Behind the Scenes Secrets of Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale, the ‘Super Bowl’ of Car Auctions

Dream cars, emotional goodbyes to cars heading to the block, an entire marketplace, and miniature doughnuts. It's all here.

With the surge of online auction sites featuring cars like the 7,000-mile 2000 Acura Integra Type R that sold for $112,112 today on Bring a Trailer, or the 1991 Porsche 911 Baja prototype that’s currently sitting at $160,000 on Collecting Cars, you might think the days of the in-person auction are over. Not so fast, my friend, says auction house Barrett-Jackson

On the outskirts of Scottsdale, Arizona, car fans from all over the world converge to see hundreds of specimens up for bid. Spread out over multiple tents and buildings, Barrett-Jackson’s flagship auction attracts celebrities, automakers, buyers, and spectators for what is essentially the Big Game of car auctions. What I discovered in my first visit is that it’s much more than the parade of cars for sale I’ve been watching on TV for the past 17 years. It’s a festival for all five senses.

Kristin Shaw

The event is set up like a concert or sporting event, with metal detectors and ticket-takers wielding invisible-ink stamps as people are funneled through the entry point. Located less than 30 minutes from the Phoenix International Airport, the City of Scottsdale is all in, dubbing January 2022 “Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction Month.” It’s a huge revenue driver for the area, bringing in hundreds of thousands of people in a typical year.

Walking in, you’ll find neon road signs on display next to food vendors peddling everything from guacamole dressed up with bacon and hot honey (dang, it’s good) to barbecue sandwiches to twisty cones of ice cream. Wafts of funnel cakes and beer caress your nasal passages, and I began to salivate like Pavlov’s dog. Honestly, I had no intention of buying either a Barrett-Jackson leather jacket or a bag of miniature doughnuts, but I was irresistibly drawn to them as though it was my last opportunity in the world to ever have them again.

I resisted the jacket purchase but snarfed down those warm doughnuts happily, with no regrets. Somehow, they pair perfectly with the perusal of rows and rows of gorgeous classic and new cars with a few oddballs thrown in, like a muffler-shaped car and an Elvis tribute van with a furry blue dash. Barrett-Jackon’s head of public relations tells me that he has to be on site by 5 a.m. to meet up with the local film crews, who are eager to capture the wild, weird, and incredible cars on display, and every year it’s a little different. But it’s always a spectacle in the best way. 

Craig Jackson hadn’t planned on taking the helm of the Barrett-Jackson auction house in 1995, but he knew where he was headed. His vision for the Scottsdale auction as a big lifestyle event was built from hours of conversation with his older brother Brian, who had recently passed away quickly from colon cancer, the same disease that claimed their father.

“Brian helped me solidify the vision we had for the auctions in his last days – live television broadcasts, multiple venues and, most importantly, sharing the passion we have for cars with all those who attend an auction,” Craig says on the Barrett-Jackson site. “Brian also shared his knowledge for vintage racing with me – he passed just six weeks after Monterey car week in 1995. When I found myself suddenly holding the reins, I kept remembering Brian’s words of encouragement: ‘You know what to do,’ he had told me. ‘You’ve always known what to do. Do it.’”

What started as a celebration of pre-war cars when Craig’s father Russ Jackson started Barrett-Jackson in the early 1960s with his friend Tom Barrett has evolved over the years, and Craig is keeping a close eye on the market to keep it fresh. During a sit-down with Craig in his green room near the staging lanes, Craig told me that when he took over, he surveyed his clients to find out what they wanted from the auction events, and he got a range of answers. 

Kristin Shaw

“Some of them were stupid, and some were painful, like ‘You’re a little prick and you’ll never be able to run it.’ Okay, I’ll take that one with a grain of salt,” he says wryly. “Some people didn’t like me because I was more stringent on rules. I was tough on reserves on certain cars at certain levels, and as a result, we sold more cars.” 

Craig is a car guy, as is his business partner and company president Steve Davis. Craig himself is a hands-on executive and he walks the walk: for example, he learned how to pinstripe from none other than Von Dutch himself. He’s unequestionably a gearhead; he even named his daughter Shelby.

It’s not just an auction, he says. There is a commerce side to it, but it’s done with heart and soul, as exhibited by the string of charity cars they sell for no commission and the way they treat customers. Like a good mix tape, the Barrett-Jackson team vets a variety of cars and trucks to please different folks. Sure, there’s a pristine 2007 Bentley coupe owned by Poison frontman Bret Michaels. There’s also a blue AMC Pacer from the movie Wayne’s World, which is making its second appearance in Scottsdale. 

“Everybody thought when we sold the Wayne’s World car the first time that it was stupid money,” Craig says. “It almost doubled this time.”

Shrewd and smart, Craig and his team are looking into the future in the same way he did in 1994 when he put Barrett-Jackson on the internet. He wrote the first computer program for the company in 1980 or ’81, he says, after studying programming as an elective at Arizona State University. In 1995, he wrote a Java program for internet bidding himself because there wasn’t one available for purchase.

“We were still on dial-up back then,” he laughs, and imitates the sound of a dial-up modem. This is the Craig Jackson you don’t see; the one who is dryly funny, poised, and polite behind the scenes. 

On TV, you don’t see the huge marketplace where fans snap up tons of Barrett-Jackson merchandise. In person, you’ll see entire families pouring into the WestWorld site even at $75 per ticket for adults. In the staging lane, you’ll find sellers emotionally saying goodbye to their cars, especially later in the evening after a few drinks. The whole production runs effortlessly for the fans. 

Yes, it’s true that selling a car online is easier and requires less pageantry and preparation than it does to bring it to auction. Then again, there’s no way to replicate the energy of an in-person auction, and Barrett-Jackson is still bringing in both the people and the money to keep going for years to come. 

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