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Faces of the Concours

One of the island’s most beloved events returns, renewing the Lowcountry’s love affair with the beauty and power of the automotive arts.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff

Perhaps no art form has evolved as much before our very eyes than that of the automobile. From the days of wooden wheels and crank-start engines to the high-tech sleek designs that are turning heads today, it has been a constant reinvention of the wheel. 

The same could be said of the island’s own weeklong love letter to the automotive arts. Starting out as a small assembly of classic and collector cars, the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival and has evolved into one of the Southeast’s can’t-miss events. Whether you’re a die-hard gearhead or simply want to bask in the artistry and engineering of automotive history, we know it’s already circled on your calendar. 

In advance of this year’s festivities, we’re sitting in the passenger seat with three locals who have been a driving force behind this event.

Kim Collett

This loyal volunteer signs off on all Concours signage.

LOCAL SINCE 2003 – Kim Collett is originally from Ohio and has an accounting degree, which may explain her analytical and organizational skills. She enjoys bike riding, boating on the May River, going to concerts, playing Canasta (when she gets the chance) and reading. “My passion is tennis, and I play at least five days a week. Most important of all, I love spending time with family and friends. I’m lucky enough to have my daughter and son-in-law and my son all settling here in Bluffton. Life couldn’t be better!”

With a little more than a month to go before Concours where she serves as head of the sign crew, Kim Collett is busy with an entirely different automotive issue. She’s in the middle of building a house, an endeavor that in and of itself represents a mountain of decisions. Among the decisions are where exactly to put her husband’s collection of cars. 

Fortunately, Collett is not one to let the need for quick decisions faze her. 

“The Concours is what has helped me be organized enough to put this house together,” she said with a laugh. As head of the sign crew, organization is just the start of it. Along with her core brigade of volunteers, Collett is out bright and early before the first guests show up at the event, ensuring that every vehicle has its sign and every vendor has its banner. 

“I start weeks before the event, ordering material, checking and distributing new sign orders, taking inventory, figuring out what signs we can reuse. Basically we handle anything you see,” she said. “Any signage, any directional signs–anything with words on it. That’s my role.”

It’s a role she has taken on with relish, heading up a group that is never afraid to roll up their sleeves in order to make the Concours a smashing success. “It’s a dirty job,” she said. “If it rains all week and we have to set up, that’s what we do. If I have to replace Velcro at 5 a.m., I do it. But we all love it.”

And that last-minute Velcro fix is hardly the exception to the rule. If you’ve noticed the sheer volume of signs surrounding the Concours, you can imagine that Velcro plays an outsized role in Collett’s life. “I actually have to put an order in this week. We’ll go through between $500 and $1,000 worth of Velcro, like 36 industrial-sized rolls of it,” she said without a hint of hyperbole. “It’s funny because my Dad loved Velcro. He’d use it to fix anything. If he could see me with all this Velcro, he’d be so proud.”

Collett was first approach by former Concours president Carolyn Vanagel when they both had daughters who swam with Hilton Head Aquatics. She started out simply handling the paperwork side of things, but before long, she was right in there with the rest of the team, repainting poles, managing signs and, of course, rolling out the Velcro.

“That’s how you get hooked, and you enjoy it,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but the satisfaction you get is amazing.”

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Walker Dalton

Meet the L.A. transplant behind this year’s “Life Electric” showcase.

LOCAL SINCE 2018 – Walker Dalton produces all the art films and documentaries for the Savannah College of Art and Design. In his free time, he enjoys photography, art, and trying out other hobbies for about a week (metal detecting, rock tumbling, etc.).

A recent transplant to the area from Los Angeles, Walker Dalton never figured he would wind up being an expert on cars. He just wanted to make TV shows. But after a few years producing photography on shows like “The Office” and “30 Rock,” he just happened into a gig that would launch him into the automotive world.

“The network (NBC) felt they needed more digital content. At the time Leno hadn’t left, and they approached him about doing something with his car collection,” said Dalton. “I had a background in photography, so they asked, ‘We’re doing this web series, do you want to take pictures?’”

He started out just taking pictures, but as Jay Leno’s Garage grew from an online exclusive to a CNBC special to an Emmy-winning series, he eventually found himself as a producer, even if he was one of the few people on set who wasn’t a “car guy.”

“I had probably the most casual car interest of anyone there,” he said. “I kind of came in through the side door (of the car world), but I got a front-row seat.”

Side door or not, his experience working with the former Tonight Show host and the celebrity guest stars and cars that appeared on the show gave Dalton unique insight into the automotive world. 

“I didn’t realize how much I knew,” he said. “It gets into your blood. When you leave a production like Jay Leno’s Garage; you’re just loaded with knowledge.”

After moving to the Lowcountry to take a job with Savannah College of Art and Design as director of branded content, he saw an opportunity to put that automotive knowledge to good use. “I actually got here the week of the Concours (three years ago) and immediately wanted to get involved,” he said. 

A meeting with Concours president Lindsey Harrell sealed the deal. Dalton was asked to take the lead on the “Life Electric” showcase, which will debut during this year’s event.

“Jay Ward from Pixar had come up with that, and it was good timing on his part. Two years ago every manufacturer was talking about electric,” said Dalton. “Now electric cars are the only conversation they want to have. It’s fantastic.”

And in creating this look at the electric car, Dalton finds himself once again learning by doing. “Every decade has some kind of electric vehicle, either the EV1 or the CitiCar, which was basically a triangle on wheels,” he said. “Then you have people now doing conversions. There’s a guy in San Diego who is bringing out a 1958 VW Bug that has been swapped out with Tesla innards. It’s a beautiful car.”

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Ross Russo

This local pilot has invited a squadron of fascinating planes to this year’s Aero Expo.

LOCAL SINCE 2003 – Ross Russo is the owner of Hilton Head Flyers, a flight school located on the island. When not flying, he enjoys correcting grammar, yelling at motorists who don’t know how to navigate a traffic circle and modeling (Lisa Staff made him say that).

Most people you speak with at the Concours will have at least one story about their wild teenage years, and most of those stories will revolve around the car they drove. Whether it’s a beat-up old rustbucket or a souped-up muscle machine built for bad decisions, these first cars set the stage for our automotive careers. 

For Ross Russo, that story of teenage craziness doesn’t revolve around a car, but a plane. 

“I started out when I was 17 or 18,
flying out of Evansburg Airport right outside of Johnstown (Pennsylvania),” he said. “Unfortunately, I was a young college student, so I ran out of money pretty quickly for flying.”

Thankfully, Uncle Sam was only too happy to help Russo get back in the air. He joined the Air Force right out of college, starting out as a navigator due to his sub-20/20 vision. Using his GA benefits to get civilian ratings, he was soon able to get himself into the air as the weapons system officer in the back seat of an F-4. “Then, I lucked out,” he said. “The Air Force selects a few navigators to go into pilot training, and I was one of the first to fly the F-16.”

A member of the very first F-16 squadron based in Europe, Russo would prove his mettle on the mighty Fighting Falcon, first as an instructor, then an examiner despite his eyesight. After retiring from the Air Force, he flew for UPS before Hilton Head called to him. 

“During that time, my dad was retired. He moved to Hilton Head and didn’t have anything to do so we started a flight school,” said Russo. That flight school, Hilton Head Flyers, has since expanded to a fleet of five planes and three simulators here on the island as well as in Aiken and Pickens. 

It has also booked a corporate table at the Flights & Fancy Aeroport Gala for the last three years, a partnership which has led Russo to volunteer his expertise for a special exhibition at this year’s event. Held during Saturday’s Car Club Showcase, the Aero Expo will bring together a whole squadron of fascinating planes from all over.

“The aviation community is kind of small and close-knit, so you have at best two degrees of separation,” he said. “Either guys I know have classic aircraft or they know someone who does. So we’ve been working through the South Carolina Aviation Association, and we’re finding guys who just have amazing planes.”

And those planes run the gamut, from a Mitsubishi MU-2 to a WWII-era T-6 Texan, and even the latest high-tech Cirrus jets. You’ll see them all at the Aero Expo, fueled by a lifelong passion for aviation. Said Russo, “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by airplanes.”

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