Way back when at Hialeah Speedway, I remember talking to an old timer sitting beside us in the stands. It’s hard to judge age when you are in your mid teens; people 21 look old, never mind 30-something folks, they are positively ancient, ya’ know. On reflection over the years I think he was in his mid 60′s. I do remember there were Late Model Modifieds lining up on the front straightaway for the event everyone had been waiting for; The Modified feature. He waved a dismissive hand at the state of the art 1955 and ’57 Chevy’s as they loped and lurched into their starting positions with that special rhythmic bellowing, screeching, grinding cacophony of sound only a late model modified from that time could ever make and pronounced; “these drivers today, they don’t know how easy and good they have it”, he snorted with derision. “I remember when they did not even have a roll cage, much less a seat-belt.’ And these cars…they just don’t look right. Back in my time, a racecar LOOKED like a racecar, not some fancy billboard. These drivers are OK, but they would not have stood a chance against”…and he proceeded to rattle off some names that I had never heard of.
I glanced at him, not really paying a lot of attention, Martians could have been landing in the parking lot, I would not have noticed or cared. I was riveted on what was happening on the track. Over the years I have heard many similar themes, especially concerning Indianapolis. I have heard many wax nostalgic for the 30′s..then that gave way to the 50′s, the roadster era. Same thing with Formula 1, and of course with NASCAR. And lately I have been doing the same. You see, for those of us who follow the sport, and who have done so for a while, as time goes by, we create a “sweet spot” .
Just what is that sweet spot? It’s a certain moment in time, in racing evolution, if you will, that is special for each and every one of us. It varies. Depending on one’s interest, it might include professional series, just a particular short track, or something encompassing pieces of all of the above. The age in which we form that spot also varies. I have heard guys talk about when they were a little kid and went to the Indy 500, maybe in 1955, and always get that glazed look in their eyes when Watson Roadsters are mentioned. I’m fairly certain that it’s tied to good times in the rest of our lives as well, even though tragedy might well be a part of things. Whatever it is, it’s sort of like what a judge once said about trying to define porn, “I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it”.
My special spot is from about 1965 to right around 1980. Age-wise it covers half my teens and all of my 20′s. Generally that’s a good time in our lives, I was lucky that it was so in mine as well. I was completely, totally, immersed in both cars and auto racing. I had been going to races since ’62, and payed close attention, I knew what was going on. I raced myself for most of that time period. I worked on cars for a living then, and I will bet that the number of Saturday nights that I was not at races of some sort during that time could be counted on my fingers and toes for sure, maybe just one or the other. I lived for Saturday nights. I watched ABC’s Wide Word of Sports, cursing when the announcer would go “…….And now we are going to break from the Grand Prix of Belgium and go back to Podunk, Ohio for the world tiddlywink championships”. It did not matter, it was all magic, all the time. And yes, some of it was very tragic as well.
The first Indy 500 that I ever listened to was 1964. I remember wrapping tin foil around the antenna of a small black transistor radio, and listened to the horror of that terrible first lap crash. When A.J. Foyt finally won, he was 50 feet tall to me. Who could possibly be his equal, much less beat him there? The next year I was dumbfounded when a British Driver named Jimmy Clark won the ’65 Indy 500…but not without AJ having something to say about that. I listened to the thrilling wheel to wheel battle between Clark and Foyt, and shortly thereafter forever became a fan of Formula 1. And of Jimmy Clark. Like I said, some of it’s tragic. I first got to Indy in 1969 to see Mario Andretti win his only Indy 500.
I had no problem with the rear engined cars, I loved them from the very beginning. I loved the rear engined Indy cars of the 60′s, similar to their F1 cousins but with subtle differences. Then they slowly evolved as the 70′s began, soon sprouting huge wings, giant noses, angular bodies and massive turbochargers. They were all beautiful…and still are. Even with body panels off, they glisten, their polished aluminum and perfectly spaced rivets and exquisitely machined parts a testament to the fertile creativity of the human brain. No computers designed Smoky Yunick’s radical Sidecar. No internet was used to craft the four-wheel drive turbine car that came within 6 laps of racing’s greatest prize. Dan Gurney had 2 designers and a shop of 10 fabricators that built the Eagles that ruled the Speedway. A.J. Foyt did not have a Twitter or Facebook account or focus group when he built his own chassis, created his own engine, and then drove that magnificent Coyote to victory in 1977. I will repeat that…he built his own car, designed and built his own engine, and then drove that car and engine to victory in the Indy 500, becoming the first 4-time winner. That is the greatest achievement in the history of racing, and it’s right close to the middle of my sweet spot.
I love the Formula 1 cars of the time. I know just about every line of the movie Grand Prix. Every scene, every nuance. If you have not seen it, do so now. If you have seen it, see it again. Special cars and oh so brave and special drivers. 1966-1967, ‘nuf said. I got to see the 6 wheel Tyrrell race at Watkins Glen in 1980, have you ever seen a 6 wheel race-car race? It will never happen again, designers are not allowed to think anymore, just whatever the rules and computer will let them do, and no trips outside the box, thank you. I got to see Gilles Villeneuve spend just about his entire race that day sideways. And Mario Andretti in what would be his last race for Team Lotus. I love the Formula one cars from my sweet spot. And while you’re at it, check out Steve McQueen’s Le Mans. Those movies are in a dead heat for the greatest racing movie of all time. On that subject, what does Ford consider to be its greatest achievement in racing? What do they always talk about? Their 1967 Le Mans victory, Fords greatest racing achievement.
Speaking of the 60′s …. In 1967 we went to the Daytona 500. Got there early Friday morning, there was qualifying going on. Parked in the parking lot. I went with a friend of mine down to the first turn area, and jumped the fence. My buddy hung back, “we’re going to be thrown out”, he said. I heard a moaning cry of a racing engine at full song echoing off of the grandstands and as I clambered up the hill it roared past, as yet unseen. I popped my head over the wall right in the middle of the 1 and 2 turns, right at the “Daytona” lettering. A distant drone suddenly became a purposeful wail, and I saw a black and gold blur appear for a moment, disappear, and then reappear as a fast moving, rapidly growing black and gold Chevelle, nothing on the car but number 13. I had no time to digest any of this, as the car suddenly and impossibly fast barreled into turn 1. Smoke poured off of the both outside tires, the car leaned over, simultaneously sliding up the banks straight at me, the burly driver manhandling the steering wheel, sawing away, the car teetered on the very edge as one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers fought for control…I was assaulted by chunks of rubber, ears blasted by whatever crazy header system Smokey had on the thing, I inhaled some heady fumes of God knows what, and then, in a final blasting assaulting of the senses, Curtis Turner thundered around turn 2 and headed down the backstretch on the first ever 180 mph qualifying lap that put Smoky Yunick’s Chevelle on the pole for the 1967 Daytona 500. “Hey kid, are you fucking crazy, get down from there right now,” yelled a security guy in a golf cart that had obviously been dispatched to the scene of the intrusion. “I tried to tell you”, my prudent friend yelled. No I did not get thrown out, just escorted to the gate, that’s all another story. I did sneak into the Daytona pits on several occasions, again that’s for another time. For now, its enough to say that I love the cars and drivers of what is now known as NASCAR’s golden era.
As wonderful as all of the big time racing is, for me its the short tracks where the sweetest of sweet spots lie. I did a fair amount of racing during this time. I drove my first race on my 16th birthday at Old Hollywood Speedway, that was the earliest that one could race then, even with a parents consent form signed and notarized. Of course I had #14 on the car, that was AJ’s number, what other number would I have run? I have raced with #14 on every racecar that was mine. Even when I was not racing, I was at one of the local tracks. Or at one of the out of town tracks. That’s far more than can be mentioned here. All I will say is, I love the tracks…and the drivers…and the cars…..and everything else that has to do with any of that from my sweet spot. I love the Supermodifed from the 60′s and the 70′s. And the sprint cars. The racing from Old Hollywood Speedway, seeing Rod Perry win races driving with one hand, seeing Gene Wynn in the immaculate purple “RJ Whitney Special” sprint car carry the left front wheel virtually all the way around the track and all the great battles in all of the other classes that took place there every Saturday night. Watching Larry Brazil and Dave Scarborough run most of an entire feature side by side at Tampa’s Golden Gate Speedway in their gorgeous pavement sprinters , neither one putting a wheel wrong. Speaking of Golden Gate, watching the Governors Cup there every November when it was THE premier race in the entire country. The late models slowly went from 57 Chevy’s, to Chevelles, then Camaro’s. They were all made of factory steel during my sweet spot. Watching Bobby Brack, Dickie Anderson, Billy Barnwell and all the rest body slamming each other every Saturday night at Hialeah. Seeing Gary Balough drive Hialeah Speedway like a dirt track. Our own Mini Stock racing at Florida City Speedway and Hialeah, way too much to start here now. And its not that new memories are not still being created, I still go to races. I got to see the 50th Knoxville Nationals, pretty special for sure. lots of Daytona Races, Indy cars, Sports cars, and many, many short tracks. And I don’t remember retiring from being behind the wheel either. But there is something about the locked in Sweet spot that is immune to tinkering. Its simply there, and I know it always will be.
And of course…you have your special sweet spot. That’s special to you. And as time goes by, it becomes more special, and oh so much sweeter. Like me, you probably love the street cars from your special time as well, I know I do. Another story, I’m not starting that now! And you know what? Right now, as we speak, there are sweet spots being created at the tracks. At the races. Jeff Gordon is special, who knows how many sweet spots he has created? He wrote high school papers about Steve Kinser. Lewis Hamilton grew up with Michael Schumacher posters on his wall. No matter who we are, we all have our sweet spot, our special time, where the cars will always look “right”, where the racing was perfect, a time when the drivers were hero’s, and life was good. That’s just one of the many things that makes this great sport special, because we create special memories for ourselves that define who we are. And over time, we grow very, very protective of our sweet spot and those memories, and that is as it should be. I have not yet become that old guy regaling the wide eyed kid, but I wonder if the inevitable will happen. I’m going to try and fight it as long as I can.
Just as long as you know that….. MY racecars are better than YOUR racecars.