Russo and Steele holds collector car auctions like no other, a tantalizing mixture of high-energy showmanship, with Drew Alcazar at center stage pumping his fist as he revs up the crowd, and engaging innovation, such as its unique “auction-in-the-round” format.
Alcazar and his wife and business partner, Josephine, celebrate the 20th anniversary of their Scottsdale auction during the upcoming Arizona Auction Week, with the sale of about 600 vehicles taking place January 15-19 at their original location at Scottsdale Road and Loop 101.
Alcazar laughs when asked what he has learned during those two decades.
“I’ve learned that it is the same amount of astoundingly hard work no matter what year it was,” he said in an interview with ClassicCars.com Journal. “We’re working just as hard today as we did 20 years ago.”
But it’s not like they’re not getting better at it, Alcazar adds.
“The demands of the marketplace, the caliber of events, the bar continues to get raised every year. As a result, it continues every year to be a tremendous amount of work as you’re always trying to do new things, different things, better customer service, higher-quality cars, all those types of things.”
Based in Scottsdale, Russo and Steele moves back to its former venue for 2020 after three years at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which lies on the border with Scottsdale.
The auction lost its desirable venue at Salt River because of what Russo claims were underhanded tactics by Ritchie Brothers, the conglomerate that owns the Leake Auction; Leake takes over the location for its inaugural Arizona Auction Week sale.
The addition of Leake brings the total of collector car auctions during the week to eight, a surprising number and the most ever held at any other such collector car week, including Monterey, California, every August.
The Alcazars have sued Ritchie, Leake and several individuals, stating that they conspired to undermine Russo and Steele’s relationship with the tribe that cost them the site. Ritchie Brothers et el have countersued on the grounds that the accusations have no basis.
Undaunted, Drew, Josephine and their auction crew – most of whom have been with Russo since the beginning – have put together another strong docket for next week’s sale, as well as planning for a festive celebration of their 20th year in business. The party atmosphere will include an opening-night gala organized by Josephine Alcazar, a former caterer and event planner.
“This year’s about having fun and saying thank you,” Drew said, pretty much brushing off the Leake controversy. “Contractors, venders, auctioneers, patrons, people who have been with us all these years, we wanted to do something to make it special.
“We haven’t done the gala since 2013. Josephine called in a lot of favors.”
Although the return move was not a welcomed development, Alcazar said it will serve as a homecoming of sorts as the anniversary celebration ensues. And it’s certainly not a bad location, with adequate space for the auction, vehicle display and parking, and highly visible to traffic passing by on the busy Loop 101 freeway.
Besides, Russo and Steele is no stranger to overcoming adversity.
Ten years ago, it looked like curtains for the Scottsdale auction. An intense January storm packing hurricane-like winds and sheets of driving rain swept through the auction site, flattening huge tents and severely damaging a number of the approximately 600 collector cars as tent poles crashed down and torrents of water gushed through. One of the 800-foot-long tents blew onto the nearby freeway.
It had been a celebratory year for the auction, its 10th anniversary, but the following day, the scene looked more like a war zone than a car auction.
Yet as the savvy Alcazar might say, the show must go on. He, Josephine and the crew worked night and day picking up the pieces and cleaning up the site so that, two days later, the show did go on, and the auction took place. The sale was held two days later than planned, but it was held, pretty much as usual.
As ever, Drew manages to find the silver lining in the whole natural disaster, which wound up costing the Alcazars plenty in both money and momentum.
“Interestingly enough, it was really our worst day and our best day all in one,” he said. “As difficult as that time was, it was amazing how gratifying that was to see the investment that we had made in relationships with our client base to have them so rabidly loyal as to have them help us be able to survive that.”
There were a few tough years after the storm, Alcazar acknowledges, but Russo and Steele has survived, holding three auctions per year during the hottest collector car weeks in the US: Arizona, Monterey and Amelia Island, Florida.
This year’s Arizona Auction Week, he said, as crowded as it is, could be seen as symptomatic of a growing problem facing the collector car hobby (Alcazar refuses to call it an industry).
“The market has become oversaturated,” he said, pointing out that the huge collector car auction companies that conduct multiple events during the course of the year end up watering down interest and depressing values. There also are new auctions that seem to pop up constantly. All of which may confuse sellers as to which auction venue will produce the best returns for their cherished vehicles.
Each of the sales held during Arizona Auction Week, however, brings something different to the table, he added. Russo and Steele’s name derives from the vehicles in which it specializes: European sports cars and exotics (as in the Ferrari paint color “Russo Rubio”) and American muscle cars and classics.
“Everybody has their own little flavors, their own kind of niche that they cater to,” he noted, calling his own auction the “raucous Russo and Steele gladiator sport.”
“It’s made all of us stronger together than would ever would have been apart. It makes you constantly up your game. It’s the definition of healthy competition.”
One of the main things that sets Russo apart is its unique auction-in-the-round, loosely based on the entertainment concept of theater-in-the-round. The sellers, buyers and spectators sit in bleacher-like rows that encircle the ground-level “stage.”
The auction vehicles enter from an opening on one side and stand in the center of the action as the bidding commences. Everyone is invited to come down for a closer look. It is indeed a coliseum-like spectacle that feeds on the excitement of the crowd and often rises to a fevered pitch, with Alcazar in the middle, egging them on.
“It’s a concept that’s uniquely ours,” he said. “The by-product is how visceral that makes the experience. How much more emotionally charged that experience is for the buyer.
“I don’t think you can do that on the internet or on a computer screen or in a sea of a thousand other people and a tiny little stage 100 yards away. You just can’t do that.”
Alcazar is a striking presence during the bidding action, a good-looking 50-year-old with coifed white hair and a trim beard, and always dressed impeccably in a suit or sport coat and slacks.
He’s also known for making two or three “costume” changes during an evening, taking a short break and coming out in an entirely different immaculate outfit.
“Here’s why,” Alcazar says. “The real reason for it, not just vanity.
“When you’re on the auction block for 10 or 12 hours, it’s like running a marathon. It’s amazing if you can take just a quick break, just having a fresh shirt, change of socks and underwear, all of a sudden, it’s like getting a second wind. It’s a purely functional aspect.”
No matter what the location, Alcazar says, Russo and Steele provides a special atmosphere that is part showmanship and part business sense, all with the purpose of feeding into the classic car passion of sellers and buyers and bringing them together in the most positive way possible.
“People will never understand the nuances of what’s happening on the auction block,” he said. “It’s not just how it is that we have our cadence, what our rhythm is, or Drew and his costume changes. It’s also the sound and light systems, it’s the ring men, it’s the advancement of the bid; the subtleties and nuances of what are going on are endless.”
Which is why he does it and will never tire of doing it, he explains. He loves the cars, and the hobby, and the people in it. And he loves his turn on the stage of his own making, although always with a clear-eyed purpose.
‘There’s not another auctioneer on the planet who’s as engaged as I am with the car on the auction block,” he said. “But it’s not some kind of ego gratification.
“I want to maximize the result for my seller because I want to maximize the results for myself. Because that’s how my bills get paid.”