In 1969, I traded-in my beloved MGB for anew Pontiac Firebird convertible. I hated to give up my MGB, but I had been in an accident with it, hitting a truck in the middle of an intersection. Though the car had been repaired, it was just never the same again so I thought it was time for a change. My Dad had a fondness for Pontiacs and had owned several. I distinctly recall his first one, a new 1958 Chieftain.
I remember this car for a couple of reasons. One was that as far as I can recall, this was the first brand new car we ever had. The second was the day we picked the car up. The whole family went to the dealership for the occasion and a proud bunch we were as we drove away in our brand new car. Our first stop was a gas station because car dealers sold cars, not gasoline, and the car had been delivered to us with little more than fumes in the tank.
1958 Pontiac Chieftain
Back then, gas stations actually had attendants who would come out and pump your gas, check your oil and wash your windshield. When the attendant walked up to the driverís side window, Dad told him to "fill her up". A couple of minutes passed before a very perplexed attendant was back at Dadís window and asked, "Where do you put the gas into this car." Dad had to admit that he did not know because it was a brand new car we had just picked up. He climbed out of the car and went to help search for the fill nozzle, but he also failed to locate it.
Finally, the attendant crawled under the car to see if he could figure out where the fill nozzle came into the tank. After crawling around a bit he said, "It looks like it is coming down from near the passenger side taillights." Dad looked and said, "I donít see where". He began to fumble with the taillights themselves and to his amazement the whole assembly swung out and there, lo and behold, was the fill cap. One would think that this would be something the dealer would point out to a customer when he takes delivery
Other than not being able to find where to put the gas in our new Chieftain, Dad had good luck with his Pontiacís so I decided to get one for myself. The Firebird was as close to a sports car as a Pontiac could come at the time. It was bigger than my MGB. It even had a back seat and it was still a convertible. Mine only had the in-line 6-cylinder engine since I could not afford the V8 versions available, but those two extra cylinders made the Firebird, even with its extra weight, a lot quicker than my old four-banger MGB.
A couple of days after I picked up my new wheels, I had to go back to the dealer for something. They told me the day after I had traded in my MGB, they found it in their lot with two flat tires and they could not get it to start. I think the poor thing was upset about being traded. Of course, it had been raining and I probably should have warned them about the Lucas ignition system.
September came along and I began to plan another trip to Watkins Glen for the Grand Prix. This time I was determined not to make the trip alone. None of the guys were up for it, so I asked Caroline, a girl I had been dating on and off for a couple of years. I was not really surprised when she turned me down or even when she told me she had a new boyfriend and really did not want to go out with me anymore. However, you could have knocked me over with a feather when she told me her younger sister might like to go to the Glen with me. This was fine with me as her sister, Kathy, was better looking anyway, so I invited Kathy along on the trip to the Glen. To my surprise and delight, she agreed to go.
By this time in my life, I had been dumped by plenty of girls. In fact, I had a bit of a reputation for that which I acquired in college, when I got two Dear John letters on the same day from two different girls who did not even know about each other. The guys in the dorm were impressed with that. To be honest, I am not sure if they were impressed that I got two Dear Johns in one day, or by the fact I had actually found two girls willing to date me. However, Caroline was the first girl to dump me and then come up with a replacement - and her sister at that!
I explained my proposed itinerary to Kathy, including the stay in a motel room in Niagara Falls the Sunday night after the race. She said that all sounded fine to her and I began to think that this could be my best Grand Prix trip ever. This was certainly going to be one heck of a first date!
I was sure Kathy would not be up to sleeping in the car, or even in the old, small pup tent I had, which was kind of ratty and had begun to smell a bit moldy. So I rented a nice large tent. Having a bigger car had its advantages, because I now had room for camping gear in addition to my coolers. I even had room for a couple of lawn chairs. I was also pretty sure Kathy would prefer not to spend all night driving to upstate New York, so I took Friday off as well as Monday, and we left for the Glen a little after 8 am on Friday morning.
On the way out of town, I stopped and picked up my rented tent and shoved it into the trunk. I jumped back into the car and we headed out. As we left the rental place, Kathy asked me if I knew how to set up the tent I had rented. I had to admit to her that I had no clue. Somewhat concerned, Kathy said, "So youíre planning to try and figure out how to set up a tent in the dark that you have never used before?" I said, "It is not going to be a problem. I know what the tent looks like when it is up so we will just drive around the campground till I see a tent that looks like it. Then I will stop, and then ask the folks with that tent to help me set up ours." "Yeah, right" she said. Obviously, she was somewhat skeptical of my plan. "Youíre going to ask some complete strangers to help you put up our tent." "Thatís the plan," I said. "These strangers will be racing fans, so I know we will not have a bit of trouble finding someone to help."
We pulled up to the main gate at the track around 9 pm on Friday night, Oct 3, 1969. The gates stayed open for campers till midnight, so we were able to get into the infield camping area. According to my plan, I drove around a bit and soon spotted a tent that looked pretty much like what I thought my rental tent would look like once it was up. There was room next to this tent, so I parked and pulled my tent out of the trunk. Then I pulled a few beers from my cooler and walked over to the campfire in front of the tent.
"Hello," I said, "I have a tent that I rented for the weekend that looks just like that one but I do not know how to set it up. I have a couple of beers for anyone willing to show me or help me pitch my tent." A lady by the fire said, "I can show you how to do it." A couple of guys overheard my offer and one said, "For a couple of beers, we will set it up for you." In no time at all, the lady was supervising the two beer lovers as they began to pitch the tent. I handed a beer to Kathy and said, "See, I told you." So while complete strangers, under the supervision of another stranger, were pitching my tent for us, Kathy and I sat on the fender of my car, drinking beer and watching their progress.
In no time at all, the tent was up, I handed out the promised payment and thanked them for their help. Once Kathy and I had finished unloading the car and spreading our sleeping bags in the tent, we joined the group at the campfire. The lady who had supervised the erection of my tent was there with her daughter. The guys who actually put it up were camped next to them. Kathy was amazed at how friendly everyone was with folks they had never seen before. I explained that these were racing fans and we all had a common interest and were there for the same thing. It is easy to talk to strangers that you know have an interest in the same thing you do. Our visit by the fire was cut short when it began to rain, so Kathy and I retreated to our tent.
Our first night together was uneventful. Kathy had rolled out our sleeping bags and put hers on one side of the tent and mine on the other with as much room as possible between them. We crawled into our respective bags fully clothed and said good night. I really did not expect anything else. After all, this was just the first night on our first date. There were two more nights to go, including that motel room in Niagara Falls - and hope springs eternal.
By morning, the rain had ended but it had turned the camping area into a quagmire. We oozed our way through the mud over to a concession stand to get some breakfast. I had brought a tent and sleeping bags, but no grill or food to cook. After we had eaten our breakfast, we saw a car trying to go up a hill near us and not having much luck in the mud. Finally, it was obvious the driver was going to need help and I joined a few other guys to push the car up the hill. We got behind the car and had just started to push when Kathy joined us, taking a position on the car that had been left empty. The reason this spot was left empty was because it was behind the primary drive wheel. I tried to warn her and said, "Kathy, donítÖ." That was all I managed to say before the driver dumped the clutch and sprayed mud all over her. That startled her, and when the car went forwards, she lost her balance and fell face first into the mud.
The poor girl was a mess, covered with mud from head to toe. Unfortunately, there were no showers for campers, or running water for that matter. The toilets were nothing more than outhouses. Fortunately, the lady next to us had a plastic container full of water and Kathy was able to use that to wash up a bit. I thought she was going to be as mad as a hornet, but she took the whole incident pretty well. A change of clothes and a little water improved her disposition enough that we could have a good laugh about it all.
That trauma behind us, we set off to walk the track and check out the various viewing areas when the cars came out for practice. As we walked, I hesitantly reached for her hand and was pleased when she did not draw it away. We headed for the esses hand in hand, and I began to explain all about Formula One and my favorite drivers.
Dan Gurney had dropped out of Formula One after the 1968 season, so my hopes were on my old favorite, Graham Hill, and Hillís teammate, Mario Andretti. Colin Chapmanís Gold Leaf Team Lotus had three cars entered in the race again this year with Jochen Rindt in the third car, replacing Jackie Oliver.
There were two Americans entered this year, as Mario was joined by Pete Lovely driving an independent Lotus 49B. Hill was also in last yearís 49B while Andretti was equipped with the new four-wheel drive Lotus 63. The Ford Cosworth engine dominated the field again as 14 of the 18 entrants had one bolted into their cars. Three BRMís and a lone Ferrari engine filled out the field.
Jackie Stewart in the Matra MS80
Jochen Rindt put his Lotus 49B on the pole and Denny Hulme joined him on the front row. Jackie Steward was third on the grid. He had already taken all the drama out of the championship hunt by winning six races earlier that year with his Matra MS80, and had long since clinched the championship. He had nearly doubled the point total of second place Jacky Ickx. Fourth on the grid was Graham Hill alongside Stewart. Andretti had qualified poorly and was a disappointing 13th.
The sun was out and soon dried up the mud, and we had a very nice day wandering around the course. We had just about completed walking the entire course and were heading for our campsite when I saw a familiar sight. It was the circus tent of the Fucowwees. I told Kathy we had to check it out, and as we approached, there was the old school bus and sure, enough on top of the bus was Fanny the Flasher, doing her thing. Kathy thought pitching the small tents under the big top was a clever idea and it had certainly paid off the night before in the rain. She was less impressed with the antics of Fanny the Flasher, saying it was disgusting. Naturally, I agreed with her and we moved on.
After the qualifying session was over, we jumped into my Firebird and went down into the village. We stopped at the state park and climbed the Watkins Glen gorge. Then we went to the church for turkey dinner. At the church, Kathy was able to use the running water in the bathroom to wash some more mud out of her hair. The dinner was as good as I had remembered from my first trip to the Glen. After dinner, I took Kathy up to the Seneca Lodge for a couple of beers. The place was jumping and packed with race fans. We had a couple of beers while I looked around for race drivers, but did not see any. Nevertheless, Kathy was very impressed by it all.
Back at the track, we spent a pleasant evening sitting by the campfire visiting with our neighbors and had another laugh at Kathyís expense about the mud bath she took that morning. Kathy left to visit the john and came back a little later with a box full of hot dogs she had bought at the concession stand just in case anyone sitting around the fire was hungry. This impressed me and I was very proud of her. It was another uneventful night in the tent, but I did get a good night kiss. Things were looking up.
Race day dawned under clear skies and promised to be a nice warm day. In fact, it turned out to be a very warm day with temperatures in the high 80ís - very unusual for the Finger Lakes area in October. After breakfast, we took up a position along the fence on the inside of Big Bend, the same area I had watched from the last two years. I had hoped to see some of Bobís old gang and maybe help them polish off the race day keg of Utica Club. I had checked out a couple of U-Haul trucks in the area, but I never did see anyone I recognized.
Since Andretti was so far back in the field, I held out little hope of him getting to the front to contend, so I placed all my hopes on Graham Hill. Hill had come late to motor racing, and did not even drive a car until he was 24. His early years were marked by a profound lack of money. His first car was a 1929 Austin. The car was a wreck, but then he had only paid about $70 for it. It soon lost its brakes and, with no money to fix them, Hill had to scrub the carís tires against the curb to stop. He would later remark that all budding racecar drivers should own such a car. "The chief qualities of a racing driver are concentration, determination and anticipation", he said. "A 1929 Austin without brakes develops all three Ė anticipation rather more than the first two, perhaps."
After serving in the British Navy, Hill had taken up rowing and joined the London Rowing Club, the source of the famous white stripes (the symbol of the Club) on his blue helmet. One day, he saw an advertisement in a magazine for a new racing school, which said anyone interested could drive a racing car at Brands Hatch for five shillings per lap. Hill went to Brands Hatch and drove four laps and, as he would later remark, "Everything changed." He later worked out a deal with another school to exchange his labor as a mechanic for time in a racecar. He soon had some success and became the schoolís instructor. After one race, he hitched a ride back to London with another entrant named Colin Chapman, and the rest is history.
In 1969, Graham Hill was the defending World Champion, but Oct 5, 1969 would not be his day as once again "everything changed." Hill started 4th on the grid and was running with the leaders for most of the first half of the race. Then, in mid-race, he spun and stalled the engine. He undid his belts and climbed from the car to push it down a slope to start it. Formula One cars did not have on board starters. Once he got the car rolling down the slope, he jumped back in and got the engine to start, but did not put his seat belts on. Seat belts were relatively new in Formula One and Hill was used to racing without them.
The carousel at the far south end of the track is a tight, but fast, right-hander that sends the cars back to the north. On lap 91, Hill overcooked it coming into the carousel. He spun off the track and the car rolled, throwing him from it. The car landed on his legs, breaking both of them. He was confined to a wheel chair for several months. He did manage to get back in a racecar the next season, but was never really competitive again. However, he did team up with Henri Pescarolo to win the Le Mans 24 hours in 1972.
Graham Hill and Stirling Moss
About half way into the race, Kathy decided it was time to get rid of some of the beer she had been drinking and headed for the johns. The johns at Watkins Glen were primitive, to say the least, being a step down from an outhouse. I say a step down because with an outhouse, you would expect there to be a roof. Not at the Glen. Here the johns consisted of a bench with the expected holes in it over a pit and four wooden walls around it. There was no roof.
Arriving at the john, Kathy was startled to find two guys sitting up on top of the wall right over were she would have to sit. She was between a rock and a hard place because she really had to go, but did not want to do it in full view of these guys because all they had to do was look down and they would see her. She watched them for a while and saw that they had their backs to the interior, and apparently had only climbed to the top of the wall for a better vantage point to watch the race. They did not seem to be the least interested in what was happening right behind and below them. Kathy did not like it but she really had to go, so in she went.
As she sat there, she could hear the guys' conversation above and it was all racing. "Did you see Hulme go by? I think he is missing," one said. The other replied, "I didnít see him either. I think youíre right - he is gone." In fact, Hulme had dropped out on lap 52 with a broken gearbox. Kathy hurriedly finished her business, keeping an eye on the two guys all the while. They never once looked down.
Joining me back at the fence, Kathy said, "Hulme is missing." I looked at her in astonishment. I did not think she knew who Hulme was; let alone what car he was in, though I had pointed him out to her a couple of times. "How did you know that?" I asked. She laughed and told me about the two not-so-peeping-Toms sitting on the wall.
I have to give it to her - Kathy was a trooper.
Like the year before, the 1969 U. S. Grand Prix was a race of attrition. Only 6 of the 17 starters finished the race. Bruce McLaren popped his engine during the morning warm-up and did not make the start, probably because he did not have the benefit of the very experienced crew Bobby Unser had the year before. As I had suspected, Andretti was not long for the race either, dropping out with suspension problems after only three laps.
The Austrian, Jochen Rindt, dominated the race, leading all but nine laps to claim his first ever Formula One victory. Stewart managed to poke his nose in front of Rindt on lap 12 but could only hold on to the lead until lap 21, when Rindt reclaimed the top spot. Stewartís Matra began to trail smoke and he dropped out of the race on lap 35 with a blown engine. Piers Courage, driving for Frank Williams, finished second and was the only other car on the lead lap. Third on the podium was the legendary John Surtees. After a great career in motorcycle racing, including a world championship, Surtees made a very successful transition to cars and is the only man to ever win world championships on both two wheels and four.
Jack Brabham was fourth, Pedro Rodriguez, the great Mexican driver fifth and the final point went to Silvio Moser, who finished a full ten laps behind Rindt and Courage. It was amazing to me that someone could be lapped ten times in a Grand Prix and still get a championship point. But as they say, "To finish first, first you must finish." He was the sixth and last car to finish. The point earned at the Glen was one of three Moser earned in his brief 12-race F1 career. Still, I felt it had been a good race and I had enjoyed having Kathy share it with me. I was sorry to hear that Hill had crashed, but it was not until the next week that I learned about how severe the crash was and the extent of his injuries. That would have put a real damper on the race and the trip home.
After the race, we went back to our campsite and I took down the rental tent. I did this without asking for help because I figured it would be much easier to take down than put up. I was right and it came down easily. I pulled the tent poles apart and stuck them into the bag they came in. Then I rolled the tent up and tried to get it back in the bag.
This was not so easy and soon I was really struggling to get it back into its bag, cursing under my breath. Kathy seemed to find this amusing and giggled as she watched me wrestle with the tent and bag. I was finally becoming convinced that the tent had never really been in that bag in the first place, when once again our neighbor lady came to my rescue and showed me how to fold it right. So not only did I have no trouble getting help to put it up, I got help putting it away, too, without even asking for it. Even so, I was convinced that next year I was buying a new big tent of my own.
We said goodbye to our new friends and got into the line of traffic heading out of the track. The traffic was horrific and I soon abandoned the main route in favor of less crowded back roads. This took us through some towns with interesting names like Penn Yan, and Canandaiqua. It seemed to take forever and both of us were dog tired by the time we got to Niagara Falls.
We checked into a motel and when I opened the door to our room there was only a single, king-sized bed in the room. Kathy looked at the bed and then looked at me. I said, "Sorry, but this is the only room they had left." She just shrugged her shoulders and said, "I need a shower" and headed for the bathroom. I was encouraged by her lack of reaction to the single bed.
She came out of the bathroom wearing a clean pair of shorts and a blouse and her hair wrapped in a towel. I went into the bathroom for my own shower, and taking Kathyís lead I came out wearing shorts and a tee shirt. Kathy went back into the bathroom to finish drying her hair and I lay down on the bed and watched the TV. Kathy came out and got into bed fully clothed. She leaned over and gave me a quick kiss, said good night and rolled over with her back to me and as far to her side of the bed as she could get. I just sighed, turned off the TV and light, then got under the covers still wearing my shorts and went to sleep.
The next day, after getting a good breakfast, I took Kathy to see the falls. As we walked around the grounds holding hands, I noticed that every one we passed smiled at us. I asked Kathy if she had noticed it and she said, "Yes, I have, what is up with that?" "Well," I said, "they see a young couple walking at Niagara Falls holding hands on a Monday. I suspect they think we are newly weds on our honeymoon." Kathy burst out in laughter, "Youíre kidding! You think they think we are married?" I said, "Yes, I do." And she laughed some more. Apparently, she found the idea that somebody thought she was married to me pretty funny. A little too funny, I felt.
Kathy and I dated several more times even though it was soon apparent that nothing serious would come of it. Still, we enjoyed each otherís company and had a good time together. Our relationship, such as it was, was interrupted when I moved to Denver for a while.
When I returned from Denver, I got in touch with Kathy again and asked her out. We dated on and off for nearly a year. I only got her to go to one other race. That was the Rex Mays Classic at State Fair Park in Milwaukee and did not involve camping or motels. The Rex Mays was a USAC sanctioned event and was always held the weekend after the Indy 500. I had good reserved seats in corner four of the mile oval, so we just drove up to Milwaukee on the morning of the race.
They used a rolling start in USAC, and as is the case in most races, the first lap is usually pretty exciting. This year was no exception and there was a horrendous crash on the first lap involving ten cars. Cars were somersaulting through the air and wheels and other debris was flying everywhere. Kathy was horrified. She had never seen carnage like that before, but I had. It was just two years before at the same race when there was a huge crash on the back straight on the third lap. Ronnie Duman died as a result of massive head injuries sustained in that crash. There is no question but that such incidents are the downside of my favorite sport.
No one was seriously injured in this crash and the eventual winner, Art Pollard, was in one of the cars involved in the wreck. The race had been red flagged as a result of the first lap crash and all the surviving cars were brought into the pits. Pollard relieved his teammate, Greg Weld, after that one lap, and went on to win the race in Weldís car. No matter, Kathy had seen enough of racing.
Later that summer, I asked Kathy out and suggested we go see a movie. She said there was a movie playing in a small theater on the north side of Chicago she really wanted to see. The movie was titled "A Man and a Woman" and was supposed to be very romantic. Romance movies are not my usual cup of tea and, what was worse, this one was in French with English subtitles. I was not looking forward to it but what the heck; Kathy really wanted to see it, so I took her.
As luck would have it, the male lead in the movie was a racing driver and they had a lot of cool racing footage from Le Mans. There was enough racing in the movie that it even recently aired on Speed TV. As a result, I actually enjoyed the movie - romance and subtitles notwithstanding. Kathy said she was disappointed with it.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen