Langhome

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‘All Patrons are cordially invited to visit the pits following today’s race. You may have the opportunity to meet your favourite drivers and look over the race cars at dose range.’ These words are from a race programme, so already you have some clue that we’re not talking about modern F1.

It is over 30 years since the ‘old’ Spa-Francorchamps circuit hosted the Belgian Grand Prix for the last time. After that, militant drivers refused to go back, claiming the place had become unacceptably perilous. On the other side of the water they were saying the same about Langhome.

I have some programmes from the place, and it is from one of them that my opening paragraph comes. Consciously or not, the word ‘may’ was well chosen, for there was a fair chance, in this place, that your favourite race driver and his car might not be in one piece by the end of the day.

Langhome, indeed, would be an ideal twin town for Francorchamps. You will find it a few miles north of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, but there’s no trace of a track. On the site now is a faceless shopping mall, just like any other, save that the foundations of this one are bloodied.

Langhome was a one-mile dirt track, like DuQuoin or Syracuse or Sacramento. But where these others were conventional ovals, Langhome was rounded off, almost circular. It was known, in fact, as ‘The Big Left Turn’; there was nowhere for a driver to relax even momentarily. The whole of his lap was effectively one long, opposite-lock slide. Even on the narrow tyres of 40 years ago, a great driver could lap at close to 115mph.

Not far away is Nazareth, where Poppa Andretti settled his family in 1955. “Even now,” Mario says, “when I think about Langhome, I get goose bumps. There was something special about that place. When we were in our teens, my brother Aldo and I went out there lots of times to watch, and it seemed like every time somebody would buy the farm.

“People don’t realise these days that, in the 1960s, the USAC Championship was still a mix of paved tracks like Indianapolis, and dirt tracks like Langhome. Hiked that, because they were totally different disciplines, and you had to excel at both.

“Langhome’s 100-mile championship race was run in June, when the heat was tremendous. The track would get dusty, and the ruts deeper and deeper — man, you’d see cars pitched dean in the air by those ruts.”

In part, Langhome’s viciousness stemmed from its location. The track, built in 1926, was on marshland, with a host of underground springs, so parts of it tended most of the time to be moist and soft; wheels dug ruts, which then baked in the summer sun. Most notorious of all was the section soon after the start, downhill, very quick. The drivers called it ‘Puke Hollow’.

In 1964, Andretti was a feisty young sprint car driver aiming for Indianapolis. Early in the season he had a one-off drive in a roadster at Trenton, and soon afterwards was approached by legendary crew chief Clint Brawner, then running the Dean Van Lines team. It was a plum drive, and the contract should have come into effect at Langhome, but Brawner said Mario wasn’t ready for that place.

“He was smart to say that, no question,” Mario says, “but I was just getting started in the big time, full of vinegar. Okay, if Clint wouldn’t let me run, I’d find a ride someplace else. What I found was the Windmill Truckers Special.”

In my programme, opposite the entry of car number 74, the space for the driver’s name is left vacant. ‘Mario Antratti’, the original owner has scribbled in. The Windmill Truckers Special was not a car in the first flush of youth. Its engine was tired but, more crucially, it lacked power steering, by then a standard item on front-running dirt cars. In short, it was everything a small, slight man didn’t need on a torpid afternoon.

“That deal had two things going for it,” says Andretti. “It was quite a forgiving car. But more important was that the chief mechanic was Tommy Hinnershitz, who had been one of the greatest drivers on dirt. Anything that man said, I was gonna listen to.”

Hinnershitz warned Mario of a phenomenon peculiar to Langhome. The almost circular shape of the track, he said, sometimes caused a driver to lose his bearings. “It was a kind of ‘mad momentum’. You were turning left the whole time, and you could literally forget where on the racetrack you were! Tommy warned me about turn three: that was where you ran out of road, he said, where you could so easily catch the fence.

“On my first hot lap in practice, I was really keen to get at it, you know. The handling felt good, and it would have been very easy to have gotten carried away with myself, tail way out of line, holding the thing on the throttle. It felt good! But I just remembered what Tommy had said, and came off the gas early for turn three. You know what? I only just made it through. Without him, I’d have been up in the stands someplace.”

Andretti finished ninth, somehow wrestling the car to the flag. For that he earned a princely $637 which had to be split with the owners.

“I had no idea where I was at the end. It just seemed like it would never end, with all that heat and dust. I would love to have quit, but there was no way I had to finish, after what Brawner had said. And my hands… Jesus, my hands! I really had to fight that thing, and the steering wheel had been taped up with black electrical tape. I wore those thin leather gloves, and my hands were skinned I mean, just like raw hamburger.”

Langhorme, for Andretti, was bitter to endure, sweet to remember. Before the race, he had been so scared that it had kept him from sleep: “When a guy like Rodger Ward who’d won Indy twice and was also real good on dirt refused to run Langhome, on safety grounds, it had to be one spooky place. And it was.”

Ward had no fear of the dirt cars, as such, and would happily race at Springfield or Sedalia. But Langhome, no. If his team wanted to run there, fine, they could get another driver. In 1960, they got Jimmy Bryan.

Here was one of the greatest of American drivers, known for his skills on the dirt, but who, after winning the Indy 500 in 1958, had gone into virtual retirement In future, he said, he would drive only in the 500, and for a couple of years he kept to that. By 1960, though, his hedonistic way of life had taken its toll on his savings. It seemed like the classic cliche story of the fighter, broke and past his best, coming back for all the wrong reasons. When Ward rejected Langhome, Bryan snapped up the ride.

Why Langhome, of all places? Because he loved it, he said. It was his kind of track; he had won there many times. And in qualifying, only Don Branson, whom Andretti considers the best on dirt there has ever been, beat him.

The temperature was close on 100deg when the green flag waved. Bryan snatched the lead, crossing the line sideways not even the start/ finish area was straight. Followed by Branson and Jim Hurtubise, Bryan pitched the Leader Card Offenhauser into turn one. Ahead lay the ruts of Puke Hollow, and there, as he fought with the car, he tagged Hurtubise, and began endlessly somersaulting.

The same day, at Spa, Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey were killed in the Belgian Grand Prix. Ten years on, Chris Amon would lament the passing of the old circuit: “It frightened the hell out of you, but a quick lap gave you satisfaction like nowhere else.” Roger McCluskey said much the same of Langhome: “I’m glad they’ve stopped it, but I’m still going to miss it.”

Faced with dwindling entry lists, the Langhome promoters did the unthinkable in 1965, and paved their infamous mile. It was, in many ways, the worst of both worlds: it remained lethal, yet now lacked the spectacle which had drawn driver and spectator alike for 40 years, that of a car held sideways, balanced on the throttle.

“Langhome never changed,” says Andretti. “It was always going to be a widow-maker. I guess Foyt’s the only guy I ever heard say he really liked the place but, of course, with his size and strength, it suited him.

“It was safer after they paved it, but then the speeds went up. By the end of the ’60s, the lap speed was upwards of 130. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced g forces like that I won there a couple of times, but it was always the race you didn’t look forward to.”

A bizarre spot for muzak and Mothercare. I wonder if there are ghosts in the mall? There should be.

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