‘Engage the dogs by squeezing the lock lever against the shifter and pulling it back. As soon as the push truck makes contact, watch the oil-pressure gauge. When the needle moves, hit the ignition switch and brace your neck for the acceleration.”
I did. It did. And we did.
With a 550 horsepower Chevy small-block bolted directly into a 1,200-pound projectile, acceleration is instantaneous. The pit lane exits onto the Turn One banking. My next impressions were that Winchester’s 37-degree banking feels like pavement over a plowed field and that a sprinter’s torsion-bar suspension is not about ride.
I stood up on the right-side pedal, which was nearly under the seat, and rocketed down the long, back straight toward Turn Three. I stood up on the left pedal, which reaches out from under the seat and had been described as the brake — to virtually no effect. Fortunately, eleven-to-one compression applies better braking on the overrun than all three of the oddly placed disc-brake rotors.
Oops! I thought. Not so fast.”
At the exit of Turn Four, I pushed the right pedal harder and Shorty Miller, up in the starter’s box, assumed the expression of an enraged nanny and, with certain drama, shook his index finger at me with one hand and pointed a furled black flag at me with the other; all the time violently shaking his head and mouthing, “NO!’
Oops! I thought. Not so fast. I rumbled through Turns One and Two and squeezed power down the back straight. At the exit of Four I looked up at Shorty and he pointed the green flag and nodded okay.
Around I went again, but this time I exited Turn Two under full power and blasted toward Three. Hard on the brakes, such as they were, and down into the corner. At the exit of Four we assumed a half-throttle rumble down the front straight under Shorty’s perch. He was grinning from ear to ear and nodding his approval, as if to say, “You got it.”
Because sprint cars tend to go on their tops when it all goes wrong—and authentic vintage sprint cars don’t have real, modern cages—there had been a couple of fatal accidents recently. So Shorty wanted to control the lap speeds. Then again, he loved the noise and a show of force if he thought you had recognized his position. So I used max dB out of Two and took it all away through Three and Four, in deference to Shorty’s sense of priority— and my good friend Joe Schulte’s Edmunds sprinter. Plus, this irrefutable fact: I was on the ragged edge of my element.
There was a concern about the brutal reputation of sprint car directional stability and the mid-range usability of Stu Hilborn’s constant-flow fuel injection, but once underway it was obvious we could have driven to Phoenix — in traffic. It let the hairy sprinter feel like a completely, amateur-friendly car. A major component in that perception was Grant King’s careful restoration and relatively neutral pavement setup. The session finally ended as my head was full of a couple of hot laps, in spite of Shorty, but that would probably have ruined the weekend for Schulte and the team.
Joe had invited me down to Indy to spend a couple of days with Grant King while he finished Joe’s new midget, before hauling his ’74 Edmunds out to Winchester for the big vintage gathering and a drive on the banks. Frankly, there is a wonderful mystique in these old monsters and touching part of that history is a real treat, but working on a car across from Grant King was no less a great memory.
The two days with Grant were a holiday in Mecca. He was a wizard and, like most of the great racing heroes, he wears it modestly. He is smart, patient and helpful to amateur wrenches who just want to be there. When the midget was complete, we set about prepping the Edmunds. My job was to pull off the chrome show headers and install the painted race pipes. Next, we went around the car for a pre-flight, checking alignments and giving every nut a diagnostic twist.
At 5:00 p.m. the world comes to a halt. Everyone goes next door to A.J. Watson’s shop. The fridge is opened and beers are all around. It has been thus since forever. Grant and A.J. were friends since high school and shared working space since they had gone into business — individually.
A.J.’s shop showed the mindset of a fastidious detailer while Grant’s did not. The old British expression “chalk and cheese” leapt immediately to mind. The Edmunds had been restored by Grant King Racing’s one employee, and it was obvious Grant put all his attention to detail into the cars and not the shop. A.J. had just begun to build new Watson roadsters again and that detailing is what they shared. Continuation cars; same builder, same motors, same sound and fury, just short of history, not pedigree. Another great memory from the holiday in Mecca.
The Edmunds was a real treat at Winchester after I learned to stay up on the top of the banking, where the paved furrows were not so deep. When the car was finally parked in the paddock, I joined my pal Don Ludewig in the stands for the U.S. Auto Club show.
We made a run for food and someone was shouting my name. “Get your suit on they want you in the roadster!”
“What roadster? Who?”
After doing as told, we ran to the big, yellow piece of Indy history. It was the Bob Estes car campaigned by Don Freeland in ’55, ’56 and ’57. It was not a show car, just a great vintage racer wearing its patina well. We went through the check out and found the way back to Turn One.
The rules were clear now, so the big roadster just fell into line with a couple of dozen old sprinters for a little crowd entertainment before the USAC hot laps began. When we came in, the pit marshal ran to me and said to stay in the car with my helmet on. The crowd was very excited about seeing a roadster.
Between hot laps and the first heat, they sent us out for five laps. I asked the crew chief if I could use more than the 4,500 revs allowed for the first demonstration. “The boss loves this, you can do anything you want,” he screamed, “have fun!” And off we went. Just the big, yellow icon and I alone on the Winchester Mile in front of a USAC crowd.
It was smooth and steep at the top of the corners, so we just stuck to the fence and ran 4,800 revs for five laps without lifting. When the checker came out and we finished coming out of four to get back the paddock, the entire crowd was on its feet screaming. Pretty cool stuff for an old typer.
On the last lap after the checker, I noticed something on the big front tires as they buzzed around at about 85 miles per hour. Cord. Both tires had a quarter of a diameter of white cord exposed that was flashing past every second or so. Preflight — never a bad idea. Grant would not have been happy.