At Speed Down Memory Lane: Ragtime Racers at the Rolex Reunion

Photo: Nick Lish

An old trunk filled with vintage auto racing memorabilia left to him by a family friend he’d called “grandfather” was the spark that ignited Californian Brian Blain’s passion for WWI-era machinery.

Blain’s passion and entrepreneurial gift was the driving force behind one of the most popular of the many tribes at this year’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, the eye-popping ad hoc Ragtime Racers collection of 1908-1920 race cars.

Normally packed with onlookers, the Ragtime Racers paddock is clear for a quick photo. Photo: Nick Lish

Having autocrossed and raced everything from karts to a TR-3 to Lola F5000 and Can-Am cars, Blain learned as he sorted through the contents of that priceless cache that, among other things, there had been 150-mile road races in his hometown of Visalia every year from 1912 to 1917 when outgoing California governor Hiram Johnson (or was incoming William Stephens?) outlawed racing on public roads.

For more than 20 years, he has reached out to owners of the few surviving machines from a crucial decade in motorsports history, when the technology advanced so spectacularly, pressurized by a rapidly growing market for the autocar.

“In those days, what won on Sunday really did sell on Monday,” Blain explained. “That was the main purpose all the factories raced.

“But few cars survived,” he continued. “Most of them were either scrapped out during World War II or re-purposed.”

Corky Coker’s “Exact Replica” of the 1911 Indy 500-winning Marmon Wasp was a great introduction to the story of Ray Harroun’s famous race car. Photo: Nick Lish

The small number of cars is a big reason why the pre-war classes at most major vintage races in the U.S. are so sparsely populated. But there were other factors as well — challenges and issues that Blain, personally and via his Blain Motorsports Foundation has worked tirelessly for many years to address.

“Well, a lot of owners of these cars are getting up in years themselves and were beginning to have trouble passing the [racing] physicals. And for many of them, too, the cost of going to one or two races a year was prohibitive, especially on fixed incomes – suits and helmets; travel and hotel; and entry fees.

“I approached the SVRA’s Tony Parella in 2015 with an idea, promising him a number of pre-war cars in exchange for waiving the entry fee. We also changed from “race” to “exhibition” — the fans don’t know the difference, and we can race in period-correct clothing including old leather helmets. [NOTE: Modern helmets were required at Laguna Seca.]

Tom Malloy getting a push back into the RR paddock in his 1908 Locomobile Model “I”. Photo: Nick Lish

“We’ve grown slowly, from half a dozen cars at Sonoma, Coronado and Indy in 2015 to 17-18 cars here this weekend.”

Blain is looking ahead to the next biggest area of concern beyond the ongoing search for cars in running condition: Transportation.

“We’d like to find a sponsor to step in and help with transportation as the group keeps expanding. I brought five cars in the big trailer, and we have a second trailer for the garage diorama; sponsorship of some sort would be a huge help to all the other guys.”

Photo: Nick Lish

The Ragtime Racers had and will continue to have no problem drawing a crowd, their presence a hugely impactful addition to the vintage racing crown jewel Rolex Reunion.

For more information on Ragtime Racers and the Blain Motorsports Foundation, e-mail BrianBlain@BlainFarms.com