Memories of a checkered-flag past. Or: Good enough to get on the team if she promises to write a story about us for the sponsors.
We're so proud of Ronald Ahrens, we could just spit. His account of running in the grueling Alcan Winter Rally, "Three Zero Heroes," begins on page 72 and is the usual great Ahrens read. It's made greater by the fact that he and his teammates, campaigning a BMW, won the event outright.
It isn't every day that an automotive journalist goes racing with the big dogs and finishes on the podium. We usually lose. For as long as I've been in this business, auto journalists have leaped at every single opportunity to compete (at someone else's expense, generally) in anything with an engine and wheels. Anything. Go-karts, Formula Fords, sedans, Indy cars, rally cars, vintage cars, dragsters, off-road trucks... you name it, we'll drive it. We'll do long-distance runs, record runs, the Baja, the Mille Miglia, vintage meets, vintage road rallies, SCCA club races, Pro Rally, Pro Solo, twenty-four-hour endurance racing, hill-climbs, even demolition derbies. Call us. We're racing sluts.
It goes like this: The phone rings, and it's BFG, the tire company, wanting to know if we would like to be on its endurance team. It's Ford Motor Company's head of racing, wanting to know if we want to race a prototype. It's Mazda, wanting to know if we want to field our own Miata (Automobile Magazine, June 2004).
The Story (with a capital S) is typically what gets journalists behind the wheel of a racing car. What our benefactors all want to know is if we're willing to take a few turns at the wheel and then write a big, fat, exciting story that will turbocharge their name, their team, or whatever racing event they are currently sponsoring.
Yes, we are willing, within reason.
It's that "within reason" part that is hard to figure out, especially once you catch the fever. In my earlier years, I had the bug as bad as my fellow editors. It didn't take much - one four-day Bondurant high-performance driving school closely followed by a silly little all-Renault Le Car race at Mid-Ohio. The Le Car had a tendency to lift the rear inside wheel in tight right-handers when it wasn't just falling over on its side. It was like racing garden tractors, a huge spectacle that brought out the big-shot IMSA Camel GT drivers of the day to the pits to hoot and holler us on. But it was my first taste of a massive adrenaline rush and its accompanying superhuman powers. When the checkered flag fell, I burst into tears from the sheer excitement and terror. I was hooked. Of course, I wrote a story about it.
Next came the years of competing car magazine staffs racing the 24 hours of Nelson Ledges. Ford's SVT guys were working on a souped-up Mustang and asked us to race the prototype. The boys didn't let me drive until they'd popped the engine and spent all night rebuilding it and we were about a zillion laps down. "Don't break it," said teammate (and then-boss) Don Sherman. They all went to sleep for my stint. There was no startling comeback win.
There were other twenty-four-hour races, including one memorable one with NASCAR legend Buck Baker and his son Randy in a Pontiac Trans Am. There were celebrity races in Toyotas and Dodges, vintage races and rallies, and that fake race, One Lap of America. I entered that one three times, about twice more than necessary. My favorite One Lap was spent driving endurance racing great Hurley Haywood from racetrack to racetrack around America, watching him lose. The first time, though, was with Parnelli Jones (he never let me drive) and off-road legend Walker Evans, with whom I'd just ridden in the Frontier 250, the kind of race described by Parnelli as an "all-day plane crash." Evans won that race. I say "Evans," because my only job was to sit next to him in the truck and try to survive.
I promised never to ride again in an off-road race, but somehow I ended up as the team manager (I had an expense account, and the team was out of money) of an effort launched by a California fireman to have a Russian drive the Baja 1000 with him. Nissan gave him two trucks, and six Russians showed up on his doorstep with not one thin dime of convertible currency. He set his girlfriend up in Vegas, and her winnings bankrolled the mechanical preparation of the trucks. I bankrolled (and cooked) the food. I got to ride. We lost.
There were the exotics. The magnificent Pan Pacific Rally in New Zealand in a 1916 Benz from the factory museum in Germany and the incredible Pirelli Classic Marathon, which took Stirling Moss and me across the Alps in an MGB. There was SCCA Solo 2 racing, in which I competed in the ladies' division, only to be whipped stupid and sent packing by sixteen women.
But everything changed when I navigated my first SCCA Pro Rally for Steve Millen in one of his brother Rod's handbuilt championship 4x4 Mazda RX-7s. That's when I discovered that I could get a better ride than I could give myself on a track. I endeavored to be a great navigator and landed a regular ride with top Group A competitor Clive Smith. The level of sustained terror was so high it made me calm. Smith would get roaring drunk later and exclaim to anyone who would listen, "She's nuts! Nothing bothers her! I scare myself!"
He missed me double-snugging-down every belt of the five-belt safety harness when he got raggedy at the wheel. Rallying was it for me. The ultimate thrill. At least, it was until the World Rally Championship event in Washington state that I ran with Japan rallycross champion Nobuhiro Tajima. Our car lost a wheel in the middle of the rally, and I had to hang outside like an outrigger for miles until we found our mechanics. But the car was damaged so badly it flew off the side of a cliff later that night, crashed down the mountainside, and landed in a river. We did not win.
Damaged body parts have brought me to my knees. And my senses. But once, when I was young, I went for all the glory and won! It was, unfortunately, a demolition derby at a local fair. Of course, I wrote a story about it.