Richard Foss

Road Rallye navigator

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Palos Verdes Concours D’Elegance Road Rallye director Greg Sparkman. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

Palos Verdes Concours D’Elegance Road Rallye director Greg Sparkman. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

If you appreciate classic cars, the sight of them on the road makes your pulse beat a little faster. This is the environment they were built for, withthe engines roaring or put-putting and showing their striking silhouettes among modern, cookie-cutter vehicles. Peninsula residents enjoy a hefty dose of that experience one Saturday a year, when dozens of historic vehicles participate in the annual Palos Verdes Concours D’Elegance Road Rallye.

Greg Sparkman has helped to make the rallye happen for the past decade. He was brought in originally to speed up the judging for the concours held the following day. At the time, judging was being conducted the way it might have been done when Duesenbergs and Cords were manufacture.

“There were 20 different classes and sometimes up to five judges per class. They came in after examining the cars with hundreds of tally sheets. It was all being done by hand. It was taking hours to figure out who won prizes and get the news to the announcer. I’m no computer genius, but I had been working with computers since 1976 and I could see that they might be the answer. The new system cut the time to about a tenth of what it had been.”

Next, Sparkman applied his organizational skills to the Rallye, an event that involves drivers taking their cars on a complex circuit that winds through Peninsula and neighboring cities. A Model T with a top speed of 50 miles an hour has as good a chance of winning as a Ferrari with a top speed of 250.

“A booklet gives drivers clues about where to go. You are timed, but it’s based on driving the posted speed. You lose points for being too slow or too fast. It’s not a race, it’s a timed rally, and you have to pace yourself.”

Some of the clues are fairly straightforward, others are tricky, and occasionally drivers and their navigators end up far from where they are supposed to be. Sparkman has mapped out courses and created clues for five Rallyes. When asked if organizers ever try to deliberately get drivers lost, he laughed.

“I think I’m the one most guilty of that. I like puzzles, and I always have a theme. I did one as a murder mystery, another was based on pirates. I like trivia questions, clues that take some thought to figure out. I give people a sealed envelope with the end point of the rally. That way the ones who get lost can open it to find out where they are supposed to be. I always have a sweeper car, one that follows up to find people who have gotten lost or broken down.”

Besides breakdowns and lost drivers, there are many other things that can go wrong, and Sparkman has dealt with most of them. One year the instructions included a large blue sign in San Pedro as a landmark. It was repainted the day before the rally and every driver got lost except for a few who remembered the sign used to be blue. Another year all the cars got caught behind a train, which threw off the timing. Nothing could be done about those, but Sparkman made a last-minute change on another course that saved the rallye.

“The course went through Riviera Village and I had scheduled everyone to go through the circle at the end of Esplanade. Two days before the event I found out that the street was was going to be under construction for two weeks. I really had to scramble. I rerouted the whole thing, changed my navigation, reprinted the clue books, and had it all ready at the last minute.”

Sometimes the problem is malice.

“We had another event called Tale Of Two Lights. It was a ghost story, based on the lighthouses in San Pedro and Point Vicente. I had placed ghost signs all over the route that morning, and somebody took one down. That threw everyone off, and it taught me a lesson — I can’t depend on the public not interfering.”

As a general thing the drivers and navigators are easygoing about such incidents, but not always

“After any event 99 percent of the people say they had a great time, but some compete too hard. People have gotten mad because they thought I made the clues too difficult. They get miffed because they turned right instead of left and lost five minutes, and they’re sure that if they didn’t, they would have won.”

The ones who lose their cool forget the whole point of this event, It’s supposed to be a light-hearted, easygoing way to parade their cars, not a serious competition.

“The Rallye happens on Saturday, the day before the Concours. The Concours is not a just a car show. It’s a very rigid assessment of the accuracy of the restoration of the vehicles. People are being judged on the type of tires and the nuts on the running boards, so the Saturday event is all fun. It’s meant as a way for the exhibitors, the people who work on the concours and the car people in the neighborhood to do something less rigid. We drive around one of the most beautiful places in Southern California.”

“We have some of the exhibition cars in the road rally, and we encourage that, but many owners don’t want to dirty the pristine car they’re going to show the next day. Sometimes they have another vehicle that they drive in the rally, but we’ve also had many cars that are seen on the field. I think the oldest car we’ve had in the rally was from 1917.

Sparkman isn’t a car collector, himself.

“I drive a 2007 Mini Cooper, and that’s pretty fancy for me. I do have a BMW 740 IL, which sits around a lot. It’s too expensive to drive. I love cars, but I’m not a collector. I didn’t even own a car until I was 21, and before that I had motorcycles and worked on them myself. I tore down engines, and I still do what work I can. I have a manual for my Mini Cooper and if I can fix it myself, I do.”

Sparkman emphasized the dedication of the many volunteers who make this event work.

“The Concours was founded by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Rotary and the Palos Verdes Art Center as a fundraising event. People work on it all year round. Over the years we’ve donated over $75,000. It’s a wonderful exposition of rolling art and a way to spend a nice day seeing automotive history. The Art Center helps get art supplies to schools and not just on the Hill. As for the Rotary, we granted money to build a learning center in San Pedro, a kitchen at the Boys and Girls Club in Wilmington and we’ve supported the College Bound Program to help kids make it through high school.”

If you are driving or strolling around the peninsula on September 13 and see a Bugatti, Bentley, and Hupmobile tooling down the road, give the drivers a wave. They’re having a great time while supporting a good cause, and taking their precious vehicles out so that you, and they, can enjoy the day.