DANVILLE -- A Detroit native, Dan Radowicz was rocked in the cradle of the automobile industry during its golden age.
"We were just about seeing how fast you can go," he said of his passion for cars. "It's a disease. And once you've caught the disease, there is no cure."
He grew up just a block from Woodward Avenue -- which he describes as the street race capital of the world at the time -- stretching from the city into the Detroit suburbs. He got his first speeding ticket when he was 14 years old, before he was even old enough to own a license. "I was just rabid about cars. I ate, drank and slept cars," he said.
And his passion for cars through the decades hasn't ever lost its spark. The longtime racer and classic car restoration specialist worked at the famed Griswold's vintage restoration shop in Berkeley from 1978 to 1984. After that he owned his own restoration shop for 20 years and ran the vintage car racing group, Classic Sports Racing Group, off and on for nearly 30 years, in various roles, including president and later general administrator manager.
And for the past 18 years, the Danville resident has had a job that is the envy of vintage car buffs around the world: He's the full-time organizer for the California Mille, an annual salute to Italy's famous thousand-mile race, the Mille Miglia, which ran from 1927 to 1957. Radowicz brings drivers of some 75 vintage autos from all over the world to San Francisco for one of the biggest car shows of its kind in the country.
This year, drivers will park their vintage cars in front of the Fairmont hotel along Mason Street on Sunday in an all-day California Mille Preview on top of Nob Hill, before they set out the next day for a four-day open road adventure. Thousands of spectators will gather to gawk and admire this year's lineup, which includes 13 Alfa Romeos, 11 Porsches, six Jaguars, several vintage '50s and '60s Ferraris, a '52 Tojeiro Roadster, a '28 Bentley, '57 Kurtis Kraft 500KK and a '38 Lancia Aprilia.
The original Mille Miglia was an open road endurance race, its end coming after two fatal car crashes in 1957. Yet it found a second life in Northern California, as a car tour that rambles through a thousand miles of scenic back roads and foothills of Northern California.
But it's not a race -- drivers must follow posted speed limits, Radowicz says: "It's not a free-for-all, and we don't want to get thrown off the road. We have to behave like everyone else."
And Radowicz is "the point man that everyone answers to" when it comes to the event, no matter who the driver is, said Howard Swig, a co-director of the California Mille with brother David. "He has a huge breadth of experience in organizing a bunch of car events on the road and track. Dan has done it all. He's extremely confident and extremely good at what he does. He's kind of a car guy's guy."
But he's also "very approachable and unpretentious, easy to get along with and very humble," Swig said.
"We love him," he said. "And we hope he won't retire anytime soon, because we need him more than he needs us."
In 1996, Radowicz teamed up with Howard and David's father, the late Martin Swig, whose uncle owned the Fairmont, after being asked to design a gift for all entrants. He crafted a special Nardi steering wheel, engraved with their logo. From there, Radowicz was asked to organize the event full time.
Radowicz admits most of the cars in the California Mille are far above his pay scale. He's a self-described "GM brat"; his father was a prototype builder for General Motors, literally building the first Corvette prototype back in 1952, and his mom had a love of fast cars.
"Cars are just part of my DNA," he said. He and his wife, Rita, own a 2003 black Corvette Z06 -- along with six other cars.
Radowicz helps develop the California Mille route, different every year, and makes arrangements to suit an entourage of a total of nearly 150 affluent drivers and co-drivers. He finds the inns and hotels, the restaurants, the wines and coffee stops along the way, and two mechanics are always equipped on the tour to help with roadside repairs.
"All that little stuff is all under Dan's purview and he does it seamlessly," Swig said.
The best part for Radowicz, though, is getting to share his love of cars with so many people from around the world and bask in the camaraderie that annual adventure brings. "And we all speak the same language -- basically, cars," he said.
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/joycetsainews.
The California Mille, an annual salute to the Mille Miglia, Italy's famous thousand-mile race, is a four-day vintage car tour from Monday to May 1 across Northern California.
The California Mille Preview is a free car show, open to the public, held the day before the tour, on Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in front of the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St. in San Francisco. Vintage-car drivers will be on hand to answer questions about their cars.
The Nob Hill Association is also co-sponsoring a cocktail party and social from noon to 4 p.m. at the hotel. Admission is $50, which goes to charity.
Cars depart for the tour from the hotel on Monday morning at 8:30 a.m.