In memory of our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., Automobile Magazine editors are choosing our ten favorite American Driver columns and will be posting one each day over the next two weeks.
To be read as it was written, while listening to the Beatles’ “In My Life”
Ann Arbor – One of the great roads in New York State is Route 97 from Port Jervis to Hancock, where it joins Route 17. It is a fast, winding asphalt two-lane that clings to the eastern bank of the Delaware River. We always used it when driving from New York City to Watkins Glen for the U.S. Grand Prix. Watkins Glen was--and is--the only suitable venue for a Formula 1 race in this country. Not Long Beach. Not Detroit, Not Las Vegas, Not Phoenix. Watkins Glen, hard by Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes district, is the place. A racing car looks comfortable at Watkins Glen in a way that it will never look when running in a moat in downtown Phoenix. I was there when Jo Bonnier drove a Maserati to win a Formula Libre race in a snow shower in 1958, and I was there when Innes Ireland won his first world championship Grand Prix in 1961, and I’d be standing at the head of the line at the press gate if the people who preside over Formula 1 racing ever found enough soul to return there.
I learned about the goodness of Mercedes-Benz automobiles on Route 97. One year my former wife and I drove to the Glen in tandem with Pedro Rodriguez and his wife, Angelina. I drove a dark blue Ferrari 250GT two-plus-two, and he drove a dark blue Pontiac Grand Prix. It was raining--it seems as though it was always raining on those weekends--and my wife was a wreck. She was all white knuckles and sharp intakes of breath. The glorious madness of racing Pedro across the back roads of up-state New York was lost on her. The next year we did it again, only this time Pedro was in a Ferrari 330 two-plus-two and I was in a Mercedes 230SL. We went just as fast and it rained just as hard, but my wife knitted, never dropping a stitch, never looking up. We could have been motoring gently off to church, for all the strain she apparently felt. That marriage is history now, but I still harbor that day’s special feelings for the cars from Untertürkheim.
About a third of the way up Route 97, in the town of Berryville, if memory serves me, there was a nice restaurant called Reber’s that used to be saving a bottle of wine for me. We’d stop there for a late lunch on the way home from the Glen on the Monday after the race. In 1967 I was supposed to meet Jo Bonnier and Jo Siffert there, as had become traditional. But I was late, and when I came flying down the road, one glance told me that their car wasn’t parked out front, so I kept going, not knowing that Bonnier had bought me a ’61 Puligny-Montrachet and asked the bartender to hold it for me. I never got that bottle of wine. Jo Bonnier was killed, Jo Siffert was killed, Pedro Rodriguez was killed, and the Grand Prix at Watkins Glen was killed, and I had no reason to pass that way anymore.
Of all the guys who used to laugh and lie and linger over lunch with me at that nice place on Route 97, only Masten Gregory and I were still alive. Then, the year we launched this magazine, Masten Gregory died of a heart attack in Italy, leaving me. Masten jumped out of at least three racing cars when they were about to crash and survived every kind of mishap the racing driver is heir to, only to succumb to a bad heart.