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Life On The Road...Literally!

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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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