30 days

In 30 days, 20 Prospect Jr. and I will be sitting right here as the green flag drops for the 96th Indianapolis 500 mile race.

A Stand, Box B25

Neither one of us can wait. We going down for the weekend, and camping in the IMS “family” tent and trailer campground, across 16th Street from the track. We’re praying for good weather, so keep your fingers crossed for us. It should be a fun weekend of loud noises, and strange sights. There’s always something interesting to see when you get 300,000 people together in the same place. What’s great about IMS is that it’s big enough to accommodate all types. The drunken party crowd in the snake pit in the infield, to the white wine and brie crowd in the Tower Suites. We’ll be sitting at the end of the main straight, across from the pit exit, in the center of it all. 13 rows up, I’m hoping we get some shade from that upper deck.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Bowler hat week continues as I turn the dial on the wayback machine to April 25th, 1928 and tell the story of Frank Lockhart. Well pull up a chair, and let me tell you a story…

This post is a reprint of an article I wrote for George Phillips over at Oilpressure.com, one of the racing blogs that I frequent. I came across Frank Lockhart while reading a book on the golden age of motor racing in the 1920’s. I had never heard of him, but after reading his story, I felt it was amazing that he wasn’t more widely known. So began a few weeks of research on his life. The result is the article you see below, with actual reference notes! Like a real writer! In the 2+ years since I wrote it, it has even been quoted, and referenced by real writers. Kinda frightening, but I’ve made a career out of pretending I know what I’m doing, so I figure why should this be any different. If I ever finish my book, this will most likely be the second historical novel I write. It almost writes itself.

Anyway, I thought it would be appropriate to honor his memory by reposting this on the 84th anniversary of his death.

His life story reads like a Hollywood script. Born into a poor family, he burst onto the American racing scene, jumping into a car at Indy, and driving it to victory in his first attempt. A natural mechanic with a stubborn spirit, he was a technical innovator, working long nights with his engineering team, advancing the state of automotive technology, and pursuing his dream with a relentless focus. He dominated the Championship racing series for 2 years, and blazed across the landscape of the late 1920’s. In the end it was his stubborn pursuit of the land speed record in an innovative car of his own design that led to his tragic death. In 1927 he was as famous, and as widely known as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, & Bobby Jones, but he is all but forgotten now.

Frank Lockhart

Frank Lockhart was born in 1903 in either Dayton, or Cleveland, Ohio depending on which biography you believe. There is an apocryphal story about his growing up in a house in Dayton next door to the parents of Wilbur and Orville Wright, where he was supposedly inspired to pursue mechanics by the fatherly influence of Mr. Wright, but the facts supporting this are hard to find. Perhaps it is just the journalistic myth making of the early 20th century, an attempt to place the young Lockhart firmly in the pantheon of “Yankee Ingenuity”, alongside Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Franklin.

His father died when he was six years old, and his Mother moved the family Los Angeles. He grew up poor in Inglewood, his Mom doing other people’s laundry to support him and his brother. Frank struggled in school, but displayed his mechanical gift from an early age. He took apart everything he could get his hands on to see how it worked. In class he spent his time day dreaming, and drawing streamlined automobiles. He turned down an opportunity to attend Caltech, and found work as a mechanic, to help support his Mother. With money he saved, he bought an old Model T Ford, and built it up to race.

His mechanical talents were matched, if not exceeded, by his driving skill. He quickly became a wonder of the local dirt tracks like Ascot. He caught the attention of Harry A. Miller, who signed him to drive a 3.0 liter car on the Southern California dirt track circuit. In 1926, at the age of 23 years old, Miller brought him to Indianapolis as a relief driver for the Miller team. Hanging around gasoline alley, Frank persuaded Bennett Hill to allow him to take his car out and “warm it up”. It was Frank’s first time driving a real racing machine, and his first time out on a paved track. He turned heads immediately, by proceeding to lap the track at speeds faster than Hill’s practice times. Frank drove the bricks like a dirt tracker, keeping his foot on the gas and drifting the corners. Leading up to race day Pete Kreis, an independent Miller driver fell ill with the flu, and Frank was given the chance to drive. He set an unofficial record of 120.918 mph in his first qualifying run, but flatted on the second lap. Choosing to take a more cautious approach after another failed qualifying attempt, he put the car solidly into the field in 20th position.

The 1926 Indianapolis 500 mile race took place on May 31st, having been delayed one day due to rain. Earl Cooper was on the pole, Harry Hartz of the Miller works team in the middle and Leon Duray on the outside of row one. Hartz took the lead on the first lap, followed closely by Duray and Cooper. By the end of the third lap, Lockhart had moved up from 20th, to 5th position. Dave Lewis took the over the lead from Hartz, and Lockhart moved up from third to second position on lap 16. Lewis and Lockhart battled for the lead from Lap 20, until lap 50 when Lewis pitted, and Lockhart took over the lead. When the race was stopped on lap 71 because of rain, Frank was leading.

During the hour and a half rain delay his teammate Hartz hoped to ice the rookie by talking with him about the dangers of the slick brick track. But when the race resumed Lockhart quickly moved into the lead. He battled with Harry Hartz on the wet and oily brick surface, until Hartz flubbed a pitstop, mistakenly leaving his ignition turned off. From that point onward Lockhart ran away from the field. The conditions worsened and drivers began slowing. Frank was leading by two laps when the race was red flagged after 400 miles by another burst of rain.

At 24 years old, Frank was the youngest winner of the 500, a distinction he would hold for a quarter century, until Troy Ruttman won in 1952 at age 22. Harry Miller offered Frank a full time ride, but Lockhart astonishingly refused it. Instead he took his winnings, and bought the Miller car outright and began making his own modifications. After a broken connecting rod cost him a race, he replaced the connecting rods with ones of his own design. He also designed new valves, added a locked differential, and rear radius rods to his Miller. Harry Miller was infuriated by Lockhart’s tinkering, but other Miller owners were quick to copy Lockhart’s modifications.

Lockhart proved his Indy win was no fluke, by winning five more championship car races in the 1926 season, the 25-, 50- and 150-mile races at Charlotte, N.C., the 250 mile-race at Altoona, P.A., and a 25 mile race at Salem-Rockingham, N.H. He ended the season second to Hartz in the National Championship.
In 1926 and 1927 Harry Miller was successfully developing a front-wheel drive version of the famous straight eight Miller Championship car. The front wheel drive layout enabled the driver to sit lower in the car, and Earl Cooper, Dave Lewis, Leon Duray and Pete DePaolo won a dozen races between them aboard front drive Millers. However, Lockhart stuck with the earlier rear-drive cars modifying them with his greatest innovation to stay competitive. Working closely with his engineers, John and Zeinas Weisel, Lockhart designed an intercooler for his supercharged Miller engine that added 10 hp, and gave him a significant speed advantage over his competition. He kept it a closely guarded secret for over a year, hiding it under the hood, and passing it off as an external oil cooler.

Lockhart's intercooler.

In May of 1927 on the 1.5-mile Atlantic City board track, Lockhart set a qualifying record of 147.729 mph with his supercharged 1.5 liter Miller. Over thirty-three years would pass before any driver lapped another American speedway at a faster speed! He followed that up by winning the pole in Indy at a record speed of 120.1 mph, and led the first 110 laps before a broken connecting rod put him out of the race. That season Lockhart won the 200-mile race at Altoona, the 25-mile race at Charlotte, and the 65- and 75-mile races at (Rockingham) Salem, N.H., for a total of nine AAA wins in two years.

Picture from Library of Congress, showing auto racing on the board track in Laurel, MD in the late 20's.

Despite finishing the season 2nd again in championship points behind Pete DePaolo, Frank was a household name. During 1927 he had established a world record of 164.28 miles per hour on the dry lakes of Muroc, California; in his standard race car powered by a tiny 91 1/2 cubic-inch displacement Miller engine. With that experience whetting his appetite, Frank set his sights on becoming the fastest man alive.
At the time, the Land Speed Record was still something pursued by professional racers, and just beginning to become specialty in its own right. Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma, and Bob Burman, had all held the record at one time. During the teens and 20’s the cars had changed from traditional open wheel race cars, to behemoth locomotives powered by two or more aircraft- type engines, with piston displacements up to 4,900 cubic inches. Lockhart felt that a smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic car would be capable of overcoming the limitations of weight, and wind resistance. Working night and day with the Weisel brothers, he sketched out a revolutionary vehicle, that would become known as the Stutz Blackhawk.

The Stutz Blackhawk during shakedown tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The “Blackhawk Special” was much smaller in every respect than the Land Speed Record machines of the time, being powered by one 16-cylinder engine (two banks of 8 cylinders, set at an included angle of 30 degrees), and having only 181 cubic-inch displacement. With $50,000 in sponsorship from the Stutz corporation, Lockhart began building his machine at the Stutz factory in Indianapolis. Convinced that rotational drag from the typical disc wheels was resulting in the instability of cars at high speed, Lockhart designed articulated wheel spats to cover the wheels. The chassis was slim, with an enclosed engine compartment to eliminate drag under the vehicle. Models were tested in a wind tunnel, to balance the forces on the steering. The resulting car was smaller, and sleeker than anything the world had seen at the time, and would set trends for future automotive design.

In February of 1928, the Stutz Blackhawk Special was ready for the record attempt. Frank and his team arrived in Daytona, but struggled to find speed. After days of frustration, it was determined that the aerodynamic design was starving the engine compartment of air, and modifications were made to the bodywork. During a trial run at Daytona Beach on the morning of Feb. 22, 1928, at a speed of approximately 225 mph, the tires apparently struck an irregularity in the sand and catapulted the “Blackhawk Special” end over end into the sea. Lockhart was trapped in the vehicle and nearly drowned. He was rescued from the water by spectators, and was uninjured except for a few bruises and cuts to his hand. The “Blackhawk Special” was sent back to Indianapolis for repairs. With the winter speed season winding down, the car was rebuilt and returned to Daytona in April for another try. As his finances were running low, and his expenses to rebuild the Blackhawk special were ballooning, Lockhart had accepted $20,000 in sponsorship money from the Mason Tire Company to switch from Firestone to Mason tires for his run.

On Wednesday, April 25, 1928, Lockhart made his second attempt at the world speed record. It was late in the season, and the condition of the beach was deteriorating. The AAA officials were anxious to leave Daytona. Ray Keech had set a new record at 207 mph only three days before, but Lockhart was on a mission, and could not be dissuaded from his goal. Frank began a series of shakedown runs, slowly working up to speed. On his third pass down the beach he broke the 200 mph mark running against a headwind. At the end of the run he made the mistake of locking up his rear brakes, unknowingly cutting the right rear tire on a sea shell.

Although it was standard practice to examine the tires after each run, it took a long time to remove the Black Hawk’s wheel spats, and Lockhart was in a hurry to finish his runs before the tide came in. He decided on a quick, visual inspection of the tires, and set off once more. Bringing the Blackhawk up to speed along the beach, with the wind at his back, Frank barreled down the hard packed sand racing the morning tide to set the land speed record. He was flying at an estimated 225 mph when the right rear tire exploded. The Black Hawk snapped right, and then left before catching in the sand and going airborne. The car tumbled wildly 140 feet down the beach toward the spectators. Lockhart’s lifeless body came to rest a further 51 feet from where the car stopped, almost at the feet of his poor wife.

Frank Lockhart’s life burned hot and fast. Like the car he designed, he sped across the landscape of the golden age of racing. And like so many others before and since, he paid the ultimate price. He died shortly after his 26th birthday, but left behind a legacy larger than many who spent whole lifetimes chasing the same dreams. The fact that his name is lost and forgotten today is a shame. Frank Lockhart gave so much in the relentless pursuit of speed. He deserves to be remembered.

Youtube video of the fateful crash here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0y2b7mJqhs

Golden Age of the American Racing Car, 2nd Edition, by Griffith Borgeson, SAE, ISBN 0-7680-0023-8

The Racing Campbells: http://www.racingcampbells.com/content/campbell.archives/stutz.black.hawk.asp

Motor Sports Hall of Fame: http://71.6.142.67/revize/motorsports/hof/lockhart_frank.htm

Al Blix Auto Racing History: http://71.6.142.67/revize/motorsports/hof/lockhart_frank.htm

Photos 1, 5, 6, & 7. courtesy of the Florida State Library & Archives http://www.floridamemory.com/PhotographicCollection/

Photo 2 courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway http://www.indy500.com/photos/1926/01/01/133/Indianapolis_500

Photos 3 & 4 courtesy of RM Auctions and The Miller/Offenhauser Historical Society. http://www.rmauctions.com

Racing against time

I’ve never been much of a joiner. Even when I did “belong” to a team, I was usually the quiet kid in the corner of the team picture. Being somewhat of an introvert, I’ve always kept a close circle of friends, and acquaintances. That’s not to say I’m anti-social. Well, OK, maybe it does say I’m anti-social, but the point is that whenever I have come across an organization of people looking for me to join them, my natural inclination has been to pull back.

Maybe Groucho Marx said it best when he said he’d never belong to any club that would accept people like him as a member. If someone wants me to join their organization I am immediately suspicious of their motives. That’s why I never joined a fraternity in college. Well, that and an IQ score in the triple digits. It began at a young age when I viewed the strange uniforms and rituals of the Boy Scouts and decided they were a quasi-fascist organization, and decided against joining. Yes, I was a precocious 2nd grader, why do you ask?

Hey, they wear brown shirts people, how much more proof do you need?

So I wasn’t too surprised as 20 Prospect Jr. grew older and began to exhibit the same tendencies. The fruit doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Getting him to take part in swimming lessons as a 4 year old was a tribulation that I hope I never have to repeat. Even now, after playing with his teammates on his youth hockey team for the last four months he’s still the kid hanging out in the corner of the locker room observing. That’s why I was surprised when he asked to join the Boy Scouts in 1st grade. It seemed out of character for a kid whose teachers routinely say never raises his hand in class.

Now my aversion to Boy Scouts was a long time ago, so when he asked to join I thought, OK, what the heck, maybe it will be good for him. Unfortunately I discovered during the informational meeting that 1st grade scouts (called “Tiger Scouts” instead of Cub, or Boy Scouts) had to have a parent present at every meeting. By the time the meeting was over I had narrowly avoided being drafted into being the Den Master, and I left feeling like a sailor that had just been Shanghaied. So began my year in the Hitler Youth Tiger Scouts.

We went to the Scout store, and bought 20 Prospect Jr. an official T-shirt, and Manual on how to be a scout. Then we studied Chapter One in advance of the first Troop meeting when the boys would be sworn in as Tiger Scouts. Sadly, nothing in the book could prepare us for the experience. To say that the Scout meetings were unorganized would be a disservice to anarchists everywhere. The meetings were total chaos; boys running around screaming, Dad’s standing around looking at each other in mute silence. After an hour of this we left for home, slightly more hearing impaired than we had arrived.
It never got any better. Even his “den” meetings of 8-10 kids were a mess. Allegedly the boys were learning life lessons, and earning badges through such activities as learning how to tie knots, and make bird feeders out of pine cones and peanut butter. In reality it was little more than Romper Room. True to form, 20 Prospect Jr. hung out in the corner with his small handful of friends, and participated only after much prodding on my part. All through the fall and into the winter this continued. We sold our allotment of Popcorn to Aunts, Uncles and Grandparents, and earned little beads for his belt, and muddled through the depths of a Minnesota winter. But when February arrived, hope sprung eternal. The annual Pinewood Derby was approaching, and we would get to build and race a car against the other kids in the troop.

Despite my distrust of the Fascist Cub Scout Pack at St. Joe’s I always envied their annual Pinewood Derby. It was like a miniature Soap Box derby. Each boy would bring his little Handmade Car to school for show and tell in advance of the big race, to be held in the Genesee Country Mall. Painted up with flames, and lightning, and sporting shiny decals on their sides, these little Pinewood race cars were something I really wished I could be a part of. So having 20 Prospect Jr. take part in a Pinewood Derby would be a second chance to experience it, albeit vicariously.

We picked up our kit with official instructions, and began to plan out our race car. I googled around on the intertubes to learn the tricks and secrets of Pinewood Derby Race Car construction. Working at night in our basement, 20 Prospect Jr. and I were like Smokey Yunick and A.J. Watson toiling in their garages on gasoline alley, building an Indy 500 winning roadster. I taught the boy how to use the tools, and guided him through the process. We went shopping at the hardware store to pick up the powdered graphite we needed to milk that extra ounce of speed out of our machine. We balanced the car to put the weight as far back as possible so that we would be assured of a fast start, and performed rolling shakedown tests in our upstairs hallway to fine tune our alignment. When the Saturday of the big race rolled around we were ready.

20 Prospect Jr. packed his fire engine red “20 Prospect Special” carefully into a shoebox, and carried it with him as we set out for the race. Arriving at the school cafeteria the tension in the air was palpable. Boys from 6-13 were there with their dads ready to compete for the prize trophies, and the chance to move onto the District Championships. We checked the brackets that were posted on the wall to see which heats were scheduled to run in, and then we decided to scope out the competition.

As I’ve said before, Our Lady of the Subdural Hemotoma is not one of the glitzier private schools in town. It’s your basic 1950’s era, run of the mill Catholic school, smelling of pencil shavings, chalk dust, and industrial cleansers from decades of elementary instruction. The students are drawn from a broad demographic swath of the North Metro. There are working class, bus driving dads, as well as a handful of Porsche driving ones from North Oaks. But in 1st grade we were just beginning to learn the caste system that was in place between the haves and have nots. The Pinewood Derby would be our first lesson.

Unpacking the 20 Prospect Special for weigh ins, and inspection, we were immediately aware of the huge discrepancy in the engineering and finish of the competition. There was everything from the square block with wheels of the kid whose dad forgot about the race until the night before, to futuristic land speed cruisers that were carved on laser guided saws, and programmable CNC machines. Our little red special was clunky, and amateurish by comparison. What chance did we stand against these sleek space age vehicles?

The competition getting set for the start

The heats went off on schedule, and we fought and clawed our way through the field, making it into the consolation finals by the skin of our teeth. In the final race we finished 2nd runner up, and 20 Prospect Jr. was awarded a trophy with a little roadster on the top where the bowling guy would normally stand. He couldn’t have been happier, and I couldn’t have been more relieved.

As expected, the spoils of victory went to the deep pocketed teams with their professional air brushed paint jobs, and computer designed cars. I came away a little wiser in the workings of the highly competitive world of youth scouting. It wasn’t about the kids, but about the parents after all. Looking around that room of strangers those dads may as well have been the brown shirted Gestapo I remembered from my youth. Beaten, but unbowed, I left the cafeteria swearing revenge.

Thankfully, I never did get the chance. When summer came around 20 Prospect Jr. informed me he didn’t want to be in scouts anymore. When I asked him why, he just said, “Dad, it’s kinda boring. The only fun part was building the car with you, and we don’t need them to do projects together.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever been prouder.

The Right Stuff

There’s a picture that I have seen of the original Mercury 7 astronauts that sticks with me. In it they are gathered in front of an F-106B fighter. Seven guys in a hodgepodge of flight suits, standing as casually as if they were waiting for a bus. Look at the faces, and they could have been cut from the pages of Life magazine. Square jawed, crew cut, men. Exactly the way we imagine all men to be in the 1950’s. To look at them you would think that strapping yourself into a tin can atop an ICBM, and being launched into space was as common place as a bus driver with his lunch pail, heading out to work. It’s hard to fathom the danger, or the fear of the unknown that must have been hidden somewhere behind those smiles. For surely there was fear.

Yet there they sit, chiseled into our memory, smiling like they were sharing a joke over a drink at the corner bar. This is what we call the face of bravery.

There is another picture that I remember. A photo of Parnelli Jones, Indy 500 race car driver, and his Watson roadster, surrounded by J.C. Agajanian and his crew, holding up a pit board with the number 50+ scrawled across it in chalk. It commemerates the date in 1963 that he posted the first official 150 mph average lap speed on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Smiling in his crew cut, he may as well have been one of the Mercury 7.

To call the Watson Roadster a race car, is to conjure images of modern Formula 1 machines crafted by the work of hundreds using the latest computer simulations. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a tin missile, hand built by A.J. Watson, with a 4 cylinder Offenhauser engine that roared like a hungry Lion. In lapping the Brickyard in preparation for the Indy 500 that month of May 1963, he kept getting close to the magical 150 mph barrier, but was unable to break through. Until one lap, while pushing his braking ever deeper into the corner, the rear end slid out coming out of Turn 2. The back end of the car started to wiggle, and as he corrected, and straightened the car out heading into the backstrech, the tires caught, and he snapped back into control carrying more speed than ever before.

The next time  through, rather than lift off of the gas, and back down his speed, he did it again. And again. Until he had mastered the feel of it. This is how he was able to wring that extra 1 mph out of that primitive beast.

That was a long time ago, and space travel and auto racing have come a long way in those 50 years. With our advances in material science, and mechanical engineering we are able to build machines that make trips around the race track, or into space, look no more difficult than riding the bus to work. Looks are decieving.

Sunday afternoon, while sitting on my couch with 20 Prospect Jr., watching the opening laps of the Las Vegas Indy 300, I was reminded once again, how fragile life can be, and how limited our technology is when it is put up against the forces of nature. On lap 11 of the race, a simple touch of two cars, multiplied exponentially, until a chain reaction crash brought 15 cars into a flaming wreckage worse than anything Hollywood could ever dream up. In the accident, the car of 2 time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon ran up the back of another race car, and was launched into the air at 225 mph. His car spun as it flew, touched another car, then pancaked into the catch fence with it’s cockpit facing out. He died an hour later from massive head injuries.

Two days later, I still feel hollow inside. To say that auto racing is dangerous, is irrelevant. The feeling I have in my gut is the same one I had in 1986 when the Space shuttle Challenger exploded, or when Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003. Despite 50 years of the best and the brightest minds working to improve the safety of these two endeavors, auto racing, and space travel will remain two of the most dangerous pursuits known to man. To say they are pointless, and not worth the time and energy, is to miss the point. So long as there are limits, mankind will continue to push them. This is not rational, nor is it logical. However, it is well documented, that humans are hard wired this way. Whether it is the Mercury 7, or Dan Wheldon, the face of death will never be enough to scare us away from pushing the boundaries. It will only spur us to try harder.

As I tucked 20 Prospect Jr. into bed tonight, I looked up at the poster on his wall that we got in 2009, during our trip to Iowa Speedway to see the Indy 250. Smiling back at me with his infectous smile was the face of Dan Wheldon. Helmet under his arm, hands on hips, he looked for all the world like an Astronaut, heading off into the unknown. Though we often forget it in our sanitized world, bravery lives all around us.

He left behind a wife, and 2 small boys. As well as several hundred thousand fans who will forever mourn his loss. Godspeed Dan Wheldon.

The Greatest Show on Dirt

The trailer park roots of the 20 Prospect clan have been well documented, so I don’t hesitate to share this next story with you dear readers. Ever since summer began, I have had Friday night July 8th circled on my calendar. For last Friday the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars came to Cedar Lake Speedway. As I blogged about last September, 20 Prospect Jr. and I enjoy going to the local stock car races. Here in the Twin Cities we are blessed to have 6 tracks within a 1 hour drive of our home. If that doesn’t dispel any delusions outsiders have about “progessive” “liberal” “enlightened” Minnesotan’s I don’t know what will. Apparently Garrison Keillor has never been to one. To be honest, I’m glad he hasn’t.

Because these are my people. Sadly.

No, I mean that in a nice way. There’s no pretensions at the Dirt Track. It’s like a mini State Fair. Just about anything goes. I saw more cleavage and butt crack on Friday than I have all summer. Cleavage and Butt Crack never go out of style in rural America.

Cedar Lake Speedway is just across the St. Croix River in Wisconsin, which is like a suburb of Heaven to me and Mrs. 20 Prospect. I may live in Minnesota, but my heart belongs to the Cheeshead State. Yet despite our mutual affinity, for the Packers, and Colby Cheese, Mrs. 20 Prospect has never taken an interest in car racing, which is understandable. Women aren’t the target market for Dirt Tracks.

But for a red necked blooded American Male, there is no more exciting phrase than “Gentleman Start Your Engines!”. Well, maybe “Hot Girl on Girl Action”, or “Cold Beer Here” but don’t hear those phrases spoken anywhere near as often. Unforutnately.

So I was floored when Mrs. 20 Prospect called me at work on Friday afternoon to ask if she and Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect could come along with us to the races. If ever I doubted her love for me, or her sanity, Friday night cleared up those misconceptions. In searing 90 degree heat, we sat in the bleachers at the speedway with sweat trickling down our ribs, as 800 Horsepower sprint cars thundered by mere feet away. The smell of burning enthanol wafting through the air, the dust rising from the clay oval, and the scent of cheap waterey beer, was like exhilirating. They should bottle that scent and sell it.

The kids ran along the fence by turn 3, playing in the rain of the mud pellets that the cars spewed into the crowd, and I sat next to my true love explaining the finer points of racing. The woman is a Saint.

As a half moon rose over the cornfields, and woodlands of Western Wisconsin, the clouds of dust floated into the night sky. There are fancier and more comfortable ways to spend a Friday night, than sitting on am aluminum bleacher as dust settles over you, and clings to the back of your sweaty neck. But for this trailer trash fella, this ranks right up there.

 

Dirt Track Date

If there is something that all American’s can agree on it’s that we are better than everyone else. This not only includes foreigners, who obviously aren’t as good as us because they aren’t American’s, it also includes rednecks. (Redneckus Americanus, to use the correct Latin name for the species) Rednecks are defined as those other people. You know the ones. The kind that do all the things that we think are beneath us. However, given the fact that roughly 78% of the American populace are indeed rednecks, I’d say we have a bit of a blind spot about ourselves.

The internet affords a certain anonymity and freedom to redefine oneself into the image of the person you most want to be. Well, I guess I can forget about that now because after this post, there will be no denying it. If any of you knew the 20 Prospect clan you’d consider this information to be self evident.

I am a redneck.

An honest to God, sh!tkicking, beer swillin’ redneck.

This was the highlight of my weekend.

Yes, I spent Saturday night at the dirt track with 20 Prospect Jr. watching guys in really loud cars drive around in circles. And you know what? I loved it. I loved every blessed minute of sitting on those mud flecked aluminum stands, blinking to get the dirt out of my eyes as the cars kicked up dust devils behind them. In fact, aside from a High School football game I can’t think of a better way to spend a cool September night.

There. I feel much better now. They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. I’m not sure who “they” are, but oddly enough, you never here “them” admitting they have a problem.

I’d like to say that it was an accident. I’d like to say that 20 Prospect Jr. and I were innocently driving home from Wisconsin when our car broke down in front of the dirt track, but I can’t. It was premeditated. September 11th had been circled on the calendar for over a month, not to remind me of a national tragedy (for surely Saturday night car racing in Wisconsin is not a national tragedy) but to remind me that it was the night of the Jerry Richert Memorial Sprint Car Challenge at Cedar Lake Speedway. I’ve been looking forward to it all summer. On hand were over 60 sprint cars from the IRA and UMSS, racing on the 3/8 mile dirt oval.

Now for the other 22% of American’s that aren’t redneck, let me explain. A sprint car is a small, lightweight, fenderless race car that is popular in the Midwest, and parts of the East and West Coast. (Down South, not so much). The name “sprint” comes from the length of the races. Most are 10-15 lap affairs. No refueling, no changing tires, and no starter motors. The cars need a push from a pick ‘em up truck to get their engines started. These little machines are no bigger than Mini-Cooper’s, yet they are powered by an 800+ horsepower, 410 cubic inch engines. That’s a big @ss engine for such a little car. When 20 of these cars come screaming around to take the start, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the middle of a buffalo stampede. The noise is so loud you not only hear, but see, feel, smell and taste it. I can’t imagine what an adrenaline rush it must be like to be inside of one of these cars. These things are turning the 3/8 mile track in around 11 seconds!

Johnny Parsons III


I saw my first race when I was about 9 years old. Mom and Dad took me out to Perry Speedway down in Wyoming County on a muggy Saturday night, and we sat on the peeling paint of the wooden bleachers watching Western New York’s finest drivers spin around the bull ring in Modifieds, Midgets, Stocks, and Super Stocks. I was hooked. After that first visit it became an annual summer event to go see the races. We’d make the drive down through those verdant, rolling hills, taking in the late summer air through the windows of the Chrysler, and breathing the perfume of the dairy barns. (I still far prefer the smell of cowsh!t to that of either pigs, or chickens. Call me a connoisseur if you like.)

Wyoming County is one of the prettiest in all of New York. Maybe it lacks the variety of Genesee County, with it’s mucklands, swamps, cornfields, dairy farms, and orchards. But it makes up for it with the fact that cows outnumber humans. (45,800 vs. 43,424) You’ve just got to love a place with more cows than people. So long as the cows aren’t carrying firearms. I could spend a happy eternity living in a Greek Revival house on a nice plot of land out in the folds of those hills. But I digress…

If the weather was nice, and the original Mr. 20 Prospect was in a good mood, he’d take one of his patented shortcuts. Like all dads, his shortcuts usually added a minimum of 15 minutes to any trip. Working for Niagara Mohawk he spent most of his days driving rural back roads to fix power lines, flip switches, or do whatever it is that electric company employees do out there in the country. (Take naps I was to find out years later). Whenever our travels took us into the south eastern part of Genesee County he would cut south from 33 on the Francis Road. This little asphalt two lane road was laid out by the most sober, serious, and unimaginative of surveyors. It shot straight south through Bethany turning aside for neither hill nor dale. Up and down it went at ridiculous gradients. Dad would take this road at around 60 miles per hour. When we crested the top of each hill the soft, spongy suspension of the Chrysler would float, and we would achieve a few seconds of weightlessness. Our stomachs would flutter, and Mom and I would squeal with delight as we plunged down the other side, gathering speed until the springs bottomed out as we hit the nadir of the hill and charged up the next one.

That always got me in the mood for racing. Sitting in the stands we’d survey the cars as they pulled out onto the track, and each decide on a favorite to root for. Mom was always a sucker for the blue cars, while I would pick the ones with the best paint job, or the number of my favorite Notre Dame football player. (#15 Gino Oliveri). I think Dad took a more technical approach as his cars almost always won. Maybe he had some inside information.

For weeks after our trip to Perry, I would ride my bike up and down the sidewalks in front of 20 Prospect imagining I was driving a race car.  I’d tear into our gravel driveway, and lock up the coaster brakes and throw my Huffy into a sideways skid imagining I was drifting through the corners to take the checkered flag.

Driving over to Wisconsin on Saturday night 20 Prospect Jr. did not stop talking. Being the quiet one, this is always a sure sign of his excitement. It was a gorgeous evening, with bright sunshine, and not a cloud in the sky. Crossing the lift bridge into Wisconsin, the boats stood out bright against the deep blue of the river. Climbing the bluff into Wisconsin, I thought back to those drives down to Perry as a kid. When we got to the track we parked out in the grass, and took our Amana blanket, and ear muffs out of the trunk. If Dad could have been with us I’m sure his would have been “borrowed” from NiMo, with his initials written on them in black permanent marker.

Sitting in the stands on Saturday night, we looked up from the glow of the track and noticed the bright orange crescent moon descending towards the western horizon. The sprint cars roared away and we shared our popcorn, each picking a car to root for. 20 Prospect Jr. picked the best looking cars on the track, while I judiciously studied the drivers in qualifying, and choose the ones with the best times.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The races were fun, but the season is ending, and soon our life will shift from summer into fall, and with it all the other wonderful things that autumn brings, like apples, pumpkins, and football games. Playing catch with the football in the backyard last night 20 Prospect Jr. was already asking when we can go back.

Our trips to Perry would eventually stop. At some point in my early teens, I discovered girls. A few years later they discovered me. After that, spending Saturday night with the folks lost some of it’s appeal. I’m sure in another handful of years it will for 20 Prospect Jr. as well. Then that bright orange moon will slip below the horizon for a while, only to rise again in another time and place.

Motoring Away

We couldn’t have picked a better week for our vacation in the U.P., as the Twin Cities were sweltering under scorching heat for all of last week. Even in the wilds of the U.P. it was 80 degrees and humid. Floating in the lake never felt better. Thankfully, God left the window open over the weekend, and cold, clear, Canadian air has been blowing through the state for the last few days. It’s days like these that make me love living in this place. I think I’d wilt if I had to live down in Missouri, or anywhere across the South. The summer I spent in Kentucky and Alabama damn near killed me. My thick central European blood and hirsute body just isn’t designed for that kind of weather.

Unlike most years, we really didn’t spend much time away from the lake. The weather was just too perfect not to be in the water. We did manage to make time for my favorite vacation activity though, a trip into Eagle River, Wisconsin for some go kart racing. As much as I enjoy racing the infernal little noisy contraptions, it’s funny that this is the only time all year that we do it. As a kid I used to dream of being able to race go karts. Hell, Batavia even has an awesome facility for doing so. However, it just wasn’t something that the folks felt good about spending money on. So I had to content myself by racing around the block on my Huffy Thunder Road pretending to be A.J. Foyt in his Coyote.

So I have enjoyed being able to share kart racing with the kids. Even if it’s just a once in a year event. Last summer was the first year that they were old enough to drive their own kart, and this year 20 Prospect Jr. was even able to move up to the faster oval track at Kartway. I must say, the boy impressed the hell out of me. I was able to pass every other person on the track but him. Maybe I shouldn’t have let him play my GTR game on the home computer, but the kid has a knack for driving. He threw block parties on me all over the track. Not that I let it prevent me from giving him the “chrome horn” a few times, much to the dismay of Mrs. 20 Prospect who accused me of cheating.

20 Prospect Jr. sets up for the hairpin

The first time I ever raced a go kart was the summer before my senior year of college. I was working a summer internship at Graham Manufacturing to gain some “engineering” experience before graduation. When summer began, I had hoped that the position might turn into a job offer after graduation, but it quickly became apparent that the Graham Engineering group was already full of young engineers, and that one of my fellow interns had already been chosen to be “the next one”. I can’t say I blame them. In fact, the guy that they eventually extended the job offer to is now one of their corporate officers. My, how things might have turned out differently had it been me. But I digress…

It wasn’t long before I discovered the real benefits of being 21 years old and working with a group of 20 something bachelors. It wasn’t “engineering experience” by any stretch of the imagination. No, it was happy hour on Friday afternoons. The usual routine after quitting time was to head out to the East end of Main Street for drinks and darts at Hevron’s Towne Manor.

Now Hevron’s was a curious, and slightly seedy place. Well, to be honest there was nothing “slight” about it’s seediness. It was an old flea ridden motel with weekly rates, and a bar in front that had inexplicably become a hot spot for Friday happy hours. That was where I learned to play “Cricket” on the electronic dart board. A skill that would eventually come in handy years later on the night I met Mrs. 20 Prospect. But again, I digress…

There were no women in our group, and in fact, I can’t remember if any of the guys had girlfriends or fiancé’s at the time. Although coincidentally, one of them would eventually end up marrying the sweet, dimple cheeked girl whom I spoke of in a previous post. But again, I digress…

No, our attentions were focused on cheap beer, and boastful, testosterone fueled banter. After a handful of beers and several games of darts we would leave Hevron’s and drive out to the Go Kart track by the town dump. There, half in the bag, we’d race each other for sh!ts and giggles. After a couple of races, and before we got motion sick, or tossed out on our ears, we’d pile back into our cars and race back across town to Pontillo’s for pizza. And I mean seriously race.

Looking back I am amazed that we didn’t get arrested, or kill anyone. How we could drive buzzed through the middle of Batavia at high rates of speed on a Friday evening and not get busted, or create an accident is beyond me. Lord knows it wasn’t one of the smarter things I have done in my life. But then again, how many things that a guy does at 21 years of age would qualify as being smart? No, looking back I am just thankful that no one got hurt.

The summer dragged painfully by, and when it was time to go back to Clarkson I was damn glad to be leaving Batavia. The end was in sight. Packing up my Plymouth Tourismo for the drive back to Potsdam, I had no idea of the trials and tribulations that awaited me. If you’d have told me that in less than 12 months I would live through a maelstrom of emotion, and end up in a hotel room in Paducah, Kentucky, well, I’d have thought you were crazy. Looking back now, I still puzzle over how it all worked out. The experiences, and seemingly random events that would eventually bring me here to Minnesota, where I live a mostly normal and well adjusted existence, are a source of endless fascination to me. Untangling them is really the whole purpose of this blog.