Lap 13

 

In November of 1969, Eric asked me to join him in a move to Denver, Colorado. He had a girl friend, a stewardess with United Airlines, who was based in Denver, and he wanted to move closer to her. Wanting someone to share expenses, he asked me to join him. Apart from racing, a long time favorite sport of mine was skiing and I had taken a couple of ski trips to Colorado and loved it. In November, 1969 we packed up and moved to Denver.

We got an apartment in Aurora, Colorado, a suburb on the northeast side of Denver. It was the same apartment complex in which Ericís girl fiend, Rhoda, lived with her two roommates, who were also stewardesses (or flight attendants, as we would call them today). The apartment complex, which was close to Stapleton Airport, was full of beautiful young women who worked for United Airlines. The more I met, the more I began to feel this move had been a good decision. The balcony of our apartment had a good view of the swimming pool and I could not wait for spring when the pool would open. I was sure the view would improve dramatically then.

Eric got a job right away selling cars at a Chevy dealership. I was not as lucky and spent most of my time in part-time jobs, like washing cars at Ericís dealership, while I looked for a full-time job. Due to a lack of suitable income, my visions of spending every weekend on pristine mountain ski slopes faded rapidly. I was, however, introduced to a new automotive-related sport, coyote hunting.

Ericís bossí name was Ned, and his brother owned a farm about 40 miles east of Denver. Ned would buy beaters that the dealership had taken in on trade, but could not sell. He usually had to pay no more than $50 for one of these beauties. He would take them out to his brotherís farm and use them for coyote hunting. Fields in this part of the country were all ľ mile wide and a Ĺ mile long and usually separated by a six-foot wide drainage ditch. The ditches were about three feet deep with sloping sides. It was in these fields that we used the cars to hunt for coyotes.

Ned invited us to join him on a coyote hunt one Saturday in December. It was cold but there was no snow on the ground. We went out to his brotherís farm and got into one of the beaters. Ned was the driver and Eric and I rode in the back seat, each of us armed with a shotgun. There were four cars in the hunting party. We would line up at one end of a field and slowly drive to the other end. When anyone spotted a coyote ahead, they would wave a flag, or rather a towel or other white rag, and race off after it, followed quickly by the other cars. As we closed on the hapless animal, we would shoot at it from the back seat window. Even so, the coyote had a good chance of escaping since hitting a fast moving coyote while bouncing across a field in an even faster auto was not an easy thing. In no time at all, all four cars would have at least one gunner blazing away.

Often the coyote would turn and run in another direction and the cars would swerve after it in hot pursuit. I remember once when the coyote started running in circles. The cars were all running in circles as well. Soon there was a car directly across the circle from where we were, with the coyote in the middle. I was shooting at the coyote out my window, thinking this was great fun until I heard the buckshot from the car across the way hit the door I was sitting behind! While it did punch several holes in the door, fortunately, none of the buckshot made inside to hit me.

Many times the coyote would make it to the ditch between fields and run through it into the next field. This is where the skill of the driver came into play and why Ericís boss always wanted to drive. We could not go straight across the ditch without planting the nose of the car into the far embankment, so the driver would turn and take the ditch flat out at a 45-degree angle. This would work if done correctly and at the right angle, but accounted for a rough ride. Eric and I had to brace ourselves to keep from slamming our heads into the roof as we careened across the ditch. Sometimes there would be a fence alongside of the ditch or in the bottom of the ditch. No matter, we just plowed through it and continued the chase, guns blazing.

Once, we were the fourth car in line driving into a new field. Before we entered the field, Eric spotted a coyote down the road we were turning off of. Ned waved the flag, an old white tee shirt in this case, and took off down the road after it. The other cars already in the field saw the flag and turned around to follow us. The coyote ran into a farmyard, and Ned swerved into the farmís driveway. He followed the coyote right through the middle of the farmyard.

I was leaning out the window trying to get a shot off forwards as we entered the farmyard and saw the farmer standing there with a pail in his hand. I thought this guy had to be ticked off having some nuts driving through his farmyard at top speed, shooting shotguns out the windows. On the contrary, as we roared past him I heard him yelling, "Get that son of a bitch!! Get him!!"

The coyote ran through the farmyard and into an old cornfield. Ned followed, doing about fifty but it seemed like a hundred miles an hour. We entered the cornfield but instead of going in the direction of the cornrows, we were crossing them at a 90-degree angle. Each row had a mound of dirt, now frozen hard. Talk about a rough ride! I could not see because my eyeballs were bouncing around in my head! We made it about 30 yards into the field before Ned had to stop. We had flattened all four tires and squared up the wheels, as well as bending the back axle. As the car came to a stop, Eric and I jumped out and fired away at the fast disappearing coyote but to no avail.

By the end of the day, we had bagged two coyotes but had only one car still running, so I figured the score for the day was hunters, 2, coyotes, 3. Nedís brother would go get his tractor and tow the dead cars back to the field behind his barn that already had about twenty deceased vehicles resting there. All in all, it had been a pretty exciting day.

The practice of hunting coyotes like this was made illegal a couple months later after a fatality. Some idiot had bolted a chair to the roof of a car. He would strap himself into the chair and off they would go. I guess he figured that by sitting on a chair on the roof, he would have a better field of fire. Unfortunately for him, the driver rolled the car going through one of those drainage ditches and crushed him.

I loved the city of Denver and made a lot of friends, but never could get a job or a date with one of those stewardesses. The latter was mainly a function of the former since I had no money. The lack of money also resulted in a lack of skiing, which is why I moved there with Eric in the first place. About the beginning of the summer of 1970, I finally gave up and moved back home, started seeing Kathy again, and entered law school in the fall. My Dad got me a job as a law clerk with the firm that represented the railroad he worked for. I worked at the law firm during the day and then attended law school at night. Eric followed me back a few months later when Rhoda was transferred to Chicago.


Having missed the June Sprints for the first time in three years while I was out in Denver, I was eagerly looking forwards to the July Formula 5000 weekend which, this year, would feature the Trans Am for the first time. I had seen Trans Am cars race at Sebring and had been impressed with them and the driver lineup.

I had purchased a new, bigger tent of my own and broken it in at a couple of Council races at Blackhawk Farms. It was a nice big blue tent with an external frame and lots of room inside. You could even stand up in it, making it much easier to get dressed in the morning. And more importantly, I knew how to set it up and get it back in its bag!

We arrived at Old Man Millers Field on Friday night with the usual gang of Ernie, Bunky, Jimmy, and Tom. Eric was still living in Denver. We did have an addition to the group, Mike, who had gone to high school with Ernie and me. The evening got off to a good start and the beer flowed freely as usual.

Three guys camped next to us challenged Ernie, Mike, and me to a mooning contest. We accepted the challenge, although I had never mooned anyone before or since. We recruited a few girls from a nearby campfire to be judges. The contest took part in two stages. First was the individual moon, which was then followed by the group moon. In the individual event, we would each take our turn to drop our pants and moon the judges. We did well in this event because an operation in my college days had left a large scar extending up from the top of my butt crack. This impressed the judges, who gave me extra points.

As a result, we were leading going into the group moon. In this stage, team members would moon the judges all at the same time. We talked it over and decided we had to do something more creative than just the three of us standing next to each other and mooning the judges. After a brief discussion, we were ready. Since we were leading after the first round, we were up first.

Ernie and I bent over at the waist, while Mike climbed up on our backs and stood with one foot on my back and one on Ernieís. On the count of three, we all dropped our pants and completed our group moon, which we proudly named "The Chicago Pyramid." Our move was a crowd pleaser and we got a lot of cheers from the onlookers. Even the judges seemed impressed and I was sure we were going to win.

Our competitors lined up to take their turn. Two of them stood back to back and hooked their arms together. The one facing away from the judges bent over lifting his partner up onto his back. This guy stuck his legs straight up in the air. The third guy crawled between the fist guyís legs and peeked up at him. They called this move the "Double Inverted with a Sneaker" and were promptly declared the winners.

We protested that they had only shown two moons instead of three, but the judges overruled us, probably because the guy on top had exposed more than just his behind while getting into and out of his position. Even we had to admit the "Double Inverted with a Sneaker" was imaginative.

Saturday was Formula day at the track and had two races on the card. The first was an eighty-mile race for the smaller FB cars followed by the featured L&M Continental race for the F-5000 cars. They were back to running a 100-mile sprint rather than last yearís unpopular three-heat format. Cliff Tufte had reluctantly given up on the RA 500 name.

I had expected the FB race to be another romp for Mike Eyerly, who had won all six of the previous races in his Chevron B17 for the Fred Opert team. Instead, Jacques Couture led all the way in his Lotus 69 while Eyerly ran second, hampered by a bent front wing he suffered in an early race contact. While Couture won the race, Eyerly turned the fastest lap at 2:23.9, 100.069 mph, which was the first time an FB car had lapped over 100 mph.

The F-5000 race had a huge field of 34 cars, with several examples of the latest McLarens, Lolaís, Surtees, and Lotus chassis. John Cannon was on the pole in a McLaren M10 and was the seriesí points leader coming into Road America. David Hobbs joined the series at this race after spending the first half of the season racing in Europe. He had put his Team Surtees TS-5 on the outside of the first row.

At the start, Hobbs got the jump on Cannon and led the field into corner one. Comedian Dick Smothers, who had moved up from FB to F-5000 for this season, was in trouble early with ignition problems and retired his Lotus 70 after only one lap. Hobbs led for most of the first half of the race but Cannon was hounding him by half distance and, on lap 14, managed to get by into the lead in corner five. Hobbs did not give up and chased Cannon hard, actually catching him in corner fourteen on the last lap. They had a drag race up the hill to the start finish line, but Cannon was able to hang on for the win by a car length.

John Cannon in the McLaren M10

Back at the campground, we had our usual brat and corn dinner and built a campfire. Jerry was not there this weekend, so I built the fire. Bunky was banned from doing it because he would just put all the wood into the fire at once. Since Jerry and his guitar were not with us, we just sat around the fire drinking our beers and shooting the bull.

It usually turned out that Jimmy and I would be the last ones around the campfire. We would throw another log on and sit there having another beer or two. Most of the time we would not even talk; we would just sip our beers and contemplate the fire. With friends like Jimmy, you did not have to talk to enjoy each otherís company. Finally, we would decide it was time and we would strike the fire and wander off to our beds at the same time, so neither of us could claim that we outlasted the other. We never agreed to do that, it just turned out that way.

While Jimmy and I were usually the last to leave the fire, invariably Tom would be the first. We would hardly get to the dirty songs before Tom was gone. On the other hand, Tom was always the first one up in the morning. He was usually on his second or third beer by the time I got up. The habit of early to bed and early to rise was a result of his job as a postman in Milwaukee, where he had to get up early to go to work. Of course, by going to bed so early Tom missed out on a lot of fun and in fact had missed the mooning contest completely. However, he was usually up in plenty of time to see Bunky come out of his tent for his customary morning barf.

Especially in the early years, huge amounts of beer would be consumed around the campfire in Old Man Millerís field with predictable results the next morning. I had held to tradition one night and awoke Sunday morning in great pain after serving myself much more than usual the night before. I had a monster pounding away inside my head and even my eyelids hurt. I lay in my tent afraid to move for fear my head would fall off completely, and if I opened my eyes I was certain I would bleed to death. Outside my tent, I could hear some of the guys, who were already up, talking. Even Bunky, who had probably barfed by then, sounded in better shape than he usually did on a morning after.

I heard Bunky say, "Letís go wake up Ace! He has to be in great shape after last night!" I knew I could not let them see me in the state I was in. Despite the agony in my head and body, I forced my self to crawl to my cooler. Once there, I pulled out a cold beer and propped myself up against the cooler, beer in hand. Just then, Bunky flung back the flap on my tent and peered in. Mustering up all my reserves, I raised my beer to him and cheerily said, "Good morning, Bunky." Bunky stared at me in disbelief and said to the others out side the tent, "My God, heís drinking a beer!"

Bunky dropped the flap of my tent back in place, and I dropped the unopened beer from my hand and eased myself back into a prone position before my head did fall off. It had been painful and had taken a lot out of me, but my reputation was intact.

While we were packing up our tents, we could hear the roar of the Trans Am cars out for their morning warm-up and practice. From Old Man Millerís field we could even see the cars climbing the hill on the front straight to the start finish line. It was the first time in my life that I found myself wishing that racecars had mufflers, as the noise seemed to intensify the pounding in my head. And this was from nearly a mile away!

I had my usual morning after breakfast, which consisted of two aspirin and a Pepsi. I held that this was the perfect breakfast to have after a night of drinking. The aspirin would ease the pain in the head while the Pepsi re-hydrated you, the caffeine helped wake you up, and the scrubbing bubbles of the carbonation would clean the fuzz off your tongue. Fortunately, by the time we took up our position in Canada Corner, I was feeling much better.

As with the Formula cars, the Trans Am had spun off its smaller siblings into a support race of their own. The Under 2-liter sedans ran a 100-mile event on Sunday morning, which was won by Horst Kwech, who led from flag to flag in an Alfa Romeo GTA.

1970 was a huge year for the Trans Am as virtually all the Detroit manufacturers of pony cars were running factory-supported teams. Roger Penske had switched from Camaros to American Motors Javelins after he and Donahue had won two straight titles for Camaro. He had two Javelins in the race for Mark Donahue and Peter Revson.

The Camaros had been taken over by Jim Hallís Chaparral team, which was running two cars for Hall and Ed Leslie. Bud Moore entered two Ford Mustangs, both painted school bus yellow, for Parnelli Jones and George Follmer. Jerry Titus, the 1967 Trans Am champion, was in a Pontiac Firebird while Dan Gurneyís All American Racers were running a Plymouth Barracuda for Swede Savage. Sam Posey was in a Dodge Challenger.

In Saturdayís practice, we learned that Titus had had a huge crash just down the track from us in Corner thirteen. It seems he had suffered some sort of steering failure and crashed headlong into the bridge abutment for the Billy Mitchell Bridge at the exit from Thunder valley. Although we could not see the crash from our position, we knew it had been a bad one and that Titus had suffered serious injuries.

We heard that a corner worker had gone into the car through the passenger window, with the car on fire, to undo Titusí belts, getting burned in the process. Titus was airlifted to a hospital in Milwaukee. We all crossed our fingers and wished him the best. Sadly, he had suffered serious head and internal injuries and died in the hospital two weeks later. The corner worker fortunately suffered only minor burns and was OK.

Jerry Titus and Carol Shelby
Jerry Titus
1928 to 1970

Even without Titus, there was a full field of 36 cars to contest the 200-mile event. The school bus yellow Mustangs of Follmer and Jones were on the front row with Follmer on the pole. Leslie and Savage were on row two, followed by Posey and Donahue.

At the start of the race, Follmer, Jones and Leslie all came together in corner one. The crash knocked out Follmer and Leslie, but Jones was able to continue on in the lead as the rest of the field checked up to avoid the wreckage. Savage collected some of the debris and had to pit to repair some minor damage. Posey got past Jones into the lead on lap two, followed by Donahue, Revson and Savage, who was making up ground fast after his pit stop.

Most of the cars planned on two pit stops, figuring to stop around Laps 16 to 18 and again around laps 34 to 36. The wily Penske, however, used a different strategy and brought Donahue in early for fuel. This put him down several places, but he was free of the field and was able to turn faster laps by himself than he would have running in traffic.

George Follmer in a Bud Moore Mustang

When the rest of the cars came in for their first pit stop, Donahue sped by into the lead. He made his second pit stop on lap 30, which gave the lead to Savage. He only held the lead for two laps, however. Donahue had come out of the pits right behind him and soon reclaimed the lead. When the rest of the field, including Savage, made their second pit stop, Donahue was free and clear and breezed home for the win. It was AMCís second ever Trans Am win. Savage finished second followed by Posey, Hall and Jones.

Roger Penske had a well-deserved reputation as a successful team owner. It was his clever use of tactics such as he employed in this race that, in great part, made him so successful. Of course, he always had well prepared cars and top drivers. He still does to this day.

Mark Donahue in his AMC Sunoco Javelin
At Road America 1970

Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen

 

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