SONOMA — Don Bell's obsession with vintage race cars began at Sears Point, as the track was then called, back in the mid-1970s. A week after attending a race here, he phoned his girlfriend from Los Angeles and told her, "I'm on my way home. I'll be there in 10 hours."
Ten hours? For a flight to the Bay Area? Bell explained that he was driving the 350 miles — and pulling their new race car, a Porsche 550 Spyder.
Nearly 40 years later, and against all odds, both of Bell's loves endure. The girlfriend is now his longtime wife, Lynne. And after building and selling one of Silicon Valley's most successful data-storage companies, Bell is still behind the wheel. He will be racing his 1969 Lola T-163 this weekend at the Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival, at the course known as Infineon Raceway until this week.
Some 400 vintage cars — as old as a 1911 National Indy 500 racer — will be driving in 15 separate categories, with qualifying today and races Sunday. Bell will be competing in Group 13 (1966-1974 Historic Can-Am Cars), scheduled for Sunday at 3:35 p.m.
A week later, Bell will turn 75. With Lynne at the home they just finished building in Sedona, Ariz., Don plans to celebrate quietly.
"This is as good a birthday party as you can get — getting out in the car," Bell said after a practice run at the road course Wednesday. "Just this last session, I remembered how fun it really is."
For decades, Bell lived a Jekyll-and-Ride existence. He spent countless weekends gunning powerful engines around the tracks of North America and beyond — for a while, professionally. At the same time, he was building a high-tech and high-profit business.
After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in electrical engineering, he headed to Southern California in 1961 and got involved in aerospace and electronics. He climbed the ranks to executive positions at Ducommun Electronics Group and Kierulff Electronics, among other corporations, and in 1988 founded Bell Microsystems. By the time Avnet Inc. bought the company for a total transaction value of $594 million in the summer of 2010, Bell Micro had 1,900 employees in 50 offices worldwide.
But Bell's love of fast rides goes back even further. He was on a Whizzer Sportsman motorcycle at the age of 13, and he drove his uncle's stock car in his late teens. By the time he graduated from Alabama, he was zipping around in a 1959 Austin Healey sports car.
"Must have been the only one in Alabama in those days," Bell said.
He went through the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Sears Point, and started driving in Sports Car Club of America vintage races in the mid-'70s. He went professional in 1981, competing in series of yore like IMSA (International Motor Sports Association, now American LeMans) and World Sports Car. Sometimes he owned his own team, sometimes he drove for other teams. He ran more than 80 IMSA/ALMS races — including 19 editions of the 24 Hours of Daytona event — notching seven wins and numerous podium finishes. He was second in IMSA's Camel Lights GTP series in 1987.
Bell relished his parallel lives and found ways to combine them. Bell Micro sponsored several race cars over the years, though not his — he never used company money for his own racing.