AA Punted at Watkins Glen

“Nooo, you idiot” I groaned as the Corvette bashed into Peyote’s left rear corner, pivoting the car sideways onto its massive bumper. I slid along sideways at sixty MPH and I stared up the hood five inches from my elbow. The big car was pushing me towards the tire wall. I had just enough time to think “you jerk”, and then I hit the wall. Peyote’s right front wheel smashed into the rubber, aluminum crumpled and I could actually see the wheel move backward as the suspension mounts bent. I knew the All Aluminum Tour was over.

Rewind.

SVRA’s Zippo U.S. Vintage Grand Prix is a big event at a big track–Watkins Glen. Tony Garmey says Watkins separates the sheep from the goats. I’m not exactly sure what that means–Kiwis talk like that–but I get the drift. Diane and I left Limerock Monday night and got to Watkins Glen on Wednesday, only to discover they wouldn’t let us in until Thursday morning. We used my iPhone to find a nearby campground and found one near Bath, NY, which turned out not to be as close to Watkins Glen as it looked. Once we dumped the trailer we spent the afternoon driving around Keuka Lake and had an excellent dinner at the Esperanza Mansion, a remarkable place overlooking the Lake.

We got back to the campground after dark, and as I was backing the truck close to the hitch my phone went off, distracting me for a second. Crunch! I gave the new electric jack a bought a few weeks ago a good whack. I made temporary repairs the next morning and made the hour long journey to the track. We set up in a good area with electricity and water, and I tried to repair the jack. After a lot of fiddling I gave up and used the iPhone to find the nearest RV parts store. You guessed it–Bath, NY.

Driving back from Bath the second time in one day we passed a KOA campground about half a mile from Watkins Glen. Perhaps Google Maps isn’t quite ready to replace the yellow pages.

On the plus side, we had a nice lunch in a tavern in Hammondsport and got to see this great Curtis seaplane being launched. Hammondsport is where the Curtis museum is, and it’s one of the cradles of aviation. Not much else there but some beautiful old buildings and a nice lake. I guess that’s quite a lot when I think about it.

I got to help launch this thing–only because I was the tallest guy on the dock and could catch the wing when the plane got blown around. The guys launching it were pretty casual about the whole thing–lots of crunching noises when they started pushing it off the cradle that would have given me a heart attack if it were mine. I don’t know if there was any damage. This plane must have taken a huge amount of effort to restore. The pictures don’t do it justice. I’ll put the rest in the gallery I’m building that will hold all the pictures from the trip.

Lots of Friends of Triumph pals showed up at the track–some racing, some spectating. We’ve really appreciated belonging to the FOT on this trip: We have friends everywhere. In the trailer next to us was Steve Groh–a FOTer and fairly new Triumph Spitfire racer. Down the pit road a few spots was Henry Frye–always a pleasant guy to have around, and his wife Helen immediately bonded with Diane. Bill Dentinger and Bob Wismer were pitted far away from us though I saw them both at the drivers meeting. They were having clutch problems. I rode my bike around looking for them to offer help, but couldn’t find them. I ran into Cornell Babcock when I was doing tech. I don’t know of any direct family connection, but we both have the same nose, we both race LBCs, both of us love TR3’s, and we both think it’s important that our trailer has three axles. How much of all this stuff that makes us up is learned and how much is hardwired into our genes?

Cornell was driving his meticulously prepped TR3. Rich Rock brought us some sweet corn and a huge delicious tomato. Our Philly FOT buddies Ed and Bruce showed up–they’ve been to at least five of the twelve races we completed on the All Aluminum tour. What a great bunch of folks. Please forgive me if I forgot to mention your name–it was a long and eventful weekend. And of course, my memory sucks.

Thursday I got on the track for a timed practice and a qualifier. I was running in Group Four with a lot of big iron–Listers, a very fast Chapparal, a blisteringly fast and very well driven Lotus 11 Le Mans, various other sports racers, some corvettes, and inexplicably, a cluster of MGA’s and Big Healys. My times were okay–2:29 the first time on track, 2:22 the second. I figured I could get down to 2:21 (as I did the first time I was at Watkins Glen for the HSR event in early summer) and perhaps even to 2:20. My times were putting me in the front of the pack–third if the relative times held up. Watkins Glen is a horsepower track but Peyote makes up time in some of the corner combinations and I can carry a lot more speed than the big cars do coming onto the straights. For example, from the exit of turn one to the “bus stop” chicane Peyote is flat out in fourth, threading a very precise needle with not even a lift. Most of the big cars brake for at least two of the three turns between, especially the scary bridge turns with their big steel rails and no runoff. I noticed the Lotus 11 wasn’t braking either, though his light weight gave him more horsepower parity.

Thursday night we did a barbeque in our pits and invited everyone hanging around. Lots of roasted sweet corn, a big platter of fat slices of local homegrown tomatoes (“only two things that money can’t buy, true love and homegrown tomatoes”) with basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar (Diane said the fresh Mozzarella I bought a week ago was spoiled-I’d have tried it) and some chicken. People hardly touched the chicken–they filled up on corn and tomatoes. I think it would be easy to be a vegetarian in the summer.

On Friday morning my brother Dave was in the paddock when I climbed out of Nero at 6:00. He’d gotten to the track about four ayem. He had enough fun at Limerock to make him want to take the long drive from Boston to Watkins Glen. I think he’s got the bug pretty bad. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in a vintage car sometime soon. I should probably tell him how much all this stuff really costs. It ain’t the car, buddy, it’s everything else. And the cars aren’t cheap.

Dave and I went to breakfast at Tobe’s in Watkins Glen, leaving Diane to catch up on her sleep. Friday I was only on the track once, but the times counted towards qualifying. I pushed hard and did 2.23. The front end was pushing pretty hard. Time to look for new tires. I also checked the camber and found the left side had about a degree too much. The class rules at Limerock required me to switch to rock-hard vintage Dunlops and the bias ply tires require that I set the camber to zero, so I probably miscounted when I switched back. The big horsepower cars were giving me fits–they’d eat me up in the straights and then tiptoe through the turns. sometimes it felt like we were barely moving. There are a few good places to pass, but most of them lead to chutes where I’d just get re-passed on horsepower anyway.

Friday evening they do a re-enactment of racing on the old Watkins Glen road course. There were more than 500 cars registered for the race and they only take 150 for the enactment. I wrote an eloquent plea for Peyote’s inclusion that turned out to be unnecessary–they had less than 150 cars apply.

Diane wanted to go, but Peyote has no passenger seat. I tried to make a case for fabricating something on top of the fuel cell, but the tech guy just kept saying “so you’re telling me you want your passenger to sit on the fuel cell?!?” Fortunately Henry Frye had an empty seat in his car since Helen didn’t want to go. Diane snapped up the opportunity and went to buy appropriate accessories–goggles and a leather helmet. Cute.

Diane and Henry in his TR4

Peyote looks kind of little. We had a police escort from the track to downtown, then we parked the cars on both sides of the main street so the crowd could look over the cars (and I could grab a brat–a damned good one), we did two laps around the track with a police escort and then headed right back to the track. Slow in some spots, but fast enough to get the adrenaline going in others. The guys that did this fifty years ago with minimal safety equipment had enormous courage–or little imagination.

There were 50 thousand people on the street. The sidewalks were packed. Along the route, there were people at every place that might have a little drama. One group had a table set with a white tablecloth, nice wine glasses (looked like a Cabernet) and a nice cheese and fruit tray (at least as far as I could tell from my 50 MPH vantage point).

I made the mistake of wearing shorts–there’s a lot of heat coming up the footwell of this little car. I was roasted by the time I got back to the track.

Saturday we had a warmup in the morning and a qualifying race in the afternoon. I got two new Hoosier Speedsters for the front (two was all that Woodman had left), scrubbed them in in the morning session and felt an immediate improvement in the handling. In the afternoon we had a qualifying race. I was gridded third behind the Chapparal and the Lotus 11, with a wad of Listers, Devin SS’s, and Corvettes behind. When the pace car turned onto the straight the pace was glacial. I really needed to shift to first, but didn’t dare because I’d run the risk of getting smacked when I had to shift right away. The starter waved a very early green and we were off. A lot of cars passed me as I tried to accelerate, but I went to the outside going into turn one and passed all but John Harden’s Lister and a white Corvette. The Chapparal and the Lotus were wailing away out of reach. I settled down to try to pass the two big cars that had gotten by me.

Of course, it was nearly impossible. I was bottled up behind them in the turns, going painfully slow, and then they’d pull ten car lengths on me in the straight and I’d have to run up on them again. It’s hard for a momentum car like Peyote to get daylight on a point-and-shoot horsepower car at a track like Watkins Glen. Every corner complex is followed by either a long chute or a straight.

I kept working on them, but I was somewhat resigned to finishing behind them since they were bunched together and much too wide to pass as a pair. But since they were battling each other they were slowing more than usual in the corners, and the Corvette was sliding around a lot. Behind us was a Lister and Devin that we had pulled a good lead on, but they started catching up. I don’t think we were turning anything better than 2:25, maybe even slower. I knew if the cars behind us got within five car lengths that they’d pass me on the straight.

On the last lap, the cars behind were still closing, but I reckoned I had enough lead to hold the position. As we entered the long carousel-like turn after the chicane, John’s Lister pulled a good lead on the Corvette, and the Corvette driver blew the apex by at least five feet, going very wide. I kept my speed up, tucked inside him and passed. As we entered the left-hander they call the chute I turned in for the apex and saw the Corvette coming straight at me. He smashed into Peyote’s left rear corner and the car immediately pivoted onto the front of his car. I watched his big ass ’57 Corvette with the hood at my elbow push me through the corner sideways until I crashed into the tire wall, crunching the right front corner.

I sat stunned for a moment, then got out of the car, and walked behind the wall, pulling off my helmet and gloves. When the driver of the Corvette came behind the wall I said: “what the f@*k was that about”. He said, “that’s what I want to know.” I stared at him and started to reply but the corner worker stepped between us and started asking me questions. Either the corner worker was looking the wrong way and didn’t see the wreck, or he saw murder in my eye and was defusing the situation. Either way, I realized I’d gain nothing by talking to the guy–anyone that can hit a car in the rear end and then pretend it wasn’t his fault isn’t anyone I need to talk to.

Not only did he wreck my car, but he could also have killed me, all because he didn’t want to get passed, pure and simple, and tried to bully his way through a hole that wasn’t there. A particularly stupid move since there’s no way I could have held him off in the uphill straight after the boot.

They took me in an ambulance to the medical center and checked me out thoroughly–I hit the wall hard. On the way to medical, I saw Diane walking fast towards an official, looking pretty frantic. I tried to get the EMT to stop so I could reassure her, but they said they needed to get me to the med center. I checked out fine and they released me once my blood pressure came down. I caught up with Diane close to the paddock. She started crying when she saw me but calmed down pretty quickly.

The tow truck was pulling out as we walked to the paddock. Peyote had already been unloaded. The car looked so forlorn I got a lump in my throat. Twelve events this summer, on tracks we’d never been on, racing with people we mostly didn’t know. Never a scratch, and the little car performed so gallantly against overwhelming competition. Now it was over because of ruthless, reckless, talentless driving.

I have no problem forgiving errors in judgment, I make too many of them to be stiff necked. But I’ve got this silly honor and integrity hangup. The guy never apologized, didn’t even have the guts to say something noncommital like “sorry your car got damaged” or “glad you weren’t hurt”. Instead, he did his best to make the stewards believe it was my fault. He knows he’s lying, and I know he’s lying. Of course, by now he’s lying to himself too.

I’ve been on the guilty side of an incident like this about ten years ago, and though it was a less clearcut than this incident (I hit a Lotus 7 in the right front fender of his car when I couldn’t brake in time as he turned into a chicane on the start), I stepped up and apologized. How could anyone not? Even paid for the guy’s damage though I think it’s wrong to do that and I’d never look for it–we all assume the risk of damage or injury when we choose to race.

I’ll fix my own car.

The stewards didn’t “decide” on their action, which I take to mean they wanted everyone cleared out before they decide to do nothing. They were already making noises about “mitigating aspects” when I talked to them, despite clear evidence like a big punt mark in the back of my car, the fact that my car got pushed a couple of hundred feet down the track on the front of his car (kind of hard to get there if you’re side by side), a video from Doug Karon’s Devin, and lots of people that saw the incident. Of course, I know “witnesses” see what they want to see and there’s always another story, but this one is pretty clearcut. I assume politics will take the forefront.

They were even talking about my duties as the passing driver and whether or not I had completed the pass before I turned in. Excuse me? I get hit in the back end hard enough to push my subframe into my tire and we’re talking about my pass? My pass was over in the previous corner, the Corvette was the overtaking driver. End of story.

David surveys the damage.

“Did you complete your pass”? Is there some other way to get in front?

free bumper ride

bent frame on the right front from hitting the wall

If I did such a bonehead thing I’d expect to get suspended, but this guy has run with SVRA for years and I’m just a guy from Oregon that they may never see again. They’re the ones that will have to race with him, I certainly wouldn’t set a wheel on a track with him again.

A lot of folks dropped by to sympathize. It started raining like heck and I couldn’t get Peyote into the trailer until I cleared it out. Made me feel bad looking at it sitting in the rain, all crushed up, but I decided to wait until the next morning to load up. Burt Levy came over to cheer me up. He told me he had known the guy for years and he was a stand-up guy. I told him you couldn’t prove that by me and opened a bottle of nice provencal Rose’. We sat and shot the shit, talked racing and the tracks I’d been to on the tour. The bottle magically emptied, and so did another. I wound up going to dinner with Diane, my brother David, Henry Frye and Helen. The food tasted like sawdust. I don’t think it had much to do with the cook.

It rained like hell all night. I couldn’t sleep much–too worked up. David got wet in his tent that attaches to his Aztek (AZTEK!). We were a pretty sorry sight the next morning. took Dave to Tobe’s again, then I got Peyote loaded up, packed everything, and we hit the road, headed home. It was raining hard when we left. Thunder and lightning–old testament stuff.

I’m not particularly upset about missing the last two races. I’m not even that upset about Peyote–I can fix it, and I will. What I’m really chapped about is the simple lack of honor and integrity. I expect it, from myself, from other drivers, and from any organization that claims to have rules. Even the ancient Greeks understood that for an organization to survive its rules had to be enforced without regard for status. (yes, Kas, I’m listening to the Greek civilization CDs on the way back home). When people weasel around and refuse to take responsibility for their actions, they just make me want to puke.

Anyway, the racing part of the tour is over. I’m making my way back across the country to lick my wounds in Portland. we’ll do a little sightseeing on the way back and stop in Geneseo to pick up my motor from Uncle Jack. I’ll let you know what I see on the way.

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