Historic Grand Prix

Words by Daniel Goodman / Photography by Sean Brown

You wake with the sun, rising early in the morning, a cool breeze rustling the sheets. You wolf down a quick breakfast, shower, and pack your bags, making sure all of your gear is primed and packed (contents: a Rolleicord IV and a Pentax MZM, your iPhone, extra film rolls, a notebook, some spare batteries) and get moving. You have a city to explore. Might as well start with the coast under good light. There isn’t any time to waste.

The beach is a twenty-minute bike ride from your temporary apartment in Zandvoort, a coastal town just west of Amsterdam. You pedal hard and make it in eighteen, with your friend who’s graciously hosting you for the weekend shadowing just behind. The sand lies below under a naturally hewn terrace of asphalt and grass that borders on a parking lot. You pull up your bikes and lean them against the few potted palms bending in the wet wind and walk over to the edge of the ravine, drinking in the brightening horizon with your eyes.

The water shines coldly like a Dutch guilder, the coin native to the Netherlands before it was replaced by the euro in ’02. The ground warms underneath your feet and the occasional surf tide crashes to shore, little eddies bubbling and frothing in pursuit. Seagulls cry. An elderly couple sits on a bench to your left, off in the distance, talking quietly. They see you watching and nod their heads politely in greeting. Above you, airplanes from the nearby airport in Schipol trace tiny comet tails across the sky.

You are here for the Historic Grand Prix, an annual racing event in the Netherlands that happens every first weekend of September, just at the tail end of summer when the buds are starting to wilt at the Bloemenmarkt Floating Flower Market almost an hour away in Amsterdam.

The city has a thousand vices which any freewheeling backpacker can partake in with experimental abandon, but in Zandvoort, motor culture happens to make a junkie out of almost anyone, from competitive racing to the acquisition and care of bespoke automobiles.

Historic Formula One racers, pre-66’ Le Mans style sports cars and classic coupes — classified as the Stena Line Drivers Series, divided by year and engine capacity, from Aston Martin to Chevrolet; or the Touring Cars Championship, a tournament that involves one to two drivers in short endurance laps pitting every class configuration spanning Camaro muscle to Mini Cooper three- wheelers — compete in double pit-stop races around the winding labyrinth of Circuit Park Zandvoort over the course of three days, nestled on the nape of the North Sea.

It is an event reverent of the past, of a time when cars were less about the advancements of technology and the money they raked in through corporate advertising and more about the ingenuity of the driver, the precision of the designer, the way they communicated a truce with the road. Man and machine, coupled into an uneasy and euphoric marriage.

Just when you are about to go ask the couple where they are from and see if they might be able to point out some essential spots in the city for you to check out, they arrive. You hear them before you see them. A gleaming 58’ Porsche purrs into the lot, appearing suddenly like something out of a dream. And then another Porsche. And then another. You get out your camera. You can’t believe what you are witnessing. There’s so many of them. Your shutter clicks. And continues clicking.

Before long, the parking lot fills with dozens of vintage sedans and low slung luxury cars, icons of class and opulence plucked out of another era of industrial automotive design. An immaculately well-maintained Rolls Royce glides along the adjacent parking lines and pulls in, stopping directly across from you. You feel slightly in a daze. You walk around slowly, framing the details, taking everything in in a tranquil state of wonder.

The owners are getting out, lighting up cigarettes, chatting, easy camaraderie between drivers dressed exactly like the era their vehicles came from, like they stepped out of a magazine: loafers and bomber jackets, all cream pants and polished leather and silk driving gloves. Their relationship, cultivated through their shared appreciation of the road and the texture of a three-spoke wheel under their hands, is so nonchalant that you can’t help but laugh a little. How can this be normal? But for them, it seems natural, the qualities of a world whose novelty has long since cooled.

You recall the time you use to collect cast-iron collectible NASCARS as a child, and the obsession you had with the bright decals that wrapped around their tiny chassis. You run your hand appreciatively over the bonnet of the Rolls Royce, understanding the grooves and undulations of the winged woman affixed to its hood. This is the Lady of Speed, also known as a spirit of ecstasy, constructed in 1905 by English sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes, a graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, for the second baron, Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, an artifact of a secret love affair writ large, and a signifier of another kind of love in itself.

It’s hard to believe that just over a month ago, you were taking photos of the Honda Indy in Toronto, where not even a press pass could guarantee you any sort of solid access. By contrast, everything is accessible at the Historic Grand Prix, malleable and inviting. You are encouraged to interact, to touch, to open the doors and sit in the driver’s seat, to document, to understand the texture of a vehicle’s interior, to breathe in the aroma of leather and exhaust, to hear an engine spark to life. You feel slightly dazed by the experience, such commonplace majesty being so generously shared in this seaside community.

The rest of the weekend passes by in a blur. You capture picture after picture. You see a father and his child walking together in a wind tunnel, silhouetted by the tunnel’s opening and holding hands, probably going to experience their first race together. The boy’s red ear mufflers bob up and down on his too-small head. You wonder if he wants to be a race car driver when he grows up, or a designer like you. You are transfixed by the atmosphere of motor culture and the craftsmanship of engines. You ask questions. You are reminded of the thoughtful design that characterized your love of racing culture in the first place.

Because racing, you realize, is not simply about competition alone. There’s a reason Sykes called his hood ornament the spirit of ecstasy: racing, like hallucinogenic drugs, sex, and playing jazz, is about experiencing that shared connection of zen while also being right on the edge of possible oblivion.

It’s about projecting us to inconceivable dimensions of movement that can only be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. It’s about replicating that moment when you were a young child and you first started to run and felt the wind from your forward momentum blowing the hair back on your head.

It’s about articulating the feeling of driving through the veins of a track, communicating with the language of the road as you move from urban jungle to open ground. It’s about that sense of community whose ties are braided through the thrill and excitement of travel being magnified by extreme speed. It’s about the feeling of velocity, carrying you forward with intuition and grace, away from all the things you left behind, to some higher sense of accomplishment.

It’s about elevating the human experience to places we’ve never been before, and wondering where next we will go.

“the feeling of velocity, carrying you forward with intuition and grace, away from all the things you left behind, to some higher sense of accomplishment.”