By Erik Dolson
We all got together again the following weekend in Portland for the Rose Cup races. Seattle officials were still debating what penalty, if any, Snake would be given for aggressive driving.
Cowboy came by my paddock and said, “You need to go talk to Armadillo. They’re talking about giving them a life-time ban.” Armadillo is president of the Seattle club.
“That’s not right,” I said.
“That’s why you need to go talk to Armadillo.”
There were all sorts of ironies in this situation. To begin with, I promised myself decades ago that I wouldn’t get involved in politics of racing. I’d had enough of that for a lifetime at my real job. Racing was my refuge.
I also live alone on a hill top in MiddleofNowhere, Oregon. Cowboy has a ranch so far out they named his town after a city in India. It’s not like we’re members of a homeowner association. We also each race a Corvette, and this was a dispute between two guys who love Fords.
Not that it matters.
But Cowboy and I are not opposed to speaking up, on occasion. We agreed that a lifetime ban was too severe. At one time, great drivers like Garbage Man were told to pack it up early and just go home for the weekend when they drove far more aggressively than Snake.
So I wandered down to the end of the paddock where Armadillo was selling helmets and gloves and fuel to racers. I sat on the floor of his trailer to rest a hip that had just about had enough of standing around on pavement, two weekends in a row.
Armadillo asked me what I thought about the situation. I told him Snake made some passes in the Seattle race that I would not have made. That there are situations where a small mistake could hurt someone else.
But Snake comes from different level of competition where everyone is more aggressive, and his finishing position is certainly more important to his “people.” The passes probably seemed acceptable, to him, I said to Armadillo.
“There are some who want to give him a lifetime ban. They say they’ve talked to the Cobra guys over and over,” Armadillo replied. “But I have a problem with that. We’ve never penalized him before.”
“Then where’s the due process? Maybe you need to get their attention, and I don’t know if that’s five points or whatever, but not a lifetime ban. A lifetime ban is too much.”
Then I remembered something from the days when it was often said that we were supposed to “take care of each other out there.”
“I think race officials have the the power to fix this in about one minute,” I said to Armadillo. “Use the black flag. Bring a driver in if his driving is too aggressive.”
A black flag would be more effective than concerned conversations, especially with all of us Type A personalities. A black flag brings a driver in off the course. The penalty is right now, and that impacts your finishing position and hence your starting position for the next race. It’s a penalty that even a 12-year-old can understand.
I know this because, in the old days, when I was 11, I received a couple of rolled black flag warnings that modified my behavior.
“That’s an idea,” Armadillo said.
It would put a lot of responsibility on officials and turn workers, but we already trust them with our lives out there. Maybe a few cameras at key points along the track to resolve disputes, I don’t know.
But I did know I didn’t want to be any more involved in the discussion. I’d made that promise to myself that I would stay out of the politics. It was time to go racing. This was the Rose Cup!
Racing gods have a sense of humor, though. After qualifying, I was third, again. We line up two by two when we start a race, so there were two cars in front of me.
One was Ceegar. The other was Snake.
They had a clean start, and Snake just drove off and left me and Ceegar to battle it out for second. I did everything I could, too, to get by Ceegar but I couldn’t do it. My lap time was 3/10ths faster, but he did to me exactly what I’d done to the silver Corvette in Seattle. Ceegar’s TransAm Mustang was always exactly where I needed to be.
I tried to dive underneath him into the corners, but he was there. I tried to squeak by on corner exit, he was there. I thought I had him a couple of times, but he was right there and I couldn’t go around. It was great fun trying.
After the race, I was going to drive through his paddock and give him a high five, but I noticed that my clutch didn’t disengage the engine and the car didn’t slow, so I went over to my own trailer. The transmission wouldn’t shift, either.
We made a quick adjustment. When we went to start the car to test it, the engine did not turn over. No sound. Nothing. Mule, my mechanic, grabbed a volt meter to test if it was a switch or the starter.
’‘Funny, I just told someone ‘We never have to work on your car,” said Mule.
“You what!?!” I was amazed he would invite the racing gods to strike us down. “You NEVER say that!”
Mule replaced the starter with one we had in the trailer.
“It’s been used,” he said. “I don’t think it will work, or we wouldn’t have taken it out.”
“No, we took it out and replaced it several years ago at this event, before we realized that the master switch went bad, and we saved this starter as a spare,” I said, hoping my memory was better than his.
I was lucky, the replacement starter worked.
So now we could attack the clutch problem. Jakester’s mom brought cheeseburgers from across the highway for dinner. We kept working. Rather, Mule kept working. My job was to hand him wrenches and pry bars and whatever else he needed. Cowboy came up with a stack of clutch plates we could use to rebuild the clutch in the car.
The car was on jack stands, which gave Mule less than 18 inches of clearance as he lay on his back on a sheet of cardboard I’d put in the trailer for exactly this purpose. The cardboard made it easier to slide under and out from under the car.
Mule had his “creeper,” a wheeled cart to lie on while wrenching under the cars, but it raised him several inches and didn’t give him enough room for his elbows. Once he put his head down to rest. He’d slid part way off the cardboard and his head hit the hard pavement with its scattering of gravel. I brought him the foam pad I stand on in the trailer to change into my driving suit.
Mule also works on cars for Mr. & Ms. Polished. She’d broken the rear end of her Corvette. Their crew arrived with a new rear end just as it got dark. Mule told them he would put it in in the morning, that he wanted to get my Yellowjacket up and running. They seemed disappointed.
It wasn’t a cold night, and thankfully it wasn’t raining. Mule struggled to lift the transmission, but eventually it came free as he complained he wasn’t as strong as he used to be.
A man came over and asked us to turn the generator off that was providing light to work.
“Can’t do that,” I told him.
“It’s ten p.m., isn’t that quiet time?” He asked.
“I’m not going to argue with you. We’re going to keep working, but I’ll move the generator as far away from your van as I can,” I said. Jakester and I set the generator up on the other side of a trailer that had a much louder generator running, and surrounded that loud one with cardboard so the couple could sleep.
Eventually, I told Jakester to go home. At 12:30, I told Mule we needed to call it a day. The transmission was out, we could install the clutch in the morning. I told him to get the rear end in Ms. Polished’s car first, though. They depended on him too.
That job took longer than anticipated, and we didn’t get our clutch wrapped up by the race Saturday morning. So I missed it and that afternoon, started in 25th position instead of 3rd.
When the green flag came down, I carved my way up through the pack. What a rush! Diving inside of one car, to the outside of the next. Barely hanging on around the long sweepers, braking as late as I dared at the end of the straights. I love to play chase, and this was to get a shot in the final race that would be held the next day.
But the real performance was by Snake in the Team Cobra car. He turned a 1:20:001 in that race. I had the second fastest time out there, and I was three and one-half seconds behind him! I’d like to say it was because my clutch was still a little raw, that that the tires were a little greasy, but no.
He also had 120.099 that weekend. These are unheard of times for vintage “production cars.” Granted, the Cobra was never a “common” car, but neither were ZL1 Corvettes like I drive.
I should say that “they” had a 120:099. The reason they were able to turn that time was the harmony between an outstanding driver, an extremely well performing chassis, and a powerful and reliable engine. That’s the only way to get it done, and that’s how it was done.
Ceegar was held in the paddock because he was running two cars in separate classes, back to back, and he couldn’t get to the starting grid in time to start in his earned position in our race. In the final race on Sunday, he had mechanical issues and was only able to finish 7 laps, but turned in a good time.
I went after the Cobra with everything I had in Sunday’s feature. I jumped him and the Porsche from Seaside on the start, and actually led for a couple of laps. It was close racing, but he could have run away from me at any point. That is what it is.
It’s a remarkable to see a car like that Cobra dance in the hands of a driver so skilled. The car looked as if it barely touched the ground, and only then to change direction. The rest of the time it seemed to float on a thin crackle of its own energy, like a bouncing ball of lightning. Watching Ceegar is like that at times, when his car lifts one or both front wheels off the ground, or when the back end chudders first one way then the next, clawing for grip.
After the race, on the podium, Snake had his hands full of roses and water and the checkered flag that I offered to hold for him, with a smile. At the end of the ceremony, they presented me a trophy for upholding the spirit of vintage racing.
I don’t know. On any weekend I can look around the paddock and see others who deserve it more. Like Cowboy, who 25 years ago talked me back into this absurd sport that saps my income and consumes my summers. Or Mr. & Ms. Polished, who have resurrected important cars from the past that would have been forgotten and possibly destroyed. Personally I would name P.I. Tiger, who always has a smile and a good word and whose honesty of soul shines as brightly as the car that he’s rebuilt more than once after being hit and never his fault.
But, humbled by other names on that trophy, all I could really say was thank you. And then worry about getting a new clutch ordered and some new brake pads, decide whether to spend another thousand on tires for the next couple of races, and pray the engine would last until the end of the season because when it breaks, we’re done.
Even when the race weekend is over, parts are broken and repairs need to be made, and late nights are followed by early mornings and then by hours of hauling a heavy trailer home, it’s still not enough. It’s never enough.