Monday, May 23, 2011

Bromance, a modern tale or my irrational love of Formula 1

1977 and a high-school buddy turned me on to a magazine that I had never seen before called Road &Track. I am sure that the magazine went on to extol the virtues of the newest Porsche 911 Turbo or Ferrari Daytona but what I remember was the Formula 1 coverage; tiny, really fast cars with huge slick racing tires, giant wings and stickered with sponsor logos from nose to tail. They raced in faraway places such as Brazil, Monaco and Japan and had an international cast of drivers including American racing hero Mario Andretti.

In the 70’s and early 80’s you could tune into ABC’s Wide World of Sports and hear Jim McKay talk about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I prayed that every week they would show just a little of Formula 1 and sometimes they did - rough editing, grainy footage and all too short segments at maybe 15 minutes long, the announcers recapping the whole race. The drivers just looked different, exotic, almost like rock stars. And they were, across the pond. Guys like Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt; these guys were heroes to people in every other country in the world except the US. But I loved them, their heroic exploits, their triumph and tragedy.

As a teen living in Lexington KY; where did you get Formula 1 (F1) coverage? Road & Track was months behind in coverage due to its monthly format, ABC’s coverage was sporadic, so where could you turn? I found a magazine, razor thin and published weekly, it was called Autoweek. I think I found the only place in Lexington that carried the magazine and spent my hard earned money every week on the latest edition. What I discovered was coverage that recapped the race one week after it happened. One week, it was like a God send. I would grab the issue, turn past the features section in the front and the ads in the middle to the motorsports section in the back of the magazine and immediately read the F1 coverage. I was hooked.

There was this team, they drove black and gold cars and man…they were the coolest looking race cars ever! And they had technology, the first ground effects cars, meaning they used an inverted airplane like wing to actually suck the car to the track for better handling. There were the Lotus 77 and 78 and I loved the drivers, Mario Andretti and Ronnie Petersen. I was actually at the Italian GP in 78 when Ronnie had that horrific accident that later claimed his life. We knew something was wrong when we saw the column of rising smoke and the noticed that the cars moved past at a much reduced speed, the race already black flagged.

I had moved to Italy and discovered there were whole magazines dedicated to F1, like Autosprint, in Italian no less. It forced me to learn how to read Italian a bit faster than normal; that is if I wanted to understand what was written. And the Italian press dissected the race down to the individual lap. And if Ferrari won, it was a brilliant victory justly deserved and if they lost, it meant that the Vatican had not prayed hard enough and as the racing pundits surmised, that someone was surely going to be sacked, the blame placed on some poor unsuspecting mechanic that had turned the most important bolt in the car in the wrong direction. RAI Uno (the main Italian TV station) covered EVERY race live, with excited announcers telling their listeners that the Ferraris were going to win every race, unfortunately there were other cars on the track, mostly in the way, hindering the progress of the Ferrari’s on their way to victory. It was pretty one sided reporting. Even I got that…

There was this other team, a small outfit, underfunded but plucky, run by the scrappy duo of Frank Williams and Patrick Head. I pointed them out to my step-dad. He scoffed, saying they would never win a race…ever. But they had this new sponsor, Saudia Airlines and they gave Williams a lot of blank checks, with only one instruction – Win. Well Williams Engineering did go on to win a couple of races and a few driver’s championships and constructor’s championships along the way. He was wrong, very wrong and I enjoyed reminding him of that…every chance I got. Their drivers were my drivers and I loved all of them: Alan Jones, Kiki Rosberg, Carlos Reutemann, and of course Nigel Mansell.

Ahh, Nigel, the British Lion, Red 5, the Policeman from the Isle of Mann. He was my favorite driver of all times. I would live and die based on how he did in a race. It was amazing to watch, his natural rivals, Alain Prost and Aryton Senna would spring from their cars, looking fresh, ready to go again. I actually took a picture of Senna doing a summersault coming down from the podium at the 1991 US GP in Phoenix. But not Nigel, sometimes he would have to be helped from his car. He gave every race all he had, there was nothing left at the end, he’d left it out there on the track. Bathed in sweat, he wrung every ounce of performance from the car and himself. He was my F1 hero.

I will say that the one thing that has changed watching F1 has been Speed TV. Man I love those announcers, Bob Varsha with the play by play, the sardonic David Hobbs and the former F1 team mechanic Steve Machett providing color. These guys have been together for years and it shows; they really know the sport. But let me tell a quick story. Sometimes Speed cannot carry a particular race for some silly reason or another. It fell to another network, I think ABC had it and they had some other announcers calling the race. What I recall was some TV personality named Jason Priestly (remember he used to be on Beverly Hills 90201 and maybe did a celebrity race or two in a Toyota) being pulled in as the “color” guy. This “car-guy” had absolutely no idea about any of the inside aspect or knowledge of F1. Besides focusing on what earrings the driver’s girlfriend was wearing, they showed little of the actual race action. I remember that at one point a particular driver was running away with the race and most of the front runners where on Michelin shod tires and all the Bridgestone shod teams were way back in the pack…way back. With about 15 laps left (which is pretty much means at the end of the race) he actually said that he thought the Bridgestone guys could make an impact on the race and fight for the overall win. Really? With an interval of almost a minute? In F1, that may as well be an hour. What a moron. I hate coverage other than Speed TV and we collectively cringe when we hear another channel is providing coverage, unless Bob, David and Steve are doing the commentary that is.

After Mansell faded from the F1 scene, I was in search of a new hero. I was never a huge Senna fan. I respected his talent and hated it when he died driving a Williams. I think it still haunts Frank and Patrick. But there was this new kid, this fearless German and he won back to back titles with the upstart Benetton team. His name of course is Michael Schumacher. By now I had kids of my own and they followed F1 with me and we all watched Michael week after week. Yes we got sucked into that red Tifosi Ferrari fever. If Ferrari did not win, all was lost and we hung our heads all week wondering if the world would ever be right again.

But he rewarded us year after year after year after year. This guy is a machine and won a record 7 World Driver’s Championship titles, two in 1994-1995 with Benetton and five (!) from 2000-2004 with Ferrari. His records for most championships, most race wins, most points scored, most poles, most fastest laps will probably never be equaled (unless another German F1 sensation Sebastian Vettel can do it). Even in 2006 Michael was still in the hunt to win a record 8th World Championship and during the next to last race in Japan was dueling with the upstart Spaniard Fernando Alonso. My boys and I were on the edge of our seats when all of the sudden with only a few laps remaining, Michael’s engine blew up in spectacular fashion. A Ferrari engine failure? It had not happened since the 2000 season. My boys and I agree that Ferrari wanted to make room for new blood on the team and someone in Modena flipped a switch…causing the failure. We were collectively heartbroken and we still believe in the switch conspiracy to this day.

After Michael retired, we cast around for a new hero and we really do like Lewis Hamilton, but we rallied behind Jenson Button in the upstart Brawn Racing entry. After a huge start winning 6 of the first 7 races in the 2009 season, he held on (just barely) to win the World Championship. Those last few races were nail biters as it seemed that three other drivers including his long suffering teammate Rubens Barrichello made a run on Jenson’s point total. But they all come up short. I will long remember him singing Queen’s “We are the Champions” as he took his cool down (victory lap) after coming in 5th in the Brazilian GP and (finally) securing the Championship. By the way, Jenson is no singer; he would not make it too far on American Idol or The Voice. But the guy can drive a race car.

We still follow Jenson, but it looks less and less likely he will win another race. There are new fast guys and they are all fellow World Champions too. Guys like Lewis, Fernando and Sebastian and a few older guys like Jenson, Michael (will still think it was a mistake for him to come out of retirement) and Mark Webber entertain us week after week. I love F1, probably always will. It is no doubt a somewhat irrational love, but if you gotta love something, it may as well involve tiny, really fast cars with huge slick racing tires, giant wings and stickered with sponsor logos from nose to tail.
See you all next week.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

TOP 10 American Cars / Since I was born…or a long time ago

I love these lists. It’s the rare opportunity to show a little insight into how someone thinks, what they like, what they don’t like. And if you have been following my blog, you know there is one car in particular that I really don’t like – The Pontiac Aztek. Man that is one ugly car, I cringe every time I see one…every time. But now it is time to shift gears – so to speak. Now it is time to take a look at the cars that I love. It is a HUGE list, so big; I am going to split it up into several lists. So without further ado, the TOP TEN List of Classic American Cars… since I was born. Which was a long time ago… as many of my friends constantly remind me. Right Hobby Boy?

When you look at this list, you may notice something pretty obvious. They are all from the 60’s. I looked at many cars from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, but I could not really add any of them to the list. American automotive design took a dive starting about 1973 (the same year as the mandatory 5-MPH bumpers were bolted to the front and rear of every car). They were hideous and therefore not on the list. It seemed that Landau Tops, port holes and ginormous unadorned steel bumpers were all the rage. The 80’s? The 90’s? Not much there, nothing really grabbed me. But those cars from the 60’s? They do it for me and I suspect many of you too. Just look at the prices many of these cars fetch at the auctions. There are a lot of guys reliving their teenage dream snapping them up for 6 figures. Ahhh, to be young again.

10. 1964 Lincoln Continental 4-Door Convertible – How could you not love this car, it is about a mile long, a large family could live in the trunk and the interior is large enough for a small village. But those lines are just fantastic and the suicide doors finish it all off, leaving us wanting to take about 8 friends for a long cruise; with the top down no less.

9. 1963 Studebaker Avanti – Raymond Lowey and his team at their best. It had fiberglass body panels and it was so edgy. It still is today. Studebaker (later AMC) was definitely on the slide, but this car shows that they still took chances. The car could even come with a Paxton Supercharger as an option, how good is that?

8. 1969 Pontiac GTO – There are a couple of muscle cars from the late sixties that really define both the genre and the time. For me, the years of 1967 to 1969 really showcased Detroit at its best, these designs are just timeless. I love the aggressive of the GTO and especially the Judge version. When I see one today, it still gives me the chills. But in a good way!

7. 1969 Dodge Charger R/T – Another great example of late 60’s muscle car. Really, you could pick any number of them, they all look good. But the Charger R/T just had the right vibe, and with a Hemi, it also had the HP to boot. I would love to have one of these in the garage…actually I would love to have any of these in my garage. But I digress.

6. 1965 Ford Thunderbird Convertible – Ford was on a roll in the 60’s. Really every automotive manufacturer was, but Ford in my opinion really got it, hitting all the automotive styling notes. I like the 50’s T-Birds (who doesn’t), but the T-Birds from 1961 to 1965 were the best.

5. 1968 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray – How do you top the 1963 to 1967 Corvette? Easy; with the Mako Shark inspired 1968 Vette. It looked good in both convertible and coupe from. I love the design right up until ’73 when Chevy had to add the oversized federally mandated safety bumpers. But those cars from 68-72, with up to 600HP under the hood? Man, that is what I am talking about!

4. 1968 AMC AMX – I know some of you are thinking how could two Studebaker / AMC cars make the Top 10 list. Yeah me too, but really the AMX was one of the best looking two seater coupes ever. That short wheelbase and aggressive short rear deck really tied it all together. Too bad customers did not flock to the showroom, it was gone by 1970.

3. 1965 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 – How Iconic is this car? 1965 saw a transformational shift in sporty cars with the introduction of the Mustang. And if you are going to pick one, the Shelby is the best of the best. It was pretty close to what Ford was putting on the track. Man…ol’ Shel could really cook back then.

2. 1963 Chevrolet Corvette (Split Window Coupe) – This car looks great from every angle. When it came out, there were only a handful of cars that could combine the looks, power and handling like the Vette. Maybe a couple of Ferrari’s, Jag’s and Aston’s, but that was about it. It had Independent Rear Suspension (IRS) and engine options up to 360HP, it was a world class sports car.

1. 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500-KR (Yeah baby!!) – This is what I would put in my garage before any other classic car. But as you probably imagine, the price tag these days is pretty steep. I love the over the top look that Ford gave to the 1967 / 68 Mustang Shelby. But the GT500-KR version gave you even more. Lust after it, I know I do!!

Well there you have it. My all time classic American list. There will be a poll, so you can vote for your favorite too. Have fun!

Until next week.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The End of the line, or how the 914 simply rusted away

College behind me, disappearing in the rearview mirror, it was time to head out of Austin to seek fame and fortune up in the Big D; or better known as a paying job and Dallas. I had to move back in with my Mom until I landed a job so the 914 was drafted into long distance service as I was still dating a gal in Austin, plus I was still working a few bartending shifts during the weekends for spending and gas money.

During the week, I was in full-on job search mode. I did the usual, sent out a lot of resumes, went on lots of interviews, talked to plenty of headhunters and come Friday afternoon, would head down to Austin. There was a weekly rhythm to it and this ritual went on for several months. Our country was in the grips of another short term recession and the job market was non-existent in Austin and pretty tough in Dallas too. Each trip down was a mini adventure as I was not sure how the 914 would fare. It was quickly getting to the end of its useful life. The rust had started to eat away at the suspension pickup points and the whole car was starting to get flexible. Not exactly the kind of thing that installed plenty of confidence driving a car 200 miles each way.

In late-April everything came to a head. The gal I had been dating did not like the long distance part of our relationship and she made it quite clear she was not going anyplace, so something had to give. I drove down one warm Thursday evening and was just outside of Austin near Georgetown, when I got a flat. It was the right rear tire. I went to the front trunk to get the spare and the jack and went about changing it. Now I-35 is not your safest patch of asphalt in the world (and today it is plenty worse), but I was safely off to the side on the shoulder, somewhat protected as cars and semis zoomed past. Problem was, it was dark, I did not have a flash light and had to kind of feel around for everything. That was where I ran into trouble.

Remember a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the rust had even corroded the slots where the jack stands are inserted into the side of the car to raise it? Well they were corroded almost completely shut, rust having moved in on a permanent basis. Crap! I wedged the jack into the receptacle as far as it would go and tried to raise the car. I got it pretty high in the air, enough to take off the flat tire, which I did. But then suddenly the jack support gave out and car fell to the ground, the jack stand lying on its side, wedged below the car. Fortunately I was not under the car when it collapsed, but now I was completely screwed.

The options were limited; cell phones were not exactly common back in 1986. So I was resigned to walking to the exit I had just passed and trying to find a tow truck. But as luck would have it a Good Samaritan had seen the car fall, so he took the next exit and circled back around to see if he could help. He had a huge floor jack with him along with a flash light. We had the car raised, the spare on and the car lowered in less than 10 minutes. I thanked him profusely and he said it was no big deal; he was just helping a fellow motorist. Nice guy!

That weekend was pretty eventful. I bought four new tires (the other ones were in pretty bad shape, I kept the best one as the spare), got a call on Friday with a job offer, oh and on Monday morning as I was about to head back to Dallas, the gal I had been dating broke up with me. I was usually sad to see Austin fade in my rearview mirror as I headed back north on I-35. It held so many memories of good times and bad. For me it still holds a special feeling, a great city where there is so much to do, see and especially hear. But not that Monday; it was bittersweet heading north towards Dallas, where everything seemed new and hopeful, like a new chapter in my life was about to unfold and be written. Thinking back to everything that happened in the topsy-turvy weekend, there was one unintended side effect…I grew up.

I think the car slamming to the ground was probably the straw the broke the camel’s back. It made all sorts of scarping sounds and did not track straight at all. It was in its dying throws. I had to get rid of it fast. Calling around, nobody wanted to buy it, but I found this one wholesaler (I cannot for the life of me remember how I found this guy) and he liked the car, rust, flexing body and all and would trade me for this motorcycle he happened to have (and needed to get rid of). It was a Suzuki GS-550E and was like new. I gave him the keys to the 914, the title and $200 cash. The red 914 looked sad as he and a friend loaded it onto a car hauler, the rust having finally taken its toll. Maybe he wanted it for parts, because for sure he could not have wanted it to drive, it was too far gone. In return, I was now in the possession of reliable transportation. And for those rainy days, I had the use of a 1966 Mustang which my mom had ended up with (but that is another story). Here is a photo in case none of you have seen a GS-550E, a very nice mid-level bike. And exactly what I needed at that point of time in my life.

Started the new job May 1st, I was now firmly on the path that has sometimes quietly, sometimes not, has lead me to the place where I am today. Thank God that the fateful weekend in Austin had intervened, in all reality, that path was never going to be the right one. I would have never met and married the wonderful woman that has been my wife for 20+ years, had two great children (well most of the time…), would have never owned another seven Porsches. That old girlfriend would have never allowed me to enjoy something that much….

See you all next week.