Passion meets elegance in beautiful Saratoga Springs

It’s been said that nothing truly great can ever be accomplished without passion, arguably the ultimate magic ingredient to the secret recipe. Hard to prove in real scientific terms, perhaps. But at the recent New England Concours d’Elegance in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., it was clear that passion is what drives the folks at Hemmings Motor News, which has been organizing this popular interstate event since 2006.

Once again this year, crew chief Jim Menneto, in his blue Ford Speedster 1932 pace car, zoomed in with team members from the head office in Bennington, Vt., during the final weekend of September to greet participants in person and make sure that the gorgeous cars got their rightful spot in the sun.

But the 2012 edition of the New England concours met with big changes, shifting not only to a different time of year — from July to September — but to a new venue and another state. All in all, a proposition not devoid of risk at best, particularly when your company brand rides as high as Hemmings’ does with its vast audience. On top of the predictable logistical challenges, this was also about saying goodbye to friends, supporters and partners at Stratton Mountain, Vt., home of the concours for the past five years. Not to mention the more than symbolic move out of Hemmings’ traditional home State of Vermont.

But Jim and his associates felt it was time to act on the feedback they had been hearing from participants who found access to the former hill site “complicated” and wished for more by way of amenities outside of the weekend-long concours activities. Exploratory discussions with the leadership of the Saratoga Automobile Museum, nicknamed “SAM,” to host the event led to the decision to form a new partnership with them and make the big move to Upstate New York.

Located in the zen-like environment of the Saratoga State Park, the former mineral water bottling plant reincarnated as SAM is surrounded by green open spaces and heritage buildings reminiscent of the golden era of the early spa years. In other words, SAM serves as the perfect backdrop and stage for a concours of this caliber. Combining a wide choice of hotels, fine restaurants and downtown shopping, chic Saratoga is everything concours participants had wished for and more, including the kind of driving experience antique car owners dream of via the scenic I-87 that leads the way there.

History is everywhere in Saratoga Springs, whose nostalgic feel lends a mysterious karma to the concours. When visiting the auto museum, one is reminded of the 900 intended or established makes of cars that populated this area and the Empire State at the beginning of the 20th century until the 1940s. To reflect this often forgotten though formidable heritage, a Class of “New York State Made Cars” was created for the concours. It’s no surprise, therefore, that amazing private collections of rare cars can be found today in nearby towns, many of which were represented at this sixth edition of the event.

And in spite of some annoying off-and-on rain throughout the weekend, the passion remained undeterred. Activities began on the Friday with a police-escorted car rally from Bennington, an evening barbecue and a trip to a local drive-in for a car flick. Saturday brought visitors a good old-fashioned car show of several hundred local specimens that culminated on Sunday with 100-plus crème-de-la-crème vehicles lined up around the iconic Saratoga State Park reflecting pool.

Of the 25 or so awards presented, including categories such as “First Choice to Buy If You Won the Lottery” and “The Car You Wished You Had in High School,” the Best of Show trophy went to Roger and Edie Labaw for their beautifully restored 1935 La Salle Model 5019 four-door touring sedan. The couple drove their La Salle from Hopewell, N.J., to Bennington for the Saturday rally, a 250-mile ride.

For Hemmings, the event provides valuable onsite information from its most important stakeholders — anything from questions on an array of technical details, to general trends about the future of collectibles. But it’s also about giving back. In this case, a portion of proceeds will support the Saratoga Automobile Museum’s community-based educational programs for kids.

So when Hemmings’ staff is out in the field helping at weekend carfests such as this, they’re actually living the best extension there is of what they love most: the connection with collectors and hobbyists. In fact, it’s the sort of up-close-and-personal experience rekindles the core value that motivates them back home at world headquarters, which probably explains why many will proudly tell you they’ve been with the company for more than two or even three decades.

Jim Menneto speaks of the Hemmings New England Concours d’Elegance as “a concours for the common man,” but the story within the story is anything but common. And though the place has changed, the pace has clearly kept up thanks to the man in the blue Ford Speedster ’32.

Stay tuned for next year’s autumn rendezvous around the reflecting pool of Saratoga Springs.

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