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Pursuits: A Grand Day Out

Shaun Tolson

A firsthand account of the Colorado Grand: the longest-running and most exclusive classic car tour in the United States. It’s the opening morning of the Colorado Grand (www.co1000.com), a four-day, 1,000-mile classic car tour, and because it’s my first time participating in the storied event, I’m chomping at the bit for some action. But the first few miles of the tour have been uneventful, aside from a close call on a near-missed turn. My driving partner, Michael Kunz, the manager of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, Calif., doesn’t seem overly concerned. Seeing as this is Kunz’s ninth consecutive Colorado Grand, I decide that I shouldn’t be, either.

We’re participating in the Classic Center’s 1962 300SL roadster, a car that Kunz has taken on the Grand every year since 2007 and one that he says “loves being exercised.” The 220 hp, dry-sump motor takes some time to warm up, especially at 8,000 feet above sea level, Kunz explains, which makes our leisurely pace driving out of Vail more tolerable. As Kunz talks up the merits of the car, I am itching for the open road. “It’s just a very well-built motor,” Kunz says of the roadster’s inclined 6-cylinder source of power. “From the sound and performance of the car, everyone assumes that it’s something more than that, but it’s not. It’s just a very healthy engine being fully enjoyed.”

At this point in the 248-mile leg from Vail to Grand Junction, we are just outside the resort town, on Route 6. As George R. Stewart, author of U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States of America, once said of the road—which he considered for his book but ultimately rejected—“Route 6 runs uncertainly from nowhere to nowhere, scarcely to be followed from one end to the other, except by some devoted eccentric.”

Kunz and I (as well as every other Grand participant) seem to fit that description, and as the traffic lessens, it appears the highway is about to reward us. A vast, unimpeded tract of asphalt stretches out in front of us (perhaps leading to nowhere), and Kunz instinctively puts the roadster through its paces. Shifting into third, he gives the car some gas and the weathered engine roars to life. Sun-soaked ranch land flows past us on both sides of the road, and in no time at all, the engine is screaming. Kunz shifts into fourth, leans on the throttle with even greater conviction, and the car responds with alacrity. The g-forces are kicking in, pressing my shoulders firmly into the seat. Now we’re talking!

In only a matter of seconds, we’ve traversed the long straightaway and Kunz reluctantly lets up on the gas. Devoid of a silencer, the open exhaust utters a few staccato barks as excess fuel particles combust. Kunz shoots me a sideways glance and grins. “I just love this car!” he shouts over the wind.

Later on, Kunz relinquishes the driver’s seat, and for the next 118 miles, the roads and the roadster are mine to enjoy. Shortly after entering Grand Mesa National Forest, we are—as our guidebook aptly describes it—“torquing up Grand Mesa,” one of the world’s largest flat-topped mountains. Darting up the curvaceous roads and speeding over dramatic inclines flecked with rays of sunlight one minute and cloaked in shadows the next, we finally reach the summit’s pass. Just as we begin our descent on the other side, a bolt of lightning streaks to the ground from a front of ominous storm clouds rolling in over the valley. From our vantage point, 11,000 feet above sea level, it’s almost as if we’re motoring above the storm.

This is what the Colorado Grand is all about. The event, which this year celebrates its silver anniversary, attracts drivers in greater numbers each season. It provides an ideal setting for classic-car enthusiasts who love to drive, it gives back to the communities by supporting numerous charities, and, as any long-standing participant will attest, it has grown from humble beginnings.

According to Bob Seiffert, one of the original participants of the Colorado Grand, the tour can be traced back to the mid-1980s, even though it was far from official at that time. As Seiffert tells the story, Bugatti enthusiasts Bob Sutherland and Mike Dopudja were regular participants in the Mille Miglia, and while they loved the driving experience at the Italian event, they found the pace to be too exhausting.

Focusing on the aspects of the Miglia that they loved, Sutherland and Dopudja began organizing their own modest rallies on Colorado’s backroads—some of which lacked pavement. Slowly but surely, these vintage Bugatti driving events began to grow (both in length and in the number of participants), which was surprising to the organizers. After all, it wasn’t actually legal to take prewar Bugatti racers out on public roads, so Sutherland and Dopudja were staying mum on the subject.

After a couple of years, Dopudja was having a conversation with Colonel John Dempsey and Sergeant Larry Tolar of the Colorado State Patrol about how they could bolster the Colorado State Patrol Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides financial and emotional support for state troopers and their families in times of traumatic injury, death, or personal hardship. Dopudja had an idea. Why not make their once-a-year classic car event legal and funnel all of the proceeds back to the foundation? Dempsey and Tolar recognized the opportunity—it helped that they shared an appreciation for classic automobiles—and shortly thereafter, the Colorado Grand was born. Since then, the event has raised more than $3.7 million, which has been dispersed to more than 40 needy, Colorado-based organizations. The event also enjoys a partnership with the Colorado State Patrol, which provides a team of eight motorcycle officers to accompany the participants over the 1,000-mile route.

Those officers, affectionately known as “the motors,” are not a buzzkill. Participants can still enjoy their cars and, in the right circumstances, they have opportunities to drive their cars aggressively if they so desire. But participants must also know their limits, and they must always obey traffic laws. “This is a tour, not a race,” says Dopudja. “Not everyone understands that. The regulars understand because they’ve learned from past experience. It’s the newcomers who think they’ve paid their way in here to go fast.”

Speeding tickets are not uncommon on the Grand, and participants are held accountable for their actions. To that end, if the motors spot participants who are driving recklessly and who refuse to tone down their behavior, those participants’ Colorado Grand experience will end abruptly. Furthermore, they’ll be hard-pressed to find themselves back on the Grand in the future.

Any seasoned grander will acknowledge that the event has evolved for the better over the years, but it has never lost the spirit or the character that its founders first injected into it. For Mark Hyman, a collector and dealer of classic automobiles who has participated for the past five years, the Colorado Grand is, as he describes it, “a magical event,” one that he believes is successful each year based on the sum of its parts, most notably the people who are involved. “The tour hasn’t necessarily changed, but my experience has changed,” he says. “You become one of the gang, you get to know the people, and the people are what it’s all about.”

Among those people, it’s not uncommon to see an exchange of car keys throughout the four days of the tour. My first experience with this comes courtesy of Neil Jones, an 85-year-old from Denver who has participated in more than 20 Colorado Grands, and who wants to share his 1957 Jaguar XK140 MC with me.

“Well, you know what they say,” Jones remarks as I slide into the driver’s seat of his candy apple red Jaguar on the third morning of the tour. “Drive it like you stole it.”

Coming from the grandfatherly Jones, the statement is equal parts startling and comical, but it also relieves any nervousness I might have about driving his treasured British sports car. Our jaunt to Lake City for lunch isn’t completely devoid of anxiety, however. About 50 miles outside the town, on a stretch of road that cuts through a vast expanse of “nothingness” (as the route book describes it), Jones, who is now behind the wheel, asks me to keep an eye on the car’s fuel gauge. It’s been temperamental, he explains.

At the moment, the gauge is flip-flopping on either side of the one-eighth mark, which is worrisome. This section of Colorado 149 may be picturesque as it winds southward through a forest of aspen trees and over quaint bridges that traverse the swiftly moving Gunnison River, but I suspect it would lose its luster rather quickly if I went from riding in the car to pushing it instead. So, in addition to taking in the scenery, we’re both on the lookout for a service station.

“How are we looking?” Jones asks, as the Jaguar careens around a bend.

“We’re good,” I tell him, quickly glancing at the gauge and hoping the tone of my voice doesn’t reveal my growing uncertainty.

Just before we hit town—and only moments after realizing that the gauge’s reading was inaccurate and that we won’t hit empty after all—Jones gives a few friendly honks of his horn and a wave to a herd of cows off in an adjacent field as we drive past. The gesture isn’t a euphoric response to our avoiding being marooned on the side of the road. Instead, it’s an acknowledgment of Jones’s previous run-in with cattle while on the Grand.

As he recalls, it was a few years ago that he and his codriver came around a bend only to find the road overrun with cows. “It was just a sea of cattle,” Jones remembers.

He was driving a 1956 Austin-Healey that year, and the cows showed no signs of moving for the half-century-old sports car. So Jones got out, hoping to rectify the problem.

“I just waved them away; it was like Moses parting the waters,” he recalls. “Well . . . maybe that’s a little strong, but that’s the most powerful I’ve felt in my whole life.

“I’m sure I must’ve looked pretty strange to them,” he continues. “Here’s a guy walking into a bunch of cows and he doesn’t even have a cowboy hat on.”

If there’s one lesson that most veteran participants have learned, it’s that anything is possible on the Grand. It’s now the morning of the final day of the tour, and in two frantic blinks of an eye, I’ve learned my own valuable lesson: A 1953 Allard J2X does not accelerate like a 1957 Jaguar XK140 MC. More to the point, the Jaguar doesn’t accelerate like an Allard, especially when the Allard in question is the car that once carried Carroll Shelby to his first racing victories during the early 1950s. Augie Grasis, the car’s owner, understands this. I, on the other hand, do not.

Irrationally confident, thanks to the vehicle’s smooth handling—not to mention my earlier observations of Grasis expertly maneuvering the car—I aggressively hammer the throttle. The Jaguar that I’d driven the previous day had responded to such a demand with the proper amount of British restraint. This Allard, on the other hand, gives it to you all at once. As Grasis had described it the night before, driving the Allard is “a loud and raw experience. When you spend a day in it you feel like you’ve done something.”

I’m about to find out what he meant.

In an instant, the scenery on either side of the road blurs and the sharp left-hand curve ahead rushes up to meet us. Only moments before, Grasis had generously traded seats with me while reverently talking up the merits of the car. But now, based upon his trembling hands stretching out toward the steering wheel, the shifter, and, well . . . nothing in particular, it’s clear that he’s having second thoughts.

We make it around the corner unscathed, but I’ve seen the error of my ways. I give Grasis a good-natured slap on the thigh, laugh a bit nervously and ease off the accelerator until my heart rate comes down. From here on out, I’ll take my time acclimating to this classic American racecar.

Grasis is a second-generation Grander. His father was introduced to the event back in 1993 and, upon returning home, immediately told his son that it was something they needed to do together. After that, they completed close to 10 Grands over the next 15 years. Grasis continued the tradition this year, bringing his own son, Ryan, as his codriver. “This is an extraordinary experience,” Ryan says on the evening of the third day. “I grew up listening to my father and grandfather talking about their experiences. I’ve heard about the driving and the scenery and the camaraderie, so this is a dream come true. There’s an emotional connection here with our family, and I can’t wait to go home and tell my son about this and to continue that legacy with him.”

And just like that, the Colorado Grand has acquired another lifelong follower.

Grand Entrances  A newcomer’s guide to getting into the Colorado Grand.

If you’re a collector who loves to drive, chances are you’ve heard stories about the Colorado Grand—tales of camaraderie, reports of ingenious roadside repairs, and accounts of spectacular scenery on some of the country’s most dramatic roads. You’ve likely also heard that the event is the most exclusive of its kind. The four-day driving tour is not an invitation-only affair, but it is governed by a strict selection committee. For many participants, gaining entry is like unwrapping a Wonka Bar and finding a golden ticket.

This year, the board received 155 applications but accepted only 102 cars—the most the Grand has ever allowed. Most years (and most likely next year), the tour is limited to about 90 participants. That means that, should the same number of applicants apply next year, less than 60 percent will be transporting their cars to Vail.

To give prospective applicants a fighting chance, we sat down with Tom Horan, the Grand’s chairman of the board, and asked him what factors matter most to the selection committee.

Timing Is Everything

Every past Colorado Grand participant receives an application in the mail. With 25 years in the books, that means that about 1,700 people are contacted directly by the selection committee. Horan acknowledges that an applicant’s reputation comes into play, which gives past participants a slight advantage, but he also says that whether they’re a novice or a veteran of the tour, a Grand applicant’s greatest asset is punctuality. “The most important thing is that you enter on time,” Horan says. “With the number of extra cars that apply, we’re looking for excuses to turn people down. May 1 is the deadline to have your entry in.”

Choose Wisely

The Grand’s website explains that the tour features sports and racecars of distinction, circa 1960 and earlier. Some exceptions are made to models that are grandfathered in, like a 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster, but a first-time applicant would do well not to flirt with the cutoff year. In fact, the older their car, the better an applicant’s odds. “Something that’s rare, like a prewar sports racing car, pretty much goes to the top of the list,” Horan says. “I don’t want to say it’s an automatic entry, but it’s as close to automatic as you can get if you enter a prewar car.”

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

No one likes rejection, especially rejection multiple years in a row, but don’t let it discourage you. The Grand may sometimes be benevolent. “If someone is persistent and we’ve turned them down for a couple of years, I believe that guy has to get in because he’s been patient with us,” Horan says.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Gaining entry into your first Colorado Grand may be exciting news, but just remember: Your present acceptance doesn’t make you exempt from future rejection. “We’ve had some people that have had to be spoken to several times by the highway patrol,” Horan says. “So if we have people who were repeatedly told that they were driving like jerks . . . shame on us if we accept them the next year.”

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