Of all the hundreds of columns and stories I’ve written for Toronto Star Wheels over the years, few have triggered as much response from readers as the ones I’ve written about U.S. Route 66. “I want your job,” is a typical email header. Others have included, “Can I carry your bags?” “Do you need an assistant?” and “Please take me with you.”
The Chicago-to-the-Pacific road trip, sponsored by Nissan Canada, had to have been one of the highlights of my automotive journalism career. Seven days on the road with a bunch of like-minded individuals and if you asked any of us if we’d do it again, there would be about 20 voices in unison answering: “Bring it on.”
On the last night, unfortunately (for me), just after we’d finished enjoying our last dinner together, I was heading for my room in Santa Monica to pack my bags when I stumbled on a stair, fell and broke my wrist. Naturally, I wrote a column about that.
Last week in Wheels, I published Part I
of my two-part report on the road trip. Yesterday (Sat., March 28), Wheels carried Part II. So I wrote three separate stories about this, more than I usually write for just about any assignment. I am posting this here on my personal website for the simple reason that I took many photographs and newspapers can only publish so many. I wanted to publish a few more. Plus, I am supplying you with all three links, in case you missed one or more of the stories I wrote previously.
Now, I have a habit of “writing long.” In other words, I send the Wheels editors more than they can possibly publish in the paper. One of the bits that hit the cutting room floor was a section I wrote about a motel in Flagstaff, Ariz. And a section on how auto racing once ruled at Soldier Field in Chicago. Here they are, plus three links and an album of photos that didn’t make it into the paper.
Speaking of Flagstaff, it played a huge part in my life in 1989 when my friend Jack Darch and I flew out to Phoenix to tow back to Toronto Gary Morton’s supermodified racing car after he drove it in the Copper Classic. It was a wonderful trip; Darch is great company. He told me all about his uncle, “Ragtime Bob” Darch; we had a car phone (no cells in those days) and had great fun trying to enter the contests on the local radio stations we drove past (“we’ll take the fourth caller for a trip to Topeka”} and stayed in towns – Tucumcari, N.M., for instance – that I’d previously thought only came from the imaginations of songwriters.
Best of all was when he told me about being a child actor in commercials.
“Ford had a commercial where they jammed six kids and all their hockey equipment into the back of a station wagon to show that the car could carry a whole team. I was one of those child actors. It’s a good thing they didn’t use the sound from when they filmed the commercial because by the time they pushed everybody in, plus all the equipment bags, all the kids were screaming. Everybody had little bodies and big heads and they made us all inhale to make it look like there was lots of room and then we had to hold our breath and smile at the camera. The director would yell “cut” and the fights would start. Guys were elbowing each other in the face. It was wonderful.”
Darch and I left the desert, and Phoenix International Raceway, at 4 p.m. on Sun., Feb. 5, 1989. It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Five hours later, we were in Flagstaff, 2,106 metres above sea level. It was 20F and what was described as the worst winter storm in 50 years was raging. We fought our way up the mountains to the intersection of Interstate 17 and Interstate 40 and turned east on 40. Off on the north side of the highway was an electric sign, barely visible in the darkness and the snow. It said Little America Hotel. We got one of the last rooms, as every trucker west of Denver had found the same hotel.
Here we were, 30 years later, in Flagstaff, Ariz., and where had Nissan reserved rooms for us? Yup. The Little America Hotel. Small world.
As we were leaving Chicago, driving along an interstate, our genial guide, Dave Clark, casually mentioned that we were passing Soldier Field, “where the Chicago Bears play.” This is true, but they only started to play there in 1971. In the Glory Days of Route 66, though, Soldier Field was the site of college football games and – ta-da – auto races.
The races were promoted by Andy Granatelli and his brothers, Vince and Joe. Granatelli was a dreamer and a hustler his entire life. Born just before the Great Depression (the first one; not the one we’re heading for now . . .) the three brothers would do anything legal for a buck. And if something didn’t present itself, they would invent something.
They could do anything with cars and became addicted to the Indianapolis 500. Andy started out as a driver but gave that up after several serious accidents. He ran Studebaker and then became famous for promoting STP. He took a turbine car to Indy in 1967 (the power plant came from a Montreal-based aircraft company) and finally won the race with Mario Andretti driving in 1969.
But the times he remembered best were when he and his brothers were promoting midget-car racing, hot rods and stock cars at Soldier Field in the late 1940s. They would jam 90,000 into the place and their stunts became as famous as some of the drivers, many of whom went on to race at Indianapolis. And why were they racing in Chicago? Because the Granatellis were so successful at the gate that they could afford to pay purses higher than anywhere else in the United States. If you were a race driver at the time, you couldn’t afford not to be at Soldier Field.
But the stunts. Ah yes, the stunts.
Let me tell you about the most famous one the brothers ever pulled off. This is from Andy’s autobiography, “They Call Me Mr. 500.”
“The race started and I gave my Booger artist (the guy paid to start the stunts) the signal and he purposely spun his car in front of the field. The wreck was on. It was a hellish, grinding, slamming pileup. The cars were bouncing and skidding all over the place. And then, out roared the ambulance with red lights flashing and the siren wailing.
“Inside the ambulance, they had this dummy on a stretcher. It was dressed in a driving uniform and I’d taken a bottle of Heinz ketchup and dumped it all over the dummy. And we strapped the dummy to the stretcher so it wouldn’t bounce off.
“The ambulance screamed up to the worst wrecked car. The attendants jumped out and pulled the driver (who wasn’t hurt but in on the gag) out of the wreck and put him on a stretcher. They shoved the stretcher into the ambulance, right beside the dummy stretcher. Everybody jumped back in and they went screaming off, red lights flashing and siren wailing.
“Said the driver, over his shoulder: “Now.”
“And the other attendants kicked open the back doors and shoved out the dummy stretcher. The thing hit the track and bounced a few times, finally coming to a stop in the middle of the speedway. The ambulance kept going, back doors swinging wide open, and 90,000 people in the grandstands were screaming at the ambulance to stop.
“The driver finally stopped, put the ambulance in reverse and backed up toward the injured “driver” on the stretcher – and ran right over it! By this time the people in the grandstands were in a frenzy.
“The dummy was in pretty poor shape, as was the stretcher. The attendants gathered everything up and put it all in the ambulance and then, as the ambulance started to leave the track, WE RESTARTED THE RACE! The race cars came screaming around and engulfed the ambulance and it took the driver three or four laps to make its escape and head for the “hospital.”
“Joe said eight people in the grandstands had fainted and needed medical attention. I thought we could do better than that but we never tried it again. Once was enough.”
They just don’t make ‘em like they used to, do they?
And so, farewell to Route 66 – till the next time.