As Russo and Steele settles into new digs for 2017, will it finally move away from comparisons to that ‘other’ collector-car auction?
By Jimmy Magahern
Drew Alcazar admits he’s been on a bit of a spending spree.
Getting his classic auto auction, Russo and Steele, ready for its brand new home at the Salt River Fields stadium complex at Talking Stick has required a little more than the loose change in his pocket.
“I’ve been spending money like a drunken sailor,” says Alcazar, the 53-year-old entrepreneur, who, with wife Josephine, runs three auctions a year — in Scottsdale this month and later in California at Newport Beach and Monterey.
“Just trying to make sure that we’ve got the right parking, the right logistics, the right staff, the right concierge people in strategic locations, it’s like moving into a new house. You’ve got no idea where everything is. ‘Where’s the switch that turns the water on?’ You’re just trying to figure out which cupboard to put the dishes in.”
Or in this case, which section of the lush 140-acre Bermuda grass field to place the European sports cars on, and which to cushion the American muscle cars.
Alcazar’s auction has been built on those two types of cars since its start in 2001. (The auction’s name derives from an odd combination of the Ferrari Rosso Rubino paint color, a dark-red metallic that’s a favorite of Josephine’s, and Detroit steel, Drew’s passion. Alcazar says he added the extra “e” for “panache.”)
For the avid car collector, Russo and Steele has always been a welcome alternative to the flashier Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction, the main event that attracts collectors from around the world to what’s become known as Scottsdale’s Auto Week in mid January.
While the nationally-televised Barrett-Jackson continues to grow in the direction of an “automotive lifestyle event,” incorporating vendor tie-ins like fashion shows, spa treatments, jewelry expos and champagne tasting, Alcazar — who worked for five years as general manager at Barrett-Jackson, and where he met his wife — has kept his auction more tightly focused.
“Barrett today is 300-plus vendors selling all kinds of tchotchkes and fashion merch,” he says. “It’s become this gargantuan event with all these things going on and it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s a car auction going on over here.’ I wanted to get back to those core values, where the auction block is still the epicenter and the main focus. We’re like In-N-Out Burger: We keep it simple, and nobody’s been able to knock us off yet.”
For most of its 16 years, Russo and Steele has been staged on a state-land parcel just off Loop 101, approaching Barrett-Jackson’s bigger showcase at WestWorld.
To the general public, Arizona’s second-largest collector-car auction always has appeared to be a roadside copycat, siphoning off the headlining event’s audience with promises of smaller crowds and cheaper ticket prices ($30 per day this year versus up to $75 for Barrett-Jackson’s biggest auction day).
That second-best image was solidified in 2010 when a pounding rainstorm blew the 800-foot-long auction tent that Alcazar was using onto Loop 101, disrupting traffic for the more moneyed car enthusiasts on their way to Barrett-Jackson at the next exit.
“On our previous site off Scottsdale Road and the 101, I was not allowed to do permanent improvements on it, because I was just a temporary user,” Alcazar says. “Hell, I would have paved the place 15 years ago if I could have. But each year, I’d have to go out there on this dirt patch and throw down $50,000 worth of Astroturf, which ended up in the dumpsters after the event.
“And you’d still have to park in the middle of nowhere next to a palo verde tree, and your gal had to waddle in on her high heels across the desert to try to find her way to our auction tent.”
Russo and Steele’s image became more tarnished as the other auctions and ancillary events surrounding Scottsdale’s Auto Week went more upscale.
“You had the Bonhams auction at Westin Kierland, RM (RM’s Vintage Motor Cars) at the Arizona Biltmore, Gooding & Company at Fashion Square, and Barrett at their new $30 million convention center that (Mayor) Jim Lane built for them. The bar had been raised so high that for me to keep doing my auction on a dirt patch just wasn’t working.”
This year, Russo and Steele finally moves into a first-class venue more befitting its stature as a serious car collector’s event, and Alcazar is acutely aware of the opportunity.
The venue is in the complex where the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community borders Scottsdale.
“We’ll have better freeway access. We’ll be right next to the Pavilions, which has had its Saturday car shows going on forever. So that’s a wonderful synergy. We’ll have real grass to park the cars on, and all the stadium lights. It’s gonna be great.
“We have our one chance to make our first impression here,” he says, clearly feeling the pressure. “And we’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s a good one.”
From guitars to cars
With his close-cropped gray beard and ever-confident demeanor, Drew Alcazar bears a striking resemblance to Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” ad-campaign character.
“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” concedes the grandfather of five, ages 9 to 13. “Every now and then I have to throw down with the ‘Stay thirsty, my friends’ line.’”
But his real-life rags-to-riches story might indeed qualify him as at least the Valley’s regional title-holder of that designation. The one-time theater major went from sleeping on friends’ couches in Los Angeles as a struggling ’80s hair-band guitarist to today living with his wife, who is his business partner, in a Southwestern palace carved into the top of Camelback Mountain.
“I took a perfectly good theater-arts degree and packed my guitar and my amplifier in the back of my great-grandfather’s ’63 Ford Galaxy – which I still own, interestingly enough – and headed to California with $750 in my pocket,” Alcazar recalls. “And I was either going to be a rock ‘n roll star or it was gonna be a quick vacation.”
Fate landed him somewhere in between.
“I did play pretty seriously for a couple of years, gigging on the Sunset Strip,” he says. “It was the wonderful ’80s heyday of hair metal, and I played with some different incarnations of bands that people know of today. I played with guys who ended up becoming L.A. Guns, I sat at the Troubadour with (A&R executive) Tom Zutaut when he signed Guns N’ Roses to Geffen Records.”
But Alcazar never quite hit it big himself.
“At some point in time, you realize that eating cold tuna fish out of a can and sleeping on somebody else’s couch is something you don’t want to be doing when you were 40 years old.”
His real break came while he was working at his “day gig” behind the counter at Larry’s Mustang and Thunderbird Parts in Fullerton, California.
“One day, a guy came in who was restoring a ’68 Shelby GT500 convertible, and he talked me into being a sort of consultant on his restoration,” Alcazar says.
Years earlier, as a 15-year-old with a Colorado learner’s permit, Alcazar had the great fortune of having his dad co-sign on a loan granting him a 1970 Ford Mustang Mach 1 with a 4-barrel, 351 Cleveland engine as his first car. So impressed was the customer with the 21-year-old Alcazar’s knowledge of vintage Mustangs that he talked him into opening his own restoration shop, using Alcazar’s own Mach I, which he’d been storing in his grandmother’s garage, as his first project. Alcazar wound up selling his restored Mustang to Otis Chandler, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, for enough money to get his shop off the ground.
“I had the shop for 12 years, specializing in European sports cars and American muscle cars, and made enough to buy me everything I ever wanted. But I wasn’t feeling the excitement I used to feel.”
A chance meeting in 1995 with Craig Jackson at Barrett-Jackson’s Pebble Beach auction in Monterey took Alcazar in his next direction. Jackson’s brother, Brian, had recently passed away. Craig Jackson already was familiar with Alcazar as a gifted restorer of some of the Shelbys that Barrett-Jackson had auctioned, and Craig was looking for new partners. Alcazar jumped at the chance to help with the Scottsdale auction, and a few months later, after Jackson badly injured himself in a dirt-bike accident, Alcazar was basically put in charge of running the first Barrett-Jackson auction without Brian Jackson at the helm. Somehow it grossed $12 million — $4 million more than the previous year — and Alcazar was made general manager.
That job lasted until 2000.
“At some point, Craig and I just weren’t seeing eye-to-eye anymore,” Alcazar says. “It wasn’t so much business differences as much as a difference in tactical style. So I basically said, ‘Craig, you keep doing things your way, and I’m going to do something different.’
“Of course,” he adds, with a laugh, “at the time I had no idea what that ‘something different’ was going to be.”
Eventually some of his former clients pointed out what was missing from the Arizona car auction scene.
“They’d say, ‘We miss the way the auction was in the old days, when it was a lot more focused on the cars and the camaraderie.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, I miss that, too,’” Alcazar says. “So we decided to try to bring that back.”
Drew and Josephine, together with three employees, held their first auction on a dirt patch at the side of the Scottsdale Airport, in the very same spot where Bennett Dorrance’s private Hangar One club now stands.
“It rained so much the week before,” Alcazar recalls. “It was just a mud bog out there. I think we consigned about 75 cars and probably sold less than 10.”
Nevertheless, the couple kept trying, initiating another auction in Monterey that year.
Eventually, Russo and Steele grew into its own successful event, grossing more than $20 million in sales last year and pumping $51 million into the Airpark-area economy, according to Alcazar. A key component, he says, has been the event’s auction-in-the-round design.
“We started doing elevated seating, which today has grown into this boxing ring, Colosseum-style gladiator thing, with the skyboxes looking down on the auction block. Sort of a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome kind of environment.
But to me, that very visceral, emotional connection with the cars is what it’s about. I mean, if I’ve been looking for a GT350 Shelby my whole life and finally found the right one and am buying it, I want to get excited about it. I want to jump up and down and scream and yell and be with my buddies. That, to me, is the fulfilling aspect of it. Cars are just hunks of metal held up by four pieces of rubber. It’s the people attached to the cars that make it fun. And if you’re not having fun when you’re buying these cars, then why are you doing it?”
Although Alcazar at times can sound critical of the other Scottsdale auctions, he says they all benefit from each other’s success.
“I always say Barrett-Jackson is our best friend,” he says. “You look at all the media and market focus that they have, the TV show, they spend a ton of money doing a great event and they do a great job of introducing people to the classic-car thing. I’ve always contended that all of that creates a synergy we each benefit from. We’re all stronger together than we are apart. Look at the success that’s become Arizona Car Week now: RM, Gooding and Company, Bonhams, us, Barrett. Last year, we did just shy of $246 million in gross sales together. That’s a quarter of a billion dollars in transactions that occurred over the course of less than a week in Scottsdale. Nobody does that single-handedly.
“And the true winners, really, are the enthusiasts,” he says. “It’s like a smorgasbord, like going to the buffet. Different flavors everywhere. I tell people, ‘Go to Barrett. And after you have your fill of that, come here.’
“It’s like apples and oranges,” he adds, when asked to compare. “But nobody says you can’t have both.”
Russo and Steele Collector Automobile Auction
7555 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale
Wednesday, Jan. 18: Auction preview 9 a.m.-5 p.m. General admission $30.
Thursday, Jan. 19-Sunday, Jan. 22: Gates open at 9 a.m. Auction begins at noon Thursday-Saturday. General admission $30. Auction begins at 11 a.m. Sunday. General admission $20.