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Residents say Healdsburg luxury car event brought dangerous speeding

It isn’t the first time a Sonoma County neighborhood has been up in arms after enduring hours of revving engines and screeching tires.

But it’s a little different when the cars leaving the skid marks include a Lamborghini Aventador and a McLaren Senna, the latter of which comes with a price tag of $1 million -- before options.

To residents of a bucolic rectangle northwest of Healdsburg, the recent Car of the Year event amounted to a sideshow for middle-aged rich dudes.

“I’m just glad nobody got killed,” said Tonya Whelan, who lives just off Geysers Road.

“It would have been a big news story if there had been a crash. Everybody is saying these are just rich guys with expensive cars. But someone turned a blind eye.”

That was the sentiment trailing Car of the Year, sponsored by luxury lifestyle purveyor Robb Report, as it sped away last weekend. Residents situated between Geysers and Pine Flat roads claim visitors drove past their houses at speeds exceeding 100 mph with the cars making intermittent circuits for hours at a time, over a period of 11 days.

The locals want to know who sanctioned this activity, why there were no alerts to neighbors about what was going on — and why, in their eyes, the California Highway Patrol did little or nothing to slow the roll through Wine Country.

The show came into town much more quietly than it left.

Robb Report, which stages the annual November event through its exclusive RR1 membership club, still refers to it as Car of the Year — Napa Valley, a nod to where it took place from 2004-2019.

The company moved the event to Paso Robles last year after the Glass fire burned down part of the former host site, Meadowood Resort. This time around, Car of the Year shifted to Healdsburg.

Robb Report is primarily known for its print publication of the same name. The report “is synonymous with affluence, luxury and the best of the best,” according to its 2021 media kit. The average reader is 47 years old and male, the company wrote, with a household income of $717,000 and a net worth of $3.1 million.

Some of those readers signed up for a unique driving experience. Guests paid an undisclosed amount to stay at Montage Resort in Healdsburg, wine and dine, and help Robb Report select the top luxury automobile of the 2021.

The highlight was an opportunity to slide behind the wheel — the steering wheel of the McLaren Senna, a Vicrez Carbon Fiber OEM, costs $3,500, by the way — of Car of the Year candidates and glide past vineyards and oak hills.

Five different groups rotated through between Nov. 11-21, and each of the five enjoyed a driving day with morning and afternoon road sessions. They took a pre-determined route that included a jaunt eastward on Geysers Road, south on Red Winery Road and west on Pine Flat Road, back to Highway 128.

Residents living on the country lanes of the area say they were aghast at what they saw and heard.

“I live on Red Winery Road, and I personally witnessed the super cars, the McLarens, the Ferrari, and the Lamborghini traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph on the stretch in front of my house,” David Huebel wrote on a Facebook site called What’s Happening Healdsburg.

Huebel insisted he wasn’t tossing out “100 mph” for dramatic effect. He does mechanical work on motorcycles and is a car aficionado.

“I was counting the gear changes,” Huebel said in a phone interview.

“I know a McLaren can go 0 to 60 in 2.9 seconds. And I heard it change gears three times in the eighth of a mile between one corner and the next. I know what 800 rpm sounds like. I can confidently say it was somewhere around 120 miles per hour. And it looked like that.”

Huebel lives on a straightaway. He witnessed the cars at full throttle. Whelan’s house, in contrast, is near the corner of Red Winery and Geysers.

“I’m on a curve, so I get to hear the screeching tires and the peeling out after the turn,” she said.

From her home, Whelan witnessed a neighbor, Justin Miller, climb down from his tractor seat to confront one of the Car of the Year drivers at an intersection.

A Robb Report representative said the event has never been intended as a speed demonstration, but simply a chance to test-drive luxury models, and that safety was the company’s No. 1 priority. Each road day began at Montage with CHP Commander Randy England delivering a set of instructions to drivers.

“We let attendees know we’re here to ensure their safety, and the safety of the general public,” said Luke Bahrenburg, Robb Report’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer. “We made it clear that anyone needs to adhere to rules of local safety.”

RR1’s annual Car of the Year celebration made some negative headlines at least once previously — in 2018, when two vehicles associated with the event crashed in Napa County. One of those collisions sent five people to the hospital. But it apparently involved an employee during off hours, not a high-paying guest.

There is no obvious evidence of the Napa editions causing a furor among residents.

Why was the response to the Healdsburg version so different? Bahrenburg has no idea.

“We plan this event months in advance,” he said. “We put so much planning and preparation and guidelines and safety measures in place, and thinking about routes and what hopefully doesn’t upset the local community. And everything we put in place for Napa Valley was in place here.”

A Sonoma County spokesman said the county played no role in issuing permits for Car of the Year, and a Montage spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on her guests’ activities.

In addition to England’s safety briefing, the Rohnert Park CHP office assigned two patrol officers to ride the length of the course during the 10 Car of the Year driving sessions.

The patrols were funded through a reimbursable contract with event organizers, officer Marcus Hawkins said. He was unable to state how many complaints CHP had received about the event, or whether officers wrote any tickets to participants.

Residents are suspicious of the arrangement. A few reported seeing a patrol officer here and there, but it didn’t seem to hinder the dangerous driving. Some are convinced the CHP willingly looked the other way rather than confront privileged lawbreakers.

“I would say that would be unfounded,” Hawkins said. “Typically, what it comes down to is we would need to make direct observations of the infractions. We can’t base it on an allegation, we have to observe it. It’s not about us turning a blind eye. It’s more about us not being there at that time.”

Bahrenburg acknowledged his guests did not drive the route in a single-file line. They were dispersed, meaning there was no way for patrol officers to see all the cars at once.

At one point, frustrated by the high-speed laps, Huebel walked into the middle of Red Winery Road and flagged down oncoming “super cars” — which had placards saying ROBB REPORT rather than license plates — to ask what the heck they were doing.

After that, Bahrenburg confirmed, he changed the route to avoid Huebel’s house.

But that didn’t strike Huebel as an adequate solution. A life-long Sonoma County resident, he did not want to simply divert the cars to another stretch of road. He wanted them to slow down and respect community members.

“Just because we’re out here in the country, it doesn’t mean there aren’t kids,” Huebel said. “I have a 13-year-old daughter who skateboards. My neighbors to one side have three kids — twins that are like 6, and an older brother who’s 11 or 12. There’s animals around. It was a bad situation.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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