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Making Time Stand Still

Jan. 28th, 2009 | 06:53 am
posted by: quidditchref in roaringracers


MAKING TIME STAND STILL

 

            On Sunday, I watched David Donohue share the winning car in the Daytona 24-Hour sports car race.  For me, this was an intersection of present day with a great deal of nostalgia.  A lot of people and names from my long-time career in the motorsports publishing industry were involved in this victory.  I thought I might mention some of them here.

 

            First, Donohue himself.  David is the 42-year-old son of the legendary Mark Donohue, an Indianapolis 500 winner and champion in a number of other types of racing cars who was killed while practicing for the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975.  Ironically, David’s win came on the 40th anniversary of his father’s own Daytona victory.  I considered Mark to be a friend.  We weren’t drinking buddies (although he had some according to his boyhood friend, Jay Signore) but we got along as well as a major sports figure and guy who had to write him could.  He had his secrets, but he told me many of them.

 

            I first met the older Donohue in 1966 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course when a dark blue car hauler pulled into the paddock, a sleek dark blue and yellow “Sunoco Special” Lola T70 sports car on its back.  This was the beginning of the world famous Penske Racing Team, which has won more Indianapolis 500-mile races than any other.  An engineer by training at Brown University, Mark became a key member of Roger Penske’s outfit, not only driving but developing successful cars for the Trans-Am “pony” car series (Camaros, Mustangs, Javelins, etc.) in the ‘60s.  Penske also competed in endurance racing (Daytona, Sebring, etc.) and the Canadian-American Challenge Cup (CanAm) sports car series, arguably the most popular road racing series ever run in North America.

 

            Mentored by Penske and another great driver, Walt Hansgen, Mark had a number of high points.  He dominated the Trans-Am series in ’68, ’69 and ’71.  He would have won the CanAm title in ’72 driving the first turbocharged Porsche 917-10, but he was injured in a mid-season crash, and his replacement, George Follmer, took that title.  I suspect the fact that he had won the Indianapolis 500 in May of that year took some of the sting out of the injury, and watching Follmer driver “his” car.  Mark made up for it in ’73 with the wildly successful 917-30.

 

            To put a personal spin on these, I have in my living room three huge framed prints.  Two of these feature the Porsche CanAm cars…one autographed by Follmer and Penske, and the other with Mark’s 917-30 as the center point.  In the first years of my career, these were the people and cars that I wrote about.  In fact, when Mark died, I was on my way to Penske Racing headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania, for dinner with Signore…part of the research I was doing on the International Race of Champions which Donohue, Signore and Penske helped to manage.

 

            After his last CanAm race in ’73, I was the person charged with asking Mark what he planned to do next.  That turned out to be a short retirement.  However, in 1974, Penske formed a Formula One racing team to compete in the World Grand Prix Championship, and lured Mark out of retirement.  I was probably one of the first persons outside the team to learn of this, when I was handed a set of photos showing him testing the car at the Ohio Transportation Research Center.  In one of my great journalistic failures, I agreed not to tell anyone or publish the photos until given the green light by Penske Racing.  However, the team PR manager broke his word to me, and actually gave the story to another reporter a week before he released it to me.

 

            The story behind this story was that Mark was in the process of divorcing his first wife, Sue (David’s mother), and she was supposedly asking for a settlement based on Mark’s Indy 500 winnings.  Needless to say, that money probably exceeded all the other cash prizes he had won in all his other victories combined.  However, a move into Formula One would probably greatly increase his income, and the divorce settlement.

 

            Ironically, when Mark was killed, I suspect Sue profited.  Although Mark had remarried, it was Sue who sued the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company over the tire failure that caused Mark’s accident in Austria.  She was able to do this on behalf of his sons.  They eventually settled out of court for substantial money.  I have often wondered if at least some of David’s career is being financed by some of the settlement money, although I don’t suppose the Donohues were ever poor.

 

            This brings us around to David and the recent Daytona victory.  David has been reasonably successful in his own right…never as dominating as his father, but obviously talented and fast.  He has a win at the LeMans 24-hour race in the smaller car class, and several wins in the Grand Am endurance series where he currently drives for Brumos Racing.  I have only met David a couple of times, through the Brumos people, and they have been mostly perfunctory “handshake, nice to see you” meetings.  I can’t give the same sort of personal insight into David, but I can write a lot about Brumos.

 

            There are only a very few racing teams that have survived and been successful for decades.  Racing teams tend to come and go, change names, or just disappear.  In Formula One, only Ferrari, McLaren and Williams are still around from the day when I covered the sport.  In America, it is amazing how few long-lasting teams there are outside of NASCAR.  Some of those would be Penske Racing or the team co-owned by Carl Haas and the late Paul Newman.  The other would be Brumos Racing.

 

            Brumos grew out of a Porsche dealership in Jacksonville, Florida.  It came on the scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when the owner of the dealership, Peter Gregg, became a force to be reckoned with in the Trans-Am and IMSA GT series.  Partnered with Hurley Haywood, who is still active and who drove the third-place car at Daytona this year, Gregg won the Daytona 24-hour race four times (Haywood has won it five times).  He also competed successfully in several other types of racing, including the CanAm series.

 

            Sadly, Gregg was badly injured in a road accident in France in 1980.  Apparently, he had also been diagnosed with a serious nervous system disorder, and in December of 1980, he took his own life.  Brumos then passed on to his second wife, Deborah, a racer in her own right, and to Haywood, Bob Snodgrass and other partners.  Taking over the main management position, Snodgrass kept Brumos Racing active through the ‘80s, ‘90s and on to the success enjoyed this past weekend.  Unfortunately, Snodgrass also passed away last year, and was not there to see his familiar white 58 and 59 finish first and third.

 

            This race was the closest in the history of Daytona, and probably the closest finish ever in a 24-hour race.  In a type of racing where a win by one or two laps is considered close, David Donohue beat a car entered by Ganassi Racing by only .167 of a second, while the team car was only five and a half second behind them.  Four cars actually finished on the lead lap, and another car entered by Penske Racing was in the lead lap with these four for nearly the entire race.

 

            For me, and I’m sure for others who were involved when I was around, it was a blast from the past, a litany of familiar names.  Donohue.  Haywood.  Penske.  Brumos.  Gregg.  Brian Redman (for whom my son is named!).  Snodgrass.  And many more.  I don’t think anything changes as much, and as quickly, as auto racing.  But once in awhile, it feels like time stands still.

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Crossing The Line

May. 19th, 2012 | 10:54 am
posted by: quidditchref in roaringracers

I was watching the Indycar race at Watkins Glen on Sunday, July 6, 2008.  Ryan Briscoe, driving for Roger Penske, and this year’s Indy 500 winner, Scott Dixon, were racing nose to tail at the front of the field.  Obviously one of them was going to win unless something totally unusual and unexpected happened.  But, for me, it was like déjà vu, especially when they entered the pits together for their first stop.  I was taken back to my days following the CanAm races in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and to another race at Watkins Glen, similar in so many ways:

 

For journalists of all kinds, there is supposed to be an unwritten line between covering a story and becoming part of the story.  While there might be more wiggle room for writers covering sports, because after all, sportswriters are at heart nothing more than paid fans, I have always felt the ethical standards applied at some basic level.  For instance, it used to be that writers and photographers not only expected to be granted access to people and places at race tracks which the paying spectators did not have, they also expected that their tickets would be free. 

 

In the late ‘70s, I began to think that this was not proper, and in fact, I’ve since seen this opinion confirmed by various tracks and sanctioning bodies which have refused to grant credentials to critics.  My own ethical stand was simple.  I refused to accept free credentials, and I refused to allow the other writers and photographers who worked for me to accept them.  Whenever a track refused to go along with this policy (and there were many tracks which refused, because by giving credentials, they felt they maintained some measure of control over who covered their events and how they were covered), we simply used their media credentials, but also went to the main gate and bought our own admission tickets.

 

I tell this not to demonstrate that I am somehow better than or above my print and television brethren.  I am perfectly capable of ethical lapses, which is indeed the point of this piece.  However, I think to understand the depth of my failing, you need to understand where I came from in terms of ethics in journalism.  My biggest professional handicap was always that I was a fan first, and a professional second.  For some of the people who enjoyed what I wrote, this was a great advantage and it was why they paid money to read my work.  For others, who disagreed with my opinions or felt that my reportage was biased or inaccurate, it should have disqualified me from the profession.

 

So here is the true story of the week I crossed the line between reporter and participant.

 

The background is as follows.  I grew into a fan while following the first version of the Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series, or CanAm.  My first love in auto racing was open cockpit sports cars, and the CanAm was at the top of the sports car food chain.  In 1974, the sanctioning body, the Sports Car Club of America, stopped organizing CanAm races in favor of the open-wheel Formula 5000 Series.  Three years later, the SCCA did an about-face and decided that US fans did not appreciate open-wheel racing, so they “converted” the single-seaters into open-cockpit single-seat sports cars and renamed the series using the CanAm name.  It didn’t really fool the fans, but for 10 more years, the SCCA got mileage out of the name, and the second version actually ran one more year than the first.

 

Ironically, Carl Haas did not even enter his team in the first few races.  It’s ironic, because once the Haas Lolas appeared in the “new” CanAm Series in 1977, no one else ever challenged for the championship until 1981.  Using a string of proven European drivers, Haas cars won most of the races.  Patrick Tambay was champion in 1977, Alan Jones in 1978, Jackie Ickx in 1979, and Tambay returned to the top in 1980.  Ahh, yes.  1980.  That was the year the editor of AutoWeek was the motor home driver and host, and team gopher, for Garvin Brown Racing and its up-and-coming young driver Danny Sullivan.  It was the year the father of that editor and Editor Emeritus of AutoWeek wrote the book Fast Lane Summer, following Sullivan through the season.  It was also the year I got tired of watching the Haas Lolas win most of the races.

 

During that four-year period, Carl A. Haas Racing Teams had competitors, and the CanAm even had a few odd winners.  Steve Horne and Racing Team VDS scored a win or two.  Elliott Forbes-Robinson, driving for Bill Freeman who eventually brought Paul Newman into the CanAm Series, was always challenging, especially after Barry Green became the team manager.   George Follmer drove Lolas, and then a Lola derivative called a Prophet, for Californian Herb Kaplan.  Al Holbert had a car designed and built by Lee Dykstra, who was just named technical chief of CART.  A friend from my days in Reno, Randolph Townsend, paid Don Nichols a ton of money to run a two-car Shadow team.  John Morton and Rocky Moran were often competitive in their customer Lolas, but by 1980, they had converted their cars into machines called Frissbees with the help of talented designer and engineer Trevor Harris.  And there was Sullivan, who with Brown’s backing, eventually acquired a Frissbee and won the final race of the year in 1981.

 

But 1980 started out like most Haas years.  Tambay was back and won the first four races of the season.  It might have been five, but illness forced him out of the car at Road America, and super sub Mario Andretti had a mechanical failure.  After the first three wins, it appeared there was only one car fast enough to actually challenge for a win, and that car was the under-funded Frissbee owned by timber baron Brad Frisselle and driven by Morton.  This car had been second fastest in practice at the opening round, but had not had the funding to race at Mid-Ohio or Mosport in subsequent weeks.  As the writer covering this series for AutoWeek, I was concerned about the future of the CanAm Series because the field seemed to lack enough competitive cars, and as a fan, I was simply tired of seeing Haas win.

 

So I picked up the phone, called Frisselle, and asked him how much money he needed to make the next race, a trip to Watkins Glen.  It turned out it wasn’t a lot of money.  They needed tires, and said that $4,000 would cover the difference between what they already had and what they needed.  Better yet, they didn’t really need the money up front.  What they needed was a guarantee the money would be there if they didn’t do well in the race and didn’t win any prize money.  Hummm.   I had $4,000 sitting around doing nothing.  Okay, Brad…take the car to Watkins Glen and I’ll guarantee to cover your losses.

 

It made for a memorable weekend, for me at least.  For one thing, Morton took the pole!  It was not the only time that Tambay did not qualify fastest, but it was the first time that year.  For another thing, Morton led the first 36 laps of the race.  He set the fastest race lap.  His closest competitor, however, was not Tambay in the Haas Lola, but Geoff Brabham in the Team VDS car.  And then disaster struck them both.  They pitted together on the 37th lap.  The pit stops were frantic.  As they pulled out of the pits, Brabham, who had a slightly faster stop, made a move to get by in the pit lane.  It failed, and he crashed both himself and Morton out of the race.  Ugly.  Tambay went on to win again, and would win twice more that year to clinch the series with a 4th place at Road Atlanta.  There were still two more races to run when Haas crew chief Tony Dowe threw several of us into the Holiday Inn swimming pool that night.

 

Ironically, the Frissbee won one of those two races.  Al Unser, Sr., agreed to drive the car in a one-off deal at Laguna Seca, and won going away.  This was probably the race that saved the second version of the CanAm Series and kept it going another six years.  And the last 1980 race at Riverside was won by Al Holbert in the unique Dykstra creation.  When we got back to California, I mailed Frisselle my check for $4,000.  Maybe he used it to pay Unser’s retainer.

 

So I crossed the line between reporter and participant.  Well, guess what.  I’m not ashamed of it.  In fact, I have felt darned good about it for a lot of years, although very few people knew about it.  I always got a giggle out of a line in Leon Mandel’s book "Fast Lane Summer" in which he intimated that although I was one of the ultimate CanAm insiders, I was also the guy most lied to by the teams and drivers.  Of course, this is true.  Racers only tell the press what they want us to know, and often put the blame for failure or credit for success where it will do the most sponsorship and marketing good.  On the other hand, writers often know a whole lot more than they tell, and I certainly never told Leon or anyone else where the money for Morton’s drive at Watkins Glen came from…until now.

 

OK.  Briscoe and Dixon didn’t run into each other on that first pit stop.  Nope.  Instead, during a late race caution period, Dixon was darting back and forth across the track, trying to warm up his tires for the restart.  He got over-enthusiastic and spun the car, right in front of Briscoe, who promptly ran into him!  Ryan Hunter-Reay went on to win this year’s race at the Glen.  Unexpected and unanticipated.  Unless you had been there once before.


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Life On The Road...Literally!

Jan. 27th, 2009 | 10:50 am
posted by: quidditchref in roaringracers


It’s funny how many different times and ways you can find yourself lying on your back, on the edge of the road or in a driveway, underneath someone else’s car while trying to get to, or home from, an auto race.

 

            When you consider that the only reason I started writing about cars in the first place was so I could attend as many races as possible, you may begin to understand.   For me, racing journalism was always a ticket, although I will candidly admit that I made a few enemies when I stopped accepting them for free.  I always resented the office jobs I held at AutoWeek, RACECAR Magazine and a couple of Babcox Publications trade mags because they kept me from doing what I really wanted to do, which was hang out with my racing friends at Mid-Ohio or Laguna Seca or Road America.

 

            Ah, yes.  Road America.  That’s what I was thinking of when I mentioned lying on my back under a friend’s car.  In that case, it was a 1965 Ford Country Squire station wagon belonging to my buddy Ed Brown.  It had destroyed a wheel bearing during my driving shift on the way from Columbus to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in August of 1968.  We were on our way to the Labor Day round of the CanAm Series during the second official year of big-time professional SCCA road racing. Just east of Chicago, the back end started making noises like it was grinding rocks.  We made it to the big truck stop at the Indiana/Illinois border.  Maybe we could have made it another five miles, but Ed, who really knew cars, doubted it.

 

            Ed Brown was the guy who first convinced me I should go pro.  I had been attending races since 1962, and actually doing a little amateur freelancing for local newspapers since 1966.  But Ed had an eye for photography, and he decided I had talent and that I should be encouraged. 

 

            I met him while I was going to Ohio State.  I was working my way through school at Bank Ohio, on the late night shift, helping balance bank branches.  Ed was a computer repair technician working for General Electric.  In those days, the mainframe computers used by banks to process checks filled up an entire floor of a downtown Columbus skyscraper.  They broke often, and the company which supplied the computers to the bank also supplied a full-time on-site technician to keep them running. 

 

He first came to my attention when I noticed he had disassembled one of his three Nikon cameras so he could repair a film advance spring.  I was pretty impressed.  It turned out he was a Detroit native, recently divorced, and an auto racing fan looking for something more to keep him busy.  When I didn’t have a branch to balance and he didn’t have a check sorter to tear apart and rebuild, we swapped racing stories.

 

            By the next year, Ed and I were traveling all over the east and Midwest shooting pictures of racecars with the idea of freelancing the photos.  Why it didn’t exactly work out and how I came to be a writer instead of a photographer is another story.  This one is about the things that real racing fans did, and may still do for all I know, to get to the races and be insiders with the stars.  It’s about life on the road, and in this case, quite literally.  Ed and I were not unique in our fixation with racing and our addiction to it.  It’s not unlike the way many people approach the Internet today.  Whatever it took, whatever we had to sacrifice to make it to the next race when our money was going out and none was coming in, well, that’s what we did.

 

            There is a photo on Page 244 of Pete Lyons’ wonderful book, CanAm, of Pete standing next to his “Can-Van-Am”.  This remarkable vehicle was the precursor to more modern conversion vans, and it took him all over the US, hauling his motorcycle, and usually serving as his motel room at countless racetracks.  Why?  Because, when gasoline was 34 cents a gallon, it was cheap!  If you drove all night to the races, parked in the paddocks, and slept in the back seat of your car or on a mattress in the back of your van or station wagon, you could save a couple of hundred dollars in expenses and make to a few more races.  Even many of the up-and-coming racing drivers figured this part out.  If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for undiscovered writers and photographers.

 

            Certainly, there were then and are now a great many racing fans who stay at the “Four Wheel Motel”.  Camping at race circuits used to be a much bigger part of the scene than it is today, with everything now much more commercial (and expensive).  In almost every way, this is the thing that people who caught the racing bug in those days miss the most about the sport.  There were friends to be made around campfires and in horrible muddy paddocks where no one could shower the whole weekend.  There were parties held by tracks and sponsors in Polish clubs where the cooking was good and the cost was affordable.  The racers and the press became friends, maybe crossing over the line of objectivity, but in a way that benefited the sport.  The paying customers, the fans, could get close and much more involved than is possible today.  In fact, many fans successfully made the transition from paying observer to paid participant.  I did, and there were many more.  The economy of the 1960s style motor home…the car motel…made it possible to work ones way inside.

 

            Of course, you had to keep the “motel” running.  So there we were under Brown’s station wagon, on a Labor Day weekend, disassembling the rear end, which gave us something to do while we waited for a parts truck to bring us the new wheel bearing.  Ed got lucky when the truck stop night manager gave him the phone number of a parts wholesaler who he knew would deliver the piece, and even luckier when the overworked truck stop mechanics said they didn’t mind if we did the work ourselves out in the parking lot.  But you won’t find that kind of helpfulness along the road today.

 

            And so, along about 6am, the part arrived and we spent another hour putting the wagon back together.  Then Ed got behind the wheel and we actually got to Elkhart Lake by lunchtime.

 

            It was worth it.  This was actually one of the best CanAm races of the 1968 season.  It started in rain with Denny Hulme motoring off into the distance and Bruce McLaren running interference between his teammate and the likes of Mario Andretti, Jim Hall, Peter Revson and Mark Donohue.  There were spins and mechanical problems to keep things interesting even as Hulme disappeared.  Donohue actually spun all the way back to midfield, but worked his way back into the top four with five laps left.  And then it really got interesting. 

 

Andretti, who was having one of the best runs I ever saw him make, was pressuring McLaren with an older Lola T70 powered by a George Bignotti Ford engine.  This thing was a double-overhead cam 5-liter that just screamed, and it screamed itself to death.  Donohue was right behind when it blew, and had a major engine component come flying out the back end and right through his water radiator, giving him a new kind of hotfoot.  At about this point, Hulme’s engine also went off song, but he was able to pedal around and still win the race.  McLaren came second and Donohue limped home (pardon the pun) third.

 

            Now as if that hadn’t made crawling around under the Ford worth the time and effort, on Saturday night, Ed and I chased a bunch of the other writers and photographers through the back roads to a free dinner hosted by the track at a local social club, and then to Plymouth Speedway for the late model dash of the week.  You may have heard stories about race drivers doing very risky things on public roads.  They were mostly true.  But writers and photographers could be equally outrageous, and I suppose the statute of limitations has passed on our street racing and door slamming.  Going to a race was never boring, even if you knew Team McLaren was going to win before you left home, and even if you knew they were going to win by two laps.

 

            Crawling under broken cars to fix things never really ended.  In approximately 1972 or 73, I had to crawl under my friend Steve Boz’s Chevrolet Corvair to fix the throttle linkage.  If I hadn’t, we would not have got back to the motel room from Mosport Park.  Notice, however, that we were staying in a motel room!  By then, I was at least bringing in enough freelance income from racing to afford really cheap motels in a country where the US dollar was worth 20 cents more.  But with the Corvair easy on gas, and Steve’s affinity for Chinese restaurants in Oshawa, not to mention his ability to spot fleabag from 50 miles away, we were no longer sleeping in the back seat.

 

            But just like the racers I loved to follow from St. Jovite to Riverside, I always had to do the mechanical work myself.


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Red Eyes For A Jaundiced Eye

Jan. 27th, 2009 | 10:45 am
posted by: quidditchref in roaringracers


This was originally written on the death of Leon Mandel in March of 2002:

            It’s 1:00 am on a hot August night in 1968, and I am pointing my burgundy Pontiac Firebird down Olantangy River Road in Columbus, Ohio, on my way to the main post office.  I’m tired; my eyes are red.  But, this is a weekly run for me.  That fact is, I often have to make this run two or three times each week, because, although Competition Press & Autoweek has a great subscription department in Lafayette, California, the U.S. Postal Service does not perform as well in moving my copy across the country.

            My excitement builds.  What I am hoping to receive is the issue detailing the Road America 500 round of the 1968 United States Road Racing Championship before the same cars arrive at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the final race of the series.  I want to know who is coming to Mid-Ohio, what the latest rumors are about the series, and who is planning on moving from the USRRC to the Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series that I plan to cover in September.  This issue of Comp Press is late coming to the post office box that I keep for business reasons, and more than a week after the race, I still do not know what I want to know.


           
There is a reason AutoWeek is unique in the spectrum of U.S. car magazines.  In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, auto racing was on media radar screens about the way soccer is today.  The sport was extremely popular at the grassroots level, yet virtually ignored by television and relegated to agate sections of even the largest daily newspapers.  Believe it or not, Columbus was more progressive in covering racing than many major metropolitan areas.  The Columbus Dispatch had a weekly auto racing “section” (really nothing more than a column) which appeared on Thursdays.  It sometimes ran the “results” (the top three finishers) of some major races, including a few sports car races.  It took an event like the Indianapolis 500 or a local race at Columbus Motor Speedway or Mid-Ohio to get any sort of timely coverage, and only Indy got on the front page of the sports section.  But there were many cities, some much larger than Columbus, where Indy was the only race reported.


           
Competition Press filled the gap.  Reporter and sports car racer Denise McLuggage, who still writes a column on a monthly basis for AutoWeek today, started it in the ‘50s.  It was sold to John R. Bond, who owned Road & Track Magazine, and published as a separate weekly.  In 1965, Bill Finnefrock and Russ Goebel bought Competition Press from R&T and added the Autoweek name.  Headquartered in Lafayette, an Oakland suburb, Competition Press & Autoweek became the enthusiast’s weekly bible, especially after the new owners hired a former foreign car salesman and part-time journalist named Leon Mandel to edit their weekly newspaper.


           
What Comp Press did for enthusiasts was give them complete and total coverage of every major race and many minor ones.  When I discovered Comp Press in 1966, it was the only publication, which could be counted on to give front-page multi-column coverage to every single Sports Car Club of America National weekend in the United States.  Racing fans today have no idea what that means, because there was a time when those SCCA Nationals were as important as any CART or NASCAR race today.  There was a time when amateur drivers racing foreign sports cars drew real attention from road racing fans, and when the old saw “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” meant just as much to British Leyland (MG, Triumph, Jaguar) and Datsun (Nissan) as it did to Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth on the NASCAR ovals.  It was Competition Press & Autoweek that shined the light on these otherwise ignored events.  

Comp Press did other wonderful, inventive things.  It ran full grids for all the important races, amateur and professional, with qualifying times, speeds, and tires used.  It had track diagrams of all the circuits.  It provided technical information on the new race cars and profiles of the drivers and team owners.  Frankly put, the reason no one knows much about U.S. racecar drivers today is because no one covers the minor leagues of auto racing the way Comp Press did in the ‘60s.


           
There is no question that Leon Mandel, who died in 2002 of complications due to leukemia, was the driving force behind Comp Press, and the heart and soul of AutoWeek.  Notice the change in name and capitalization.  That represents the very essence of Leon’s vision for a publication that started out as a typewritten mimeographed newssheet, evolved into a nationally circulated tabloid on newsprint, and finally became the only weekly 4-color magazine covering the automotive industry.  As the hunger we had for auto racing news in the ‘60s was finally addressed by television in the ‘70s and satisfied by cable in the ‘80s and ’90s, the publication became less and less Comp Press, and finally and completely AutoWeek.  When it was purchased by Crain Communications in 1977, Mandel returned to it for the third time as its editor-in-chief.  When he died, Mandel was Vice President and Publisher Emeritus, and still working in the office and writing when he could, as only he could.


           
More than writing, more than editing, more than a unique and often controversial point of view, what Leon Mandel brought to automotive journalism in this country was a long, long string of writers and reporters, literally hundreds whose work he coached, nurtured and toned.  Del Owens and Dinah Chapman worked for him at Comp Press and made that early version of Autoweek into a publication, which no racing enthusiast could do without.  He sent Pete Lyons to Europe to cover Grand Prix racing and introduced an entire generation of U.S. readers not only to the most popular sport in the world, but to finest writing about that sport that anyone has ever done.  During a stint at Car & Driver Magazine, nicely tucked between his first two stints at AutoWeek, he brought along Brock Yates, Charles Fox, Caroline Hadley and many others.  When Leon was your friend and appreciated your work, he could push you to do more, and do better, than you thought you could.  He helped to launch the careers of people like David Abrahamson and Steven Thompson and Corey Farley.  And, of course, he left behind another fine writer and editor, his son Leon Mandel III, or Dutch, the current editor of AutoWeek.


           
I went to work for Leon at AutoWeek when it was in Reno, in the fall of 1973.  I first wrote for the publication in 1971, when I filled in for Dave Arnold, covering a race which he was supposed to do at Mid-Ohio after he was stricken Sunday morning with appendicitis.  Actually, it was Leon I got out of bed and on the phone that morning to ask what we could do to help.  All he asked was, “Can you write?”  Over the next two years, we ran into one another in various pressrooms across the U.S., sharing little tidbits of breaking news, and more often, some of the black racing humor you sometimes need to stay awake in the press box.  When Abrahamson moved on to Car & Driver, he asked me to come to Reno and join a triumvirate, including Thompson, who would edit AutoWeek.


           
Leon once told me the reason Bob Brown stopped covering motorsports for Sports Illustrated was because he made friends with too many drivers who were later killed.  I remember where I was and what I was doing, sitting at my desk editing Late News, when Leon walked into the office and told his friend and co-author of “Speed With Style”, Peter Revson, had been killed.  He was greatly affected by this, and I think it may have led to his resignation from AutoWeek later that summer.  I have an easy time understanding.  I also lost a number of drivers with whom I became friends, and it was the death of Al Holbert in a plane crash that caused me to lose much of my interest in covering the sport.  But in the meantime, we worked together again in the late ‘70s at Motor Trend, where both of us were contributors for editor John Diana.  When Leon returned to AutoWeek for the third and last time, I covered the CanAm Series for three years, until 1982.


           
Leon could be a bear to work for.  He was brilliant.  His writing, if sometimes a little circuitous, was always entertaining and thought provoking.  His grammar was perfect.  And he expected nothing less from the people from whom he bought words.  He had a great appreciation for the Sports Illustrated style of reporting.  He taught me that the story was usually not in the event itself, but in the things which led up to the event.  Most auto races are not won on the track, but in the preparation shops or in the paddocks, and often, in the offices where the rules are made.  Leon believed that many race reports could largely be written the day before the race was run (or even earlier) and then topped with a lead to tell readers who had won.  Leon generally had a pretty good idea of what he expected to find in any given race report or profile, and was not a happy camper (his own term) if he didn’t read about that issue in the submitted text.


           
I chose the word “bear” above for another reason.  Leon was very much like the head coach in a major athletic endeavor.  It was hard work and practice that paid off in success.  He liked to say that great writers needed to write at least 5000 words each morning.  He was the coach who inspired and motivated his writers and editors to be great, and that was what built AutoWeek from the little tabloid with 20,000 subscribers into the weekly magazine with 300,000 or more.  It is my opinion that no matter who actually owned AutoWeek, it was always Leon Mandel’s publication.  And like many coaches, such as Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes, who could no longer do the thing they loved most at the same level they once had, it broke his heart and eventually killed him.


 
           For me, this is as drastic a change as going in the army, getting married, or adjusting to changing my career from editing and publishing to planning youth sports events.  AutoWeek has been a very important part of my life for over 35 years.  Leon Mandel has been a part of AutoWeek for most of those years.  It’s very hard for me to believe that I will no longer see the sport through his Jaundiced Eye.  My eyes are red, once again.

 

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roaringracers

The Color Of The Sport

Jan. 27th, 2009 | 10:11 am
posted by: quidditchref in roaringracers


         For me, it’s always been about the colors.  I was first attracted to sports in general by the bright primary colors of the uniforms.  It was only natural for me to become addicted to auto racing when I discovered that racing cars came in many colors, and that they were trimmed with stripes and numbers and decals.  Secretly, that is the only reason I went to races in the early years.

 

And I was lucky.  A man named Les Griebling, who owned a struggling little import car dealership in Mansfield, Ohio, went walking around a piece of Morrow County farmland one day in 1961, and by instinct alone, laid out one of the finest road racing circuits in the world, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.  I always wished Les had come up with a more colorful name…something like Mohican Raceway or Heart of Ohio Sports Car Course.  But at least Mid-Ohio was near Lexington, and Lexington was just 45 minutes from home.  I never missed a single race at Mid-Ohio from the second weekend it was opened in 1962 until I went to Europe for a season in 1970.

 

So many colorful cars and colorful people visited Mid-Ohio during those years.  I saw my first Ferrari there.  It was not red…it was, of all things, bronze.  I always loved the sports cars best.  Formula cars, at least those raced by Sports Car Club of America amateurs at that time, did not have enough bodywork to be very colorful, and of course, the SCCA threatened to expel any member who accepted money or sponsorship until at least 1965 or 1966.  But there was an endless string of MGs, Triumphs, Jaguars, Alfas, Minis and bathtub Porsches painted in every color of the rainbow, trimmed with flames and checkered flag motifs.  And there were the sports racers!

 

Every sports racer I have ever seen was incredible, and I have seen some truly awful sports racers.  If this sounds like a contradiction, it is simply the addict’s admission that there is more to a sports racer than success or clean preparation.  But begin with the swoopy bodywork that makes the application of vibrant colors even sexier and appealing; add in the exotic noises; then add a dollop of mechanical curiosity, and you have without a doubt the finest type of racing car there is.  Don’t get me wrong…I also like Grand Prix racing, the Indianapolis 500, Championship cars and NASCAR.  But nothing ever got, or gets, my blood flowing like the sports racers.

 

I am certain this attraction became an obsession at a July, 1966 SCCA National event, and of course, at Mid-Ohio.  The race was between Jerry Hansen in a sports racer called a Wolverine, and Ralph Salyer in a Cooper King Cobra.  I hope everyone in the vintage racing community will forgive me if it turns out Salyer was not really the second driver, but I believe he was.  In those days, these cars would have been “C” sports racers, which was the highest of three classes.  Basically, they were either European sports chassis or homebuilts using some sort of US stockblocks or the more exotic racing-only engines of the time.  This is actually the class of sports racers that over the time between 1958 and 1966 evolved the American road racing special of the early ‘50s into Group 7 professional sports car racing in the United States Road Racing Championship, and of course, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, or CanAm.  These early “sports car” races also usually included some production-based vehicles, such as Ferraris, Cobras and Corvettes, racing for their own class win.

 

The Wolverine was actually one of the more sophisticated backyard specials of the time.  It was burgundy red, very stylish, with a long flowing nose and rather chopped off tail.  As I recall, it was actually put together by some engineering types at one of the Michigan universities.  Some of them may have been involved with Chevrolet, as I am pretty sure it had a Chevy engine.  General Motors was never “officially” involved in sports car racing at that time, but under-the-table support was obvious in many Group 7 cars powered by GM engines.  The Wolverine was brought to this particular SCCA National as a shakedown for the Mid-Ohio USRRC race that would be held in August.

 

A word or two about Jerry Hansen is in order.  I am not sure if he was a stockbroker by that time, or involved in some way with the engineers who built the car.  However, he could drive, and was probably, in retrospect, one of the fastest “amateur only” drivers of the ‘60s, ‘70s and even into the ‘80s.  A few years later, he ended up in Minneapolis where he was, indeed, a stockbroker.  He was one of the original investor owner operators of Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota, but far more famous for buying a string of very fast Corvettes, Camaros and big-bore formula cars with which he ran off an unprecedented (and I think unduplicated) string of SCCA National Championships during the years the event was held at Road Atlanta.  I suspect Hansen probably won more races, or at least races that are remembered, at Road Atlanta that anyone else.  Maybe someone has a record book?

 

The King Cobra in this story also deserves a few words.  Gene Crow and Ralph Salyer combined to build a number of quick sports racers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and this car may actually have been one of their first collaborations if I am right about it.  I do know it was that beautiful metallic dark blue favored by other US racers like Carroll Shelby, and that it was fitted with a Ford V8 with a set of straight pipes poking up through the rear deck.  Coopers of this type, fitted with a US engine, were very popular in US sports racing circles that year, but they were on the way out with the more serious racers who had McLarens and Lolas available to them as customer cars for the first time.  The Coopers, Genies, Elvas and earlier Lotuses were finding their way down the ladder in amateur circles where they still could compete with the backyard specials.

 

One thing I remember about both these cars is that they had a cooling fan mounted in the rear deck, over the engine.  It is easy to remember this because I watched at least half the duel between them from the auto bridge over the end of the Mid-Ohio pit straight.  Yes, in those days, a pedestrian could walk over this bridge, and stop to take pictures as the cars charged right under his feet.  Of course, what might happen to such a spectator eventually became too big a risk, and measures have since been taken to make watching from bridges over racetracks almost impossible, but it was a great vantage point and I used to have some unique photographs.

 

The race between the Wolverine and the King Cobra that day was the sort that would make anyone with casual interest into a fan for life.  Both cars thundered underneath my feet 12 or 15 times, and almost every time, they had swapped the lead between them.  Truth be told, I don’t remember which one of them took the checkered flag.  I have been blessed with the chance to see many famous, not so famous, and exciting races in person (the 1970 German GP; Elliott Forbes-Robinson spinning backwards across the finish line to win at Daytona; Mario Andretti passing Jody Scheckter to win at Long Beach; Al Holbert, Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood swapping the lead at Mid-American Raceway; Al Unser, Jr. and Gordy Johncock at Indy) and this amateur race on a hot July afternoon in 1966 was as good as any.  This was the race that turned me from a fan into a person with commitment to become involved in racing, and make some aspect of it into a career.

 

Hansen brought the Wolverine back to Mid-Ohio in August and struggled around in the middle of the USSRC field among the Lolas and McLarens.  Lothar Motchenbacher won that race in a beautifully turned out red customer McLaren-Oldsmobile.  I rooted for Hansen, and for some guy named Mark Donohue who showed up with a gloriously painted Sunoco Blue Lola T70 entered by a former Clevelander, then from Philadelphia, named Roger Penske.  Donohue failed to finish.  Not to worry.  The next year, Donohue won in the Lola, and Hansen, now driving a McLaren, was second.  That bronze Ferrari did finish, however, 6th in the hands of Charlie Kolb.  There were several Porsches, one driven by a newcomer named Peter Gregg.  Salyer was also in the 1966 USRRC race, now driving a McKee, and if I read the entry list correctly, the Cooper King Cobra also raced, and Arch Scyler took it to 14th. 

 

The last time I know for sure that the Wolverine raced was on September 11, 1966, when it finished 20th in the very first official CanAm race ever run, at St. Jovite near Montreal.  The car probably had a long and distinguished career in amateur races after that, but I have no records and it was no longer in my life.  Perhaps it soldiers on in the vintage races of today.

 

But what it put in my life was priceless.  The color of that day stayed with me through 23 years of motor sports writing, photography, editing and publishing, ended only by the color exciting of another wildly popular sport with which I am now involved.  Through all that time, that race was one to which I compared all others when I tried to communicate the color and excitement of racing to readers.  You see, races are colors themselves.  They can be dull and dark, or bright and vibrant with contrast.  For me, it has always been about the colors, and I hope there are other fans like me out there.

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