Lap 21


In July of 1971 the gang, which now included Liz, was back in Old Man Miller's field on Friday night before the Trans Am and F5000 weekend. I was sure Liz would enjoy this weekend because it would be the first time she would see top professional drivers in state-of-the-art racecars. I had told her all about the likes of Donahue, Follmer, Revson, Hobbs and Posey. She already knew about Jerry Hansen.

As we were pitching our tent I was pleased to see Eric pull in with a friend of his. Eric’s pro football career in Canada had ended and, still loving the game, Eric played semi-pro football with a couple of teams in the Chicago area for the next few years. Now back in the Chicago area, Eric invited a couple of his teammates to come up to Road America. A few of them took him up on it. Some enjoyed it enough that they brought other friends the next year.

The biggest and most memorable of Eric’s teammates was Big Ralph. Nobody ever called him Ralph - it was always Big Ralph. As you might imagine, Big Ralph was big. No, he was HUGE! He was about 6’ 4" and tipped the scales at around 380 pounds. The amazing thing about him was that, despite his size, he was as quick as a cat. He could not run fast, but with his first couple of steps off the line he could beat anyone. He was a defensive lineman, and made opposing offensive linemen miserable with his quick moves.

Big Ralph was also as strong as an ox. I recall one night when we were at a post game party in a downtown Chicago hotel. There was a young lady Big Ralph was attracted to, but she wanted no part of his advances. Finally, she took to hiding in a closet to avoid him. This upset Big Ralph who, rather than opening the door, vented his frustration by punching a hole though it with his fist. She started screaming, people started yelling, and Eric and I decided it was time to get Big Ralph out of there. He went willingly, but punched a few more holes in the walls as we went down the hallway.

On our way to our parked cars, we started across State Street just a moment before the light turned green for our direction. We were only a few feet into the intersection when we heard tires squealing. Coming from our left was a Volkswagen Beatle, brakes locked up, heading right for Big Ralph. He just stood there and glared at the approaching Bug while Eric and I leaped for safety. The car came to a stop, but not before just nudging Big Ralph with its bumper.

The car was occupied by a young couple who were staring in horror at the giant in front of them. Big Ralph said nothing and just stared at the couple in the Beatle for a few moments. Then he bent over and grabbed the car’s front bumper. He effortlessly picked up the front of the Beatle until its front tires were about two feet off the street. Then he turned the car sideways in the lane, set it down again and walked off across the street.

This was Big Ralph’s first time at Road America, so Eric introduced Big Ralph to everyone. We sat around the campfire and partied as usual. I could see that Big Ralph was enjoying himself, and seemed to really hit if off with Jimmy. Big Ralph had an engaging personality and it was hard for people not to like him.

While 1970 had been a vintage year for Trans Am, the opposite was true just a year later. All of the factories, except American Motors, had pulled out of the Trans Am. Penske was running just one factory-supported car for Donahue. Bud Moore still had two Ford Mustangs in the series for George Follmer and Peter Greg, but he was running without factory support. Most of the field was made up of independents and local club racers. As a result, there was the predictable finish with Donahue leading the pack, Follmer second, Jerry Thompson third and Gregg fourth.

The season was a breeze for Donahue, who won seven of the ten races with Follmer taking the other three. Follmer won two of those in one of Bud Moore’s Mustangs and the third in a Roy Woods Javelin. Naturally, AMC won the manufacturer’s title after winning eight of the ten races.

We headed back to Old Man Miller's field and got ready for the evening. This included a hunt for firewood for the evening’s campfire. Nowadays, when you camp at the Gun Club or wherever, a guy will usually drive up in a beat-up old pickup, selling firewood out of the back. Five bucks gets you enough firewood for the whole evening. However, when we were still camping at Old Man Miller’s field, no one had thought of this money making scheme so we were on our own for getting firewood. We would just comb the nearby pastures and collect dead branches and usually could find plenty.

That evening back at Old Man Miller's field, Big Ralph volunteered to go look for firewood. He was back soon, with an armload of fence posts, still trailing the barbed wire they had been supporting. We asked him where he got them. He pointed to a field across the road and said they were just sticking up out of the ground. We quickly hid them behind the tents until dark, and explained to our city boy that he could not be ripping farmer’s fences out of the ground. He said he had not seen any cows on either side of the fence, so he figured it was no longer needed.

Sunday morning, we had just settled in on Canada Corner and opened the first beer of the day when we heard something growling behind us. There, at the top of the hill, was a big hairy guy with a full beard, dressed like a caveman wearing some sort of animal skin. He had on a huge fur hat with Viking-style horns on it and leather, fur-trimmed boots. He looked like something out of a "Conan the Barbarian" movie. He also had a collar around his neck, and another guy was leading him down the hill on a leash, with him growling and snarling at everyone near him. Two more guys carrying a big cooler followed them.

When they took up residence near us, I asked the guy holding the leash, "What the heck is that?" pointing to the horned creature squatting next to him. "I am not sure what it is," he replied. "We found him in the woods and decided to make a pet out of him." Jimmy asked, "What’s your pet’s name?" "His name is Spot." Spot growled and made a lunge at us, only to be restrained by the leash. "Is Spot dangerous?" Bunky asked. "Well, not as long I control him," was the reply. "He is really quite docile when he has a beer to drink."

Spot was snarling at us viciously, his beard flecked with spit, straining against the leash. His handler was holding him back with both hands. I quickly grabbed a beer out of my cooler and held it out to him. Spot snatched the beer out of my hand, popped it open, and sat down to drink it. He actually began to purr as he began to drink. His handler said, "See, he’s no problem at all when he has a beer."

They tied Spot to a tree and most of the time he would sit on the hill, contentedly drinking beer. However, Spot would get agitated whenever he finished a beer. He would fling the empty down to the fence and growl and snarl until one of his owners gave him a fresh one. We were fortunate they had a large supply, as this happened often.

Spot was tied to a tree near one of the main paths up the hill and, beer or no beer; Spot would let out a roar and lunge at any young lady who happened to pass nearby. Most of the girls on the hill were aware of Spot, and would laugh at his antics as they passed by him. But every now and then, someone new would wander too close and Spot would scare the hell out of them. It was all quite entertaining, and so another Canada Corner memory was created.

That Sunday, the support race was the Two-Five Challenge for sedans under 2.5 liters. Most of the cars entered were Alfa Romeo GTA’s, which had won three of the first five events. Datsun was represented for the first time in sedan racing with its 510, prepared by Pete Brock. They had two cars in the race, driven by John Morton and Mike Downs. Morton had won the other two races and this was the first time the Datsun 510 came to my attention. I liked the boxy shape of the car and the fact that it was competitive with the much more expensive Alfa.

I quickly decided to root for the 510’s and they did not disappoint me as Morton won the race. The race would have been a one, two for Datsun, but on lap15, the windshield in Downs’ car shattered and he had to pit for new glass. Still, I was very impressed with the performance of the 510’s. Datsun went on to take the manufacturer’s title for the series.

Pete Brock-prepared Datsun 510

That afternoon, we expected a shootout in the F5000 race between David Hobbs and Sam Posey. They were one-two in the standings, Hobbs having won two races and Posey one. Hobbs was driving a McLaren M10 for Carl Hogan and Posey was in a new Surtees TS-8 for the Champ Car team.

Not unexpectedly, one of them, in this case Posey, qualified on the pole, but on the outside of the front row was America’s greatest "amateur" driver, Jerry Hanson, in a brand new Lola T-192, just eight tenths of a second behind Posey. Man, that guy had money and skill! Any rich guy can buy the best equipment, but it still takes a ton of talent to put it on the front row of a major professional race.

Sam Posey in the Surtees TS-8

SCCA that year had decreed that all F5000 races would be two-heat affairs, the winner having the best aggregate score. A light rain was falling at the start. All the cars started on dry tires anyway and Hanson took the lead into corner one. On lap five, both Hobbs and Posey spun on the wet track, moving them back down the field. Hobbs had rejoined in 11th but quickly moved his way up through the field. By lap 11, Hobbs was back up to third and took over second on Lap 21, but he could not catch Hanson, who won the heat. Posey only managed to finish fifth. This meant that Hanson had won all three races Liz had seen him race.

Heat two provided one of the most memorable moments I have ever seen at Road America, or any racetrack, for that matter. And this took place on the pace lap! The pace car led the field into Canada Corner when, much to the huge delight of the crowd, the pace car spun out! The pace car wound up stalled in the middle of the track facing the wrong way. The field streamed by on either side of it as we cheered lustily for what I am sure was a very embarrassed pace car driver.

Of all the many races I have been to in my life that was the only time I ever saw or heard of the pace car spinning out. However, there was an incident at one of the Indy 500 races where the pace car lost control in the pit lane and hit the photographer’s bleachers. At least in this RA incident, only the pace car driver's pride was hurt.

The field had been lined up in the order they had finished heat one. Hanson took the lead and held it until lap seven, when he missed a shift and Hobbs went into the lead. Posey had retired on lap four with a broken master brake cylinder. I had not known you could break one of those! Hanson began to experience more gearbox problems and dropped back to third, which is where he finished the heat. Hobbs went on to win and, with his second place in the first heat and first place in the second, was the aggregate winner of the event. Jerry Hanson, the "amateur" driver, was second.

Once again, the 1971 Road America Can-Am event would be the sixth round of the series. Peter Revson had replaced Peter Githin behind the wheel of the second works McLaren. This was the M8F, which would be the last of the great line of M8’s. Carl Haas had a brand new car to challenge the McLaren’s. It was the Lola T-260 and he had hired two-time world champion, Jackie Stewart, to drive it. The T-260 turned out not to be a McLaren beater, and in fact was a bit of a dog. Nonetheless, the extremely talented Stewart had won two races with the car coming into the Road America event.

I must admit I was a Lola fan this weekend, but this was the first time I had seen Jackie Stewart drive anywhere but Watkins Glen. I thought it was pretty cool to see that familiar white helmet with the tartan stripe come through Canada Corner. Still, team McLaren and Revson were leading the championship with Peter having won two races and Hulme one.

Jackie Stewart in the Lola T-260 at Road America

There was a new team on the scene at Road America this year. The American Shadow team, sponsored by UOP, entered their MK II for Jackie Oliver. It was a neat looking car, but small. They had first run in the Can-Am in the previous year in an even smaller car, but had not been at Road America. This car still appeared to be half the size of the McLaren’s that filled most of the field. Porsche was back with a 917-8 in the hands of the capable Jo Siffert. This car was built more for the sprint style Can-Am races than the endurance races Porsche was so famous for. Unfortunately for Siffert, the 5.0 flat 12 was still way down on power to the muscular 494ci (8.1 liter) aluminum Chevy V 8’s.

We were not surprised when Hulme won the pole position with a 2:06.663, 113.688 mph, but we were surprised to see Oliver bring the Shadow to second on the grid even though he was almost 3 seconds slower than Hulme. Stewart was very unhappy with an ill-handling Lola, but was still third on the grid. Peter Revson was not there for qualifying, choosing to qualify for the Ontario, California Indy car race instead. He would start the race last in 23rd spot, which promised to provide an interesting first couple of laps, since he would be expected to easily carve his way through the field.

That Saturday, there was an FB support race in addition to the Can-Am qualifying. This was the last race in the season for FB, and the championship was still up for grabs. Alan Lader and Bret Hawthorne were both in the running. Early in the race, Hawthorne had the lead, which he had to have. He needed to finish two places ahead of Lader in this race to win the championship. All was going Hawthorne’s way with Bill Gubleman in second and Lader third, just what Hawthorne needed.

We were all startled to see Hawthorne drive straight off down the escape road in Canada Corner. His brakes had failed and his hopes for the championship were history. Lader eventually passed Gubleman and won the race and the championship.

Later that day, when we got back to Old Man Miller’s field, we started a touch football game in the middle of the field. This was a wide-open space because everyone usually camped along the fence line. Big Ralph loved to play wide receiver in these games, rather than being stuck in the line as usual. He went out for a pass running, or I should say, lumbering, a crossing pattern. He caught the pass but, before he could turn up-field, he ran smack dab into the rear quarter panel of a red Ford Maverick. This was a massive collision, and the car came out second-best as the impact of Big Ralph’s bulk put a huge dent in the car’s rear fender. Big Ralph bounced off the car and tried to run up field as though nothing had happened, but the other team was there and tagged him.

As we were returning to the huddle, we heard a girl scream and start to cry. This turned out to be the owner of the Maverick, who was not happy about her car's newly modified bodywork. Big Ralph went and apologized to her and told her to open the trunk. Big Ralph then used his massive fist to pound the dent back out. It took four or five blows but I have to admit, when he was done, you had to look close to see where the dent had been in the first place.

Sunday morning, we made our way back down to our usual spot on the hillside. One problem with Canada Corner was that you could not pick your neighbors. The hillside seating was on a first-come, first-serve basis. We often would wind up with folks we knew from previous races, and most of the time our neighbors were cool. Occasionally, our neighbors would be lovable characters like Spot. We were not always so fortunate, however, and sometimes got stuck next to a griller - or worse.

The grillers were folks who decided to grill their own brats on the side of the hill rather than buy them at the concession stand. They would position their grill so that the smoke would move away from where they sat, but never took into consideration the rest of the people on the hill. It was no easy matter for us to move out of the path of the smoke. After we had spent 10 to 15 minutes leveling our spot with the entrenching tool, it was OUR spot and we did not want to move. Besides, the smoky conditions would usually last only a few minutes and the smell of brats on a grill is not unpleasant. We would just stick it out. Even so, it was amazing how often an errantly thrown beer can would strike the grillers.

Once there was a guy sitting just below us who attempted to make spaghetti for his group. He had placed a pot of water on his grill over the hot coals. It is not easy to get water to boil on a charcoal grill and he, not unexpectedly, had trouble getting the water to boil. He apparently became impatient and put the spaghetti in before the water was at a full boil. The result was something that looked more like library paste than pasta. He tried to salvage it by spreading some of the pasta paste on a piece of bread and then adding some sauce, but I don’t think they cared for that much. They finally went up the hill for brats.

One group that sat next to us that day was rowdier than most. These guys were not drinking beer; they were into the hard stuff and had a cardboard box full of variety of booze bottles. By noon, they were wasted. They were not pleasant drunks, either, and used a lot of foul language. One of them claimed to the group that he could chug a fifth of scotch. His companions said they would give him twenty-five bucks if he could do it, but they had a condition. He had to chug the fifth of scotch from his boot. This led to some negotiating and they finally agreed on fifty dollars if he could accomplish this feat.

We looked on in some interest as the guy pulled off his cowboy boot and poured a whole fifth of scotch into it. He took a deep breath and began to chug from the boot while being cheered on by his buddies and others in the area. I could not believe what I was seeing. It was one of the most disgusting, yet amazing, things I had ever witnessed. I can’t stand the taste of scotch normally and can’t imagine what it must be like to drink it out of a sweaty, dirty cowboy boot.

Eric, who was stretched out on the hill next to the guy, was only mildly amused by it all. As the heel of the boot kept going up, some scotch escaped and ran down the guy’s cheeks, but he kept at it. Sure enough, he finished the whole boot full of scotch without stopping once. While the cheers died out and his buddies were digging out the money to pay up, the guy barfed the entire contents of his stomach all over Eric’s leg. I have chronicled how dangerous it is to get Eric really mad, and barfing a fifth of scotch all over his leg is a fine example of how to accomplish this.

Eric leaped to his feet, ready to shove the empty boot down the drunk’s throat. But as soon as Eric got to his feet, the drunk went down. I am not sure if he passed out in fear or from the booze, but there he was lying unconscious at Eric’s feet. Mad as he was, and as much as I am sure he would have liked to, Eric was not about to beat up an unconscious drunk. Besides, it is kind of useless to pound someone senseless when they are already in that condition. Instead, he vented his rage at the drunk’s buddies who had encouraged him. He not so politely suggested they take their unconscious friend and get the hell away from there. With little or no discussion, the group wisely decided they had seen enough racing for the day. They quickly gathered what booze they had left, as well as the empty boot, and with one guy on each arm, they dragged their scotch chugging buddy away up the hill.

Eric used some water from the coolers to clean up his pant leg as best as he could, and we used the entrenching tool to cover the barf with dirt to eliminate the foul stench. That drama behind us, we settled in to wait for the race to start. Shortly after this, Jimmy, who always kept an eye on the trail below us, spotted a well endowed young lady in a halter-top, carrying a couple of puppies in her arms. After snapping a picture, Jimmy called to her, "Hey lady! If those puppies are for sale, I’ll take the one with the pink nose".

When the race did start, Hulme, as expected, came by in the lead. Stewart came by in second, followed by Oliver’s Shadow in third. We noted that Revson had already passed at least six cars by the time they got to Canada Corner on the first lap. By lap eight, Revson was in third behind Stewart. We figured it would not take long for him to make the pass on Stewart. When they came past us on the next two laps, we saw that Stewart was holding Revson off. Catching the wee Scot is one thing, but passing him is another. Turns out Revson did not have to pass him as Stewart soon pulled off with an overheating engine.

We now fully expected another McLaren one-two finish, since with Stewart out, there was really no one who was able to challenge the McLaren duo. Chances of another McLaren one-two finish died on Lap 17, when Hulme parked in corner five with a broken crankshaft. Revson, who now had gone from last to first, went on to win the race. Jo Siffert brought his Porsche home in second and Vic Elford, in a customer McLaren M8E, finished third.

We later found out that there had been a serious incident in the race. A McLaren M6B, driven by Stanley Szarkowicz, spun out going up the hill on the front straight just past the entrance to the pit lane. He spun across the grass and the pit road and flipped over the fence into a spectator area. Three people were hit, but fortunately, no one was seriously injured.

I knew that most drivers rate Road America as one of their favorite tracks. So it was no surprise when I heard that Jackie Stewart after this, his first race on the circuit, said it was one of the best racecourses in the world and should be the home of the U. S. Grand Prix. That would sure have cut down on my fall driving time.

Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen


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