One Man's Passion: How Bill Warner Created a Concours for Everyone


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Story by Chris Brewer • Photography Courtesy The Amelia Island Concours

Any doubts that the 2017 Amelia Island concours shouldn’t have been rescheduled at the 11th hour were washed away by the pouring rain and 30 mph gusts that lashed the Ritz-Carlton resort, the event’s host hotel, the planned Sunday of the event. Earlier in the week, forecasters had predicted heavy rain and tropical force winds, prompting The Amelia’s founder and chairman, Bill Warner, to shift the concours to Saturday.

The move would require Warner’s staff and 700 volunteers to condense an already tight schedule. Rather than cancelling Saturday’s cars and coffee and displacing Automobile’s All-Star Awards, Warner would look to his team to find the space and create a schedule where a crowded Saturday and Sunday lineup could co-exist in the same eight hours without anything getting lost in the shuffle.

Thanks to late hours and heroic efforts by a valiant group of volunteers, as well as a flurry of e-mails and social media posts, by 9 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, March 11, the show fields were set and the crowds arrived to spend a picture-perfect day in the Florida sunshine. Attendees and entrants alike noted the seamless transition, which went so well that a handful of sponsors asked if the show could always be held on Saturday. Forbes magazine would write that Warner “came off looking like a soothsayer with a very good crystal ball.”

It is that insight, that ability to know what’s best for his event, that sets Bill Warner apart. Where many companies assemble focus groups and pay consultants to do surveys, Warner follows his passions and invites others along for the ride.

“It isn’t the cars I’ve bought for investment purposes that have made me money; it’s the ones I’ve bought with my heart that have provided the best return,” Warner said. Following his heart has rewarded him with three Road & Track covers, success on the race track, a beautiful family and an award-winning Concours d’Elegance.

A Snapshot of a Photographer

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Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, Warner knew from an early age that racing would be a part of his future. His father taught him the importance of hard work, reinforcing the lesson by having him mow the acre around his childhood home with a push mower. Where many children would imagine they were preparing the outfield for a baseball game, Warner visualized the mower as a race car and himself racing his hero, Stirling Moss.

Warner’s sister Harriet, a photographer herself, encouraged their parents to buy him a camera for Christmas and, in what appears to be a family trait, spoke of the future: “Do you know what this camera will do for you? It will get you on the other side of the fence.”

After graduating with an electrical engineering degree from The Citadel in 1966, Warner married Jane, the love of his life. He then entered the military, where he served for 30 years in the Florida Air National Guard, and started selling filters at his father’s business, H.C. Warner, Inc.

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In 1967 Warner took his camera, along with borrowed lenses, to the SCCA American Road Race of Champions at Daytona for his first professional assignment. He was shooting for Sports Car Graphic.

His careful eye and technically proficient, storytelling style of photography quickly earned him the title of Sports Car Club of America Photographer of the Year for 1970. It also opened up opportunities as a regular contributor to numerous magazines and news outlets, including Car and Driver, Autoweek, Automobile, Vintage Motorsport, Atlantic Monthly, Automobile Year, and Road & Track, the latter of which he still contributes to today. He also began to freelance as a writer, learning early on that the key to success in automotive journalism was putting words on a page.

From Behind the Fence to Inside the Car

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Warner began his racing career in 1977 behind the wheel of a Brabham BT8 that he pulled out of a South Carolina junkyard for $2900. Discovered while he was actually following a lead for a birdcage Maserati, that Brabham, in typical Warner fashion, turned out to be the sports racer that Denny Hulme drove to win the Royal Automobile Club’s International Tourist Trophy in 1965 at Oultan Park.

His first professional racing experience would take place at Daytona International Speedway on July 3, 1980, at a 6-hour B.F. Goodrich Tire support race for the Firecracker 400. Bill qualified 72 out of 76, running in a race-prepped Honda Civic owned and co-driven by Rich Lee. Warner remembers scorching summer heat compounded by a header failure. “It was 98 degrees, and the exhaust header fell off the car in the first hour,” he recalls. “Not only did I lose hearing for two days, but it fried my feet, too. Welcome to racing.”

His dream was to make it to the SCCA National Championship Runoffs, a feat he accomplished behind the wheel of an ex-Bob Sharp Datsun B210, racing in the GT3 class at Road Atlanta in 1982. His car failed to start and he was forced to enter the race dead last, nearly 20 car lengths behind the field. The notes in the final results contain just two words: “balky starter.”

“I was wired,” Warner says. “There wasn’t anything I could do that day that was wrong. If I entered on the wrong side of the turn and hit dirt, the dirt would turn the car right. I started 22nd and I finished fifth and was nominated for the Mark Donohue Award.”

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Although he didn’t win the Donohue Award, he did learn a valuable life lesson. “I’ve won a couple of races and when you win them it’s nice,” he explains. “But my best two races were actually the ones that I came in fifth. I didn’t win but I was happy with my drive. You don’t have to win to be satisfied. You just have to know that you gave it your all.”

That all-or-nothing attitude would also help him transform his father’s filter company, which he grew from a single office with one employee in 1966 to a lucrative business with 23 employees and offices in Greenville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Ft. Lauderdale and Jacksonville, Florida.

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Founding The Amelia

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Bill Warner’s hometown roots in Jacksonville, Florida, run strong, and by the early 1990s he was committed to bringing an automotive event to northeast Florida. Since his first inclination was racing, he began working with the mayor’s office to create a plan for a downtown Indy race. The idea hit some political hurdles and was laid aside.

In the meantime, the public relations team from the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Florida, had cooked up the idea of having a world-class concours event on their campus, but needed a champion with the background and connections to take the idea to the next level. All roads led to Bill Warner.

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“I wasn’t really a concours guy,” he says. “My dad had been in hospice, [and] he had died in hospice care. My answer to the folks at the Ritz was that we could do it as long as we gave money back to the community.”

The first show would take place April 4–7, 1996. Warner would call in favors from the automotive news outlets that he worked with to assemble a team of journalists to cover the inaugural event. His connection with Mercedes-Benz produced the founding automotive sponsor.

Mercedes-Benz proved to be a gracious host, bringing in legendary Grand Prix driver Sir Stirling Moss to be The Amelia’s first honorary chairman. Warner’s childhood dream of working with his boyhood hero was realized, albeit in slightly altered form, as he walked the freshly cut lawn of The Golf Club of Amelia Island with Moss.

Other luminaries in attendance at that first concours included Brian Redman and Hurley Haywood. Ralph Lauren’s breathtaking 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK “Count Trossi” graced the show field, and a stunning 1938 Talbot-Lago 150SS Figoni & Falaschi took top honors. The crowd was estimated at 2000, and Warner’s efforts resulted in a $35,000 donation to Community Hospice of Northeast Florida.

The next year, 1997, saw America’s first Formula 1 champion, Phil Hill, serve as honorary chairman. That second concours would also showcase the event’s first featured marque: The 50th anniversary of Ferrari, combined with Hill’s storied career as a Ferrari driver, made the Prancing Horse a natural fit for the show. Warner would assemble 14 Ferraris, including the iconic 1961 Ferrari 250TRI/61 that Hill drove to victory at Le Mans.

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The Amelia would grow with each passing year. The expansion would warrant additional staff and an office building near downtown Jacksonville. The list of past honorees now reads like a who’s who of racing, including names like Carroll Shelby, John Surtees, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, David Hobbs, Vic Elford, Dan Gurney, Sam Posey, Jochen Mass and Richard Petty. Warner’s heroes would become his close friends.

The Amelia went on to win the coveted Motoring Event of the Year award for 2013 at the International Historic Motoring Awards, an honor that would be reprised in 2016. The most recent celebration of The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance featured more than 300 concours vehicles from all over the world, plus another 450 cars for the weekend’s cars and coffee event. More than 350 media were granted credentials, and 20,000 spectators took in the show.

The event’s yearly economic impact to Florida’s First Coast is estimated to be around $24 million. The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance Foundation’s charitable giving continues to donate to Community Hospice & Palliative Care and has expanded to include Spina Bifida of Jacksonville, Shop with Cops, the Nassau County Sheriffs Foundation, Dreams Come True, and the Mayport Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. In total, The Amelia has donated more than $3.2 million to local charities. Bill Warner’s goal to give back to the community has exceeded every expectation.

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As Warner himself says with a warm smile, “It’s been a great ride.”


This article is from a past issue of the magazine. Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it's published, and get access to our full digital archive, by subscribing to Classic Motorsports. Subscribe now.

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Comments
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moggiedog
moggiedog New Reader
2/4/19 11:55 a.m.

Chris Brewer, you are a fine writer with a big hert to show Bill Wqner in such a greqt light.  Good work. 

Although I'v never met him nor attended his show, I'll be sure not to miss it this year.  

Thanks for the article and hi to Tim.

 

Dave Sawyer

MGTOMMM
MGTOMMM New Reader
2/4/19 3:54 p.m.

Great article showcasing a great event and great person. Displaying a car there is the highlight of my year. 

Thanks to Bill for making great memories for a huge number of car people. It's a real spectacle now!!

And thanks to all those volunteers - who make it possible - to donate so much time to the event, and untimately dollars to charities. 

Tom Metcalf

 

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