(Editor’s note: During the month of April, the Journal presents a series of stories about vintage rallies and vintage racing. Today, Howard Koby looks back at his years covering the Copperstate 1000 vintage sports car rally for this publication and others. If you have a story about your participation in a vintage rally or race that you’d like to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
About 25 years ago, I happened to be in Phoenix and was heading to the Phoenix Art Museum when I stumbled upon a closed-off downtown street with an array of beautiful vintage and classic cars. They were lined up for what looked like the start of a road rally.
Being a full-blown “car geek” and automotive photojournalist, I had my trusty battery of Nikon (film!) cameras in my car. I hurried back to get the tools of my trade, then rushed back to the action.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
The answer was the Copperstate 1000 Road Rally. Instinctively, I started taking photographs.
The Copperstate 1000 takes place in April and puts a group of passionate car enthusiasts and their pre-1973 vintage sports and grand touring cars on a thousand-mile adventure through the Arizona desert and, at higher elevations, pine forests.
After making contact with the organizers, the Men’s Art Council of the Phoenix Art Museum, I hit the road on my first Mercedes-Benz (the title sponsor at the time) Copperstate 1000 in 1997, on assignment for the late Mike Cook, editor of the Jaguar Journal (club magazine).
I was pleased to learn that the rally served as a fundraiser for the Phoenix Art Museum and the 10-90 Copperstate Foundation, which provides emergency benefits to families and dependents of officers injured or killed in the line of duty.
Every year as a safety measure, a handpicked group of Arizona DPS motorcycle officers provides an escort, riding ahead of and behind the rally cars.
Usually, there are about 80 to 90 rolling automotive works of art on the Copperstate that engage with the beautiful scenery after blasting off from the Phoenix area. In recent years, at least until the pandemic, the starting point has been Temple Diablo Stadium, spring training for the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, which is turned into a “Field of Dreams” car show.
Rallies need routes and as the Copperstate route book once noted, “Trust in Motherhood, Apple Pie and your Route Book.” The book not only guides the Copperstaters but each year introduces them to a different and challenging route.
One year it might lead them to the northern part of the state, starting up the Beeline Highway toward Payson and beyond, or it might take them through Prescott, or to historic Route 66 in Kingman and on to Oatman, where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their “honeymoon” at the Oatman Hotel in 1939.
Sedona, The Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, even visits into Utah and Nevada, have provided spectacular scenic runs that left me breathless.
Southern routes take the cars through the grassy ranch lands of Patagonia, Nogales (at the Mexican border), into the unmatched beauty and serenity of the Saguaro National Park, and Tucson, known as the Old Pueblo.
The late Leon Mandel, who was publisher of AutoWeek magazine, participated in many Copperstate rallies and referred to this “Orgy of automobility as the ‘Great American Car Revival,’ where participants share a belief that no time could be better spent than in an interesting car on a mean road in the company of like-minded people.”
For many years, the event honored a Grand Marshal, including the likes of Bobby Rahal, Brian Redman, Phil Hill, who drove his 1930 Pierce-Arrow Cab in 1996. Also, Lyn St. James, Stirling Moss, Bob Bondurant and Barry Meguiar, who arrived with Richie Clyne in a 1932 Judkins-bodied Duesenberg coupe from the Imperial Palace Auto Collection in Las Vegas.
Meguiar and Clyne had their hands full piloting the 6,000-pound machine, working its vintage brakes while descending from 9,000-foot elevations.
“We used everything… brakes, gears, parking brake to keep from losing it.” Meguiar said. “But we had a great time and a good workout!”
In 2003, I covered the Copperstate (Bondurant was Grand Marshal) for the old Car Collector Magazine and landed the cover with Randy Reiss’ fabulous fly-yellow 1962 Ferrari 250GT Berlinetta SWB. This late-series steel-bodied Prancing Horse with a booming V12 engine, Borrani wire wheels and outside Monza filler cap was one of my all-time favorites, although not for riding shotgun with Reiss, who drove it at unmentionable speeds.
As I reminisce about wonderful memories of the Copperstate, I am reminded that it is not a competitive rally but a lifestyle event and celebratory exploration of the Arizona outback with the exquisite scenery of the American Southwest. It’s like a field trip for grownups, with catered lunches delivered in the middle of the desert.
Another favorite vintage machine that has been on many Copperstates is Rick and Nancy Rome’s exciting 1955 Kurtis 500 Swallow Coupe that was originally prepared for racing by Mickey Thompson to run the La Carrera Panamericana in 1955 (only to have that event canceled). The car still maintains its original Lincoln 317cid “Y” block engine with front disc/rear drum brakes and torsion-bar suspension.
And of course, there’s Michael and Katharina Leventhal’s stupendous 1953 Ferrari 340MM Le Mans Spyder that has run the Copperstate several times.
“It’s a beast with amazing torque and brute power,” Leventhal notes. “Visually, I just love to look at the car… it’s like moving art.”
In 2005, the tour stepped into Las Vegas, and I immediately thought of getting the provocative 1928 Bugatti Type 44 Roadster owned by Stephen Norman to downtown on Fremont Street for a photoshoot with all the glittering casino lights as a backdrop. Norman agreed and we roared off.
When we arrived downtown, the “one-off” Bugatti caused quite a stir with 100s of tourists that had never seen such a car. “What kind of car is that?” bellowed out from the crowd.
My favorite route was the 2007 journey that included two scenic wonders — the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Zion National Park in Utah. I’ll never forget, as our wagon train traveled through six climate zones from the Sonoran Desert up past the San Francisco Peaks and through the solitude of Navajo reservations and reaching the geologic beauty of Zion National Park, the sight of Jess and Eddie Marker as they came whizzing by in their ultra-light 1969 Lotus Type 14 Elite.
After 25 years attending the Copperstate, there are too many favorites to mention, so hopefully the selection of photos will speak for themselves.