Lap 10

 

Later that year, 1969, I made a decision that would mold the rest of my life and that of some of my friends and family as well. I decided being just a spectator was not enough; I had to get involved in racing. I had learned that the best way to do that was to volunteer as a corner worker.

The race I had been to at Lindale Farms had been sanctioned by the Midwestern Council of Sports Car Clubs (Council). The Council was made up of a group of local sports car clubs in northern Illinois and Wisconsin. It was a much smaller group than the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and I later found them to be a friendlier group as well. I figured the Council would be the best place for me to start.

The Midwestern Council was holding a race at State Fair Park in West Allis, Wisconsin just outside of Milwaukee. The State Fair Park is the oldest racetrack in the United States, having held the first auto race there in 1903. They just recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the track by putting up a huge new grandstand and holding the first night race at the track.

The main track there was a one-mile oval, but it had a road course that utilized an infield section and all but about 50 yards of the oval. Oval races run counter-clockwise while most road racing is done in the clockwise direction. The road course at State Fair Park used the same start finish line as the oval except that, from the starting line, the cars on the road course headed north toward the oval trackís corner four.

The cars came down off the oval at the road courseís corner one through an opening in the guardrail and a big gate in the chain link fence surrounding the infield. There were piles of hay bales in front of the guardrails and fence posts. They were there to protect cars from directly impacting the guardrails and fence posts, or at least to soften the blow.

With a couple of easy turns, the infield section led back south to a 180 degree hairpin corner, then headed back north. A couple more gentle corners took the cars through another gate in the fence and back onto the oval, about fifty yards from corner one.

My old friend Jerry and now his wife Lynne were living in West Allis at that time, not far from State Fair Park. Since they were a regular part of our June Sprints group, I asked them if they would like to try working a race with me. They agreed, and we arrived at the track early in the morning in time for the workers' meeting. A guy named Ray from North Suburban Sports Car Club was in charge of the race staff then. He was the one who assigned corner workers to their corners. He was careful to mix new workers with seasoned veterans so that no corner captain would be saddled with a corner full of rookies. I was assigned to corner one, where Ray was to be captain, and Jerry was sent to the south end of the oval where the cars came back onto the front straight. Lynne decided she would prefer to try Timing and Scoring rather than stand on a corner all day.

The corner captain is in charge of the corner and responsible for all the activity there. He is the one who assigns the workers to the various positions on the corner, calls for the different flags to be displayed, and requests emergency vehicles as necessary. Ideally, a minimum corner crew consists of five people: the corner captain, a phone person, two flagmen each facing a different way to back each other up, and a safety person with the fire extinguisher. If there was a girl in the crew, she was usually assigned to be the phone person. Except for the captain and the phone "girl," the other workers would rotate positions for each race group.

Our captain, Ray, was lucky that day and actually had five workers in addition to himself, so two guys could work the safety position. I was to learn that having a full corner crew was an exception rather than a rule and having an extra person was a real bonus.

Ray knew that it was my first time working a corner so he assigned me to be a safety person along with fellow named Charlie, who was also working his first race. That way we could stand near him and he could train us. He told us what was expected of us, how to use the fire extinguisher, what the flags meant, and when and how to display them to the drivers. He also showed us the various hand signals used by the corner crews to communicate with the captain from a distance.

It was the duty of the safety person to go the aid of any car that pulled off in the corner. He would push the car to a safer location or signal the captain if a flat tow or wrecker would be needed to move the car. He would also usually take the fire extinguisher with him and fight any fires, if necessary.

Once the practices started, I found that I was really enjoying being a corner worker. It brought you much closer to the action than sitting in a spectator area and you actually felt like you were a part of it. Corner one at State Fair Park provided plenty of action, too. The cars approached it at top speed, had to brake hard for the tight right hand turn, and then thread their way between the hay bales and through the gate. However, it was not long before I discovered that you could be a little too close to the action.

About mid-morning, with the mid-production cars on the track, an MGB spun and stalled in the middle of the track at the entrance to the corner, just before the gap in the guardrail and the gate. Ray told Charlie and me to go push him through the gate and out of the way of the other cars. The flagman was frantically waving the yellow flag, which means extreme caution, be prepared to stop and no passing. This flag condition is displayed whenever a portion of the track is blocked or workers are in harmís way. We had a track full of stalled MGB; we were leaping over the guardrail and hay bales, and were definitely going into harm's way.

The oval is still slightly banked at corner one so we could push the MGB downhill to the gate. There was a good gap in the traffic and we should have had plenty of time to get the car out of the way. Ray would not have sent us over the guardrail if there were traffic close at hand. We ran behind the MGB and tried to push it, but it would not budge. The car was stalled in gear and the driver had not put the clutch in. I think he still had visions of smashing through a pile of hay bales into a guardrail or fence post and was reflecting on his narrow escape. I yelled at him to put in the clutch or take the darn car out of gear.

The driver finally got his act together and put in the clutch. With Charlie and me pushing for all we were worth, the car started rolling down towards the gate. The driver shifted into second gear, and once the car was moving really well, he dumped the clutch, started the car and shot away from me so fast that I fell flat on my face in the middle of the track. By this time, our big gap in traffic had all but disappeared and I knew I was not in a good position. Sure enough, just as I jumped to my feet, I heard tires starting to squeal behind me.

I glanced around and, to my dismay, I saw a Porsche Speedster spinning out of control and heading right for me. I was on the far side of the track from the safety of the flag station and knew I would never make it back there. Charlie was closer and had managed to stay on his feet, so he was off the track and nearly back to the flag station. I ran to the outside of the corner and jumped to the top of the pile of hay bales in front of the fence post. I grabbed the top of the post with both hands and swung my legs up on either side just as the Speedster slammed into the hay bales below me.

The impact caused me to lose my grip on the post and I fell down directly onto the hood of the Porsche, which was still moving. The rebound from the impact spun the car away though the gate, flinging me off the hood onto the track. Deciding not to wait for more company, I leaped to my feet, sprinted across the track and dove over the hay bales into the flag station and safety.

Somewhat shaken by the experience, I lay there on the ground trying to gather my wits, thinking that maybe just being a spectator was not such a bad idea after all. Ray came over to me and said, "Terry, why donít you go sit over there by the fence for a while and take the rest of this group off."

I made it through the rest of the day without being killed, and at the end of the day was introduced to a custom in amateur racing that I knew I would like, the trophy presentation Ė aka, the beer bash. At the end of each day, the sponsoring club would provide free beer to all the participants, and that included the workers. The trophy presentation this day was in a banquet room in the basement of a bar a couple of blocks west of State Fair Park.

Jerry, Lynne and I shared a table with Charlie and his wife, Jan. Lynne and Jan had met each other in Timing and Scoring. Jerry introduced us to Tom, who had been the captain in his corner. Tom had impressed Jerry because when he got to Tomís corner, Tom was flying a kite that he had tied to the chain link fence. Tom joined us at our table and I regaled them with the tale of my harrowing encounter with the Porsche Speedster and they were all duly impressed. We all had a good laugh about it but I have to tell you, it seemed a lot funnier over a couple of beers than it did at the time it was happening.

I was telling Jerry and Lynne about our new camp site at Old Man Millerís field and asked Tom if he ever went up to Road America. He said he went all the time. He had even been to Watkins Glen for the Grand Prix a couple of times. I told him that we camped in Old Man Millerís field and suggested he join us. He said he would see if he could find us for the Can-Am weekend. As it turned out, Charlie and Jan also often went up to Road America with some friends of theirs. I invited them to camp with us as well. The more, the merrier, I figured.

Tom lived in Milwaukee but since he knew Charlie and I both lived in the Chicago area, he introduced us to some members of the Chicagoland Sports Car Club. They all seemed like nice friendly people and thoroughly enjoyed the tale of my dayís adventure.

After the free beer was exhausted, we had to resort to a cash bar and I bought a few beers for my new friends. Suddenly, I realized I did not have enough cash for the tolls on the way home. The Chicagoland members took up a collection for me and when I counted the take, I realized I had enough for the tolls and another beer. That is when I decided to join the Chicagoland Sports Car Club.

Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen

 

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