Sandra McNeil: Racing into her Seventh Decade
Sandra McNeil: Racing into her Seventh Decade
It was at a party in Manhattan circa 1983 to toast the then-new Ferrari Testarossa when Sandy spotted something else across the room. She remembers it vividly.
“I don’t like wearing high heels,” recalls Sandy, who is something of a tomboy, “but I had dressed up for the party, high heels and a suit. I saw Jim across the room and I walked over to him and said, “Hi. Do you like the car?”
Okay, so it wasn’t the most creative line. But it worked. “It was the start of the best part of my life,” Sandy recently recalled. Today the 30-plus-year marriage between Jim and Sandy McNeil is a car story and a love story, fueled by a division of labor that appears unique in automotive annals.
Jim buys historic race cars. Among his prizes is a 1962 Ferrari GTO that’s reputed to be the only one of its kind in existence that remains unrestored.
Sandy races the cars. She’s a regular on the historic racing circuit, including the Rolex Monterey Reunion at the Mazda Laguna Seca track, where she raced two cars from Jim’s collection: a 1958 Cooper Monaco T49 and 1963 Shelby Cobra 289.
She also happens to be approaching 80 years old, making her the oldest driver in virtually every race she runs. Sandy could be the proverbial “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” from the song by Jan and Dean that reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1964, except that the McNeils live in Bayport, Long Island. Also Sandy, whose given name is Sandra, looks closer to 50 than 80.
“She’s tenacious,” Jim says of his wife’s style on the track. “You don’t want her behind you. She’s thinking, ‘I’m gonna get you.’
“Sandy, in turn, says, “Jim’s the expert on cars. He has way more knowledge of cars than anyone I know. But I love to race. I’m competitive.”
One of the many peculiarities of the McNeils’ marital-automotive partnership is that the first model Sandy mastered was the oboe. That isn’t a car at all, of course, but a double-reed, woodwind instrument — sort of a high-horsepower clarinet. After growing up near Utica, NY, the daughter of a plumber, she earned her degree at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, an upstate hamlet that’s much closer to Montreal than to the Big Apple.
Sandy and her first husband owned five music stores on Long Island. They did well enough so that in 1976 she traded in her Volkswagen Beetle for a Porsche 911S. Heading upstate on New York’s Taconic Parkway, she would keep an eye out for other sports cars, pull up alongside, exchange a knowing look with their driver and turn the highway into an impromptu track, sort of a North American Nurburgring.
“I liked to beat the boys,” she recalls.
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Jim, meanwhile, attended Hobart College in Geneva, NY, at the top of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region. At the bottom of the lake, rather too conveniently, sits Watkins Glen and its famed track. Jim toggled between the top and bottom of Seneca Lake for four years. Then he joined his father on Wall Street, trading stocks for their own account in the family firm at 11 Broadway.
In 1967 Jim and his dad both bought cars. His father’s car was a new Cadillac. Jim’s was a used 1962 Ferrari GTO. Let’s just say the son made the better choice. Today his car is worth between $50 million and $60 million, not that it’s for sale. The Cadillac would be worth, well, somewhat less.
Is the Ferrari his best investment ever? “No,” says Jim, surprisingly. “That is Pepsico.”
Among the companies whose shares they traded, Jim and his father were early buyers of shares in Pepsico, which was created in 1965 when Pepsi-Cola united with Frito-Lay. Thus a merger between sugar and salt produced part of the profits that funded Jim’s car collection.
His cars include the Ferrari GTO, the Cooper Monaco and the ‘63 Cobra, which took a long and winding road into the McNeil collection. In 1964 Jim was attending a race at Lime Rock, sitting on the hillside between turns No. 3 and No. 4, when he saw a red Cobra on the track. “I said right there, ‘Someday I’ve got to have a real competition Cobra,’ “ he recalls.
Sandy raced the Cobra at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at the Laguna Seca in 2017, finishing 25th out of 36 cars in Group 4B, 1963-1966 GT cars with engines over 2500 cc. She did better with the Cooper Monaco: seventh out of 15 cars in Group 3A, 1955-1961 Sports Racing cars over 2000 cc. In both races, she was the only female driver. She also fulfilled the prime directive of historic-car racing: finish with both the car and the driver unscathed.
On race days, Sandy is all business. She faithfully attends the pre-race meetings for drivers. There’s no small-talk or chit-chat with anybody, even Jim. Walking around the paddock — Jim is always there, but respectful of her space — she is the picture of almost catatonic concentration, focusing her mind on the task ahead.
The McNeils participate in about eight races a year. The tracks on their annual circuit include Lime Rock (two or three times each year), Sonoma, Mid-Ohio, Wisconsin’s Road America, Monterey, Watkins Glen and Palm Beach International. Retiring from racing isn’t in the cards, at least for now.
“I will continue as long as I feel competent,” she says, “and able to experience the pure joy and exhilaration of the sounds, smells and fun of these wonderful race cars.”
Paul Ingrassia, former managing editor for Reuters and former Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, wrote about the auto industry for more than 30 years. He passed away in September, 2019 after battling cancer.