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Not Spinning His Wheels

BC biochemist is a vintage car enthusiast when he's not in the labratory

05/23/13
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Vice Provost for Research Larry McLaughlin with his restored 1954 Austin Healey M-100, which he and two friends entered in an Italian road rally, the Mille Miglia.

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: May 23, 2013

In the lab, biochemist Larry McLaughlin is all about unraveling the mysteries of DNA, creating new anti-virals and probing he potential of nano-scale drug therapies.

In the garage, vintage car enthusiast McLaughlin is all about a 1954 Austin Healey M-100.

This past week, McLaughlin, a professor of Chemistry who is also vice provost for research, stepped away from the lab and into the driver’s seat of the lovingly restored coup to rumble over the ancient streets of Italy as a participant in the Mille Miglia, an historic road rally deemed “the most beautiful race in the world.”

McLaughlin and two friends, tech executive Michael Perlmutter and restoration specialist Maurizio Cerasoli, took turns behind the wheel as they traveled the course from the northern city of Brescia, south to Ferrara and then Rome, then north again back to Brescia.

The race, which used to be run for time but is now an untimed tour, is a celebrated event in Italy, drawing thousands of spectators from throughout the world along the 1,000-mile – or mille miglia – route.

“I look upon it as part spectacle, part race, part parade, part party,” said McLaughlin, who described the once-in-a-lifetime experience as a “bucket list” item he and his teammates are extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon.

Cerasoli found the classic car disabled and disheveled. Immediately, he proposed to his friends that they restore the car and try to land a place in the famous race.

Earning a coveted spot in the race required a detailed and historic restoration of the car in order to meet the stringent requirements of race organizers, who only accept vintage autos manufactured between 1927 and 1957.

“The hardest thing about this race is getting into it,” said McLaughlin. “There were over 1,500 applications for 375 slots. The first thing you have to do is get in. The selection process is something of a mystery, but known to be extremely difficult.”

Restoring the British sports car, designed by the legendary David Healey, to its former glory required rebuilding its 2660cc straight-four engine, locating replacement parts in England, rebuilding the front end suspension, new wiring – accurate to the original colors of the individual wires – stripping the finish to bare metal and applying six coats of carmine red and black paint.

The team received word this spring that they had met the exacting requirements of the race organizers. The focus shifted from restoration to participation, as they plotted out logistical issues ranging from where to stay to which spare parts they would need to pack in their luggage. The car was shipped to Milan just a week before the team departed with their spouses for their Mille Miglia adventure.

McLaughlin said his goal was simple: to successfully cover the 1,000-mile course, regardless of the time required.

And to soak up the experience of a lifetime.

[UPDATE: McLaughlin reports that the team's car was disabled by a broken axle, ending its race in Rome.]