The ‘60s were some of the greatest times of my life, and also some of the hardest times. In open-wheel, and all, racing, it was maybe the greatest era ever. I got my driver’s license after failing on my 16th birthday and was devasted to the point of heading south to find my old buddy Billie Joe Mcallister, who could take me to the Tallahatchie Bridge. But somewhere around Kentucky, after a breakfast of grits and black-eyed peas, I decided I would turn around and go back the next day and try to get my license again.
In the ‘60s in Illinois you had to be 16 before you could legally get a learner’s permit. And then, after finally getting some road experience, you could go and try for your license. However, my friends and I all bypassed this law and decided to start our learning curve long before the age of 16. In my case, my dad let me drive up to my grandparents and back when I was 14. And, of course, whenever we could get our hands on some of our older friends’ cars or our parents’ cars, we would drive around the back streets. Occasionally we ventured out onto Highway 51, making sure to watch the rearview mirror all the way.
Back then, if you got caught driving underage you would get yelled at and taken back to your parents’ house, but that was about it. Insurance was not mandatory and you didn’t have to worry about lawsuits if you drove through your buddy’s lawn or knocked over the neighbor’s garbage cans for fun. Anyway, with my learner’s permit in hand, I turned around and got ready to go back to the driver’s license bureau the next day.
Day two of being 16 started with borrowing my mom’s friend John’s ‘63 Chrysler Imperial that had push buttons on the dash to shift the automatic transmission, making it easier to pass the test. I went through all the steps of doing things I probably forget today, like turning on the turn signals, coming to a complete stop at stop signs and desperately trying to keep under the speed limit.
When I pulled back into the licensing place, I waited for the instructor to come over and compliment me for such a smooth and perfect drive, but instead he took my mother aside and told her that legally I could only have had two days of road experience, and he failed me. I was sent home again with no license. Obviously, this was another major setback.
When we got home, I immediately went to our dial phone (no cell phones back then and long distance was expensive) and tried to call my buddy Billie Joe again. As if I hadn’t had enough bad luck over the past days, I received word from Choctaw Ridge that Billie Joe had jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. I was resigned to wait another week or so to finally get my driver’s license.
I was lucky growing up compared to so many others. I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life from the first time I went to the Springfield mile with my family to watch the Champ Cars run back in the late ‘50s. When I saw my heroes Tony Bettenhausen, Jimmy Bryan, Johnny Thompson and all those brave drivers, wrestling those big old dirt cars around the dirt mile with no power steering, Offy engines, Firestone rock-hard tires and a small roll bar just above their open-face helmets for 100 miles, I was hooked and didn’t want to be anything else but a race driver.
My brother Loren and I ran quarter-midgets around the Midwest around this time, and when we outgrew them I knew it would be a while before I could race open-wheel cars again. Unlike today, when at 12 years old all you need is a dad with a checkbook and a promotor who will let you race, the rules were very strict when it came to the age to run. In midget and all USAC racing you had to be 21 in order to get a license to race. In Badger, they allowed you to run if you were 18, but only with parental consent and by signing a waiver.
It is even rumored that some drivers lied about their age or had a fake ID to show they were older, but I don’t believe that an honest, reputable, rule-following character such as myself could ever do such a dastardly deed. My memory does fail me at times, though, and I didn’t always remember my exact age.
So, as much as I planned to start my career in midgets and win the USAC midget title, then the next year win the USAC sprint car title, and the following year join the Championship Trail and start my conquest of winning numerous Indy 500 races, I would have to wait a few years to get started.
I graduated with high Animal House grade honors in 1969 and began my racing career in the Road Runners at the Rockford Speedway the summer after graduation from Harlem High School. I suffered a setback for a few weeks when my race ride, a 1958 Open Cadet, was destroyed by some not-so-clean driver in a ‘60 Cadillac ramming me coming off the corner, and I flipped the little car down the front straightaway. I thought it was really cool to tip over, and Hugh Deery gave me a rollover trophy on the front straightaway before they restarted the race. The bad news was that I was rideless for the first time in my career.
I finished out the year at Rockford and on the dirt at Freeport in my street car, a 1958 Chevy station wagon, while still driving it on the street. Finally, in 1970, I was old enough to run my first midget race with the Badger midget club but had one small problem: I had no midget to run.
Back in those days, you needed experience to drive those ill-handling and sometimes-cageless cars. The old time drivers and car owners wanted nothing to do with you until you ran a few years so, since getting a ride without buying one was out of the question, I was going to be on the outside looking in.
I scoured the National Speed Sport News classified sections every week and one week at the end of the ‘60s I found a Kurtis Kraft Chevy 2 in Minneapolis that I could buy for $2,200, which included car, trailer, wheels and tires, and all spares. My dear mother worked at a bank and I was able to get a loan with her as co-signer in case Mr. Reliable wasn’t able to make the payments of $50 a month. With more money than I ever saw in my whole life (even up til today), I borrowed a truck from my buddy Tom Dull and went to Minneapolis and bought my first midget, knowing absolutely nothing about how it worked or even how to start it. But I was officially a player and ready to start my path to unbelievable riches and fame as a fulltime midget racer.
If you’ve ever raced midgets, I am sure you will remember that first time you got to race with 30 other crazy drivers willing to launch you over the third turn wall at Sun Prairie for a chance of winning a heat race. I remember what a long wait it was for the Sun Prairie track to open up in May and finally get to run. It just consumed me every day that passed. I sold my quarter-midget for $100 (another great long term business deal I made) to order my first racing uniform from Hinchman. It wasn’t fire resistant or Nomex, but it was what they called back then “fire retardant,” having some type of material that gave you approximately four seconds in a fire before you looked like Foghorn Leghorn in the cartoon when a stick of dynamite went off in his hand. But I had no problem wearing it, as I saw a lot of my childhood heroes racing in just T-shirts. Today you would have to be a complete idiot to run in just a T-shirt and open-face helmet at the Chili Bowl, but it has been done.
The big day finally came. I had all my ducks in a row. I had purchased a 1953 Ford panel truck from the Smith Oil Company in Rockford that smelled like barrels of oil and had a top speed of roughly 54 mph. Unfortunately for me, my first race at Sun Prairie was on the same day as the Rex Mays 150 Indy car race at Milwaukee. My brother Loren and I had never missed that or the Bettenhausen 200 for as long as we were able to get there, and I decided that I would go there first then on to the Prairie.
I would have my childhood friend Danny Harwood drive my Ford panel truck up, towing the midget, and I would meet him there. But when I got to the track there was no panel truck or race car. Hot laps were getting ready to start and I was panicking. Just as hot laps ended, my race car showed up and Danny explained that the trailer hitch I arc welded onto the rear bumper broke off in the driveway at home and he had to find my neighbor, Casa Boo Boo Kawalic, to reweld it before he could leave.
My career was off to a rough start, but I was able to get a chance to qualify even though we missed hot laps. When I finally pushed off and took my first green flag in qualifying, I felt a bit of a vibration. I thought it was probably nothing to worry about. I knew for sure I was on a new track record qualifying attempt until I got to the third turn and the right front wheel came off the car. Somehow it stayed on three wheels, but I would miss the feature event, since back then Badger took the top-18 qualifiers for the main event and I was out for the night.
I was also the chief mechanic that night, and somehow the right front wheel was only finger-tight. I believe I must have been sabotaged by some veteran driver worried I might end up in his heat. My first night may not have been a total success, but all it did was throw more nitro fuel on my burning desire to race. I came back a few weeks later and made the trophy dash, and from there on there was no turning back.
After careful study, I reckon that the start of my first race and the following races were probably almost exactly like Jeff Gordon’s or Kyle Larson’s. If I had to do it over again, I would probably change a couple of things, like tightening the right front wheel. All in all, how could any of today’s drivers have had all the great experiences and fun I have had without owning their own cars, towing them to the races, working on them…
But that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone. One thing is for sure, though. I generally have screwed up almost every opportunity and thing I’ve done but, somehow, I still come out smelling like a rose after all these years. One lucky guy. Go figure. KO