Jeff O’Neill, who just turned 65, made his millions in the wine business. He owns and operates two California wineries as part of his O’Neill Vintners & Distillers: Robert Hall, in Paso Robles, and Ram’s Gate, in Sonoma. But his real passion, like many men of a certain age, is exotic cars, and the more expensive they are, the better.
Last week, O’Neill hosted the Velocity Invitational at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca, near Monterey, California. Hundreds of exotics were displayed, including a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, worth a whopping $100 million by some estimates, and a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO, expected to fetch $70 million if it were to go to auction today.
O’Neill says he puts on these events to help educate the general public about exotic cars’ histories and provenances – and what the auto future might bring. “Is it electric cars, carbon-neutral fuel? Who knows? One car here, the Czinger, was even built out of aluminum with a printer. It’s mind-boggling.”
Most interesting about the Velocity Invitational is that exotic cars actually race each other on track at high speed, which, of course, brings up the idea of a crash. What happens if, God forbid, there’s a $5-million fender-bender between two Ferrari GTO’s? Are these things insured by Lloyds of London?
“The bad news is that once on the track, there is no concept of insurance,” says O’Neill, chuckling. “This time we had some 200 cars on track per day, for four days, and there was only one minor incident, a bumper rub. Cars with minor damage like that can be fixed without losing too much of their value.
“The bottomline is that these are race cars, and are meant to be raced. You could leave them hidden away in your garage, like a valuable painting, or let people see, touch and enjoy them.”
O’Neill doesn’t race professionally himself, but he does race the cars at special events such as this one. In fact, he raced the Ferrari 250 GTO Sunday. His personal collection includes a Maserati Bird Cage Tipo 61 that ran at Nurburgring, and a 1957 Maserati 250F that Stirling Moss drove.
While O’Neill says there were several sponsors for this year’s Velocity Invitational, including McLaren Racing, Porsche, Hagerty and Ford, he freely admits that he put in more money than all of the sponsors combined. “How do you make a small fortune in racing? Just like in the wine business, start with a large one,” he laughs.
But O’Neill hopes that his personal contribution becomes less and less each year as the event grows in popularity. And while none of the known celebrity collectors like Jay Leno, Adam Corolla or Jerry Seinfeld, displayed or raced at Velocity this time, O’Neill plans to extend invitations for the next one. He says Corolla has already accepted.
The 2022 Velocity Invitational, again at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca, is planned for October 14-16.