By Elizabeth Rahe
City & Shore Magazine
Jay Leno still has the car he drove on his first date with his first wife. And after 35 years of marriage, he still has his first wife.
He also still has his first network. He has remained loyal to NBC, his home for 22 years of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, despite the network handing his No. 1-ranked program to Conan O’Brien for an ill-fated seven months in 2009, and then, more successfully, to Jimmy Fallon in 2014. His Jay Leno’s Garage automotive series now runs on CNBC.
Given his fidelity, it’s no surprise that he has been true to his promise to Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance co-founders Rick and Rita Case more than a decade ago.
“We ran into Jay Leno [at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance] and convinced him to come to our first concours,” says Rick Case of Rick Case Automotive Group. “We asked him to come every year, and he said, ‘I’ll come every five years.’ He has kept to his word. He brings a whole lot to the event.”
Leno is making his third appearance at the Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance, performing at the Grand Gala Dinner Feb. 20 and serving as a celebrity judge at the competition of vintage, antique and classic cars and motorcycles Feb. 21, both at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
The three-day event is now in its 10th year raising funds for The Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County. During Leno’s 2007 and 2011 appearances, Case says, the comedian and inveterate car guy contributed to the cause by auctioning tickets to The Tonight Show and visits to his Big Dog Garage in Burbank, Calif. – a series of warehouses with gleaming floors neatly lined with about 140 cars and 120 motorcycles, plus a staffed maintenance/restoration shop to keep everything ready to drive. And he does drive his vehicles – they exist for enjoyment not as collectibles, he has said – first restoring them to pristine condition and driving them until they require restoration again.
“His auction items made a lot of money for the Boys & Girls Clubs,” Case says. “He’s a wonderful, kind guy, and he really supports our mission. He does a great show Saturday night and mingles around, talking to people. On Sunday he is out there on the show field, no matter how hot the sun is – six, seven, eight hours. He kick-starts the motorcycles, sits in the cars, talks to the car owners and the visitors, with TV cameras following him around. He is very friendly – he will probably say hi to you before you say hi to him.”
Leno’s hardworking, everyman persona – as well as his passion for “anything that rolls, explodes, or makes noise” – have served him well. Even when he was hosting The Tonight Show, he was on the road with his stand-up act on weekends, living off his freelance income while banking his NBC salary. He also has written several books, including the 1997 autobiography Leading with My Chin (Harper), and performed voice-over work for movies (Cars and Igor) and TV (The Fairly OddParents). He has produced the Emmy-winning web series Jay Leno’s Garage since 2006, bringing nearly 1.5 million subscribers into the world of eclectic vehicles he curates.
In October Jay Leno’s Garage morphed into a TV series, debuting on CNBC with impressive ratings that translated into renewal for the spring season. Leno, dressed in his uniform of blue denim shirt and jeans, serves as guide in the unscripted show, sharing his encyclopedic automotive knowledge and bringing in noteworthy guests – comedian Tim Allen to talk muscle cars, actor Keanu Reeves to talk motorcycles, director Francis Ford Coppola to talk electric-powered vehicles. Leno also takes viewers along for a ride – with boyish enthusiasm – in old and new cars and motorcycles and work vehicles. He target shoots in an M1A1 Abrams tank (“I think I hit the main building at NBC!”) and navigates a hook-and-ladder fire truck through the narrow streets of San Francisco (“It’s like making a left turn in a battleship.”)
Leno says he tries to make the show appealing to the world outside automotive fanaticism. “You get people who can tell a story. A lot of times you talk to race car drivers, it gets a little boring because they just drop their sponsors[’ names]. ‘You know, Jay, the folks at Shell have been great with their whatever-it-is gasoline.’ If [the show] is interesting to my wife, I know it will work because she is not interested in this.”
His wife is Mavis Nicholson Leno, a philanthropist and crusader for women’s rights who chairs the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls. Jay Leno has said the secret to an enduring marriage is to “marry your conscience. … You marry the person you wish you could be,” he said recently on NBC’s Today. “That’s what I did.”
Another secret is being present. “With The Tonight Show I came home every night and I’d go out on the road on the weekends. I’m still out on the road, but I usually try to fly home [by private jet] every night. Even if it’s Florida, I’ll fly home, go to Texas the next day or Indiana. I think that’s how you stay married – you try to get home every night.”
We caught up with Leno between flights – a week after he hosted the Dec. 11 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway.
City & Shore: How was your experience with the Nobel Peace Prize Concert?
Jay Leno: Hilarious. It was fascinating because you had to run your jokes by the Nobel Committee, and you have these five guys who look like Sigmund Freud, you know? And you’re trying to explain your jokes to them, and then they would explain them to each other. It was hilarious, but it was a lot of fun.
C&S: This will be your third appearance at the Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance …
JL: Is it the third or the second?
C&S: I believe it’s the third – 2007, 2011 and 2016.
JL: I do about 210 dates a year, and after a while you can’t remember – the hors d’oeuvres all look the same, you know? You go in the back door, and you say hi to the busboy and the guy shines a light in your eye and you tell a joke and then you get on the plane. It’s dark when you land, and it’s dark when you leave. People go, ‘How was it?’ I go, ‘I don’t know. I have no idea how it was.’ Boca is a little different because I usually stay over and go to the car show the next day. So that makes it special. I meet a lot of old car friends. … And it’s a great event because it’s a charity event.
C&S: Tim Allen has been on Jay Leno’s Garage in a muscle-car race, and you have appeared on his show, ABC’s Last Man Standing . . .
JL: That was a lot of fun. Tim’s a good friend. I think the last sitcom I did was Laverne & Shirley. It’s fun to be able to do different things. When you do The Tonight Show, you’re there 16-18 hours a day. Once that goes away, there are other opportunities.
C&S: You’ve also been on Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. What is it about comedians and cars?
JL: I find that comedians tend to be one extreme or another. Either they’re complete alcoholic-cocaine-drug-hooker-crazy people or they totally abstain. It’s either one extreme or the other. You’re either Charlie Sheen or you’re Bishop Sheen. I don’t drink or smoke or do any of that. The car thing has more to do with generations. I talk with younger comics, in their 20s or 30s, they’re obsessed with technology – iPads, iPhones, computers. With older guys it tends to be cars and motorcycles. In my day you had to do things in reality. Now you just do it virtually.
C&S: More than four decades into your career, what perspective do you bring to your work?
JL: You realize as you get older, life is more and more like high school. When you get to be a senior it’s like being a senior in high school. You’ve got the experience. You’ve got the wisdom. You know how things work. When I was a kid in my 20s and played to an audience of people 45 and up, it was intimidating because you couldn’t relate to anything they talked about. Now I’m 65 so I’m like the oldest guy in the room. You get that elder statesman thing going, which makes it kind of fun.
C&S: You have promoted young people getting involved in welding and auto repair careers, and you provide a scholarship at McPherson College in Kansas, which offers a four-year degree in automobile restoration. Why is this important?
JL: We seem to have this sort of snobby idea that sitting at a computer is better than making something with your hands. It’s neither better nor worse; it’s just different. Consequently, you have jobs like automobile-transmission repair – I know guys in this field who make $2[00,000] – $300,000 a year – because, quite frankly, nobody else knows how to do it or seems to want to do it. I think it’s important that we don’t lose these skills. You can be an engineer and still be a guy who works with his hands.
C&S: What makes you laugh?
JL: There’s nothing funnier than hypocrisy. …The people who put themselves on some kind of high horse. Americans will accept anything except hypocrisy. I remember I had Charlie Sheen on the show one day, and Charlie said, ‘Look, I like hookers and cocaine,’ and the audience applauded. They were applauding because at least he’s honest. He’s not pretending to be some morally upright citizen.
C&S: What do you find funny now?
JL: The political race is pretty funny – Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Remember when Ben Carson said he once tried to [stab] a guy? You have one candidate admitting he’s an attempted murderer and the other leading candidate [Trump] calling him a liar. So one guy running for president says, ‘I tried to murder somebody,’ and the other goes, ‘You’re a liar. You’re no murderer.’ Really? This is the standard for the presidency now? You’re a failed murderer? What’s funnier than that?
C&S: It’s been two years since you signed off of The Tonight Show. Any surprises?
JL: It’s exactly as I expected. When we were doing the show no matter what you did, you still had 14 minutes of comedy to write every night, so you had to put aside 4-6 hours after you finished your day. A lot of times there would be a San Bernardino or some sort of tragedy like that where you go, OK, any jokes about terrorists are out the window, and you have to rewrite the whole thing. That’s the hard part. That’s the work. The difference [now] is you have a bit more time to do more things – like go to Norway and do the Peace Prize Concert.
C&S: One more question: If a giant sinkhole threatened to engulf your garage, what three cars would you rescue first?
JL: That’s hard to say. You have cars with sentimental value and cars that have technical and historical interest and then cars that are just really valuable. So probably the  Doble Steam Car [once owned by Howard Hughes], the F1 McLaren [$800,000 20 years ago; last offer was $12 million – not that he would sell] and my ’55 Buick because I’ve had it since 1972, and I met my wife in it and, you know, we used to date in it.
Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance Schedule
Feb. 19 - duPont Registry Live at Atlantic Aviation, Boca Raton Airport, $125. Exotic cars, custom motorcycles, private jets, vintage aircraft and luxury boats and motor coaches set the stage for the kickoff party, which includes live entertainment and gourmet food, fine wines and cocktails presented by 20-plus South Florida restaurants.
Feb. 20 – Grand Gala Dinner Auction & Show at Boca Raton Resort & Club; tickets start at $500. Festivities include a reception and silent auction, followed by dinner and a live auction plus entertainment by comedian Jay Leno.
Feb. 21 - Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance at Boca Raton Resort & Club, $75; Gourmet-VIP, $125; children under 12 admitted free with an adult. Vintage, antique, and classic car and motorcycle competition plus Classic Car Club of America Grand Classics and an extensive collection of Packards, this year’s featured marque. VIP guests enjoy gourmet food and fine wines from 30 South Florida restaurants.
For more information on the Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance,
visit bocaconcours.com or call 888-302-5439.