#8 - Camping at Watkins Glen

#8 - Camping at Watkins Glen

In the sixties, Watkins Glen race fans were separated from the track by knee-high Armco barriers and a five-foot-high wire fence that might have restrained carnival rides but couldn’t stop 200 mph race cars from flying into the infield.

I recall one incident where a car sailed over the Armco and darted into the woods spewing body panels and piles of foam from its fuel cell. Didn’t take long for the ambulance to arrive, load up the stretcher behind a stand of trees, and head for the hospital in Montour Falls. On some days, watching a racing accident can be as riveting as watching a big tub with a parasol slip on a banana peel. Entertaining as all get out, but nobody wants to see people get hurt. Race fans are no different. When the ambulance drove off, many of us who had witnessed the accident were expressing concern about the condition of the driver.

Our worries were misdirected. The ambulance hadn’t been gone five minutes when the driver came ambling out of the woods, clearly unhurt and in remarkably better shape than his wrecked race car. We later learned the emergency call had been for a spectator who may have partied a little too sportingly the night before and, handicapped by dulled reflexes, got pitched out of the tree he was sitting in when the race car hit it.

You had to feel sorry for the guy. Even at the Glen, and even in those permissive years, getting slung out of a tree in this fashion was unexpected by most people, including seasoned Glen regulars who often made use of the panoramic views afforded by tall trees bordering the track. The episode was unique, unlike the occasional tumbles from low-hanging branches that nobody fussed over. Chances are the boneheads had clambered up the tree after too many beers for the express purpose of a more revealing look at bikinied bosoms passing underneath, of which on hot days there was no shortage.

I’ve never seen a woman fall out of a tree at the Glen. Women may not be comfortable above terrain with a bunch of unruly males screaming “show us your tits” below them. Maybe they’re just smarter and make better choices. Not hard to do when you take into account that some of those same males, fueled by cannabis, beer, and stupid pills tried to set the wooden toilets on fire the night before. The women’s toilets, to clarify.

Sometimes the flames took hold, but even when they didn’t, the mere threat of a panties-around-the-ankles exit brought considerable inconvenience to the rest of the males who now had to escort wives and girlfriends to the toilets for guard duty. It meant missing key segments of the discussion around the night’s campfire, less time to contribute to those discussions, and fewer shots of bourbon to accomplish this in a meaningful way. Not as bad as missing a quarter of the NFL Super Bowl, but fifteen minutes for each segment are fifteen minutes gone forever.

No weekend at the Glen would have been complete without at least one late-night visit to “The Bog” to take in a performance by the Bog Queen, doing her best interpretation of a striptease on top of the sacrificial car that had been driven into the Bog earlier in the day - in preparation. Rounds of applause and cheers celebrating the highlights were the norm, and the show usually ended with Queen and supporting cast all covered in mud, some passed out for the night, visibly exhausted. Nothing more ever came of it. Everyone was too wasted.

When the Queen was a no show, the entertainment often got downsized to lighting firecrackers and dropping them into the gas tank of the Bog Rent-A-Wreck. In all the years the Bog was active, I never saw a car set ablaze that way, much less blown up. Not to be denied, the crowd habitually resorted to pouring gas on it which always made for a nice fire. Most sacrificial cars were on their last legs to begin with, so no harm done.

Though there was this one time when a teenager tried to drive the new and still shiny family station wagon through the Bog in the daytime, only to leave the scene when the car sank in up to its axles. Arranging for a pair of oxen or a tow truck ahead of the nightly ceremonies might in hindsight have been less painful than having to explain the unexpected early retirement of the Plymouth to "Dear Old Dad". Odds are the old man had loaned the keys (one would hope) to the kid for the weekend and would have preferred to get the wagon back on Sunday in running condition so he could drive to it to work on Monday.

If you excluded drivers and team owners and maybe the town’s mayor and his wife, there usually weren’t many socially prominent people at the Glen. That didn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers then and would upset most racegoers even less now, at a time when obscure entertainers can become famous by merely orchestrating a PG-rated wardrobe malfunction. Or accuse a former president of being overly concerned with the welfare of others, which in the eyes of late-night comedians is pretty much a wash.

Go back twenty years and you had to win an Oscar or some other award to become a celebrity. Paul Newman was a celebrity. A genuine, mega-star celebrity who liked fast cars and would sometimes race them at the Glen. The actor happened to compete in a non-spectator event sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America of which I was a member. Being a member meant you could volunteer for track duty, or just show up. Membership was mandatory if you wanted to race. It was a hobby I engaged in purely for the fun of it, to experience motor racing from the other side of the fence.

When I mentioned the upcoming non-spectator race to my girlfriend Terry, her initial response was “let me think about it.” Terry is a car guy, and for the record, girls can be car guys too. The requirement is to love cars and enjoy being around cars and also around car guys. She had been to non-spectator races before and knew there’d be precious little entertainment of a social nature, accounting for the frosty reaction. Terry, unlike me, is very social.

“Paul Newman is going to be there.”
The chill in her interest melted away in an instant.
“For real? Why didn’t you say so! Of course we have to go. Where else am I ever going to meet Paul Newman?”
“You’re not going to meet the man, Terry, you’ll see him race and maybe get within twenty feet of him if you’re lucky.”
Even at an event closed to the public, Paul Newman would draw a crowd.
“That’s fine,” she said. “I’m still going.”
“Good. We’ll have fun.”
I knew there’d be no stopping her or I wouldn’t have brought up Paul Newman.

Once we arrived at the Glen and joined up with our group regulars, Terry wasted no time putting the word out on the street to “find Paul Newman’s motor home.” Being a non-spectator race there weren’t many upscale rigs to sort through and one of her scouts quickly returned with both location and positive ID.

I’ll spare you the details of how Terry came to be stationed directly across the front door of Paul Newman’s motor home. With camera at the ready, she stood watch patiently, a trait eerily out of character. I had distanced myself a few feet behind her, not wanting to appear disrespectful. The motor home had tinted windows. It was hard to tell whether anybody was even inside. But then the door opens and this Hollywood movie star steps out and smiles and you knew right away the man had class.

Terry raises her camera, Newman removes his sunglasses to uncover those “Baby Blues” as Terry calls them, then waves to her. He waves to her! To Terry – specifically – no one else. “Oh my God,” she blurted, flushed with excitement, “that was unbelievable!”

Mission accomplished, moving on. As the actor walks away to get ready for the race, Terry unexpectedly hands me the camera and says:
“Would you please take Paul Newman’s picture for me?”
“I thought you did. Why didn’t you?”
“I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. When he smiled at me I froze. I’m sorry. Please, would you follow him and take his picture?”

I can think of any number of things a woman should never ask of the man she considers a keeper. Chasing after Paul Newman like a penniless paparazzo is one of them. It was embarrassing, it really was. But if Terry didn’t come away from this deal with absolute proof that it was Paul Newman she saw at the Glen, and that she really did "meet" him (so to speak), she would never forgive herself. Or worse, blame me for not being more helpful. In the end, I managed to get Paul Newman’s picture without looking too much like a teenage groupie, and she owed me – for a day or two. That’s the best a man can ever hope to get in this impermanent, social-media-driven world.

Tom Palmer and Jerry Mayo are two of my closest friends and we used to be racing buddies. Tom owned a yellow race car built by Max and Ina Balchowsky that was variously known as “Old Yeller VII”, “Backyard Special”, and “The Junkyard Dog”, all legitimate. Jerry and I each owned one half of the Mini Cooper I mentioned, known as whatever we called it that day, always for good reason.

Reasons would materialize out of the blue, we never had to go looking for them. Like the time we hauled the Mini 365 miles to the Thompson Speedway in Connecticut to participate in a day-long drivers’ school and then couldn’t get the engine to fire. We had driven through some early morning fog with the grille facing into the wind and that may have contributed. But who thinks of towing a car ass-backwards?

The Mini did eventually dry out and start after we dragged it around the parking lot for an hour. I managed to get in a few laps before I blew the left front tire and stuffed the car into a berm so hard it packed sand into the velocity stacks of the carburetors. It also left identifiable black-and blue marks of the shoulder harness on my chest to remind me how much fun I was having.

After the experience, it seemed fortuitous that we had installed a proper roll cage, not the cosmetic kind made out of exhaust tubing that added less weight and was popular with some competitors for a while. For a couple of weeks at least. The tech inspectors quickly got wise to it and made everyone drill an eighth-inch hole into the cage somewhere so they could check the thickness of it.

I’m not by nature competitive, at least not at events where success means you have to annihilate the rest of the field - to trump everyone else. I have no interest in being better than the Joneses, in any endeavor. My focus is on competing with myself – being able to do something better today than I was able to do it yesterday. Define success that way and I’ll be happy to compete with you. In racing, Tom and Jerry more than made up for my willingness to let more powerful cars go by whenever they came up in my rearview mirror.

From a purely technical point of view you should know that the Austin Mini Cooper Jerry and I raced 50/50 was little more than a pregnant go-cart with a roof on it. At ninety miles an hour heading into a turn, the grille of a monster Corvette filling the rearview mirror of a Mini is intimidating. In racing, bumper to bumper really means bumper to bumper. There are no “safe car lengths” in the rule book that will get you brownie points for good driving habits. In auto racing, whoever comes in first, wins. Second place goes to the first loser.

The car was multitalented, you had to give it that. Nearly all road race cars are weekend warriors, they’re not meant to be driven on the street. The Mini was an exception. One racing season Jerry and I found ourselves without a car in running condition to get us to the print shop we had opened. Our family cars had been taken off the table by our wives to commute and use for shopping. I’ll go so far as to say those cars were never on the table and that’s commendable as it shows good judgment on our wives’ part.

What we did have exclusive use of was a race car sitting in Jerry’s driveway. A quick trip to the DMV and we had ourselves license plates and a street-legal commuter. The nice folks behind the glass counter don’t actually see the car they register, nor do they get an earful of how the car sounds without a muffler. We even used the Mini to make deliveries once in a while. I did the same with the Cobra a few times, as I revealed in another chapter.

In defense of British craftsmanship, our reasons for name-calling were not always the car’s fault. Not entirely, not all the time. For instance, owing to joint custody of the Mini, one party got to race the car while the other party fixed it, with roles reversed the following weekend. The way the schedule worked out, only Jerry ever raced the Mini at Watkins Glen, and the one time he did the brakes needed looking after. I had the car up on jack stands in the pits with the wheels off and the brake pads out for inspection.

It would all have gone as planned had the race organizers not moved up the time slot for the Mini’s racing class on such short notice. Would have gone better still if Jerry, seeing the wheels neatly arranged on the floor next to each spindle, hadn’t assumed the car was ready to race if he just put the wheels back on. I wasn’t in the pits to watch him drive off without brake pads.

Turns out you do get some braking action with disk brakes even when the pads are out and metal is now scraping against metal, which explains why Jerry didn’t notice the absence of any meaningful deceleration until he tried to slow down for the first turn. The car didn’t slow down much, and from what I was told (but can’t reliably swear to) is that Jerry, on that day, turned the fastest lap ever recorded in an Austin Mini Cooper on the Watkins Glen Racetrack.

Camping for any race weekend at Watkins Glen in the sixties has sometimes been compared to the three days of Woodstock. The music festival took place in August of 1969. Woodstock is only a four-hour drive from Rochester, but because of the print shop startup, I missed it. I would have liked to have been there. Never got another chance to see and hear Janis Joplin or Joe Cocker. Or savor the memory of seeing Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane perform “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.

There were similarities between the two events, with tolerance and acceptance at the center of both. People came together in peace and harmony for three days of happiness, not to shoot and maim and kill each other. But while at Woodstock drugs were plentiful and love was free which I’m not criticizing, especially as concerns the free love part, at the Glen people made do with beer and wine and Jack Daniels chasers. Yes, there was the odd joint being passed around, and sometimes homemade brownies laced with shrubbery to throw deputized Rent-A-Cops off the scent. But camping at the Glen was multi-generational, so cannabis wasn’t everywhere. Free love and nudity? Frightfully little of it. No, camping at the Glen was a family affair, attracting race fans and party-goers of all ages, and that may have been the core difference.

You could tell that from the choice of transport. At the Glen, you’d see a diversity of cars, from pickup trucks to sports cars to station wagons and minivans, with the well-to-do arriving in motor homes. For the “Three Days of Peace and Music” at Woodstock, on the other hand, it was fashionable to carpool in a flowered-up microbus with as many new best friends as you could pick up along the way. “Never trust anyone over thirty” was the battle cry of the counterculture, and given what happened at Kent State, and the finale of “Easy Rider”, many of the kids celebrating on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that weekend had good reason to be wary of the suits and righteous moralists hell-bent to suck the life out of anything with the word “Joy” in it.

I’m going to take a quick detour here for a minute. Over the years I’ve come to dislike suits, an inch shy of loathing them. I don’t mean the garment or the people who wear suits, some of whom have no choice because the corporate rule book insists they wear suits, others because they just want to look nice, and still others because it’s one less decision to have to make after getting up in the morning. All good reasons for stepping out of the house in a suit-and-tie uniform.

The suits I’m talking about happen to be suits – condescending bootlickers who, by virtue of birth or wealth or their Harvard résumé, think they’re better than the losers they look down on. Suits make no bones about the sheer inconvenience of having to deal with people of a lesser class. Most will pay big money to be seen with the rich and famous, while a few outliers have gone so far as to shell out obscene amounts of cash to get their offspring enrolled in an ivy league college.

When Jerry and I quit Bausch & Lomb to start a business, my first official act was to donate to charity all my suits and ties, the uniform by which suits expect to be recognized. Real VIPs don’t have time for such nonsense. They wear whatever they feel like. The late Steve Jobs and Jay Leno come to mind.

I’ve since reacquired a suit – without sinking so low as to include a tie – because every five years Terry and I would attend one of her high school class reunions where her former classmates all showed up dressed to the nines, and I came to the party in Levi’s and a nice Sunday shirt. Terry never complained about this, sweetheart that she is. We’ve been together for going on fifty-some years, which when stated in such vague numbers preempts pointless debate and keeps both parties well satisfied. I bought the $249.50 class reunion suit with a matching black and medium-blue-and-purple pinstriped shirt when I realized I was being disgustingly insensitive, close to becoming a condescending anti-suit, which in the land of suits may be the worst kind.

Terry, I should mention, is my editor. She loves to read. I've so far resisted hiring a professional who some of my irregular friends say would eliminate errant bits of writing endowed with only the flimsiest connection to the story, including the diatribe about my distaste for suits you just read.

Note to Self:

Ask your friends to read your story. Give it the neighborhood bar test, then read it aloud to your dog. It may break your heart to watch those bright streaks of inspiration fade to a glimmer in the cold light of day. But, in the immortal words of the late Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press.”
                      Murder your Darlings!

My gut tells me to let the reader be the judge on whether it’s worth paying twelve dollars, on average, for each one hundred words edited by a storyteller I’ve never met. Terry makes sure I don’t drag back into the storyline people I killed off in a previous chapter. When appropriate, she reminds me of Mark Twain's advice to avoid using “a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do” - to stop using words like "diatribe" and write "rant" instead. Finally, I can count on her to reel me in when I stray too far out into the desert, for which I pay her far less than twelve dollars in Amazon Reward points whenever she has me order more novels charged to my Amazon account.

Terry thought my portrayal of suits was a bit harsh. “Elitists” or “Wannabe Aristocrats” were floated as possible replacements. She may have a point. So, to clarify, I’m not accusing people who network with their own kind in upscale country clubs of being in any way elitist or aristocratic. Not per se. I have friends who are members of an upscale country club because they just love to play golf. I  also have friends who couldn’t care less about golf. But I have no friends I loath. With my definition of suits thus mitigated, moving on.

Back to how a weekend of camping at Watkins Glen stacked up against the “Three Days of Peace and Music” at Woodstock. As one would expect, the festival crowd was younger and unswayed by the prospect of having to spend a couple of chilly nights in a muddy field, where protection against the cold consisted of nothing more than a sleeping bag and the company of each other. Would surprise me if anyone came to Woodstock thinking their membership in AARP would get them a discount. Or a cozy, prewarmed sleeping bag for two, with benefits.

Watkins Glen saw an ocean of tents and a smattering of motorhomes, but, to be fair, no discounted tickets either for the 65 or over crowd. Kids loved the Glen because they could roam. Well, that and the excitement of racing, of course – a gazillion stories to share with classmates on Monday morning. Parents loved it because little Johnny could be left to roam in safety with not much supervision. About the worst calamity you had to fear was that he’d catch a glimpse of the Bog Queen.

Our son Raymond had accompanied us to nearly every race at Watkins Glen from when he was out of diapers. By the time he was eight, he knew every inch of the track by name. He also knew where to find the Bog Queen. Short of tying him up in the tent there wasn’t much we could have done to erase that, nor did I lose sleep over it. The Queen was elusive and even when she did perform you had to time it just right or all you saw was a playful young dancer covered head to toe in mud. Kids don’t waste time on that, not prepubescent. At that age, expect “ew!” There are far more interesting things to see in the pits.

Roger, one of our neighbors in the mobile home park, and for several years my production manager at the Unitac print shop, wasn’t what you would call a diehard car guy. I had the feeling after inviting him to a weekend at the Glen that he was more intrigued by the prospect of catching sight of the Bog Queen than by watching his first car race. When my eleven-year-old offered to take Roger’s nine-year-old on a tour around the racecourse that evening, they passed by the Bog and wouldn’t you know it they got a close-up view of the Queen in all her glory, the way nature intended. Oh, charming! The son had accomplished what the father set out to do but couldn’t. That’s not going to sit well with the wife.

If you were that father, I’ll bet you too would have sworn your son to secrecy on the drive home. And if you’ve ever raised a child, you know the fat lot of good that would have done you. No sooner had little Johnny set half a foot in the door, he proudly announced:

“Mommy, guess what I saw!”
“Oh, for chrissake, Roger, you call that watching him?

Maybe it was the presence of adults that kept the campgrounds civil. But then the burning of the toilets became an annual ritual, causing management to hire security for the protection of the structures and to enforce a curfew. When crowd control works, even just reasonably well, you really shouldn’t mess with it. The difference between amateurs and professionals is that professionals, as a rule, don’t give a nut that extra turn.

This lesson was lost on the Rent-A-Cops who, while doing a fine job protecting the toilets, also felt it their Christian duty to arrest anyone who was unruly or too far out of line. Sticking your head out of a tent after curfew or before daybreak was considered too far out of line, as were the goings-on at the Bog. Hertz trucks were used as paddy wagons to haul away the perpetrators.

The second year, some of the jokers arrested the year before were still pissed off and began throwing eggs and tomatoes and rocks at the rented trucks. The barrage made it easy to hear the trucks coming from afar. Hertz refused to rent them out the third year because they had gotten their trucks back the second year looking like lunar landscapes and nobody could blame Hertz for not being socially minded. So management decided to rebuild the toilets instead, using cinder blocks and cement in place of wood which solved the problem and that was the end of it.

Copyright 2022 - Helmut Heindel