Into The Valley
By Joel Reitman
“This is the train to Penn Station; the next stop isHicksville,” blared the voice of the automated announcer. I was at the station my Uncle Artie drove to work every day. The view through the grimy,Long Island Rail Roadcar window blurred my vision so mightily, it seemed to bring me back in time. I remember Artie driving his 1965 arctic blue Mustang convertible to this very station, top down, week after week.
What made Artie special to me was his fondness for all things of art. In lowerManhattan, he cut carbon into diamonds. At home, he crafted wood into clavichords and harpsichords. He would often meet with family and friends to play the recorder.
Perhaps his true love was cars; sports cars. The Mustang survived my uncle and eventually was left to me. My uncle and his love of cars and things of beauty, led me to the race car that would become Number 49, and one particular race I’ll never forget.
The first encounter with Number 49 was at a race car drivers school. The reason I spotted this outdated dark blue race car, was the letter V for the restricted race class. The price on the “for sale” sign plastered to her side also helped. The car conformed to all the requirements that make open wheel Formula Vee road racing exciting and reasonable. Every vehicle in this class must conform to a specific set of rules, called a formula. Some formulas rely only on size and weight. Some like Formula Vee (Volkswagen) use a specific brand of car on which to base the formula.
I purchased the car and in the first year I added only the white vinyl number 49. I was content to get my amateur race driver’s license and learn racing techniques. Driver’s School taught us that there is a path around the track that allows for the fastest laps. This path requires knowledge of the apex of each turn and how to set up for them. You either slow down or spin out. We were taught to aim for the spinning car, because it would have spun away and not be there when you arrived. A lesson to be experienced later. We competed in several races and by the end of the season, 49 and I finished every race. No trophies, but I had my race car driver’s license. Accomplishment enough, I thought.
Soon it was late September, time to get car 49 ready for next year. Spring came, and 49 was in pristine shape: a freshened engine, new fiberglass, arctic blue outside, white stripe down the center, and a crisp white number 49 on both sides. A new beginning.
The first race of the season was atLimeRockRaceParkin the Litchfield Hills area ofConnecticut. I passed through the entrance gate to the famous track, with49 intow on the trailer. I parked in the infield, meeting old friends, all getting ready to race. The start time was coming quick. Check the tires, oil, fuel, and nerves. All seemed ready to race. Onto the track, all lined up, then a warm-up lap and the pace car sweeps aside. Soon I was running third, behind Mike and Fred. What a difference from last year.
A few weeks after Lime Rock, I drove to Pocono Race Track inPennsylvania. The stock car stadium was a tri-oval with a short curvy infield course added for sports cars. The start was on the section just before the oval shaped track curved right and then became steeply banked to accommodate the stock cars. Soon it was time for all 24 open wheel formula cars. A standing start, accelerators down and, in an instant, the air in front of us was filled with oily smoke, spread like a river. It was the war zone of race cars. Cars everywhere, shards of tires flying, brakes screeching, total mayhem. A car lost oil and slipped down the sharply banked section, others had not been able to avoid the car. Somehow, every driver escaped unhurt, but not every car. 49 and I skirted down low to the infield, came flying through the grimy smoke to an open straight section and, again, through the mass of debris and fumes of oil. We managed to complete all ten laps.