They gleamed under the bright lights of the convention hall, workers in white gloves ensuring that each was polished to a high sheen. There was the Mercedes supercar with a top speed of 268 mph. There was the beastly off-roader with nearly two feet of suspension travel. There was the Camaro convertible that paced the 1969 Formula One race at Watkins Glen, and a black No. 8 stock car driven to Victory Lane by the Intimidator.
Indeed, Rob Kauffman has come a long way from those first two junkyard Firebirds his parents once bought him for $70 total, figuring there were enough salvageable parts out of both vehicles to build one serviceable car.
"I'm probably an example of, the only difference between men and boys is the price of the toys, at some level," said the co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing. The vehicles displayed at the Charlotte Convention Center aren't owned by Kauffman, but they're on display because of his company, all of them bound together by a passion for fast cars the NASCAR team owner and entrepreneur has had for as long as he can remember.
On this November weekend, the occasion is a collector car auction run by RK Motors, the restoration and sales company that Kauffman founded in 2006, and has appeared periodically on the hood of the No. 55 car at MWR. It's the second such auction held by RK Motors, and befitting its founder, it's an ambitious effort -- while Kauffman's partner in the business, Joe Carroll is overseeing things in Charlotte, Kauffman is trying to tap into the Middle Eastern market by overseeing a simulcast in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
"The car culture in the Middle East is vibrant," said Bill Mathews, the auction's executive vice president, "and many of the collectors are very interested in American classics." The same could certainly be said of Kauffman, who jokes that his first word after "mom" was "car." Although his grandfather was a Studebaker dealer, there were no car buffs in the family. That didn't stop a young Kauffman from playing with Corgi and Matchbox die-casts, from later devouring issues of "Road and Track" and "Car and Driver," from later grabbing a wrench and going at those two junkyard '67 Firebirds his parents bought him for his 13th birthday.
"They said that between the two, you should have enough parts to make one decent one. And you can get your driver's license in three years, so good luck," Kauffman remembered. "I went to busting my knuckles for a year on rusted-out bolts. Then I sold the taillight on one for $20, and the light bulb went off. I stopped working on them and started selling the parts, and then rolled that into another car, and then another car."
He never stopped. Kauffman was a mechanic during high school, and still knows his way under the hood. "I might be a little bit rusty, but if my '63 Corvette breaks down on the side of the road, given a few tools, duct tape and a coat hanger, I probably have a fighting chance of getting it going again," he joked.
He went to college, got into finance, and made his fortune as co-founder of an investment firm. But that love of the automobile never left him -- when he retired from the investment business late last year, he told Bloomberg News it was partly because he wanted more time to devote to his passion for cars.
No one who knows him is surprised. "Rob is one of the most hardcore, pure car nuts that I've ever known in my life," said Carroll, who owned a classic car company that merged with RK Motors in 2010. "I knew that Rob owned a NASCAR team. I knew he had a small boutique that sort of supported his hobby, but I really didn't appreciate the passion that he has just for cars in general. I would venture to say that he's the only person in the world right now that's spending regular time driving a 1928 Bentley, a 1960 Willys Wagon, and a '63 Corvette Split Window in rotation. ? He definitely lives and breathes cars 24 hours a day."
Kauffman's co-ownership of MWR, which he joined in late 2007 in a move that helped steady the organization financially, certainly is part of that. So are the sports-car events he occasionally competes in as a driver, a list that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona. But the RK Motors Collector Car Auction, and all those race cars and muscle cars arrayed under one roof, brings it home in a sea of shining glass and metal.
Presented for auction by their individual owners -- who, if they don't like the price the cars fetch on the block, have another opportunity to sell them through a consignment program -- the vehicles have all been restored to a meticulous degree, making each peek behind the wheel feel like a step back in time. It's difficult for any gearhead to not feel the pull of a 1971 Plymouth Cuda, a 1969 Shelby Mustang GT500, or a 1962 Corvette roadster. For the more modern-minded, there's the menacing off-road car built by championship crew chief Ray Evernham, or the one-of-a-kind, million-dollar 1995 Lotec Mercedes-Benz, which churns out a cool 1,000 horsepower.
Amidst it all are a few race cars, some of which competed on the track. There's a 1986 Pontiac which Waltrip drove at Talladega, a vehicle whose nickname -- "Big Ed" -- is scribbled on the dash. There's a No. 11 Bill Elliott Thunderbird with Junior Johnson's autograph on the air filter cover, and a No. 28 Davey Allison Ford with "Think" taped to the dash in large red letters, but it's unclear whether either vehicle was ever raced. Of one, though, there's no doubt.
Among the race cars up for auction, the unquestioned centerpiece is a No. 8 in that familiar black Goodwrench livery, a vehicle built by Robert Gee that Dale Earnhardt drove to victory in a 1986 Nationwide Series event at Daytona.
Dale Earnhardt drove this car to victory in a 1986 Nationwide Series race at Daytona. (My Classic Garage)
"That is a highly appealing car to any NASCAR collector or Dale Sr. collector," Carroll said. "There just aren't that many cars from his career that survived that era. So that's a highly desirable car."
That is borne out in the auction, where the Earnhardt car goes for $140,000, seventh-highest among all vehicles sold. The only race car to fetch a higher price is a 1977 F1 McLaren that James Hunt used to win the Japanese Grand Prix, and sells for $1.3 million. Kauffman called former NASCAR cars an "emerging" facet of the collector market, the most valuable being genuine vehicles driven by the legends themselves -- like the 1963 Junior Johnson "Mystery Motor" Impala he has in his private collection. More modern cars typically aren't as valuable because they're rebuilt so often, although the chassis are frequently sought after by racing schools or hobbyists looking for track day cars.
The No. 56 Toyota that former MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. used to win this past season at Sonoma recently sold to a collector in Europe, Kauffman said, but it's still vintage NASCAR machines like the Earnhardt car that attract the most interest.
"The Earnhardt car, that was a real deal car," he added. "Earnhardt raced that, it's pretty much in its original form. It was before all the (Richard) Childress stuff, and it's a genuine, functioning car, so you can use it. So I think those are the more valuable ones."
And Kauffman would certainly know, given a lifetime of devotion to the automobile that spans his years as a teenage mechanic to his current roles as NASCAR team owner and classic car enthusiast. Kauffman said this month's RK Motors auction fit "within our band of expectations," and there are already plans for another in the spring. He's always has a mind for business and a passion for cars, and these days gets to combine the two. Amazing what can come of a $20 profit made off a junkyard taillight.
"It's nice to make a real business out of it," Kauffman said. "I enjoy the stuff a lot, obviously. But I feel good it's a proper company."
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Rob Kauffman