2019 Riyadh Global Auto Salon

Way back in late July, I got a phone call that would lead to one of the bigger adventures of my life to this point. Optima Batteries was looking for cars for a project – the first ever large car show in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It was an ambitious plan: a car show with a salon and auction in Riyadh at a facility that didn’t exist yet, along with a demonstration. Twenty cars from proven drivers/builders in a foreign country that was just now starting to open its culture, showing them what can be done with a wrench and some creativity.

The plan? We have our cars picked up in the first week of September. They get shipped to Riyadh, where we meet them in late November. We participate in the show, which runs 7 days. Then we pack up and come home. During the show, Optima would debut the World Challenge of Autocross, a made-for-TV autocross product featuring side-by-side courses and a winner-take-all purse of some then-undisclosed amount. At the time, I figured the prize would be a bag of hammers or a free battery charger. I don’t really concern myself with the purse these days. Just getting the car home without it catching on fire seems to be the reasonable goal for me these days.

On top of that, every car at the event was to be for sale.

It was a big risk. But a huge opportunity. The entire trip was all expense paid by the organizer, from shipping the car to shipping me. When again, in my life, was I going to get a free trip to Saudi Arabia?

Never. That’s when. I submitted my car, and it was quickly accepted.

Now, prep. I had until just after Labor Day to make sure the car wouldn’t give me any problems in Saudi Arabia, and the day after I submitted the car for the show, I was running a track day at NCM Motorsport Park, and the transmission popped again.

I got the car on the trailer and drove it straight to my Dad’s shop. By dinner we had the transmission out, and by bedtime it had been delivered to Boost Crew Motorsports for an overhaul. We also ordered a new torque converter from Pro-Torque to replace the PTC unit that we feared was the cause of the failures.

In a miracle of miracles, Boost Crew had the transmission turned around in a week, and we had it back in the car the following weekend.

Additional work included putting the original seats back in the car, tucking as much wiring and hoses as we could, getting a PDR guy out to un-ripple my driver side quarter panel, and a very thorough clean, plus treating the car with some of Mothers new CMX Ceramic.

In early September, Passport transport arrived to take the car on to Savannah, where it would loaded into a container and put on a ship.

Over the next two months, an intricate dance took place. The organizers had 450 cars to move, but they also had nearly 1000 people that had to get visas, plane tickets, and hotel accommodations.

But they pulled it off. I flew into Riyadh on November 21st, after nearly 24 hours of travel.

My seat for the 12 hour leg between Dulles and Riyadh

After checking into the Marriott, I headed to the venue. The advance guard had found my car, and miracle of miracles, it started right up. The Optima Red Top had survived the trip and still showed 12.2v. Many other cars weren’t so lucky. They had been left with the keys on, and were flat. Optima had brought a few chargers with them for demonstrations, but the Optima charges aren’t dual-voltage on the input side. A few of us brought 220-110v transformers, however. They supplied just enough current for an Optima DC400 to work, so we set to work charging cars back up. By the time the show opened, all of the Optima cars were running.

Our cars were posted up outside the Salon tent so we could easily access the competition surface, and the show opened.

My Car outside the Salon Tent

The crowd was healthy, and would prove to be healthy through the entire run of the show. Preliminary estimates for the crowd were 200-300 THOUSAND attendees over the course of the week, and I think attendance was in that ballpark.

During the week, we all ran off and did stuff. Formula E was running through a neighborhood in Riyadh, so some of our group attended that. I went downtown to the Souk Al Zel, an open air market, with some friends one of the days. We made it to the diplomatic quarter a couple nights to eat at the excellent Sultan’s steakhouse. We even spent an evening walking around an enormous shopping mall. We even toured the fortress at the center of the old city, which played a crucial role in the campaign to unite the kingdom in the years between 1902 and 1932.

Al; Masmak Fortress in old Riyadh
Al Masmak Fortress in old Riyadh

And here was the big lesson of the trip: Saudi Arabia is modernizing rapidly. While most people were still wearing traditional dress, even at the mall, there were women with their heads uncovered everywhere. There were dudes in jeans and T-shirts. The Mall had a Victoria’s Secret store, with an open storefront. There was a “women only” sign out front, but you could see right in. Women were walking up to us to talk, without a male escort anywhere in sight. We saw women driving. We never saw any religious police at all.

Display at the mall

And the people? They were friendly as friendly could be. Curious, polite, and welcoming. To the person, everybody I interacted with was beyond pleasant.

At the show, the people were curious about the cars, knew the difference between a Buick and a Monte Carlo (which puts them in a car league way above the typical American, honestly), and basically were having a great time at the show.

And the food? Excellent all around. Even the stuff in the steam table line in the hospitality tent at the show.

Now, the entertainment! The organizers had brought over us, the Human Cannonball, some local drift team, a motorcycle club, Ferrari (yes, Ferrari, not a Ferrari club, Ferrari), the Hot Wheels stunt driving team, and a drift team from the states. Additionally, they ran a music concert each night.

But not all went according to plan. The Hot Wheels loop and ramps cut the competition surface up and we couldn’t do our original planned course layout. Brian and Wade Mason quickly adapted with a pursuit style course, and we made our way out for our first practice session…

… and were quickly ordered off the surface.

After taking the next day off completely so Optima, FM3, and the organizers could work something out, the plug was pulled. The exhibition and World Challenge of Autocross wouldn’t premier at this event. It was a disappointment, but in the crush of just getting this show off the ground, stuff happened and it just wasn’t going to work.

So, we were free the rest of the event to just walk around. And there was a lot there. Some top-notch stuff showed up. Things I probably won’t ever see in person.

Like EIGHT Bugatti Veyrons. Six of them were parked outside!

A Koenigsegg Jesko? Yup.

TWO McLaren Senna hypercars. One still had the factory plastic on the seats and steering wheel.

Several Paganis? Yup.

The Pagani Display

THREE Ferrari F40s. A Ferrari La Ferrari

The Ferrari team sent two F60 Formula 1 cars around the paved track surface

The Hudson Hornet? Right there.

The Hudson Hornet!

And much more. It was surreal the hardware that had shown up. Porsche 959? I never thought I’d see one in person. They weren’t sold in the U.S. But there was one at the show.

By the time the show closed down, very few cars had sold. I wasn’t terribly disappointed, but I know others were. My personal take is the “sale” part of the show just wasn’t promoted, and neither was the special exemption we’d gotten from the King that allowed cars purchased at the show to be licensed for operation on Saudi roads. The message didn’t get out, and people didn’t show up prepared to buy. They were just stoked to attend a car show.

At the end, a bunch of us ended up in a bar at Dulles, worn out, but extremely happy to been able to participate in a historic event. And beer. We had some beer. Well, maybe a lot of beer.

Five dudes at a bar in the Dulles airport
Travelers reveling in a trip well done.

All in all, I regret zero about going on this trip. I must extend my greatest appreciation to Optima Batteries, FM3 Performance Marketing, Bonnier Events, Worldwide Auctions, and most of all – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – for providing me with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Thank you all.

Click here for a gallery of all my pictures from the trip!




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