By the time you read this, the Chili Bowl will be over and hopefully won by one of my heroes: Robert Bell or Johnny Murdock. If the world was right, New Year’s would have gone by with, for the 20th time, only my house being hit by the Y2K virus. And Mike Fedorchek, wearing one of Tony Stewart’s uniforms and helmets, once again won the Rumble in the Jungle at the Ft. Wayne midget race.
In December, Tony Stewart and I were featured at one of the coolest fundraisers (which I urge you to attend next year): the 25th Annual Evening for Race Fans in St. Henry, Ohio, hosted by my old friend and former voice of the Indy 500, Mike King. This was a sold out event that Tony has done a couple of times, and was sold out once again this year despite the fact that I was one of the speakers.
I was quite proud to be asked to come, but knew I needed to dress properly. I asked my friend Paul Tyler – who is actually the third cousin once removed to the King himself, Elvis – if I could borrow his original Elvis outfit. It may have been the one the King was wearing that morning in the bathroom. Although I thought it was normal to wear it, many people avoided my autograph table and did not make eye contact. Also in late December, Kyle Larson finally made my exclusive Real Racers list by flipping his midget in New Zealand hard enough to be waving at the crowd in a series of rolls that I rated a strong eight, and then coming back days later to win the next race down under with a black eye.
I mention Kyle’s black eye only because throughout my career I never met a real race driver that at one time or another didn’t race with at least one eye blackened. With these sissy seats and all the safety equipment they make you wear, along with the cars being almost bulletproof, it is pretty hard to get that badge of honor today. So, if you get one, wear it well because real race fans will know you are really serious about running an open-wheel car.
I understand that many people will think that my opinion on the too-safe cars today is a bit insane but, truthfully, my opinions and my life have always been one tent pole away from a circus, you might say. I have heard people say that I am old and senile and I totally agree, but getting old for me is no real problem; you just have to live long enough. Because of this, I will still wear my open-face helmet that Steve Stapp insists I wear at the Chili Bowl so he doesn’t fire me from his Christmas card list.
In 1970, my first years of racing midgets, I remember seeing drivers with a couple of eyes that looked like they just left an argument with Jack Hewitt. It was almost a weekly thing. Some of those cars still had only a roll bar on them and cages were optional. My first car (that Billy Wood had driven so masterfully to the 1968 Badger Midget championship) had only a roll bar when I first bought it.
When Paul Krueger finally had to put a roll cage on it because it was mandatory, he got a roll cage kit from Johnny Pawl that was a one size fits all design and bolted onto my Kurtis Kraft frame. He arc welded it together for me and installed it. I remember the cage bolted to a sleeve on the frame in the front with a 5/8-inch bolt that was four inches long with a lock nut on the inside of the cockpit.
One night in 1976 at Sun Prairie, I was hot lapping on a rough and heavy race track and bicycled the car quite badly. Back then, winning hot laps was almost as satisfying as winning the feature event to Stan Fox, Tim Pangborn, Tommy Steiner and myself. Especially if it was heavy.
Anyway, after I almost turned the car over, I noticed that the front of the cage was vibrating really badly back and forth on the right side. It never occurred to me to pull in, as the hot lap win competition between us guys was way too important to quit and pull in. When they threw the checkered flag to end my hot lap session, I rolled back to my pit in the infield of Angell Park. (In my opinion all cars should still be pitting in the infield or lose half of their night’s pay, so that the race fans can watch the cars being worked on during the races or witness any good arguments that might develop between the drivers.)
My old faithful pit guy, A.J., was pointing at my cage. When I got out of the car, I saw that the 5/8 bolt had sheared completely off on its own and that I had nothing supporting the right front post of the cage. Somehow we got the broken bolt out of the sleeve and I was able to race that night. But it was probably going to be another couple of black eyes if I would have crashed without having it bolted on.
I loved that old arc welded cage on my car, which I still have sitting in my garage today. Through the years of crashing it, I managed to need Paul to arc weld another three or four slugs into it after it broke or was straightened. I look at that car today and think to myself how someone a lot braver than me would have to get in that thing with a pair of ribs on the front and a pair of sharp Ascot tires on the rear trying to outrun Fox and the boys.