It’s Miller time!

Vile Gossip

Dan Davis brought three historic Miller racing cars from Florida to the Milwaukee Mile in mid-July for the annual meeting of the Harry A. Miller Club, and he let me drive them. He let me drive them. Preston Lerner’s story in our October issue may help you understand the magnanimity of that gesture, but not quite. Dan owns three of the most important Miller racing cars on the planet: the 1920 Miller TNT, the oldest Miller in existence; the 1923 Count Zborowski grand prix car, the earliest complete Miller car in its original form; and the 1923 Miller 122 Indy racer, simply the finest Miller 122 in existence. He loves them. He loves to drive them, he loves this event, and he had been needling me for two years to come see for myself how special this weekend was. So I came, helmet in hand, just in case he was serious about letting me drive one.

No sooner had I found Davis, his cars, and his jolly Brumos Racing team with longtime star driver Hurley Haywood under the purple and white striped tent lining the pit wall, keeping the midsummer Milwaukee sun at bay, than he popped me right into the TNT. Well, I wriggled into it. Oh, and it had a second seat to accommodate the riding mechanic, whose job was to watch the front tires for wear and to keep the fuel pressurized by pumping the big black knob on the dash in front of him. Brumos Racing’s Don Leatherwood whipped out a little handmade tool that looked like a pickle fork, and he used it to “tickle” the carburetor to life. Off I went, hanging out into the airstream, circling the world’s oldest racetrack in the oldest Miller. Then came the grand prix car, with Haywood running alongside in the TNT. When I came in after only five laps, Haywood asked why I didn’t stay out longer. “Because I kept going faster and faster, and it wasn’t my car,” I told him. “Even better!” he retorted. I don’t have a bucket list because I don’t need one.

Next was Davis’s 1923 Miller 122. I wonder why I ever thought I could slide into the teensy, tinesy, eighteen-inch-wide cockpit. Davis told me about being stuck in it for forty-five minutes in the 100-plus-degree heat of last year’s event. “It’s amazing he didn’t fire me,” said Leatherwood. “I couldn’t stop laughing, and he just got madder and madder. We had to remove the wheel and . . .”

That’s what I was thinking about when Leatherwood said: “You have to drive the 122. Look at it.” I was looking at it, all right. My heart was already beating out of my chest, and I was near tears of rapture from the morning I’d had. I was tempted enough by the 122 to crawl up and perch above the seat. What I saw below was not encouraging. On the right of the center tunnel were accelerator and brake together, taking up what looked like the total width of my stockinged right foot. The clutch was all alone on the left. I just had to figure out how to slide in under the big wooden steering wheel. Then I’d decide if I could keep the gas and brake separate. My plan was to jump from my perch down into the seat with my legs locked at the knees. I took the leap. My left leg slid right into place. My right knee shot up as far as it would go, trapped solidly between the steering wheel and the body side. Wouldn’t go up, wouldn’t go down. I wasn’t panicky, but I was, uh, concerned. I was stuck fast with only my horrified cameraman as witness. Not quite. Two older guys were watching everything. After fifteen minutes, they ambled over. “We don’t mean to be impertinent, but we can get you out of there.” Without a chainfall?

“I’ll slide my hands under your bottom.” Whoa. You’re each going to grab my ass? “Well . . . yes.” OK then, have at it. So they each slid their hands under one butt cheek, then levitated me straight up and onto the body behind the seat. At least they didn’t recognize me.

“By the way,” said the ringleader, Dana Meadows. “I love your writing.”

Watch a video of Jean’s day at the Miller Meet at www.jeanknowscars.com.