As I sauntered up to the track, the antique Midget racer jumped; its Model A Ford engine coughed, and then it roared to life. Its proud owner eased it around the improvised dirt track for a couple of laps to warm it up, and then shot down the straightaway like a spit-out watermelon seed and snapped into a roaring power slide at the turn. I was surprised at how fast the tiny racer could go. But then that engine did have 200 cubic inches to play with, and had been souped up, as they used to say.
I had stumbled onto a get-together of a club of guys who collect and race old dirt-track cars. Most of the machines were painted in vintage schemes, often with the names of famous drivers on them. There was one outfitted with an early Chevy straight-six sporting three carbs, and there were also a couple of Thirties-era cars with Ford V-8 60s in them making that wonderful sonorous roar that only a vintage flathead produces.
One of the members of the club was a dairy farmer who had cleared a track in his pasture with a scraper and invited the guys over. I was cruising along a nearby highway when I glimpsed one of the machines screaming down a straightaway in the distance. To my wife's chagrin, I turned off and found the farmer's driveway. Being an old-school reporter, I kept going until someone stopped me.
No one did.
Actually, the guys were happy to show off their machines. The sounds, along with the smells of gasoline, alcohol, oil and rubber, took me back to my childhood, when my father and my uncle Benny used to take me to the speedway on Saturday night. And each May, we used to cluster around the radio to listen to the Indianapolis 500. I was a little kid, but I remember the era well.
Many of the early Midgets, Sprint Cars, and Indy roadsters--especially the Offenhauser-powered ones--made awesome power and could be over-driven quite easily, with tragic results. Hot rods of the time were much the same: The rodders of yesteryear were better at making cars go fast than they were at making them handle or stop. Those refinements came later. And in reality, until the middle of the last century, most race cars were actually "specials" or hot rods, not high-tech purpose-built machines that cost easily seven figures.
It was so heartening to see and hear those old race cars again. I have an enduring fondness for American backyard specials, whether they're dirt track machines or lakesters. Don't get me wrong: I deplore seeing restorable vintage cars made into hot rods today, but I am glad people are restoring the historic rods and race cars of yesteryear and putting them back the way they were in the old days.
You can easily spot the old originals. They don't look like today's lollipops with their Chevy small-blocks, Turbo 350 transmissions, chrome differential covers and absurdly fat tires. In fact, in the old days, they usually had tall rear tires in order to get top end performance out of the old flathead V-8s coupled to low rearend ratios.
For instance, at a swap meet awhile back, I saw a nearly perfect original track rod. It was a 1934 Ford fenderless highboy roadster with a later Mercury flathead engine, tall, thin rear wheels, and no interior except for a seat. The welds on the chassis were sloppy, the paint was a faded baby blue, and the whole car had the look of what was called a jalopy in the Forties. It was an authentic, original backyard special. And just so you'd know, in the front seat of this blast-from-the-past was a hand-lettered sign that said "It IS restored, ****head."
Years ago, most race cars in the U.S. were cobbled together specials made out of standard production cars. Even the Indianapolis 500 was full of Studebaker, Ford and GMC stock-block engines and running gear. It was a creative and innovative time when the automobile was still being perfected--unlike today, when the race entrants are all stultifyingly identical cars and everything revolves around corporate sponsors.
We've forgotten that Indy started out as an endurance race, hence the 500 miles. The pits in those days were holes in the ground in which mechanics could stand and work on the cars. Daring drivers were much admired back then, but the race was more about the cars.
As evidence of what I am talking about, at Indy, you still qualify the car, not the driver. A team can switch drivers before the race if it chooses, but a driver can't substitute his backup car at the last minute the way he can in other modern races. And I must confess, I like it that way.
I will watch the 500 again this year, as I have followed it every year since 1955, when I was listening to it on the radio with my dad as we polished the family Pontiac. I remember it well because it was the year Vukie (Bill Vukovich Sr.) was killed in a horrific crash. But now, sadly, the race doesn't mean much to me. Now it's all about strategy.
Gone are the days when Freddie Agabashian put a Cummins Diesel-powered car on the pole. (He failed to win because his car was so heavy that he couldn't keep tires on it.) That was 1952. Back when the cars--and some of the drivers--were loud, smelly brutes. Back before the pretty boys and girls in their corporate logo-plastered driving suits, with their identical cars costing astronomical sums, preened in front of the cameras.
I still follow racing, but I'd rather watch a Ford 60-powered Midget painted up in Gilmore racing livery, driven by an enthusiastic amateur around a farmer's paddock, than go to a major event. That's how it all started, and that was when racing was at its most unpredictable, exciting best.
Keep American auto racing alive. Restore a backyard special.
This article originally appeared in the July, 2009 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.
from Hemmings Classic Car
July, 2009 - Jim Richardson