When there’s no more racing to go to, or watch on TV, I spend my spare time reading about it.
I have magazines and books coming out of my ears.
And they’re all over the place: bookcases upstairs, bookcases downstairs and boxes and boxes of magazines. I never throw anything out, so there’s lots in the garage.
I should be more organized. My wife will see me going down to the basement, and up to my home office, and out to the garage and back in to do it all over again and she knows not to ask because she knows I’m looking for a book or an article to check a fact, recall an incident or find a quote because I know the damn thing is around the house somewhere.
I have three favourite motor racing journalists. Nigel Roebuck (isn’t he everybody’s favourite?), who writes about all things Formula One – the races, the racers and the politics. I bought Autosport magazine for years just for his column and articles. The CBC, back whenever, telecast a history of F1 that I was really lucky to tape and I found out later that he was the narrator. Now he’s editor of Motor Sport magazine. It is a pleasure – a pleasure – to read his stuff.
Then there is John G. Sawyer, an American educator who freelanced to the long-gone Open Wheel magazine a series of incredible profiles of old-time Indianapolis drivers who also raced midgets and sprint cars on dirt. He also wrote three books about those legends of the speedways.
I read his stuff again and again and again and never, ever, get tired of it. I know what the next sentence will be and I keep reading anyway.
Joe Scalzo is my third favourite. His beautiful book, The American Dirt Track Racer: 1951-1971 (he’s written more than a dozen in total but this one stands out), contains outstanding writing like this:
"There were not one but two possible final destinations for the dirt-track warrior. One was the Indy 500, where everybody wanted to go. The other was the marble orchard, where nobody wanted to go."
I love a great line, and that one about the cemetery – the "marble orchard" – is right up there.
In any event, last week I was reading an article by Roebuck in the latest Motor Sport in which he interviewed Mario Andretti about the years when he was just starting out as a professional midget and sprint car racer.
In the Roebuck piece, Andretti talks at length about the late U.S. Auto Club sprint and champ car driver Don Branson, who didn’t taste success until he was nearly in his 40s – which was ancient for the times.
In the article, Andretti professes great affection for Branson and discussed a particular incident involving the two of them: he’d run into Branson and spun him out during a race at Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania, following which he suggests he received some fatherly advice from the grizzled veteran.
"Couple of days later, in Indianapolis, I’m having breakfast and I see Don’s at another table and he calls me over – Jesus, I knew what was coming. ‘Mario,’ he says very quietly, ‘how much money did you make at the Grove the other night?’ Not much, I says. ‘I know, Mario,’ he says. ‘You made about as much as I didn’t make because you took me out. Now, listen,’ he says, ‘let’s cut out that sort of crap, and we’ll both get to eat much better, right?’
"He never raised his voice, but I was shaking. ‘Do you hear me, Mario?’ he says. And you’d better believe, I heard him!’ "
That’s a great little yarn, I thought to myself, and then my long-term memory kicked in:
Wait a minute. I’ve read that story before, somewhere. The version I read was similar, but if I recall, Branson wasn’t being nearly as charitable. In fact, he was giving Andretti a warning.
So away I went – upstairs, downstairs, out to the garage and so-on – and there, finally, in the July 1988 issue of Open Wheel magazine was a story entitled "Gramps," which was the first of a two-part series by Sawyer on the life and times of Branson – "a simple, unpretentious man with the Illinois heartland written all over his face."
So I started to read Sawyer’s piece – man, what a way he had with those words – and in a part in which he interviewed Branson’s long-time crew chief, Jud Phillips, I found these passages:
"There was one . . . altercation with a newcomer that nearly pushed Don to violence. Mario Andretti was that newcomer and I never saw Don more angry. . .
"I’ll kid you not, Don was furious. However, he smoldered in silence. But you knew he was really hot – about as close to throwing fists as he ever got. Still, he said nothing.
"On the following Tuesday, Don and I were having breakfast at the Cove Restaurant in Indianapolis. In walks Mario with a couple of Clint Brawner’s people. And they sat right next to us.
"Now, ol’ Don hadn’t forgotten about all those slide-jobs from the previous weekend. He was still mad about it and upon seeing Mario, he turned bright red. ‘Uh-oh,’ I said to myself.
"Don just sat there, playin’ with his breakfast. Finally he spoke – and the tone was hardly friendly. ‘Hey, Mario,’ he says, ‘how much money did you make over at the Grove?’ Mario didn’t answer right away but eventually he said he hadn’t made very much. ‘Yeah, I know,’ ol’ Don growled. ‘About as much as I didn’t make when you spun us both out. So – let’s cut out that kind of crap and we’ll both eat better.’ Then he said:
" ‘Do you hear me, Mario? No more of that crap,’ and that closed the subject. But Don had made his point."
The incident is the same and the quotes are almost the same. But two versions of the same story paint an entirely different picture of what went on between Mario Andretti and Don Branson in an Indianapolis restaurant all those years ago.
As we go through the winter, waiting for the Daytona 24 and then the 500, we’ll visit with all three of these writers from time to time.
It’s a pleasure for me to write about them. I hope you’ll get the same pleasure reading about them and the people and races they wrote about.