I traveled to Michigan in December to visit my mother. While there I drove into the backwoods to visit my uncle, my mother’s brother. I hadn’t visited for some time and he was thinner, grayer but still vigorous. He had recently finished cutting and stacking 10 cords of firewood. At seventy-seven I hope I’m that spry.
It wasn’t long into the visit when the talk turned to racing. My uncle drove race cars at Flat Rock Speedway, southwest of Detroit. I still have vivid memories of that track and those roaring race cars, which were delightfully deafening to a 10-year-old. To this day I recall that track whenever I smell burnt rubber and high-octane gasoline exhaust.
We discussed the latest racing news. This trip he was all excited to tell me that, two-time Indianapolis winner, Gordon Johncock moved to a neighboring town and that, former NASCAR champion, Tony Stewart may drive in the Indianapolis 500 for car owner Roger Penske.
As always, I quizzed him about his racing days. This trip I learned his car owner was too cheap to buy new tires for his race car. He didn’t have to say it but I knew from my own racing experience that good rubber makes for good racing. The lack of fresh sticky rubber would mean his car would have little traction. “I won a couple of heat races but the best I could do was one third (place) in the features.” Like us all, I’m sure he’s thought about what might have been had circumstances been different. Not one to dwell, he has nothing but fond memories of his racing days.
After dinner we wandered out to his garage. He keeps an immaculate workshop. Every tool in its place and the floor squeaky clean. On one wall hung a 1962 photograph of him in his Flat Rock race car. It sported an unusual number: two and three-quarters. He said he wanted a number that would get noticed, so he added the fraction. I had him take the picture down and I used the camera in my cell phone to snap a picture of it for a keepsake. It truly is of historical value, both to my extended family and the history of short track racing in southern Michigan.
The picture captures the spirit of that time and place. The open-faced, leather-eared helmet says it all. This was home-brew racing. The car was a renegade racer built from the ground up of parts from various cars. Strapping yourself into one of these beasts means you were a warrior from a long line of chariot racers. Taking a seat in a car like that required a degree of trust in your car builder just like it does for any breakneck speedway racer today.
My uncle’s expression in the picture is that of a savvy racer — serious, fearless and proud. He told me the picture was taken between heat races. I think it is classic vintage photo even if he wasn’t my uncle.
When I went to leave he gave me a book, Lone Star J.R.: The Autobiography of Racing Legend Johnny Rutherford, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and member of the International Sports Hall of Fame. “You’ll get a kick out of some of the stories he tells.” He knew I’d get a kick out of it because he knows I love motor sports and saw Rutherford race three times at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The book chronicles the racing career of Rutherford — a brief glimpse of his childhood and ragtag years building a name for himself in racing. It is filled with vintage racing photos and tells brief stories about the now famous racers he raced with.
Published in 2000, this book should be in the library of serious race fans, racing history buffs and motor sports writers. My only criticism of the book is that he often takes you to a track, tells you he learned a lot about racing there, but doesn’t tell you what he learned. Surely he did not forget those hard-won lessons of racing. It is a minor thing but readers would have relished this information. That said, the book is filled with information on race tracks, racers and the people who made big time racing possible for the past 60 years. The narrative is plainly written and at times can be lyrically sweet.
On one road trip, exhausted and hungry, he pulls off the road to sleep, opens both car doors, and stretches out across the front seat. “On a nice warm summer evening, if there’s no breeze, you can actually hear the corn grow. It wheezes and snaps and crackles. At first I thought I was just hearing things, but later I asked a farmer about it and he said, “Oh, yeah, you can hear corn grow if it’s a still night. Corn makes a lot of noise.”
Ah, the pleasure of hearing the corn grow after a weekend of race cars roaring in your ears. This is great stuff.
Click here to see how Rutherford is being honored at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
Let me know if you have any racing stories.