GUNNERY PRACTICE by bill orth
While watching an F-1 race one recent Sunday morning, the parade had begun to get tedious and it was evident that the Scuderia was going to easily wax everybody else again. Indeed, the only excitement was during the pit stops! Attention wandering, I began ruminating about races past that were exciting to watch. ‘Way past, actually—nearly fifty years ago—when my dad occasionally took my brother and I to see the Saturday night ‘Stock Car’ races at Beech Lake, PA in the rural Catskills. This was on a half-mile red dirt oval and drew not international superstar drivers who alighted from their helicopters, but local garage hands and other blue-collar minions.
The cars were mostly late-‘30s Ford coupes that had had their fenders bobbed, hoods abbreviated and a crude roll bar welded within. There was the occasional renegade Chevrolet, but by and large, it was a flathead V8 affair. Most of the cars were what were called ‘business coupes’—stubby 2-doors that came with no rear seat---and they were usually painted up in some sort of two-tone scheme—red/white and blue/white being the popular choices--but hardly in the professional décor commonplace today. At best, a sign painter was hired to letter the name of the primary sponsor and the numbers on the doors. Many were obviously done by an amateur hand, but that was OK. Lots of things were more casual then. If someone’s car didn’t want to start, the other racers waited at the pole while a pickup truck with a big wooden bumper pushed the recalcitrant car around the track until it erupted into noise. Nobody protested, because it might well be them holding things up next week.
The drivers were not exactly the Ferrari Challenge’s prototype of ‘gentleman’ competitors, either. These were coarse men who just fifteen years earlier had been fighting WW II; they had anchors and bathing beauties tattooed on their forearms, and weren’t slender Continental dilettantes looking for an exciting pasttime. These were working men who earned their livings with their black-nailed hands, and their pals, who made up the pit crews, weren’t nattily attired by Tommy Hilfiger, either. T-shirts with packs of Camels rolled up into the sleeve were the norm, while the more seasoned may have had a blue uniform shirt with ‘Esso’ over one pocket and “Bob” over the other—and the last two workdays’ grime all over it.
The heat races were short, violet contests aimed at selecting those few who would run for the $100 purse at the end of the Main Event later that night. The hopped-up V8s shot blue flames from shortened exhaust headers as they were rawhided ‘round the rutted corners. After every couple of heats, an ancient watering truck would trundle out of the pits and wet down the track pretty thoroughly. This was to control the dust, but also to provide better bite for the racers’ skinny 700x15 street-tread tires. The only downside to this from the spectators’ point of view were the clammy gobs of clay that would fly up into the stands as the pack roared by. At the end of the night, most of the crowd looked like they had been to a paintball game—which hadn’t been invented yet.
Before the final race, the Main Event, while those who qualified feverishly prepped their cars, there would always be some sort of entertainment during the intermission that usually involved destroying automobiles. Sometimes it was a roll-over contest on the front straight; sometimes a demolition derby, or maybe a backwards race. During all this, the crowd moiled around picking clay out of their hair while getting beer, hot dogs, cotton candy and soda pop. Soft drinks at that time came in glass bottles, pulled dripping out of big tubs filled with icy water. When you finished one up in the grandstands, you pitched the empty down under the seats, where kids would gather them up for the penny deposit on each.
After the concession crowd thinned out—and NOT before—the announcer would start barking about the Main Event getting ready to start. The restrooms would empty and the stands refill as the patrons anticipated the grand finale. The racers would begin to assemble on the grid, snorting and steaming, ready to rumble. When the starter with his green flag showed up on the track’s edge, cigarettes were flipped out of the drivers’ windows and the roar intensified until the flag waved and the race was on! Now, that part was just like Formula One, in that a huge crush entered the first turn, sliding and banging into each other, looking for traction. Someone was frequently pushed over the fence and it was usually the last time the also-rans saw the leaders—until they were lapped—and the crowd would be going wild.
By the evening’s end, little kids were asleep in their mom’s arms, bigger kids were filthy from scrambling around under the stands dodging falling bottles and butts, and the disheveled crowd would be moving out into the parking lot to head home, loudly recounting the heroics of their favorite drivers.
The last time I was at Beech Lake was shortly before my six-year-older brother left for college in the late summer of 1958. He had planned a trip to the races with two of his pals, but our folks ‘suggested’ that I would probably like to go along, and so I did, knowing I had a rare opportunity to hang out with the big guys. I did my best to be inconspicuous, and as the evening passed the older boys more or less accepted my presence. After the Main, I was dispatched down under the stands to gather up a bunch of the empty pop bottles and told to put ‘em in the car. Thinking this was going to be a hedge against the gas expense, and wanting to reciprocate the civil treatment I had received, I enthusiastically rounded up quite a load, piling them on the rear floor of Dick’s Chevrolet. However, a few miles down the road from the track the true purpose of the bottle collection became apparent: ammunition! Well, I suppose you could say we were conducting physics exercises, since factors of road speed, range and trajectory had to be considered carefully in order to hit roadside signs with the slippery missiles! The narrow, winding, two-lane rural highway offered lots of targets that night and my eyes were permanently opened to the mischief potential of an automobile and a driver’s license.
-- Bill Orth --