Dirt and glory

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An antidote to the high-grip, no-slide world of modern F1 comes in a timely reminder of days when men were men and Langhorne had a fierce reputation as a killer track

If you have the slightest interest in what drives men to race cars and, in bygone days, to remain oblivious to the risks of their profession, you will love Dick Wallen’s latest book,” Fabulous Fifties – American Championship Racing”.

Some readers may be familiar already with his excellent “BOARD TRACK – Guts, gold and glory” work on the heady days of racing on wooden oval tracks in the States. That was a wonderfully evocative tome, and “Fabulous Fifties” follows a similar format as Wallen and a number of talented writers trace the decade of American Champ car and sprint car racing that sired such legends as Jimmy Bryan, Billy Vukovich and Eddie Sachs.

Wallen, true to established form, draws not only on his own personal recollections as a spectator of the era and also maker of some quite extraordinarily advanced films of the racing. Respected writer Carol Sims transcribed the foreword by triple Indy winner Rodger Ward, and there are similarly erudite contributions by Larry Nuber, George Peters, Dave Argabright, Jim Chini and Bob Schilling, all topped off by Phil Harms’ splendid box scores and racing statistics. The chapter entitled ‘The Speed Merchants’ charts pretty well all of the major contenders in photographic and cv form.

I particularly enjoyed Sims’ tribute to Bryan, ‘The Cowboy’ who won the 1957 Race of Two Worlds at Monza, and Argabright’s chapter on Tony Bettenhausen. ‘The Tinley Park Express’. The warts are there, but so are the achievements that stood them above their fellow racers. Best of all, though, is Sachs’ chapter. I confess to a fascination for the Clown Prince, whose resolution and determination puts me in mind of a close racing friend. Entitled ‘Getting a ride in the Fifties’ it’s an oft hysterical narrative of his frequently clumsy efforts to establish himself as a topliner.

Try this: ‘I came around the turn, down the front straightaway, and got the green flag! Man, the turn came up on me and I went “Ooooohhhhh!” and I was on the straightaway again. Down the back stretch and all of a sudden another turn. “Ooooohhhhh!” Oh God, I finished my qualification, got back in the pits, stopped the car and sat there, thinking, “Boy, I’m safe!

“Johnny Apple came running over to me and said, ‘What’d you do, hold your breath for two laps? I said, Oh Johnny, did I set a new track record? He looked down at me and said, ‘Eddie, you just turned the slowest time that’s ever been turned on this track’. I said, But Johnny, I was really sideways going through the turns. He said to me, ‘You weren’t even two inches out of line.’ lust then something attracted my attention. I looked down in the cockpit and both of my legs were jumping up and down so much I couldn’t even get out of the car. Then I reached down to unhook the safety belt. Man, when you can’t even control yourself . . .”

Or the time he heard ‘The Voice of Firestone’ as he spun and failed his 1953 Indianapolis rookie test. He slid through 565 feet asking himself all the time as he hunkered down in the cockpit just when he was going to hit the wall. As he spun he got covered in mud, and he was still gripping the wheel when the ambulance arrived.

“When the yellow light came on, Elknoc happened to be driving the ambulance that day. I better explain that Elknoc was really Conkle, the funeral home director in Indianapolis. But if you spell Conkle backward, it’s Elknoc. Later he told me, ‘Eddie, when I saw that yellow I ran for the ambulance, turned the key on, let that clutch fly and took off. And as I was tearing out of the pits I heard somebody holler, “It’s Sachs.” When I heard it was you, my old drinking buddy, I went into the number one turn and through the turn on to the short straightaway and I’m looking for you. Then out of turn two and going down that back straightaway, still looking for you, I looked down and saw the speedometer — 100 mph. Eddie, I lifted my foot from the gas, punched the brake and slowed that ambulance down. i said to myself, “He isn’t worth it.”

“Elknoc went through the number three turn, across the short straight, and saw me parked in the infield. He drove the ambulance over to my race car, threw his door open, jumped out, ran up to me and I was still down there, waiting to hit the wall. He tapped me on the shoulder and hollered, ‘Are you okay?’ It snapped me, and I realised I’d stopped. I thought, “I’m okay, I’m okay!” Boy I sat up straight in the cockpit and from my helmet on down I was a solid mass of mud all the way. Solid mud. I looked out toward the straightaway, to the left, to the right, and up to the sky. I hollered, “I’m blind! I”m blind! I can’t see!” And Elknoc said, ‘You dumb so and so, take your goggles off.’ “

Despite self-confessed incidents like that, Sachs went on to establish himself as one of the greats of his time, until sadly he met Elknoc in his professional capacity after getting involved in Dave MacDonald’s fiery accident at Indy in 1964.

This lovely book is full of such stories, and paints portraits not only of the drivers, but of the circuits they raced on and the events themselves, year on year. There is nothing else like it nor will there ever be again. It’s a unique piece of work. Read it and weep for a bygone innocence and lack of commercial avarice, for a time when the best men really did win. Today we decry the stick-like-glue cornering characteristics of the modern race car; within the 562 pages of “Fabulous Fifties” are all manner of reminders of men such as ‘Nasty’ Mike Nazaruk — who once chased a detractor wielding a hammer, screaming ‘Whaddya mean, I’m beautiful out there!’ Of days when they tore round the furrowed dirt of the notoriously dangerous Langhorne bowl with nothing more to protect them from their own mortality than skill and strength, the tails of their bullish roadsters hung out to the very edge. Mercifully driver safety has become paramount, and the days when writers penned as many obituaries as race reports are long gone. But if only we could still see tangible evidence of the battle between driver, car and the laws of physics. . . D J T

Fabulous Fifties — American Championship Racing)

by Dick Wallen and edited by Carol Sims, is published by Dick Wallen Productions, PO Box 2261, Escondida, CA 92033, United States. Hardbound $125; deluxe hardbound with matching sleeve $150. Airmail to Europe add $40.