From 1960s sports cars to classic F1 rockets: The velocity invitational is bringing vintage racing to Sonoma

Hosted by Sonoma Raceway, the three-day celebration of bygone-era motorsport will engage the senses with action both on and off the track

As electrification quickly permeates the automotive landscape, the visceral atmosphere of historic racing, where the cacophony of various 12-cylinder engines is complemented by the potent scent of internal-combustion, is enough to melt any gearhead’s heart. If you can relate, then the classic-motorsport love fest that is the 2023 Velocity Invitational is just the ticket.

The fourth edition of the annual three-day event—debuted in 2019 but cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic—will run from November 10 through 12, and is back at Northern California’s Sonoma Raceway, where it originated. WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca has played host the past two years, and each iteration has built on the momentum of the last.

A previous edition of the Velocity Invitational at Sonoma Raceway. Photo by Velocity Invitational

“I think Sonoma this year is going to be unbelievable, it’s going to be bigger than ever,” says Velocity’s founder, Jeff O’Neill. “We’re celebrating McLaren’s 60th anniversary, and we will have a few well-known Formula 1 drivers hanging around . . . so it will be an extraordinary time.”

A bird’s-eye view of Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Photo by Velocity Invitational

Competition will be divided into 10 classes, from sports racing cars and production sports cars with model years spanning 1947 through 1956, to IMSA ALMS Le Mans machines covering 2006 through 2016. One of the oldest on the starting grid will be Denis Bigioni’s 1948 Talbot Lago T26C, while O’Neill’s own 2016 Ford GTLM is the other bookend to the field of entries. Among the automotive unicorns sure to fire up the crowd will be Rob Walton’s 1956 Maserati 300 S and Thomas Price’s 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO. Yet such rarity and value are not the criteria in the selection process.

Thomas Price’s 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO will be put through its paces during the three-day race series. Photo by Velocity Invitational

“One of the fundamental things about Velocity, that’s much different than any other [vintage] race in America, is that the car has to be authentic. It has to have period race experience,” says O’Neill. “It doesn’t have to be a US$3 million car, it can be a US$60,000 car, but it has to have been properly prepared as it would have been in period.” His reason behind this requirement is so “great collectors will continue to bring cars back knowing that every other car on the track is authentic and prepared.”

Jeff O’Neill, founder of the Velocity Invitational. Photo by O’Neil Vintners & Distillers

Other examples that fit the bill will be a selection of 20th-century Formula 1 cars on track, from John Dimmer’s 1971 Tyrell 004 to Chris Locke’s 1976 Lotus 77 F1—designed by Colin Chapman—to Bud Moeller’s 1982 Williams FW08. In this category, McLaren will be represented by Danny Baker’s 1974 McLaren M23, but the iconic British team will have an even greater presence as it celebrates a milestone.

“McLaren will be bringing some of the most spectacular and historic vehicles in the world from our heritage collection,” stated Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing, in one of Velocity’s official announcements, going on to add; “This is one not to be missed.” McLaren will also be bringing one of its current Formula 1 drivers, Lando Norris, currently sixth in the Drivers’ Championship ranking.

Lando Norris, Formula 1 driver for McLaren Racing. Photo by McLaren Racing

For O’Neill, the gathering of racers, collectors, and enthusiasts stems from a lifelong passion. “I’ve loved cars since I was a young child, and my dad always loved cars as well,” shares O’Neill. “Those first memories are probably sitting in the back of his 1959 Porsche 356, driving around with the top down.”

Yet it wasn’t until he was 50 years old that O’Neill started racing, and his early observations inspired the Velocity Invitational. “All of the events were less than adequate in terms of the customer experience . . . I just got so tired of seeing no chairs and dirty asphalt, and thought it ridiculous that we cannot have a luxury event that everybody can enjoy.”

The McLaren M7C-01 will see action once again. Photo by McLaren Racing

To that end, this year’s planned amenities will take advantage of Sonoma Raceway’s new Turn 11, a 1,765-square-metres enclave for dining and entertaining. “It’s pretty extraordinary. It’s probably the nicest structure on any track in America today,” says O’Neill of the new complex. It’s there that Velocity’s team will present the Taylor Farms Sip & Savor Pavilion, serving various wines and culinary offerings from the region.

The new 1,765-square-metres Turn 11 dining and entertainment complex at Sonoma Raceway. Photo by Sonoma Raceway

Best done on an empty stomach, though, may be the off-road and on-track hot laps provided by Dirt Fish Rally School (available at an additional cost). And for those looking to catch their breath and unwind, the Rams Gate Experience package, priced at US$550, includes admission for two, paddock access for all three days, and one five-course wine-pairing for two at Rams Gate Winery, just opposite the circuit.

The 2023 Velocity Invitational will be held November 10 through 12. Photo by Velocity Invitational

When asked about the importance of such time-capsule automotive exhibitions, especially when the industry transitions away from conventional power trains, O’Neill takes an altruistic view. “I’ve always been of the belief that these cars don’t really belong to the person that owns them; they really belong to the public, and we all have a responsibility to showcase them.” The 2023 Velocity Invitational will take that conviction to redline.

Click here for tickets to the 2023 Velocity Invitational.

This story was first published on Robb Report USA