California Melee zooms up to Chenery Park

Photo by Michael Waldstein

By Murray Schneider

It was a reason to stop dead in the street and stare in wonder and longing. Just before supper on the 12th the cars began to arrive, 57 vintage sports cars that traced their pedigrees back to the 1950s and ’60s and beyond, including a ’55 T-Bird, a ’65 Mustang, a ’68 Morris Mini, and a ’54 Jaguar. Many of the vehicles lined both sides of Chenery Street. Each had just completed a three-day road trip through Northern California.

The drivers were on the last leg of their grand tour, the fifteenth rendition of the California Melee, which took them as far as the bucolic back roads of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties and then straight back to dinner at Chenery Park. They had reservation. Not just table reservations, they’d reserved the entire restaurant. Restaurateur Joe Kowal had closed his eatery so that the weekend adventurers could take a well-earned respite.

“The annual event brings in lots of new people to the neighborhood,” said Kowal, dressed in a souvenir black Melee T-shirt. He watched the roadies step from their vehicles, enter his establishment, belly up to his bar and take welcome draughts from the beer he served them. Others began sampling cheese plates he’d set aside to quell any hunger pains before each made a run at the buffet spread he’d prepared.

Surveying the throng that gathered outside his 10-year old restaurant, Kowal spoke for his village business brethren: “They’ll return and shop.”

Deb Welch is one of the Melee organizers and she’s returned often. She oversees the Mission District’s Homestead Bar at Folsom and 19th Streets, lives on Portrero Hill and has been returning to Glen Park for three years.

“The three neighborhoods are my personal triangle. I never leave them,” she said, sipping a glass of red wine. “And I don’t mean the Bermuda Triangle!”

In fact, she tied the nuptial knot at Kowal’s destination restaurant.

California Melee members arriving in a vintage Lotus. It is the car featured on "The Prisoner" series. It was always shown in the opener with Patrick McGoohan racing along. Photo by Michael Waldstein

“Harley and I were married at Chenery Park,” she said. “It’s the best.”

Harley Welch, her husband, greeted each participant, handing them red lottery tickets as they entered Chenery Park.

“I’m the disorganizer,” Welch smiled. “We covered 850 miles, departing from the Golden Gate Bridge, traveling through Napa and Lake Counties, heading west to Fort. Bragg and down here to San Francisco.”

“It was a raging bargain,” said West Clark, who lives in Pebble Beach, who, with his wife Maggie, was the second motorist to cross the Chenery Street finish line.

“All true,” said Harley Welch, taking a pull from his dark ale. “But I didn’t book any five-star motels.”

What Welch did do, however, was put into motion an excursion that cost each participant a paltry $380 dollars, reaping for them two nights of convivial lodging, dinner and drinks among some of the most beautiful vistas this side of the Pecos River.

“In all of Texas,” said three-year Melee veteran Chuck Cluck, as he stepped from his 1971 Saab, “there is nothing to compare with variety of scenery and the plethora of California roads.”

“Harley mapped them out beautifully,” agreed Maggie Clark. “The roads were a blast.”

She and West had learned about the California Melee from a sports car magazine, thought it sounded like fun and ponied up their entry fees.

“The tariff shouldn’t cost more than a set of tires,” West grinned, his arms folded over a T-shirt embossed with the words ‘My Garage Makes Me Happy.’ “I’m getting a wheel alignment, though!”

The California Melee,  brainchild of Jeff Guzatis and Harley Welch, began as a sort of “Cannonball Run” tongue-in-cheek parody of San Francisco Motors car dealer and Stanford graduate Martin Swig’s California Mille, a four-day loop around California where drivers must ante up as much as $3,500 before they can even start their motors, and must have their car’s lineage screened for its historic significance.

The only screening California Melee participants have to endure is slathering sun block over their weather-beaten faces during their 72-hour sojourn around Northern California.

“They stay in fancy B and B’s,” said Welch, a vintage auto mechanic, of Swig’s elitist roadrunners. “Why should rich guys have all the fun?”

The upscale California Mille with its fancy wineries and catered lunches, inspired by the Italian Mille Miglia, an open road endurance race, traditionally begins at the exclusive Fairmont Hotel.

“We start at a ‘secret’ location near the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Welch, with a mischievous glint. “I can’t reveal it.”

He took a swift swig from his beer glass and pointed to his 2009 Melee T-shirt.

“Melee. Kind of like chaos!”

Not on your life. Since 1997, Welch has tuned-up his yearly highway gig like one of his humming engines. He watched both sides of Chenery Street fill up with historic convertibles and roadsters. Pristine Fiats, Volvos, and Porsches slipped into fallow parking spaces that had been vacated only a hour before. Earlier he’d secured a $400 permit from the City that encumbered Chenery Street parking from 5 P.M. to 10 P.M., and the parking spaces were now filling up like disparate pieces of a car rally jigsaw puzzle. Drivers continued to ease from their vehicles. They greeted one another and exchanged high fives, followed by highlights from their three-day odyssey, before walking to their Chenery Park rendezvous.

Welch moved outside and stood in front of his 1961 Austin-Healey Sprite. Painted on it were the Latin words, “Robigo Numquam Dormit.”

“It means ‘rust never sleeps,” he translated. “It drives well, but doesn’t look too great.”

The California Melee, organized with the precision of a well-disciplined military parade, is less about confusion than it is about camaraderie.

“The cars bring us together,” said Deb Welch, “but at the end of the day it’s really all about people.”

“The common interest is using the cars,” Harley Welch said, looking at his weathered Austin-Healey, minted the same year John Kennedy was inaugurated. “It’s not about shining them up.”

“It’s not about work either, about what we do for livelihoods,” said West Clark, a divorce attorney. “It’s about how we spend our spare time.”

Craig Howell, standing by his 1968 Morris Mini, shook his head.

“It’s the social part,” he said. “It’s about developing relationships.”

“Some of us may only see each other one time during the year,” said Deb Welch. “But we make lifelong friends.”

“At the end of the day it’s all about telling stories, hanging out with people with the same interests,” said Bob Maggiora, standing in front of his father’s 1965 Shelby Mustang, a car actor Martin Milner could very well have driven along Route 66 in the 1960’s television program.

“There was no traffic,” Craig Howell said. “Some of us would stop and share lunch. Highway 36 out of Red Bluff was beautiful. We’d see turkeys and deer.”

“People keep at their own pace,” Deb Welch said, “Safety is all important. If someone gets in trouble they signal with their thumb.”

The restaurant became more crowded closer to 7 P.M., as people began drifting inside. Accompanied by their father, twins Emile and Cyril Veyrac, who live in Noe Valley, wandered by, passing several onlookers clicking digital cameras at cars that had reset their odometers past the 100,000 mile mark two or three times and counting.

Five-year old Emile gestured to Harley Welch’s Austin-Healey.

“Daddy, look. It’s a real hot wheel.”

While Emile’s father assured his son that wasn’t the case, Glen Park’s security patrolman, looking every bit like a uniformed Fred Gwynne, walked by, checking out the museum-quality parked vehicles.

“The wheels are curbed,” volunteered a Melee veteran, as he crossed Chenery Park’s doorway.

Another road-weary enthusiast followed his lead.

“We made it,” she smiled. She turned to Deb Welch. “Did you have a good time?”

“I did,” Welch said, who is already planning a post-Father’s Day June reprise of the weekend’s events, a Melee that would substitute motorcycles for sports cars.

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