Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: Getting Off the Ground…

I’ve always been a fan of all kinds of racing. When things are dull and we were waiting for a shower to pass over, I can recall watching two raindrops race down a windshield. Anyway, my interest included boat racing for a long time, partly because my father was interested in it, and he served for a while as commodore (I’ve never really figured that title out, usually deciding to let well enough alone) of the Falls Cities Motorboat Racing Association in Louisville. We put on a minor-league regatta of our own, racing everything from outboards all the way up to seven-litre hydroplanes.

While I was in the newspaper business in southern Indiana, I got a press invitation to attend the Madison Regatta. This is a historic event and of course featured the unlimited hydros. Thunderboats. With a weekend off from the ASA schedule, I decided this was something my son and I had to experience.

And it was an experience. This was before the turbines had caught on real well and Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser was the boat to beat with a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. The Griffon was reputed to have 1,000 more horsepower than the venerable Rolls-Royce Merlin, the famous engine from the World War II Spitfire, and also the engine that made the P-51 Mustang such a formidable fighter after the Brits suggested replacing the Allison power plant with it.

I had met Bernie at our own regatta once. I think he came just to scope out driving talent. Anyway, he remembered me for some reason and we got along well. We learned all kinds of things about the boats and why they were designed the way they were.

Bernie mentioned that he and his sponsor were hosting a press reception at the Lanier Mansion, a very historic site in Madison, and invited us to attend.

“We’re gonna have buses here, just go climb on and ask the driver if this is the bus going to Bernie’s party.”

OK, when the qualifying was over for the day, we got on one of the buses, and found out we were in the right place. Just about the time we were going to leave, Chip Hanauer, who drove the Miller High Life unlimited, stepped up in the door of the bus and told the driver he had to change out of his driving uniform, then asked him to wait for him.

The driver agreed to do so, and Chip scampered off to change.

Two minutes or so later, Bernie hops on the bus and says, “Let’s go.”

The driver replies, “We’re gonna wait for Chip Hanauer.”

“The hell you are, he drives for Miller,” Bernie replied, and then pulled the lever to shut the door.

Chip did show up at the party, but I never asked him how he got there. And it’s worth noting, I suppose, that he later drove the turbine-powered Miss Budweiser for Bernie.

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One of my most prized possessions is a photo of Troy Ruttman sitting in the Agajanian Special with which he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1952, personally autographed by Troy his own self. I’ve always been a fan of JC Agajanian and that photo sits behind a diecast of that last “upright” front-engine car to win the 500, and beside a diecast of the Agajanian car in which Parnelli Jones won in 1963.

Every time somebody sees that photo for the first time, they want to know how old I was when he won that race. Troy himself was only 22. I inform them that I wasn’t quite 13 at the time.

Naturally, since autograph sessions and driver “appearances” weren’t exactly in vogue back in those days, they want to know how I managed it.

That’s one of my favorite recollections.

One day before we started qualifying for an ASA race at Milwaukee, I was in the press room and photographer Don Thies was showing me some photos he had found in the clearance box at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum. Nearly all of them were the standard shot they take after qualifying and I enjoyed looking through them. He said he’d take $5 for any of them.

Later, in my customary stroll down the pit lane, I got to the last stall, which was occupied by Joe Ruttman, Troy’s younger brother. As I’ve written before, Joe and I had gotten to be friends in those years. Well, Troy was there and Joe asked if he remembered the chubby kid that used to sell newspapers in the infield at Salem. Troy did and we shook hands.

Lightning hit about that time. I said to Troy, “Don’t leave this pit,” and then to Joe, “Don’t let him go anywhere.”

I went back to the press room and gave Thies a five, then rushed back to the pit.

Before I showed the photo, Joe said, “I’ll bet you’ve found a picture of that old 98 car.”

Well, the rest is history. Troy graciously scrawled, “Best of luck to John” over his autograph.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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