“The Great Ron Lee” was a cherished friend and contributor to “Sound Classics” and “Sam Barer’s Four Wheel Drift”. He is seen here prior to a couple laps around Pacific Raceways back in 2006.
All of us here at Apex Marketing Strategy are mourning the loss of one of our own. Our close friend, contributor, mentor, vintage motorsports expert, and partner in crime, Ron Lee, passed away this morning at the age of 79. Ron had been fighting aggressive esophageal cancer for a number of months.
Ron was a true car guy. When my father met him in the 1950s, he was selling and servicing Fiats in a Seattle import car dealership. His profession provided him with opportunities to drive some pretty amazing automobiles. Due to managing one of the initial Lotus dealers, Ron was one of the first Americans to drive the revolutionary all-fiberglass Elite. He told me: “It was like driving in a plastic garbage can. It was noisy as hell.”
One of his favorite cars was the lightweight-alloy-bodied Mercedes 300SL Gullwing originally owned by Lance Reventlow of Scarab. The car found its way to the dealership in which Ron worked in 1960. When the dealership’s owner wasn’t trying to sell it, Ron was out driving it — hard. Just last year we got back on the topic of that car, and Ron reiterated how it was such a pleasure to drive fast.
Beyond his day job, Ron was a well-known driver during the early days of Pacific Northwest sports car racing. Starting out in an Austin Healey 100, he soon graduated to a Lotus Eleven Club. After success with the solid-axle “Club” (as he called it), he upgraded to an Eleven Le Mans (which had the De Dion rear). Ron sold the Club to friend Roy Sender – another well-known name to historians of Northwest racing. Ron, Roy and my father went from city to city racing, hanging-out and raising hell with guys like Pete Lovely, Wade Carter, George Keck, Dave Tatom, Ray Reardon, Jerry Grant, Tom Meehan, and Don Jensen.
Ron had a great sense of humor – and one of his favorite topics was my father’s inability to drive well. Actually, he had to have a good sense of humor about it, since it was my father who nearly destroyed the Eleven Le Mans by spinning it during testing at Shelton Raceway. After snapping back hard coming out of a corner, the Eleven took my father screeching into the grass, which pulled a fuel line loose, causing gas to hit the hot exhaust. While the flames were quickly extinguished, the mileage Ron got out of the story lasted damn near fifty years!
Not too long ago, I almost repeated my father’s mistake during a rather aggressive parade lap in the 1986 Ferrari 328 GTS that serves as the logo banner for this site. Ron and I were out covering the SOVREN Pacific Northwest Historics for Apex’s “Sound Classics” newspaper column when we had a chance to pilot the Ferrari around Pacific Raceways. With Ron riding shotgun, I followed a rather fast group of cars around the circuit. On the second lap, the 350Z in front of me lagged, then hit it hard leaving the final turn before the straightaway. I took the opportunity to ring-out the Ferrari, squeezing on full throttle as we left the decreasing radius turn. The off-camber exit, however, caused the rear end to step out wildly. Some quick opposite-lock and throttle input got the car under control.
Instead of getting a strange or stern look from Ron for almost putting it into the ditch during a parade lap, I glanced to the side to see him looking straight ahead towards the correct driving line. When I pulled off with the group, I apologized for the excitement, but Ron simply said: “You’re a great driver. You had perfect lines, and had quick hands to bring it back in after it stepped out… If it would have been your dad driving, we would have been in the grass and on fire.”
As much as Ron liked to poke fun at my father, the two were the best of friends. They often ate lunch together, and were always up to go cover any car show. A couple years ago, they went down together to cover Pebble Beach, Monterey Historics, Concorso Italiano and the other associated events. It might not have been the beer-drinking, hell-raising days of racing in the 1950s, but the events were the type of experiences with which Ron and Arny were more comfortable given their respective AARP-eligible ages.
Vintage events just won’t be the same without Ron. He won’t be there to tell me how the greasy track food (he was a Vegan long before it was popular) isn’t good for me, nor will he be there to give me period perspective on the special cars on the tracks and show fields. He raced with some of the best racers, knew the executives of many of the legendary car companies, and was respected and liked by all of them.
Mostly Ron cared – telling me how lucky I was for my family, friends and life, while expressing how lucky he was for his.
Ron Lee was a good friend – the prototypical nice guy. If there is a Heaven, Ron picked up at the Pearly Gates the keys to a Lotus Eleven Le Mans with a never-empty fuel tank and always-warm tires so he can tear-up the race tracks on the Eternity Racing Circuit.