photographs… run down to the one hour photo and get two or three sets developed. Fedex had just come out, so I’d send the photos to Europe, wait a couple days… send them a fax…. which you know nothing about… and then wait for a reply. Then they’d just wire the money, and I’d drop the cars off at the port, go get more, and off you go.
A running car is always worth more money than a non- running car…. and most of these cars ran, but they just kind of sat there because the tires went flat. Then, by the time I fixed the tire, the battery went flat… and by the time I fixed the battery the gas went bad… and then the car would sit for 30 years. Then… it sort of went from getting one mechanic to two to three… to paint and body. Well… now five buildings later we’re here!
CAYENNE: Wow, what a journey! That is really incred- ible!
CLEMENCE: Yeah… so that’s the full story.
CAYENNE: As for your love of racing? How did that begin?
CLEMENCE: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do… And you know, I used to think I couldn’t afford to do it. The first time I went racing I made a deal with a guy and made enough money to pay for most of the season! So now I can’t afford not to do it! I’m just beginning, really. A lot of these cars are pretty good at it. It’s a lot of fun.
CAYENNE: How was your very first race?
CLEMENCE: Terrifying! Absolutely terrifying. You’ve got all these guys who know what they’re doing. Even initially, trying to find your way around the pits, to get onto the hot grid, to get onto the track… how do you enter the track? How do you exit the track? There’s a lot to know… Being at close proximity, with the helmet on, and there’s a lot of noise and speed and the rest of it… there’s a lot going on. Sensory wise, it’s super overload. So initially…. I figured I’d like it if I got better at it….but I almost quit because I just couldn’t get comfortable. And this friend of mine said,
“You’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
You’ve got to relax a little bit. And then I just had a breakthrough on one of the tracks where it just sort of came together. From then on there’s been challenges to just constantly improve.
CAYENNE: Yeah… like getting that turn without braking?
CLEMENCE: That’s the one. It’s telling this not to lift…
(Nick says while tapping his leg).
But this wants to survive!
(Nick laughs while tapping the side of his head).
But it’s been great. You meet some super interesting people… I think you’ve met a few of them…
CAYENNE: Haha that’s true!
I also saw some of the other drivers had a radio to communicate while in the race… but you don’t? Why is that? Do you need to have one?
CLEMENCE: I probably should… Radio communica- tion is probably pretty helpful… they want me to get a radio, and yeah it would be helpful especially in the endurance races, the long races. They can tell you when to come in and what to do. But generally, I kind of know what I’m doing… there’s definitely a lot of oc-casions where it would be very helpful. I need to do it. I just haven’t gotten around to it. But most of the races we’re doing are pretty short.
CAYENNE: Can these vintage cars handle much longer races?
CLEMENCE: I’ll do the Enduros which are 2 hours… so the car can last. Some drivers will switch throughout that race, but I just normally do the whole thing. I don’t like to give it up.
CAYENNE: How many races do you usually do a year?
CLEMENCE: I’ll probably do six or seven this year. They’re all different but the same. Same people, different track, but same basic format. I’m starting to figure it out… And some of those guys have done hundreds and hundreds of laps at these certain racetracks. When it comes down to it you might be a second behind or a second and a half behind, which doesn’t sound like a lot… but over a ten lap race that’s fifteen seconds which is a massive amount… and each corner to gain and catch up to a guy that’s only a second ahead of you, you got to gain a tenth of a second per corner. So it comes down to tiny increments. You might miss the apex by a couple of feet which costs you a tenth, you do that ten times around the circuit you lose a second… and if you do that over the course of ten laps you lose ten seconds… so it comes down to inches you’ve got to gain when you get down to it.
The weekend was full of adrenaline, storytelling and reminiscing. Everyone had a story to tell about their first race or their longest race, or a race they overcame that mental block. It’s all mental. Everyone is in this together. Clemence’s race group con- sisted of 20 initial drivers and soon dwindled down to 13 by the second race. Weeding out those who didn’t make it out of the start or couldn’t get around fast enough. Soon, the white flag is raised and the drivers take their final lap. The countless hours of hard work are paying off and a weekend of racing has come to an end. Clemence exits the track and just like that the weekend has come to an end. The crew and I grab our stop-watches and race down to meet Clemence at the winners circle.