This is another entry on great motorsport writing and writers during the auto racing off-season.
Joe Scalzo is one of my favourite motorsport authors. At last count, he's published more than a dozen books (among them, Grand National: America's Golden Age of Motorcycle Racing; City of Speed: Los Angeles and the Rise of American Racing, and Stand on the Gas: Sprint Car Racing in America) and written countless magazine and newspaper articles.
A former motorcycle racer, Scalzo's ability to capture in words an event, or a period in the evolution of the sport, is breathtaking. For instance, in my favourite book of his, The American Dirt Track Racer (1951-1971), he says in a cutline that dirt-track racing was a "uniquely American invention, like jazz" and that, like jazz," it was complete with wild tempo changes and mad improvisations and madder characters."
The American Dirt Track Racer, then, is a tribute to all of those "madder characters" who raced their way through life along the dirt-track highway made up of mile-long oval tracks at State Fair fairgrounds in New York, Indiana, Illinois, Arizona and California as well as shorter dirt speedways all over where they raced midgets and sprint cars from 1951 through 1971.
What attracted all those young guys (and some not so young) to such a dangerous, dangerous sport? Yes, if they survived, they would enjoy fame and fortune. But literally half of them didn't. Some years, it was a slaughter.
And who were they, anyway? Some were veterans of the Second World War who were seeking the danger and excitement that only a wartime experience can bring. Others were hard-nosed young businessmen who saw in racing a way to make a lot of money fast. Some tried auto racing as a lark, found they were good at it, and turned pro. Some came from small towns where their only future was in the local mill or on a farm and they were looking for a way out. And then there were those who were hopeless at doing anything else because they were either bone lazy or, frankly, too stupid. Scalzo introduces you to all of the above.
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, of course, was the Indianapolis 500. During those 20 years, up till that fateful day at the end of the '71 season when the board of governors of the U.S. Auto Club (USAC) declared that dirt tracks would no longer be part of the national championship, if you wanted to race at Indianapolis you had to be able to win on the dirt.
All of the legendary Indy pilots - A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, the Unsers, Roger Ward, Parnelli Jones - paid their dues on the dusty, dirty miles at Syracuse, Springfield and Phoenix, not to mention "short tracks" in the U.S. and Canada. It's interesting that, to this day, if you ask an older person not known to be a fan of auto racing to name one or two drivers who've raced in the "500," those are the names you'll most likely hear.
But the decision was made - yes, way back in 1971 by guys in suits and ties - to put an end to what was essentially a way of life and a form of racing that was unique and challenging in order to clear the way to take the racing to the people. It would be all pavement from that day forward, on purpose-built road courses and in the streets of cities as well as on a diminishing number of asphalt ovals.
And it changed the Indy 500, the biggest auto race in the United States - hell, the world - from one where you had to have experience and talent and guts to - in Scalzo's words - one that is "aggressively commercial, foreign and pompous."
So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the two decades of 1951 to '71, when men were men and there were even a couple of women players around too.
For instance, there's this passage on Page 147:
"Bessie Lee Paoli saw her Springfield Welding team of champ dirt cars win a 3-A (AAA) national title, and Marie Hulman George's sprinter came away with a USAC Midwestern Sprint Car title. But Bessie later came down with worry ulcers and Mari never won anything again.
"Outside of those two, the most celebrated dirt car owner may have been Tio Heaton, ingenue bride of driver/car builder Frank Heaton, who was to die in one of his creations, the self-constructed Menasco aircraft engine IMCA sprinter.
"Tio was a trooper. After mourning for a sufficient time, she restored her departed spouse's Menasco and went back to the IMCA, where she campaigned as a take-no-guff owner of the Don Shepherd/Wally Meskoswki type.
"One of her suffering drivers was Buzz Barton, a moon-faced rascal off the Tex-Okie plains, who many times supposedly heard Tio lecturing that unless he hit warp speed pronto, she was going to give him the old pink slip.
"In reaction, Buzz - who now says the reports were exaggerated - used to drop down on all fours in supplication to moan beseechingly at the ground, 'Get ready for company, Frank! The witch is trying to wax me too.' "
This following passage pretty much sums up what dirt-track racing was all about - triumph mixed with a lot of tragedy:
"So the 1950s ended and the 1960s kicked in. But in the matter of reaching the Brickyard via the dirt track highway vs. visiting the marble orchard (the cemetery), it was almost a stalemate. Or maybe the marble orchard was even in the lead.
"The body count was impossible. You could start with some of the big ones taken after they'd successfully hit the 500 and become winners, pole-position-sitters, rookies of the year: Jimmy Bryan, Johnny Thomson, Bill Schindler, Jack McGrath, Walt Faulkner, Jerry Hoyt, Crash Crockett . . .
"Drop your guard for a fraction of a second, yonder the marble orchard! Jack McGrath, despite being employed by an Indy car owner who was a rich oilie with one of the biggest pokes in racing - he'd have bought Jack anything he wanted - decided to be stingy with his racing budget and not buy a new axle for his Kurtis Kraft: the defective old axle snapped and set Jack headlong down the back straight at Phoenix. Mike Nazaruk, the battling leatherneck and Langhorne luminary, was paying more attention to settling accounts with Charlie Musselman than to racing, so Langhorn rose up and bit him. Shorty Templeman, at the end of his tether after losing his Indy car ride, went to a penny-ante midget show on a horrible track and blitzed himself and another driver. Art Bisch touched the wall at Atlanta and damaged his car, continued racing anyway, then paid with "all of it" the next lap when the car fell apart. Jim Packard, who wouldn't take "no" for an answer and maybe was braver than his talents, finally had his overachieving backfire when his midget turned five cartwheels. Joie James had made himself king of the slant tracks, had young Mari Hulman for a girfriend, and nothing ahead of him but blue skies and more checkereds. That is, until an especially idiotic wreck during a yellow-flag condition in blinding sunshine ended it all.
"Ignoring your own premonitions appeared to be another ticket to the marble orchard. Van Johnson, a pallbearer at the funeral of a racing bud, told his car owner Ed Lowther that one day Lowther would be putting him, Van, in such a box, too; it happened barely two months later. Jimmy Reece, who saw his friends disappear and got on everyone's nerves by telling them they were going to be next, instead got it himself. Jack Jordan, who had slugged it out with A.J. Foyt at the Minnesota State Fair, tried setting a track record in a midget, crashed and failed, yet achieved his superstitious wish of getting planted in the city where he expired: Phoenix.
"None of this gore and mayhem deterred fresh enlistees who knew they were immune from its ravages. The 1950s had been Parnelli's, Herk's and A.J.'s deal, as well as mainly an L.A. deal. But now it was the 1960s and Indy aspirants like Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti from other geographical regions expected their shots."
And yet, there was also something heroic about it all, too. After Al Keller was killed on the 49th lap of the 100-mile race at Phoenix in 1961, after they'd gotten Keller out of his car that was covered with much of his blood, the decision was made to restart the race. Writes Scalzo:
"Horrible as it may sound, I thought the restart was one of the greatest things I'd ever witnessed. Now that I'm approaching the age of a USAC official (old), my new take on life is that you should live as long as you can. Yet 40 years ago at Phoenix, there truly was something magnificent about seeing dirt track drivers following the old code of what somebody called 'manly virtue and reckless bravado.'
"Certainly the hazards and dangers of the dirt track were superior to the deadly boredom of the non-racing straight world. And another positive thing about dirt tracking dangers was that they kept the phonies away."
The American Dirt Track Racer and other books by Joe Scalzo are available at www.yahoo.com.joescalzo And thank you to Coastal 181 for the photo of Don Branson at Allentown, Pa.
- NORRIS McDONALD