Newspaper reporters often find themselves with unexpected assignments especially here in the United States and being a Brit some editors assume I am brilliant at anything I tackle. It’s the accent, of course. Wonderfully misleading.
I’ve never refused an assignment because it can become grist for the mill when turning to write crime novels. The following story provided me with the idea for a minor character, and will take my amateur sleuth to the Indianapolis 500 race in a later book in my Tosca Trevant crime series.
I never, ever aspired to be a race car driver although most journalists who cover auto racing itch to get behind the wheel at a race track, even if it's only while the car is in the pits. As a novice automotive reporter (the only job on a newspaper I could get when I first arrived in the States) the closest I came to anything to do with cars was the time my plane to the West coast flew over Indianapolis just four days before the running of the Indy 500.
All that changed when the editor sent me to cover a Can-Am Grand Prix during a steamy October weekend at Watkins Glen, New York. Volkswagen Worldwide Corporation was staging its Stingy Driving race, whereby each participating member of the press was provided with a VW Rabbit fueled by a precisely-measured 32 ounces of petrol and let loose on the track. The winner would be the driver who squeezed the most mileage from this meager ration of liquid gold.
Assigned identically set-up cars, 22 journalists stood dutifully at the starting line. Taped to the passenger side window of each Rabbit was a glass vial containing the precious petrol. A narrow plastic tube ran from the vial, across the bonnet, and into the engine much like an I.V. line dripping life-saving fluids into a heart patient.
The start was a Le Mans start whereby drivers queued up very neatly on the tarmac across from one’s car like Brits waiting for a bus. When the signal is given it’s a maniacal dash to the cars. There were supposed to be three of us females competing along with 21 men. One lady was disqualified for reasons unknown to me. The second never showed up. Thus I found myself unwittingly representing the whole world of women drivers in the Bunny Hop VW Rabbit Press Race.
When I realized the honor that had been bestowed upon me, I decided I really wasn't worthy. I've never been much of a women's libber and I dreaded the thought of what might happen if I let my side down. Would I be chased through the streets by angry women waving signs reading: "Jill's a Dumb Bunny?"
I offered to step down. I pleaded to step down. But by this time genial Chris Economaki, the iconic, gravelly-voiced ABC-TV race commentator, had already pushed a microphone under my nose as we waited for the starter pistol.
"How will you handle the chicane?" he asked me.
I'd never, ever, heard of a chicane. What the heck was it? How did one spell it?
"Oh," I replied airily, "That's going to be a surprise. It's my secret weapon!"
Chris peered at me, a pitying look on his face, and moved on down the line, interviewing other journalists. Next to me was Ahmad Sadiq, art director for Penthouse magazine. He'd brought along a stable of voluptuous models who draped most of their bare flesh all over the hood of his fire-engine red Rabbit.
Nearby stood a car-less driver, Junius Chambers, who wrote for the New York Amsterdam News. He was unable to participate because the Rabbit he'd been given the night before was stolen from in front of his apartment in Manhattan. Was he going to sprint towards my entry and try to beat me to the door? Or was he here simply to drool at the models?
Time for the race to start.
The popgun popped and we all ran madly towards our cars. We jumped in (no one got in the wrong car; I knew mine was white) and fastened our belts. Or at least I tried to. I got my elbow caught in the shoulder strap and ended up starting the car with the harness doing a great job of hanging my left arm uselessly in the air as I clumsily changed gears and steered with one hand.
No matter. I was on my way around the track for the first lap. The only problem was, we were supposed to drive as slowly as possible to preserve the fuel and achieve high mileage. Here we were on one of America's most famous race tracks and to win we were to dawdle all the way. Well, women never like to follow the crowd, just ask any husband, so I must admit I gave in to temptation and led the rest of the field at first, all 21 of the men behind me.
The circuit is 3.377 miles and goes up hill and down dale in a zig-zaggy fashion, twisting and looping most of the time. Thousands of spectators -- most of them still bleary-eyed from a night camping in the track’s infamous Snake Pit swamp -- were on the hillsides, a veritable tent city spread out behind them.
These fans were obviously not too keen on watching 22 silly Rabbits hopping along at a snail's pace. They'd traveled here from far and wide to watch Grand Prix champions tear up the track at better than 180 m.p.h.. But they were good sports.
Halfway around, my car coughed, choked, bucked a couple of times, then sputtered to an ignominious stop. Nonplussed, I wondered if the Rabbit was going to roll over on its back and expire. What's happening? Was I a victim of the dreaded chicane?
"Hey, lady,"shouted one of the rather rude spectators, "step on the gas!"
I looked at the transparent hose. Aha! An air bubble was blocking the flow from the bottle to the engine. What to do? My Rabbit needed an emergency transfusion. I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of hung-over hippies who'd jumped over the guard rail and were offering to push the car home.
Dodging my competitors who drove past sedately shaking their heads, a track mechanic ran over. "Get a move on, lady! You can't stop there!" he yelled. Did he think I'd stopped to do some sightseeing?
Oh," he said brightly. "You've got an air bubble. Here, I'll blow it out".
This expert put the plastic tube between his lips and took an almighty breath. Instantly, the air bubble disappeared. It had been sucked into his mouth along with half my bottle of petrol.
"Hey! You've swallowed my ration!"
His face turned green as he spat out some of the liquid he'd stolen from me. "I knew it was a mistake to let women on this track," he muttered, stalking off.
With what was left of my 32 ounces I restarted the Rabbit and continued around the track, accompanied by hoots of derision from the fans. I decided to enjoy the scenery, waving to my fellow drivers and trying to eke out as many miles as possible from my seriously-denuded petrol supply.
The Watkins Glen circuit is a sweet grid and if you're not in a hurry, as I certainly wasn't, there's a lot to see. The first curve is a ninety-degree turn which gets you all psyched up for that infamous chicane, and after all my fears it turned out to be merely a banked segment to slow the field down and ideally allows only one car at a time to pass through it. So what was the big deal? The chicane is followed by a very nice straightaway from which one may observe the lovely foliage on the surrounding hillsides. Then the track sends you along a tortuously twisting loop that can be hazardous if you're not paying attention and sets you up for the wiggling corners that wind up to the finish. It was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon in upstate New York, I must say, and I was pleased the editor had given me the assignment.
Halfway back to the finish line, my Rabbit slowed to crawl and, with a lurch, again stopped dead in its tracks. It had expired from lack of gas. I had to be towed back to the start/finish line. At the same internationally famous race track where Niki Lauda steered his Ferrari to victory, I had completed two and a half laps in the most sensational car race of my rather short racing career. Very short. I never took to the track again.
The winner of our Bunny Hop was Bill Turney of the Hartford Courant who feather-footed his Rabbit gently enough to get 72.8 miles per gallon. Second was Jim Patterson of the Long Island Press, at 64 miles per gallon. My mileage? A paltry36. I knew Volkswagen wouldn’t be too happy. The two winners were awarded all-expense paid trips to the Bahamas. Neither invited me along.
I don't know if the guy who selfishly swallowed my petrol perished or (sorry, God) or merely suffered several extremely painful spasms. I never wanted to be a race driver anyway although I continued to cover motorsports for Gannett Newspapers. But one of my fictional characters is a racer. So there.