Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines for the inaugural American Speed Festival week, a unique event that will blend some of the best attractions of high-performance car shows and auto racing at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac. It kicks off Sept. 30 with the (COVID-postponed) 2020 Motorsports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and concludes on Sunday, Oct. 3, with a sportscar and racecar exposition. In between will be two days of time trials on M1’s Champion Motor Speedway course, an upscale Dine and Drive tour, an elegant Checkered Flag Ball, and a whole lot more.
The M1 Concourse — at Woodward and South Boulevard, where a big General Motors truck plant once stood — is an 87-acre “playground” for auto enthusiasts that boasts a twisty, 1.5-mile performance track, 250 private garages, and its own motorsports club. It offers area-unique opportunities for enthusiasts to keep, show, and exercise their exotic and performance vehicles and a premiere venue for testing, training, marketing, team-building, and corporate entertainment events. A new 28,000-square-foot event center will be ready to host the previous week’s Motor Bella show, while an upscale restaurant and an open-air experiential village of auto and entertainment retail businesses are planned for 2022.
Our Motor City area is blessed with a potpourri of auto events, from local shows to the gorgeous Concours d’Elegance of America, which moved in 2011 from the Rochester Meadow Brook mansion to The Inn at St. John’s. At major concours such as St. John’s, California’s Pebble Beach, and Florida’s Amelia Island, visitors can walk around and gawk at rare, beautiful, and truly classic cars of all kinds and sometimes meet and chat with their owners. They may see impressive displays of historic Indy cars or 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance prototypes, but they don’t get to see them in motion, except when a select few idle up to a judges’ stand to receive awards.
On the other side of that coin are race events like the Detroit Grand Prix, where the same four-wheeled missiles that run the Indianapolis 500 navigate an artificial course of narrow, bumpy, concrete-wall-lined roads at speeds up to 175 mph on Detroit’s Belle Isle. But good luck getting close to the cars or drivers unless you’re a sponsor, crew, or working press.
Hence the ASF mission: to blend those two types of experiences and add great food and drink and additional attractions (even for non-enthusiasts) into one memorable event. “With Speed Fest,” says M1 CEO Tim McGrane, “we’re looking to create an event that will celebrate the past, present, and future of the automobile.”
This year’s event will feature the historic Can-Am race series and honor Texas racing icon Jim Hall, who was legendary with his Chaparral cars. Five classes of cars will do timed runs, and the Chaparrals and some others will do demonstration runs. “We’ll get cars out on the track for spectators to see that they would not see at a race event, because they are never put into a competitive environment,” McGrane says.
To help attract the best possible selection of rare, hot, and historic road and racing cars for this first-ever ASF, McGrane brought in Historic Motor Sports Association President Cris Vandagriff. “The cars we’re securing from across the country — from California to New York to D.C. to Texas — have not been seen at any car show in Michigan,” Vandagriff says. “[They] are not ones you see in a museum. They are in private collections, and you will get to meet the owners and hear their stories and maybe get in their cars. Every car has a story, and their owners like to share them.”
As David Sherman, M1’s vice president of signature events, puts it: “People will be able to see, hear, and be up close to some of the greatest performance and race cars in the world.” Premium concours d’elegance shows get spectators close to amazing historic cars and their owners. ASF will offer that component. “And at great vintage races like Laguna Seca, Elkhart Lake, and Daytona, you get to see your hero cars in action, and we will also have that element,” Sherman says. “Another great car will be charging past you every 15 seconds or so.”
The five 2021 classes are: Can-Am, IndyCars, endurance cars, feature cars, and Pontiac race and performance cars, the latter “because we are in Pontiac, and Pontiac has had a long, rich history of racing,” Sherman says. “Jim Hall is coming with four of his Chaparral Can-Am cars, which haven’t been out of their museum in many years, and I don’t know the last time they were on a track. This will be very entertaining for spectators and great for entrants, who will get two days of track time with much less chance of damaging their cars compared to wheel-to-wheel racing.”
Says George Levy, author of the forthcoming biography Texas Legend: Jim Hall and His Chaparrals: There’s Always a Better Way: “Look at any modern race car, and you’ll see the direct and unmistakable influence of Jim Hall. From Formula One to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, from the Indy 500 to the Baja 1000, from historic stock cars to Top Fuel dragsters — all of them incorporate performance innovations Jim Hall brought not just to race cars but also to high-performance production cars like Corvette, McLaren, Porsche, and Ferrari. … Jim Hall didn’t just change racing. He changed cars.”
Social and Lifestyle
The third key component of ASF will be its social and lifestyle elements. “Our food is being done by Forte Belanger, and each day will see 15 different items on the menu,” Sherman says. “We’ll have executive chefs and sommeliers doing cooking demonstrations and a miniature radio-control course where kids can watch pros run nitro RC cars, then be taught how to run electric RC cars on the same M1 replica track. We’re … seeing people buy tickets for their whole families because there will be things for kids and spouses to do.”
Each day will include multiple food stations, chef symposiums, and a wine or spirit sampling. The exclusive Thursday Dine and Drive will begin with an upscale continental breakfast, then stop for a special lunch with passed hors d’oeuvres and a variety of food stations. That evening’s Motor Grille will offer a premium open bar with a signature cocktail and a strolling dessert in addition to food stations and passed hors d’oeuvres. The Friday evening Garage Reveal will have small-plate stations and wines and bourbons paired with the menu, and will finish with passed sweets.
The $250-a-day ticket may seem pricey, but Sherman contends it’s a bargain compared to other upscale auto experiences. “At Pebble Beach, it’s $500 just to walk around and look at classic cars,” he says. “But that doesn’t include access to anything else, and you don’t see any of them in motion. Our ticket is all-inclusive — parking, shuttles, grandstand seating, pit pass, food, beverages, even alcohol — so you won’t have to dip into your wallet again.” Kids under 10 will get in free, and those under 21 will get a discount because they won’t be drinking alcohol.
This season’s nonstop M1 events began June 19 with the first of many Saturday Cars and Coffee meets. The Aug. 14 MotorTrend Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge, which featured legal drag racing on Woodward, was followed by the Aug. 19-21 Woodward Dream Show in conjunction with the hugely popular Woodward Dream Cruise.
The next big event will be the Sept. 21-26 Motor Bella, which will add dynamic and lifestyle elements to the new-car attractions of a Detroit Auto Show in an outdoor environment around the M1 track and a new off-road course, both of which will be used for demonstration drives. Motor Bella doesn’t replace the twice-postponed Detroit Auto Show, however, which organizers say probably will return next fall (instead of in January).
Then ASF begins the next day. “As Motor Bella starts tearing down,” Sherman says, “we’ll be setting up our new event center for the Monday 2020 Motorsports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.” A second ceremony for 2021 Motorsports Hall of Fame inductees will follow on Wednesday, and both groups will be treated on Tuesday to a private curated experience at the Henry Ford Museum. The Thursday Dine and Drive tour takes in businessman/performance-car-builder/collector Ken Lingenfelter’s amazing collection, the Automotive Hall of Fame, and the Henry Ford Museum.
The Saturday, Oct. 2, Checkered Flag Ball, emceed by legendary former racer and broadcaster David Hobbs and honoring Jim Hall, will welcome 300 guests (at $500 each) to the M1 Event Center for an evening of fine cuisine, wines and spirits, and dancing to tunes of Ben Sharkey at an exclusive after-party overlooking the track. Presented by the Checkered Flag foundation, the philanthropic organization M1 created to improve the quality of life in Pontiac, the ball will support M1 Mobility, a new initiative to provide transportation solutions that connect residents with needed services from local organizations.
The Sunday finale will be the American Speed Festival Exposition, a jaw-dropping display of 150-plus exotic, performance sports and racing cars from collections around the country and beyond along with a Motorsports Hall of Fame of America celebrity meet and greet. Car clubs have been invited to participate in this exposition with an opportunity for members to display their cars in the M1 Concourse arena.
One collector who’ll be taking full advantage of the opportunity is M1 Concourse garage owner Al Schultz, who will be showing off one of his most prized possessions, an iconic Fabulous Hudson Hornet.
“I’m always amazed at what this unique car community has to offer,” he says. “The American Speed Festival is going to be an unbelievable opportunity to see, hear, smell, and even feel the visceral experience only offered by the world’s most famous race cars. I’m super excited to let the sole surviving Fabulous Hudson Hornet factory-sponsored race car do its thing on the track! Herb Thomas of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, who holds the record for the highest win percentage in NASCAR history, owned and drove this legendary race car. It’s the crown jewel in my collection, and I look forward to sharing this legendary racer with everyone in attendance.”
Sherman shares that excitement. “One of the goals of M1 is to become the southeast Michigan epicenter of all things we love about cars and motorsports,” he enthuses. “If you have octane running through your veins, this is the place to be.”
For the complete schedule and ticket prices, visit americanspeedfestival.com.
An Auto Show … and Tell and Try
What if the North American International Auto Show were to move 20 miles northwest to a vast outdoor setting with its own racetrack at the other end of Woodward Avenue? And what if its new vehicles could be demonstrated on the track or an off-road course — and you could ride in them with pro drivers?
That’s the story of this year’s inaugural Motor Bella (Italian for “beautiful”), which will roll into the M1 Concourse at the corner of Woodward and South Boulevard in Pontiac later this month. That name was initially applied to what was to be a display of high-end exotic and performance cars, one of several outdoor elements envisioned for a new take on the Detroit auto show planned for June (instead of January) 2020. But the June show was postponed due to COVID-19, then rescheduled to September 2021, then relocated to M1 with added dynamic elements and the Motor Bella moniker applied to the whole shebang, which will run from Sept. 21-26.
“That June  plan was super exciting, but the pandemic brought it to a halt,” says Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association. “Then, coming out of the pandemic, we wanted to create additional experiential … elements where we could do things outdoors that we could not do indoors. And September is typically a great month for weather in Detroit.”
Motor Bella 2021 will be a six-day event with press and industry days Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 21 and 22, followed by four public days through the weekend. Some 12,000 parking spaces are available within 1.5 miles of M1, and shuttles will be provided. With tickets starting at $80, prices will be slightly higher than for recent Detroit auto shows because of the added dynamic elements. “It takes more to put on a dynamic event,” Alberts explains. “But it will be very family-oriented, with more things to do — hang out with the family, ride with them in the cars, get refreshments.”
Detroit will likely have both a downtown auto show and an M1 Motor Bella in 2022 and beyond, Alberts says: “Why not have multiple events through the year with festive environments and consumer engagements instead of just one?”
Tickets range from $15 for an adult weekday pass to $50 for a weekend family pass. See motorbella.com for details. —GW
This story is featured in the September 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.