Pebble Beach Dawn Patrol Is Worth Witnessing at Least Once

pebble beach concours d'elegance 2023 dawn patrol
The Cult and Camaraderie of Dawn PatrolTOM O'NEAL

The gate to 17 Mile Drive is wide open at 5:15 am, glowing green as the typical stream of passers by has died down to a trickle. Yesterday, the day before yesterday, and the day before that, the semi-private community wrapping the northern tip of Carmel Bay was inundated with supercars, classic cars, and regular cars, all hoping to see and hear something cooler than what they're already in.

But the snarl has subsided this morning and no $11.75 toll is charged. It's far too early, dark, and nippy for any real debauchery to ensue—contrary to most local residents' opinions of the weekend as a whole. And that's because the calmest event with the most fervent crowd is about to start.

pebble beach dawn patrol
Emmet White

The origins of Dawn Patrol are widely documented but also somewhat contested, according to folks I conversed with. For the sake of civility, we'll reference the official Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance explanation, which cites Don Williams, the late but great car collector, and Blackhawk Collection owner, as the pioneer of the early morning practice.


"Concours Co-Chairman Lorin Tryon was the person then standing at the entry point to greet each entrant, and Don was there in part to support him," reads the official voice.

Circa 2001, McKeel Hagerty of Hagerty started to sponsor the event, encouraging a growing crowd to see each year's contestants roll onto the famed golf course. No matter that it's 5 am. It's really the only time you get to see such cars in motion, as few if any of the entrants made it to California under their own power.

And for some participants, the act of Dawn Patrolling is that simple. Take Colin and Kyle, a pair of Bay Area residents who're attending their third annual Dawn Patrol. Kyle owns a Z32-generation Nissan 300ZX and an American spec AE86 Toyota Corolla, which he displays at my favorite event of the weekend, The Concours d'Lemons.

ambiance at pebble beach dawn patrol with green car driving by

He personally loves JDM-era legends, but that doesn't stop Kyle from loving the true classics, too. Colin explains to me that it's really about having an experience that's not possible elsewhere. You get to hear, smell, and feel the unmuffled, pre-emissions-era cars run, with toothy-grinning drivers hanging arms out to bask in a moment of pride.

I'm satisfied by this answer, but Colin continues to say there is an air of exclusivity at Dawn Patrol that isn't available to all who attend. And it all ties back to Hagerty's sponsorship of the event, in which it provides a limited run of year-specific Dawn Patrol caps.

"It's all about the hat," Colin explains, just before a frenzy of middle-aged to senior citizen men bum rush a trio of Hagerty shirt-wearing workers. Hands are outstretched, grasping for a shot at the one or two hundred hats available, amid a crowd of 300-400 people.

I politely ask for one and receive the final hat from a bag, though an emotion-boiling shouting match ensues up the fairway between two gray-haired fellows. Who truly deserves the final hat? It's hard to say, but a former hat passer tells me that fights and inappropriate behavior surrounding the cherished caps are almost a guarantee.

pebble beach dawn patrol
You’re excused if you’re not quite fancy enough during Dawn Patrol.Emmet White

Luckily, this doesn't define the morning, as cars finally start to power through the grass. The sun is not yet peaking through the infamous marine layer, and the entire shore as well as its human-born sediments are visible through the low tide. Once those UV rays present themselves, however, it'll be bedtime for a select group of dawn patrol attendees.

"We brought a little vodka," I overhear from a group of sharply dressed yet wrinkled folk. They explain it has been a long night, and this is the final stop of the show if you will. Water bottles are filled with clear liquids that most certainly aren't water, at least based on the taste test reactions. These people very well may be doing Dawn Patrol correctly.

pebble beach dawn patrol
Emmet White

It wasn't always this popular, though. Aaron Paul and his crew of Hollywood accomplices weren't walking the course with us commoners (some of us, at least) back in the day, either.

"Back in 1992, the lawn was empty. Maybe 50 people showed up," Colin's barricade mate explains. But now you've got to show up early if you want a spot against the rope. No free donuts and coffee for you until every car you need or want to see has come by.

pebble beach dawn patrol
Emmet White

That's not the end of the world for Bob and Theresa, though. They've come to see their son, the director of Auto Restoration Projects at McPherson College, drive through the lawn with the school's entrant for 2024. It's not their first time at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, but they're not regulars either. Classic fans to be sure, though.

And it was well worth the wait, seemingly, as the parents beam with gratification when their sons drive by, managing a wave at the last minute. They've got even better reasons to be proud later in the day, too, as the entirely student-restored 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300S Cabriolet took second in its class. They just don't know it yet.

My second time at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and my first time at Dawn Patrol, something stood out about this event. Besides the medieval sound of trumpets and flutes, Dawn Patrol feels welcoming to even the most regular among us. And to that end, it seemed quite a few people who weren't sporting the right wristbands made it in as well.

As such, many of us standing against the rope have no personal connection to those driving by. But the excitement from behind the wheel resonates with those watching, creating a sort of celebratory feel through the lawn. It's a feeling that's worth experiencing just once for me, but clearly time and time again for others.

Would you wake up at the crack of dawn to see some classic cars drive around? If so, why? Please share your thoughts below.