In 1977 we were living in New Jersey. I was plant manager of a small plant, we had one child and we had tickets to the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, NY for the September race. I was finally going to see my favorite cars and drivers in action. I have to explain that there is nothing to compare an F-1 car to in the real world of transportation. We watched a demo on the front straight at Watkins Glen where a Ferrari F-1 car accelerated from a standing start to 100 and back to a full stop in under 5 seconds. These things looked quick on television but they were terrifying to watch live. And the noise! When we first got to the track there was a practice session for a support race of other sports cars. A pack of them could drive past the grandstands where we were seated and we could talk to each other, loudly but audible. That session ended. They cleared the pits, right across from our seats, and rolled at a JPS Lotus with a Cosworth V8. This was Mario Andretti's car. When they fired it up, the noise was deafening. We literally had to use sign language. Our two year old son was along. We had brought along ear plugs for us and complete ear covers for him. We were wishing we had full ear covers as well. I was so impressed. F-1 was way different back then. We bought passes to walk thru the garage areas. I was seeing the cars of my dreams and my heroes. The motel we stayed in was also the home to the Warsteiner Team. We met several of the mechanics. It was like the old days at SCCA racing except the cars and budgets were on steroids. A typical team budget in F-1 for one race would pay for a single teams whole season in Indy Car racing. These were cars designed and tweaked as far as things could go for that period. F-1 is and always has been an Engineers race series. The team with the best Engineers is always slightly better than the rest. NASCAR racing is about the drivers personalities, Indy Car racing is about spec engines and chassis and ends up being a crew and driver racing series but F-1 is strictly who has the most clever design team. Most clever at the time was Lotus, headed by Colin Chapman. He was my idea of the ultimate Engineer and his innovations are still at the forefront of racing some 30 years later. Believe it or not, me and my friend Gary White, both Engineers working for the same company tried to run our company with F-1 precision and cutting edge designs. Our efforts paid off in a big way when the company was sold and we got rewarded for our efforts; but that is a different story....
Fast forward to 1985. Two kids and starting on my third job, this time in South Bend, Indiana, I was close enough to go to the Indy 500. And we did. It was exciting to be there and see the massive crowds, hear the cars and watch the speeds but it was no match for Watkins Glen and the F-1 cars, not even close, but I did get to check that one off the list. We stumbled across an ad for the "World's Largest Go Kart Street Race", the Elkhart Grand Prix, run thru the streets of Elkhart, Indiana. We lived about 10 miles from Elkhart and the race was sponsored by a magazine, National Kart News located in Mishawaka, Indiana, just a few miles from our house. I called the magazine and asked if they had a photographer covering the race. Curt Paluzzi, the editor and brains behind the magazine said, "No. Can you write a story to go with it?" I said, "Sure!" Then he asked if I had a portfolio of racing photos. Zing! "Of course", I said, but explained that they were go kart race photos from several years ago. I printed out a bunch of the photos from that first kart race in Dallas and took those to Curt. He looked them over and said, "Perfect. I will get you the necessary pass and other things you will need." I asked for two passes. I wanted to take my son along and give him an automatic camera and let him shoot in one corner while I roamed around the track shooting other things. Race day arrived and it was maddening. The local police had no idea what a go kart was, thinking maybe a bunch of Briggs & Stratton lawnmower motors on some frames putting around at 25-30 mph. The shifter karts, outfitted with 125cc motocross engines and transmissions, four wheel brakes and radiators were capable of hitting 125 mph on the straights and could out corner almost anything on any race track. There were about 1/2 the number of hay bales needed and NO fencing to restrain crowds. During practice I saw people stroll across the street and karts spinning to avoid hitting those idiots. It was pure mayhem. I found Curt and asked him if there was anything I could do to help. He replied, "Pray for rain", turned and went looking for the police chief. The races had their moments but everyone survived and the racers were delighted at the layout and the chance to race thru city streets; Monaco comes to Indiana! My son and I got almost the whole next issue with photos and the story I wrote. A week after the race my son said, "Dad, that looked like fun." I didn't need any more encouragement than that. I called Curt and asked what it cost to get into this at the junior level. He had a son just moving up from the junior classes and wanted to sell everything for $1200. We bought it, signed Jesse (our son) up for a drivers school at the racetrack in South Bend and went racing. This time I would be wrenching for my own kid. Awesome.
The drivers school was interesting in that they had karts for those who signed up. Since we had our own kart, they encouraged us to bring it. Our chassis was from Denmark and was extremely neutral in handling. The engine? A Briggs & Stratton 5hp lawnmower engine and with a few exceptions, stock. First, it was "blueprinted" meaning that the bore and stroke were at the top end of the tolerance maximizing displacement and the head was ground down to the minimum bumping up compression. It was running on 100% Methanol with the jets modified for more fuel flow. We ran synthetic oil. I am not sure about RPM but it turned much faster than any lawnmower I ever owned. After following an instructor around the track, each driver would pass the instructor and then he would follow them. Meetings were held detailing correct lines thru corners and how to maximize the speed at the end of a straight. Our kart had instrumentation! The display mounted in the center of the steering wheel read out cylinder head temperature, RPM and Miles Per Hour. Each was used in a different way. Cylinder head temp would tell you how well the fuel flow was adjusted. Too hot, add more fuel; too cold, reduce fuel flow. RPM was used to check sprocket ratios. Ideally the RPM of the engine would hit maximum close to the end of any straightaway. The speedometer, while probably not extremely accurate, ran off an inductor and a toothed gear on the rear axle. By trying different lines thru a corner, the driver could watch the speed at the end of the straight and determine which way around a bend would give him the fastest speed down the straight thus allowing for a better chance of passing someone, or a bunch of someones.
At the end of the drivers school there was a 10 lap race. The drivers drew for starting positions. Jesse was starting on row three. At then end of the first lap he was in second place. During lap two he passed for the lead and pulled out a 3/4 lap lead by the end of the race despite a few bobbles. He got a trophy for winning that race although they forgot the trophies and it took some reminding from me to finally get it from the organizers of the school many months later.
Our first club race was a true learning experience. There is a minimum weight requirement for driver AND kart. Both are placed on a scale. We were about 25 pounds light. The guy pitted next to us came over and loaned us some lead sheets to go under the drivers seat. This brought us up to minimum and lowered the center of gravity. He also mentioned we probably needed new tires, told me where to get the correct "spec" tires for the junior class. Not only were the tires spec'd, we also ran a restrictor plate between the carb and the intake port of the engine. During any drivers first three race weekends a large black "X" is taped to the back of his helmet to inform those who are passing that this is a rookie. We really celebrated removing those rookie stripes a few weeks later. The new tires came in and we needed to get them on. One piece mag wheels that wide? How do you do this? I called Curt. He said, "Great idea! Bring the kart, stand, camera and some lights over and we will do a How-to article on changing tires." We loaded everything up and went to the magazine, changed the tires, took a lot of photos of the process and wrote up the procedure. It was in the next issue. From then on, anything we did to the kart, we documented and wrote articles. Everything from simply setting up weight balance with scales to chasing handling issues with track set up. We must have written a dozen articles that first year, maybe more. Curt called me several times to photograph testing of new equipment at a local track. Seems we had articles in almost every issue of the magazine. Like those old kart photos from Dallas, this, too, would pay off later at a place called Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterrey, California.
At the end of the first year, we moved up to the KT100 class, ditching the Briggs & Stratton and installing a Yamaha 100cc two stroke engine. This little power plant turned some 14,000 rpm, had no flywheel and cranked out around 12 horsepower. The new clutch was adjustable for stall speed. We had a long learning curve ahead of us but that meant more articles. We raced until Jesse finished high school then sold everything to a friend in McPherson, Kansas. Six months later, we moved to McPherson. Small world.
Laguna Seca Raceway has a very famous series of corners called "The Corkscrew", a descending series of switchbacks that drop over 100 feet. I was in Monterrey playing golf and took off to find the track and to see the corner. It was a Thursday. No races, no practice. The visitors center in the infield was open but they told me there was no access to the corkscrew except on race days BUT, if I walked next door to the Skip Barber Racing School I could get a glimpse of the famous corner from their garage area. I walked next door and inquired about seeing the corkscrew. I was handed a waiver to sign and a young guy walked out and said, "So you want to see the Corkscrew?" I said, "Yes." He asked, "What do you know about racing?" I responded, "I had a twin engined kart when I was a kid, had crewed on an SCCA team out of Dallas and that my son had raced in the CIKA series and we had done articles for National Kart News." He asked, "What is your name?" I told him, then he said, "Wow. We have read your articles!" Stuck out his hand and said, "Great to meet you. Come with me" and led me out into the garage area where he introduced me to all the driving instructors and mechanics explaining that I was a writer/photographer for National Kart News. Celebrity status without being a celebrity. Weird but accepted. He asked me if I had a camera, I nodded and he said, "Go get it." I went back to my rental car and grabbed my Canon A-1 with the motor drive, some film and two lenses, a 20mm and a 300mm. We walked out onto the paddock area to one of the school cars and he said, "Get in and strap in tight. I will show you the Corkscrew." I loaded film, put on the 20mm lens and stuffed the 300 into a corner of the seat securely. I tightened the seat belt and shoulder harness as tight as I thought it needed to be. Wrong. I soon found out that if you have your lungs compressed and can hardly breath, that is about tight enough. We pulled out onto the front straight and nailed it. Up thru the gears and we came screaming down on the first corner. I thought, he is going to kill us both, but he grabbed some brakes, downshifted and threw the car around the corner. The tires were screaming, I was jammed against the side window and he looked over at me and nonchalantly said, "A squealing tire is a happy tire!" We continued on this first lap thru several corners and up a long hill. He asked if I recognized anything. I said, "Corkscrew, coming up." He just smiled and turned the wheel slightly as we rocketed over the edge and the bottom dropped out. I was shooting away, banging the camera against my forehead and eyeball and feeling my stomach crawl up into my throat while being slammed from one side of the seat to the other. I kept telling myself, it would not be nice for a race enthusiast and celebrity to puke all over the inside of this car. I relaxed and held on for the wildest ride I had ever been on. We made two hot laps around the track at what he described as "Fast enough to qualify near the front" speed. When we stepped out of the car in the pits, my legs were Jello and the rest of me was shaking with adrenaline. I was pumped. We talked for about 30 minutes while I got the rest of the tour. I went back out to my rental car and promptly called my friend Gary White. The conversation went something like this:
"Where are you? I thought you were on vacation?"
"I am on vacation. I am sitting in the infield at Laguna Seca."
"Wow! Did you get to see the Corkscrew?"
"Up close and personal."
"Cool. How does it look?"
"The bottom dropped out when we crested the top of the corner."
"You got out onto the track?"
"Yep. Made two hot laps with a driving instructor from Skip Barber Racing School."
"Damn. Only YOU could pull that off."
I kept thinking, "I am one lucky guy." My Need for Speed was intensified for a few months. I will likely go back to Skip Barber and take a one day class called introduction to racing. Need to check that off the list.