Copperstate 1000 rally celebrates 25 years in style

A Shelby GT350 chases a 1952 Cunningham C-3 in last year’s Copperstate 1000 | Larry Edsall photos
A Shelby GT350 chases a 1952 Cunningham C-3 in last year’s Copperstate 1000 | Larry Edsall photos

A quarter century has passed since an elite group of more than 50 classic automobiles departed from the Phoenix Art Museum for the first Copperstate 1000 road rally, a thousand-mile tour of Arizona’s famous back-road scenery.

Now one of the nation’s premier classic car events, the Copperstate 1000 celebrates its 25th anniversary by staging its biggest rally ever, taking more than 90 pre-1973 automobiles on the four-day journey, starting April 18 ,to drive on some of the most splendid winding roads that the state has to offer. Each day, the road will end at an iconic landmark in Arizona or Utah.

As always, the public is invited to the European-style sendoff of the vintage sports cars, GTs and classics at Tempe Diablo Stadium, where the launch party has been held for the past several years. Gates open for the free event at 9 a.m., leaving plenty of time to examine the rare automobiles up close until they are introduced and flagged off one at a time starting at 12:30 p.m.

On one of Arizona’s scenic winding roads
On one of Arizona’s scenic winding roads

The Bell Lexus Copperstate 1000 has become an important fund-raiser for the Phoenix Art Museum, although when the idea first came up in 1990, a cross-country automotive event seemed like an unlikely fit for the conservative Men’s Arts Council to raise money for the city’s largest art treasure. Up until then, the primary museum fund-raiser for the volunteer group of businessmen and civic leaders had been the annual Cowboy Artists of America show and sale.

The road-rally idea came from MAC member and classic car enthusiast Louis Laflin, who had the vision of replicating the famed Mille Miglia of Italy in the Southwestern desert. Not only would such a signature event raise money for the art museum, Laflin argued, but it would lift the stature of the Phoenix area in the classic car community.

Laflin pushed his idea despite doubt-filled opponents, finally winning them over when he and his supporters purchased “bonds” in case the Copperstate sustained a severe financial backfire. Laflin performed much of the grunt work that went into the rally, such as writing the route book and enlisting dozens of people for volunteer duties.

So in April 1991, the stunning collection of vintage automobiles set out for the inaugural rally. Laflin had tapped into his many connections to ensure high-quality participants, among them veteran Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, who served as grand marshal for the first Copperstate.

Sadly, Laflin only lived to enjoy the first few years of the event. In his honor, the rally presents its annual Louis Laflin III Spirit Award to the participant who best reflects his passion. The award is a sculpture designed by noted Arizona artist Ed Mell, who also created many paintings specifically for the Copperstate that were used as annual posters. Mell is a regular Copperstate participant, most often in his 1962 Corvette, although this year he’s taking his 1972 DeTomaso Pantera.

Cars parked in left field at Tempe Diablo Stadium
Cars parked in left field at Tempe Diablo Stadium

Over the years, Copperstate entries have comprised a who’s who of top classic cars and owners from around the country, most of them top-drawer post-war sports and GT cars with such names as Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, Shelby, Corvette and Alfa Romeo. But the Copperstate has seen its share of spectacular classic cars as well, and quite a few all-out race cars fettled for highway use.

Attorney Rick Mahrle has been on essentially every one of the rallies, first as a volunteer and later as a participant. Mahrle served as chairman during the event’s 10th anniversary run. This year, he is driving with his wife in a 1969 Alfa Romeo 1750 Spider.

“I was the Prescott city captain the first year,” he said. “That entailed going up to Prescott (ahead of time) and making sure everything was set and ready. We parked around the town square that year, the first stop on the Copperstate.”

From the start, the preparation and organization of each Copperstate has been a challenge requiring a legion of volunteers and workers, Mahrle added.

A 1963 Jaguar E-type enjoys some curves
A 1963 Jaguar E-type enjoys some curves

“It’s always a logistics balancing act,” he said. “You have parameters. You want to make sure the event runs well. You want people to be able to drive on really cool roads and stay off the freeways. Freeways are boring.

“You also have to have the right hotel accommodations for people. You have to make sure you’re going on a really cool road that’s going to end up at a hotel that people like the accommodations. And you have to find meal spots.”

Mahrle recalled some of the famous people who have taken part in the Copperstate, such as racing legend Phil Hill and Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk. Mahrle was in the back seat of a modern Bentley Azure convertible during one rally with Luyendyk at the wheel, he recalled, traveling at incredible speed but totally controlled by the professional driver.

“I never felt so comfortable in my life,” Mahrle said.

The late Phil Hill was always the consummate gentleman, Mahrle added, although highly competitive on the road, going so far as blocking anyone trying to pass. Hill was often driving a sponsor’s car, and each morning, you’d see him out in the parking lot cleaning and polishing it for the coming day.

“He would be out there doing it himself,” Mahrle said. “These are the kind of great memories that stand out.”

This year, the Copperstate 1000 has announced a new event in addition to the road rally, an off-road adventure called the Copperstate Overland set for October that will take participants in their vintage off-road vehicles into the wilds of backcountry Arizona. The new rally also will benefit the Phoenix Art Museum.

For more information about the Copperstate 1000, and the new Copperstate Overland, see copperstate1000.com.

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