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Car Guy by Design – 2

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Leno was quick to point out that the bigger difference between classic and contemporary cars is not the ability to speed but the willingness to stop and turn. “The way we measure performance is different from 40, 50, 60 years ago. I got pegged doing 75 on the freeway in my 1906 Stanley Steamer. The car is fast— they’ve always been fast. We’ve had fast cars since the early 1900s. The speed record in 1906 was 127mph—that’s fast. You couldn’t stop or go around a corner, and if you had an accident, you’d likely be dead because of the lack of safety equipment; but speed is the least of the progressive things. Braking and handling is really where the strides have been made.”
Within Leno’s garage, you’d think among all that chrome and horsepower he’d have a favorite. But it all depends on his emotion. “I don’t have any one favorite car. I have a romantic thing with all my cars. If I read a retro-type article about driving a car such as a 1965 Shelby GT350 Mustang, then I’ll need to run out to the garage, start mine up and drive it around.”
While driving any one of his cars is part of the joy of ownership, showing the cars at events such as Pebble Beach is more of a job. “The only reason I do Pebble Beach is that when you have a rare car such as the Duesenbergs and the Bugattis, for the sake of history, it gives them a sort of pedigree. There are so many phony numbered cars out there, so you go to Pebble Beach, and the real experts look at it and say ‘Yes, this engine came with this chassis; this is the body that came on the chassis’; now you have a pedigree.”

 
Leno and Jeff Gordon discuss modern engine technology during a press function prior to the Brickyard 400. Jay has great respect for the talent of professional racing drivers, and they are in awe of his know- ledge of automotive history.

Like any classic car owner, showing up is one thing, winning is another. While winning validates authenticity, efforts and workmanship, it isn’t the end-all for the Tonight Show host. “It’s nice to win, but I don’t really care if I win or not. To me, I’m more the Sunday kind of car show guy. You know, the guys who just sort of show up, and someone brings a barbecue, and you have a couple of hot dogs, you walk around and look at the cars, and maybe there’s a trophy for the guy who drove the farthest. Pebble Beach is fun, and it’s over the top where it’s millionaires versus billionaires, and that’s fun to see. But it isn’t any more fun than shows with Chevys and Fords.”
A tour of all the cars and motorcycles Leno owns would take several days and require traveling to several locations. Aside from the aforementioned Duesenbergs, Packards, Bugattis, Stanley Steamer, Shelbys and exotic sports cars, his ignition-key collection also contains working-class names such as Harley, Indian, Buick and Chevy, just to name a few.


“If you want the next generation to be interested in your cars, take ‘em for a ride, open the hood, take ‘em down the street. When I meet people who want to ride in a Duesenberg, I say ‘Come on I’ll take you for a ride.” People in my age group need to reach out to the younger people and allow them to embrace this hobby.”


Many associate Leno with vintage cars, but he is just as enamored with contemporary cars. Aside from the Ford GT and McLaren, he has added other modern performance cars to his stable. “The Viper certainly fits in. When I bought my first Viper in 1993 with the stupid clip-on tonneau cover, I saw that and said ‘This is great; it’s exactly what I want.’ I like something that’s a little more work than the usual person’s. This weeds out the nonenthusiasts.”
While modern cars feature advanced forms of performance and handling, Leno points out that often technology goes too far. “I’m not a big fan of dumbing down things. Too many of today’s cars have features that require too little effort or reduced drive interaction. Things like when you back up and it sounds like you’re driving a gas truck with that ‘meep-meep’; if you’re too lazy to turn around and look over your shoulder, shut

 
Leno arrives at the set of the “Tonight Show” in his Ford GT. “Whenever I’m driving something interesting, I always take the long way home.” After taping this show, he might still be on the road.

up, park it, and get on the train.
For true car nuts, it isn’t the destination but the travel that makes the trip worthwhile. This is Leno’s credo. “To me, the destination is the least enjoyable part of the journey. I always take the longest possible route home if I’m drivin’ something interesting.”
While there is concern for how technology makes driving a car less involving, Jay also sees that enthusiasts are killing off their own hobby. “The reason people my age are interested in cars is because at one time we could buy them for $200 or $300, fix them up and drive them around. Slowly you add chrome and horsepower by adding more carbs, a cam and so on. Along the way, these cars have become very valuable. Now, when you go to a car show, the old guys (some like me) say ‘Hey, get away from there.’” It is the isolation of one car generation to the next that causes Leno concern. “If you want the next generation to be interested in your cars, take ‘em for a ride, open the hood, take ‘em down the street. When I meet people who want to ride in a Duesenberg, I say ‘Come on I’ll take you for a ride.” People in my age group need to reach out to the younger people and allow them to embrace this hobby.” Jay is committed to passing the torch: he funds a scholarship program at McPherson College in Kansas City, where the next-generation car guy is educated in the art of automotive mechanics and engineering.
There are many “fast” cars in the Leno family, all designed for street use. Jay makes no bones about his view of getting on the track and racing. Although he enjoys going to and watching races, he has no desire to strap on a helmet and test the limits of his driving ability. “I have too much respect for the people who do it (professionally). I never wanted to be one of these dilettante kind of guys; just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you’re suddenly good at it. The pros who race are athletes. Just because you can drive a car doesn’t mean driving a race car. Leno’s view of racing goes beyond his respect for the cars; it focuses on the drivers. “I enjoy driving; it’s the most fun thing to do. But when you get on a track, like some of these celebrity events with Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, or legends such as Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones, you understand that these guys are unbelievable.” The demand for Leno’s time is daunting and often overwhelming. When you’ve achieved such fame, it’s impossible to go anywhere or do anything without attracting a crowd. At car events, however, things settle into mutual respect for the machines on display. “I love a simple Sunday car show like the Blessing of the Cars. You just pull in, and everyone loves talking cars. It’s a great way to spend the day.” It is very clear that to Leno, his cars are more than machines of speed and style. They are heart, soul, dreams and passion. He collects not to simply own a piece of alloy, wood, rubber and combustible fluids, but for the love of everything the car represents—past, present and future. He loves to drive and owns cars for the special romance between man and machine.

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Updated: June 30, 2011 — 11:26 AM

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