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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.

Not everyone was thrilled with the intersection, though. At one point the Bell Micro board of directors, fearing for the safety of their president after he wrecked spectacularly in front of 200 customers at Sonoma, demanded Bell stop racing. He obliged — until the company went public and he clambered back behind the wheel.

Lynne, too, has harbored reservations. A little more than 20 years ago, when Don was in his mid-50s, he got a call from Andy Evans, who wanted Bell to drive in his ALMS. Bell solicited his wife's opinion.

"She told me what she thought about it, and it was not nice," he reflected. "But then she made her mistake. She said, &‘You're too old.' And I said, &‘That's it, we're going racing.'"

Bell drove professionally until 2007. Since then, he has stuck to the vintage events, competing against other "gentlemen racers." His stable of race cars includes two fierce-looking orange Lolas — he stores one in England, in addition to the one he keeps at his garage in Milpitas — and three Porsches, a 914 and a pair of 356 Speedsters. He sometimes races the Porsches at Laguna Seca.

And it seems Bell may never stop acquiring. He recently purchased a 1976 Camaro that he plans to fix up and race.

His partner in speed is Clayton Cunningham, a renowned mechanic who has worked in IndyCar and NASCAR. Cunningham was Al Unser's chief mechanic in the early Can-Am series. Bell will tinker with the Porsches, but he leaves the finicky and powerful Lolas to Cunningham.

Now officially retired and living in Woodside, Bell isn't racing as much as he thought he would. He's just too busy. He consults with Avnet and two other high-tech companies, and is involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the 49ers Foundation and the University of Alabama Engineering department. And of course he and Lynne just built the house in Sedona.

Bell was set to compete in last year's Historic Motorsports Festival, but skidded on a wet track at Sonoma and smashed his Lola into the wall during a practice run. He took the car out once after that, in August, and it wasn't quite right. He hasn't raced since then.

Bell admits that the physical demands of racing are getting harder to accommodate, but he isn't ready to abandon the sport altogether.

"Racing has its highs and lows," he said. "There's about 95 percent to 98 percent lows. Those 2-percent highs are enough to keep you going."

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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