Run of Shows

Since the 1980s, Tim McGrane has overseen motorsports venues and made a name for himself in the car-collecting world. He arrives as M1 Concourse in Pontiac is at a crossroads and the Motor City refines and expands its expressions of automotive enthusiasm.

Last year, during the pandemic’s first blast, Cindy McGrane looked at her accumulated flight benefits and suggested to her husband, Tim, that they set forth and visit some car museums. They were staying at a friend’s vacation home in Scottsdale, Ariz., and were unconstrained. Cindy had recently retired after a career with the airlines; Tim was rebounding from a difficult 19-month interval running operations at a California racetrack.

Tim Aston Pic
Tim McGrane, CEO of M1 Concourse in Pontiac, with a rare Aston Martin (opposite). // Courtesy of M1 Concourse

Making several forays across the nation, the couple visited 30 museums in places ranging from Albuquerque, N.M., to Newport, R.I. Naturally, they made a stop in Dearborn. “We went to The Henry Ford at the height of COVID-19, when they were shut down, and it was so sweet to spend time with (Curator of Transportation) Matt Anderson, and hear about how they were coping,” Cindy says.

The McGranes had no inkling that in less than a year they would be summoned back to metro Detroit. M1 Concourse, the five-year-old private motorsports playground in Pontiac, was looking for a new CEO after Jordan Zlotoff had expressed to his father, Paul, M1’s founder, a desire to move into other activities.

In the search for a new leader, Paul Zlotoff mentioned the opening to several people, including Bill Warner, chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, one of the world’s famed classic car shows held every March north of Jacksonville, Fla. Warner admits recommending McGrane, while also issuing a caveat about his incessantly natty attire. “The only thing you gotta do is get him to take that damn tie off,” Warner remembers saying.

By last fall, McGrane and Zlotoff were in contact. The appointment as CEO was formalized in February, and the McGranes — who had always lived in California or Arizona — were soon pinning down a furnished rental house in Troy, on the border with Bloomfield Hills, just eight minutes from M1 Concourse. The campus is located on a triangular 87-acre parcel at Woodward Avenue and South Boulevard. For many decades, GMC manufactured trucks, buses, and even the amphibious landing craft known as the Duck there.

Designed by Motorsports Consulting Services in Tucson, Ariz., the overall layout features an 11-turn, 1.5-mile Champion Motor Speedway and more than 250 privately owned garages. The units range from 509 square feet to 2,452 square feet in size. Owners are eligible to join M1’s Motorsports Club. The five-figure initiation fee (up to $30,000) and $3,950 annual membership guarantee at least six hours of track time per week, monthly instructional sessions, and exclusive access to a fleet of high-performance new cars. Currently completing the fourth phase of construction, M1 will open its events center and restaurant in mid-September. The striking 28,000-square-foot, modern-industrial-style building was designed by INFORM Studio in Northville, which also did the garage-condos.

As with a free-agent signing by a sports franchise, the hiring of McGrane, who is 62 years old, opened the eyes of nearly every follower of the closely related collector-car and motorsports industries. Those in the know recognize his achievements. “Tim is a refined, sophisticated individual,” Paul Zlotoff says. “He approaches it with a real professionalism, and his experience (is) a great value.”

From the outset, it never appeared that McGrane, a native of a village near Gravesend, Kent, in southeastern England, would have a career in the automotive-enthusiast field or become one of the foremost experts — “almost freakishly knowledgeable,” Cindy says — on pre-World War II and 1960s racing cars. After completing a mechanical engineering degree at MidKent College in England, McGrane came to Palm Springs, Calif., in 1982 and managed a nightclub. Even when he met Cindy, a native of the resort city, his inner car-guy was a secret. If only she had seen the photo of him at age 5, adorned in his school cap and tie, behind the wheel of an Austin J40 pedal car, she might have had a clue.

“I had no idea how extensive his love of the automobile was,” she says. “We never even really talked much about it. And then, pretty quick, I would say about six months into our dating life, it started to become apparent.”

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Piston Playground – A recent auto show at M1 Concourse. This summer and fall, the private automotive campus is hosting four major events: including Motor Bella (Sept. 21-26) and the American Speed Festival (Sept. 27 to Oct. 3). // Courtesy of M1 Concourse

Unable to help himself when a vintage-car race came to town in 1985, he volunteered on the hospitality committee. The successful Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix would be repeated annually until 1996. After a couple of years, McGrane met Rick Cole, who was recruited to conduct a car auction by then-mayor Sonny Bono (a Detroit native). McGrane took the auction under wing, too. “He was Johnny-on-the-spot addressing all the needs of my staff,” recalls Cole, whose events were a cut above the rude and noisy country-style auctions of the time.

Soon McGrane joined Cole’s organization as general manager. Married by then, he and Cindy went to San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles — the first of several career-related moves. Settling into the job, he traveled to Detroit on Cole’s behalf in January of 1989. The purpose was to meet with partners in two upcoming auctions: one matched Rick Cole Auctions with Rochester Hills promoter Bob Larivee’s Autorama show in February, and the other was in conjunction with the Detroit Grand Prix in June, where the star car was the 1964 CERV II, the Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle — effectively a racing car that was being planned as a Corvette but never made it to production — which adopted a mid-engine format and was capable of better than 200 miles per hour.

Another car caught McGrane’s attention that winter. “I visited during the Detroit Auto Show that year, which I recall was the year the (Dodge) Viper was launched,” McGrane says. “That was my first time in Detroit.”

In the years since, he has been in on the development of several breakthroughs, such as television coverage of collector-car auctions — which are rebroadcast in seeming perpetuity on cable channels and provide comfort to insomniacs who prefer to count Chevys instead of sheep. He also spent four years in Scottsdale with the Barrett-Jackson Auction Co. Every year, Barrett-Jackson puts on a sprawling multi-day sell- a-thon that’s a touchstone experience for car enthusiasts. “I got to Barrett-Jackson when there were three hours of live coverage, and we thought that was a lot,” he says. Helped by a previous stint in the early dotcom period at a short-lived company called EClassics, which wanted to sell cars online with an in-studio TV show as the cornerstone, he was ready to help as coverage expanded to 36 hours.

“When it first started, and you had a prominent sale and sold 60 percent to 70 percent of the cars, that was good,” McGrane says. “What we found out very quickly with television shows (is that), first of all, live television doesn’t wait for anybody, and a live auction doesn’t wait for anybody. You don’t want to lose that momentum. You’ve got to get those two cogs in sync. What hadn’t been anticipated to start with was you don’t want to go to a dog-food commercial when you’re about to break a world record. Or you don’t want to have six cars in a row not sell and (have) that be what (the audience) saw on television.”

As TV drove the Barrett-Jackson auction to adopt a no-reserve format, it was further discovered that the content is “evergreen.” Highlights can be repackaged to encompass the best British cars at auction, the best American cars, and more. McGrane’s contention that “it’s addictive” was born out by his admission of having watched a couple of hours of auction coverage before this interview.

Peering at cars going over the auction block or around racetracks is one of McGrane’s innate habits. Cindy traces it back to “the age of 10 or 12, when (he and his friends) would sneak away and cut a hole through the back fence at the Brands Hatch track. That was the thing he did with his mates.” A curious detail is that he thought to “take a little lunch” — perhaps a harbinger of his future in hospitality. “They would go sit under the trees and watch the racing, and then come home at dark. His mother probably never knew where he was.”

horsepower haven The new M1 Concourse Event Center in Pontiac will open in stages in the coming months, starting in September. Once fully open, the public will be invited to use the restaurant and events facility. // Courtesy of M1 Concourse
Horsepower Haven – The new M1 Concourse Event Center in Pontiac will open in stages in the coming months, starting in September. Once fully open, the public will be invited to use the restaurant and events facility. // Courtesy of M1 Concourse

His wife describes how the social aspects of motorsports and car collecting continue to drive him. “I mean, he’ll get up at 4:30 on a Saturday morning and go — which he did this weekend — to the local Cars and Coffee, just to see who’s there and make new friends and just kind of walk around.”

M1 Concourse has had and continues to have a busy schedule this season, and attendees at events there will recognize McGrane, who is 6 feet tall, by what Cindy describes as his “square face” and his snappy attire. The joke among his friends is that McGrane automatically gains 20 I.Q. points from his English accent, and another 10 points from his tie. “He’s certainly the best-dressed guy in our industry,” Cole says.

Tasked with raising the profile of the racetrack and grounds, McGrane got his first taste of what was a busy summer season with the return of Motor Trend Group’s Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge on Aug. 14, when Woodward Avenue was converted into a competitive dragstrip complete with lights, timers, smoking tires, roaring engines, and buzzing fans one week before the Woodward Dream Cruise.

The inaugural run of McGrane’s budding schedule of events at M1 was the Woodward Dream Show, held from Aug. 20-21; the final day tied in with the annual Motor City extravaganza. “We worked in collaboration with the Dream Cruise people,” McGrane explains. “(We have) probably a certain number of hotrods or muscle cars that, either because of their historic nature or their value, you’ll never see them driving on the road.”

Still, owners want to share. M1 provides “a controlled environment” for “a special showing of cars that made the Woodward legacy,” he adds. A big moment during the Dream Show was the honoring of an old friend, Bob Larivee, who received the “Master of the Cruise” award on Aug. 20.

Before McGrane arrived on the scene, planning for another event was underway. Earlier this year, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association scotched its 2021 North American International Auto Show, announcing instead a new exposition, Motor Bella, Sept. 21-26 at M1 Concourse. Calling it “a bridge to the future,” DADA changed the original plan for an outdoor display devoted to British and Italian cars. “They took this Motor Bella and supersized it into filling everything that M1 has available,” McGrane says. “They’ll be doing live demonstrations with the automobiles on what we call the North Circuit” — turns three through eight can be separated from the rest of the track — “and the other part will be the displays.”

It fits with the mission statement of M1 Concourse, which Zlotoff tabs as “creating the pre-eminent motorsports experiential venue.” One could easily underestimate the inherent advantages in play here. Instead of being at a remote site, M1, located in the center of Oakland County, is accessible to the public. Professional management and a solid economic basis further position the facility to be independent, unlike events that are run by volunteer committees and always in search of sponsors.

“If you think about the major motorsports experiences that I’m aware of in the United States right now, they’re all basically at somebody else’s property,” Zlotoff says. “This is maybe the first time that I can think of you really have motorsports experiences — and we hope for that term and that concept to be very expansive — where we control the calendar, we control the venue, we can develop the activities, and we do it with a long-term certainty of both date and operations because it’s our backyard, not somebody else’s.”

The season ends with a burst of activity in late September, when the M1 Concourse events center hosts the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s 2020 and 2021 induction ceremonies on Sept. 27 and Sept. 29, respectively. (The 2020 ceremony was postponed.) On Thursday, Sept. 30, the inaugural American Speed Festival, a varied three-and-a-half-day experience, kicks off with a driving tour for classic and special-interest cars.

The first destination is Brighton, where Ken Lingenfelter, owner of Lingenfelter Performance Engineering, will guide guests through what is an extensive collection of early Corvettes, muscle cars, luxury vehicles, and his own line of high-horsepower upgrades to existing sportscar nameplates.

Next, the tour goes to The Henry Ford for a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibit “Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors.” McGrane has already previewed the long-delayed show: “I’m so happy for them that they were able to get it open and finally share it with the public,” he says. After lunch at the Automotive Hall of Fame, which is adjacent to the museum, the grand tour will return to M1 Concourse.

Two days of on-track activities — time trials for 10 classes of cars — come on Friday and Saturday. All eyes (and ears) will be occupied during special demonstration runs by two of engineer-driver Jim Hall’s Chaparral racing cars, which some would say were at least indirectly derived from the CERV II mid-engine Corvette prototype that appeared in the 1989 auction. (A March 27, 1964, diary entry by Bunkie Knudsen, who was the Chevrolet Division’s general manager at the time, records the presence of Hall and Roger Penske at an engineering presentation on high-speed handling characteristics.) Hall’s grandson is expected as the driver of these rarely seen cars. “We’re extremely fortunate that’s going to happen, and people can see them,” McGrane says.

Saturday evening is reserved for a black-tie charity gala at the events center, when Hall will receive the Legends of Motorsports award. The gala benefits a new foundation, the Zlotoff family’s Checkered Flag Challenge, in service of organizations in and around Pontiac.

Sunday, Oct. 1, is reserved for “a big car show” with the track cars from the previous two days and groupings in “a number of select classes.” The $250 daily entry fee includes gourmet food and beverage service. “Our hospitality director is certainly going all out — it will almost be a culinary experience as well as an automotive one,” McGrane says. “Why don’t you be what you are and do it best? We’re going to be the American Speed Festival, we’re going to be located in Detroit, in the Motor City, with all this heritage that we have around us.”

Indeed, within weeks of settling in at M1 Concourse, McGrane had shown solidarity with backers of the nascent Pontiac Transportation Museum. He found synergies with a counterpart, Jamie Meyer, president of Performance Racing Industry, as that organization mulls the possibility of locating a technology center in metro Detroit. “He can probably get anybody he wants to get on the phone,” Cole says. “He can probably get a lot of cars brought there that generally you wouldn’t even know about.”

Meanwhile, McGrane can take advantage of a stable platform to focus on the future. Cindy explains things this way: “In the car auction world, the event world, most of those people don’t have that financial stability. At this stage in Tim’s life, it’s a gift that this odd relationship came together.”

When he first arrived, a late-season taste of snow let McGrane reawaken the muscle-memory required for driving on a low-friction surface. “I’m glad I was driving alone. Cindy wouldn’t have liked to be with me,” he says. “OK, I got the hang of this,” he remembers telling himself. On one trip he was even emboldened to turn off all the automated driving aids. “I wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. I’m sure (the snow) can be inconvenient when you have to be somewhere at a certain time. It’s going to be an adventure. We’re excited about it.”

Auto Shows

Sept. 21-26 — Motor Bella, a place-keeper for the North American International Auto Show, will offer a tour through the ever-evolving world of mobility and experiences, from off-road SUVs through autonomous electric vehicles and high-powered sports cars. Some 40,000 people are expected to see 38 brands represented over the six days of the event M1 Concourse in Pontiac.
Key Dates:
Press: Sept. 21-22
AutoMobili-D technology show: Sept. 21-22
Industry Days: Sept. 21-22
Public Show: Sept. 23-26
Charity Events: TBD

Sept. 27 and 29 — Motorsports Hall of Fame of America 2020 (Sept. 27) and 2021 (Sept. 29): Induction ceremonies will take place at the new M1 Concourse Event Center.

The Class of 2020 (delayed due to COVID-19) includes Red Byron and Tiny Lund (Historic Category); Chris Carr (Motorcycles); Floyd Clymer (At Large); Wally Dallenbach (Open Wheel); Rick Hendrick (Stock Cars); Jacky Ickx (Sports Cars); George Montgomery (Drag Racing); and Ivan Stewart (Off Road).

The Class of 2021 includes: Davey Allison (Stock Cars); John Cobb (Historic); Larry Dixon Jr. (Drag Racing); Janet Guthrie (Open Wheel); Nicky Hayden (Motorcycles); Robin Miller (Media); Fran Muncey (Powerboats); Ray Nichels (Historic); and Judy Stropus (Sports Cars).

Sept. 30-Oct. 3 — The American Festival of Speed will showcase more than 60 race cars in 10 different classes. The cars represent almost every form of motorsports, and will make their best time on M1 Concourse’s Speed Ring. There also will be a day of vehicle expositions, a Motor Grille event, the opportunity to view M1’s select garages, and a Dine and Drive Tour of auto museums. Legendary racing mechanic Jim Hall is being honored as the inaugural ASF Master of Motorsports.