The car, with a black ’21’ inside a white roundel, is nearly half a century old. Its victory at Le Mans in 1965 was the last overall win for its proud manufacturer. And it was co-piloted by the only Kansas Citian to win Le Mans.
The car in question is the Ferrari 250 LM driven by Masten Gregory, the ‘Kansas City Flash’, and Jochen Rindt. Believe it or not, it was the last overall win for Ferrari at Le Mans, for Ford had just joined battle as the enraged, jilted suitor of Ferrari in the then recent past.
The 250 LM has one foot timidly in a new age and the other foot firmly planted in the past. It is a mid-engined, disc brake car. But it was a tube chassis, skinny treaded tire, tweaked off-the-shelf engined throwback. When compared to the delicate ‘birdcage’ construction of the contemporary front-engined Maserati it was stiff and stout.
The car is owned now by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and as far as is known, it was not fired during its visit to Kansas City. One Art of the Car volunteer mentioned that he thought it would take 13 mechanics and a priest to provide the appropriate fiddling, incantations, and holy fluids to give it voice. And it was a shame that it didn’t have an opportunity to speak, for it was given ‘pride of place’ at the show itself.
Masten Gregory, that Ferrari’s pilota, is no longer with us, having passed away in his sleep in 1985 (unlike so many of his contemporaries). On hand for the weekend’s festivities however, were two of Masten’s friends, Denise McClugagge – racing driver and co-founder of Competition Press (later to become Autoweek), Sir Stirling Moss – the best Formula 1 driver never to be a Formula 1 champion and Masten’s older brother, Ridelle Gregory, no slouch behind the wheel himself. Ridelle, Stirling and Denise are octogenarians, and they were kept busy the entire weekend with press events and meet & greets. Tough work given the fragility of most 80 plus year old structures.
The three were the stars of a ‘Meet the Legends’ event Saturday afternoon. A crowd of over 350 gathered to be regaled with stories of racing in the ’50s and ’60s (including a description of Juan Manual Fangio’s comments regarding his kidnapping by Castro’s guerrillas in Cuba). The crowd was heavily biased towards the gray of hair – with fewer than a couple of handfuls younger than 30 in attendance.
While it’s a shame that there weren’t more young people in attendance it also makes sense. Very few American 20 somethings would be able to tell you who Sir Stirling Moss is, or Denise McCluggage, and very few people – regardless of age – would know of Masten Gregory. But for those who do, seeing Denise and Stirling is always a treat and one that all to soon will no longer be possible.
And these old cars, the oldest being a 110 year old St Louis single cylinder standard model, are also fragile with replacement parts either prohibitively expensive or unobtainable. Subsequently the crowd was pleasantly surprised when that 1903 St Louis was started and left running for a bit. The exhaust pulses could be counted (with enough time in between power strokes to let the mind wander back to horseless carriage days).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that 1903 St Louis is approximately as technically removed from current road-going cars as that 1965 Ferrari 250 LM is to current race cars. The technological revolution in racing cars since then has changed not only the cars but the skill sets required to be a competitive driver.
It is if a parallel universe exists, racers before slicks and aero inhabit one world, while those who came after inhabit another. If you have ever seen Fangio get a Maserati formula car into a four wheel drift or watched the rear end of a car getting hinky under braking at the end of the Mulsanne straight you can understand why younger drivers would be at a lose. And the older generation’s drivers would be completely nonplussed at the notion of needing to – EMPHATICALLY – enter a corner in an aero car at speeds significantly higher than those they’d contemplate with a car of their era.
And now, outside of vintage racing and events like the Art of the Car Concours, neither those cars or drivers enjoy renown, and it’s a bittersweet moment when one reflects on the era and those unable to have lived through it. But what joy it is to see these cars again and the people who made them famous.
Beyond the racing vehicles on display (a good mix of sports cars, a dirt track midget – complete with Ford V8-60, and an Indy car from the ’60s) were as an eclectic mix of automobiles as one would desire. And near that Ferrari 250 LM was a wonderful BMW 507. Again this year, the Kansas City Art of the Car Concours, put on under the direction of Marshall Miller, was the sine qua non of the Kansas City car scene.