Crossing The Line
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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.