Every Year A Surprise

Timothy J. Gibbons, Jacksonville Business Journal, March 13, 2015

It sarted in 1995, after a call from The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island: Would Bill Warner be interested in starting a car show? Or, maybe, you could trace its roots back to the 1970s, when Warner was writing and photographing for Road & Track magazine, cementing his reputation. Or perhaps you have to go back further— back to the days when Warner was10 years old and legendary racer Stirling Moss was his hero, back when he was a teenager and worked for a Volkswagen dealer with a racing team, back when he raced himself for the first time.

Those days are what led to the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, an exhibition that will celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend at The Ritz-Carlton. And not just any event: "Amelia Island is one of the world's greatest collectible car extravaganzas," said Jim Donnelly, senior editor at Hemmings Motor News. It's a display of hundreds of cars — around 350 this year — celebrating classic road vehicles and lauded racers, with vehicles flown in from around the world. Events, both official and non, run Thursday through Sunday, including a cruise-in and auctions featuring major houses.

You might be forgiven if you don't know all of that: In some ways, the Concours' stature is bigger outside of Jacksonville than it appears locally. "It's hard to understand: It's a big thing on a worldwide basis," said Hurley Haywood, the most decorated endurance driver in American history and a vice president of Brumos Motor Cars Inc. of Jacksonville. "Bill has access to some of the greatest collections on the planet." But recognized or not, that stature benefits the region.

"It starts to create an image for your community," Visit Jacksonville CEO Paul Astleford said. "It adds to the interest of living in a place like Jacksonville." And it has personal benefits, too, for the man whose dream became a reality 20 years ago this weekend. Warner looks up from typing an email to Moss, his boyhood hero and — for the second time — a Concours honoree, and smiles. "I'm living my dream," he said.

Nurturing a passion

Starting a event like the Concours isn't an easy task. Growing it to the level of prestige it has achieved is even harder.

The Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance— considered the top U.S. classic car event — was started in 1950, giving it far more time to become what it is.

"It takes time to grow an event like this and get it to where it can toddle along," Donnelly said. "Amelia Island is way beyond that. They're a global established event."

Getting there required the passion — and the connections — Warner brought to the table.

"Collectors understand the love affair Bill has with automobiles and they want to share it with him," Haywood said.

You don't have to be a collector to see that passion, though. Th is is a man who will stop in the middle of an interview to show video of one of his recent races — not to show off , but to teach.

It doesn't take long for an observer to see the line his opponent should be driving, to understand how to box out another driver, to grasp why Warner calls racing a mix between chess, ballet and a knife fight.

That desire to teach has shaped the Amelia Island event, which is designed to reach a broad audience: Tickets are $100, for example, compared to $300 at Pebble Beach.

As far as where that money goes: About a third is funneled into a number of Jacksonville-area charities. Over the past 20 years, the organization has donated a little over $2.5 million.

Hiccups

For all of its growth — from around 2,000 in attendance its first year to more than 30,000 expected this year — the event has not been hiccup free.

There was the disastrous 2003 event, when a torrential downpour almost put the Concours out of business. (Supporters stepped up with donations to keep it afloat.)

More recently, there's been some pushback from some on Amelia Island, who see the event as killing the area's quiet nature. Prices for the condos where some of the event's 700 volunteers stay went up 64 percent last year.

And the show's never gotten the local support Warner hoped for, he said. Other than local car dealerships — Brumos, Claude Nolan Cadillac, Nimnicht Chevrolet— and BB&T Bank, few Jacksonville businesses count among its sponsors.

"It's disappointing," Warner said.

So why keep it in Northeast Florida?

For one, Warner said, because of those volunteers, many of whom have been helping out for all 20 years.

For another, attendees love the location, where the cars are easier to get close to, the weather is (usually) good, the views are breathtaking.

But perhaps most importantly: "It's my home," Warner said.

The future

So what's next for the Concours?

Warner is 71, and by the time he's 75, "I'll pretty much be out of it," he said.

For context, though, this is a man who stopped racing only briefly after a crash put him in intensive care for eight days after his sternum broke from the inside when his heart slammed into it.

Still, he has a succession plan in place.

"When he does retire, it will be handled properly," said Haywood, who is on the organization's advisory board.

For now, Warner's attention is on the event, which he tinkers with each year. This year, he wants the food to be better, the camera angles more precise, the displays even more enticing.

"Every year should have a surprise," he said.

And then he turns back to his computer, back to an email from his childhood hero, back to working out the details for one of the best car shows in the world.

WHY CLASSIC CARS MATTER

When John Campion was growing up in County Cork, the area onlyhad three claims to fame: Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher and Billy Coleman.

Campion is defi nitely a music fan,but it's when he starts talking about Coleman — the Irish rally racing legend— that his eyes really light up and the memories come back Campion is 13 years old. It's 7 a.m. He's standing in a field. "And I hear this screaming car, coming through the mists," he remembered.

Back in the present: "It's one of these" — Campion said, pointing to a Lancia — "driven by Billy Coleman."

For a poor kid in rural Ireland, the idea his future would include owning such an object would be unbelievable. Owning four Lancias, including the Delta Integrale Miki Biasion drove to win the World Rally Championship, would be unfathomable.

Those cars will be on display at the Concours d'Elegance, the first time such a collection has been displayed.

Campion has been going to the event for a few years. This one,though, is special. "I'm insanely proud to have four Lancias in the event," he said.

But why? Why collect the cars? Why show them?

"Lancia is dead now," Campion said. "It's a sad end to an amazing company. This preserves a piece of that history."

And a piece of his history, as well.

Among his cars is a Ford Cortina, the sort of car Campion's father drove. While driving it the other day, he began to tear up.

"Anything that elicits that sort of emotion …" he trails off . "What other inanimate object elicits that sort of emotion?"

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