I read recently of the death of Jack Brabham, 88, a renowned Australian race car driver who was active from the 1940s to 1970. The name and the news took me way back, 45 years at least, to when I was a car-crazy kid who avidly read Car and Driver, Hot Rod and other car magazines to keep up with the racing news.
My father, a racing enthusiast who named my brother Cooper and me after cars or drivers, must have influenced this interest, although he lived far away. As a somewhat-typical American boy, cars fascinated me, anyway. I built plastic and metal models; my mother used to take my metal parts to the Tipton Chevrolet dealership in Mission, Texas, where the guys in the repair shop would happily prime the pieces before I painstakingly painted them (a big thanks to my friend Renee Zamora-Hernandez for confirming that Tipton was the name of the dealership in the 1960s). I avidly collected the glossy marketing brochures from Tipton and Spikes Ford in Mission. Salesmen sometimes found me in their showrooms sitting in the cars, dreaming.
On the long drives to San Antonio for family vacations, my brother and I competed in car-counting games. I took Cadillac, he took Mustang, and we kept track of the number we saw to see which was the most popular car on the 250 miles of highway going up to the Alamo City.
I never cared so much for the mechanics of cars as for the culture, especially the speed side of cars. Indy racing, Can-Am, Formula 1, drag racing with the long pointy vehicles and the tire-spinning burnouts before the staging lights counted down from red to green to start the five-second races along a quarter-mile strip — I remember all of that.
The high-glamour world of Formula 1 especially caught my attention and Jack Brabham was a great driver of the era. The photos with the memorials showed a man I instantly recognized, square-jawed, determined, ready to put his pedal to the medal.
Back in those days I avidly tracked the standings and teams with the enthusiasm I would soon show for baseball, my next kid obsession (I can recite the names of most of the starting line-up of the 1969 Houston Astros and a good chunk of the pitching rotation, but that’s another column).
I became a big fan of Texas’ own Team Chaparral, owned by Midland oil executive and driver Jim Hall. His low-slung white cars burned up the track in the Can-Am series of races in 1966 and 1967. I remember being thrilled by the daring design of the car. Hall rolled out the 2E car at exactly the moment I went car crazy and photos online indeed show the look I remember from the pages of Car and Driver. The details:
The 2E was based on the Chevrolet designed aluminum 2C chassis and presented Jim Hall’s most advanced aerodynamic theories to the racing world in the 1966. The 2E established the paradigm for virtually all racing cars built since. It was startling in appearance, with its radiators moved from the traditional location in the nose to two ducted pods on either side of the cockpit and a large wing mounted several feet above the rear of the car on struts. The wing was the opposite of an aircraft wing in that it generated down-force instead of lift and was attached directly to the rear suspension uprights, loading the tires for extra adhesion while cornering. A ducted nose channeled air from the front of the car up, creating extra down-force as well. By depressing a floor pedal that was in the position of a clutch pedal in other cars, Hall was able to feather, or flatten out, the negative angle of the wing when down-force was not needed, such as on a straight section of the track, to reduce drag and increase top speed. In addition, an interconnected air dam closed off the nose ducting for streamlining as well. When the pedal was released, the front ducting and wing returned to their full down-force position. Until they were banned many sports racing cars, as well as Formula One cars, had wings on tall struts, although many were not as well executed as Hall’s.
In layman’s terms, the Chaparral 2E had a “spoiler” on the back, and that’s forever imprinted on me as the ultimate in car design, other than gull-winged doors from a 1950s Mercedes-Benz. Every time I see a modern car with a spoiler — Subarus — I’m transported back to the days when I saw myself as an honorary member of Team Chaparral.
Other bits and pieces of racing lore stayed in my brain from 1967, the year I turned 10. I must have kept up with the news in Car and Driver and newspapers like the McAllen Monitor. The horrific accident at the Grand Prix of Monaco on May 10 that killed Lorenzo Bandini sank deeply into my subconscious. Photos of the crash, in which Bandini was terribly burned, soon appeared in Car and Driver with an angry editorial; 47 years later, I instantly recalled his name and scenes of the crash that I read about. The violence and nature of Bandini’s death must have shocked me.
A happier racing memory came from later in the same month. I’m thinking back on the Indianapolis 500 of May 1967, when Parnelli Jones shocked the traditionalists by almost winning in the STP candy apple-red gas turbine car, which led most of race until it broke down with three laps to go after a $6 ball bearing failed. To this day I associate the letters “STP” with game-changing innovation — which ultimately went nowhere in terms of impact on Indy racing, although it caused a massive stir that year. A.J. Foyt won the race — he’s just one of the familiar names from that era that leaped back into my awareness from that era; I couldn’t name a single driver from any circuit of today, but names like Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Graham Hill and, of course, Jack Brabham feel as familiar to me as Bronx kids in the late 1920s recalled Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and their Yankees teammates.
Of course, I clearly remember my family’s own cars. My mother had total loyalty to Chevrolets that she bought at Tipton Chevy throughout the 1960s. She first bought a rear-engine Corvair in 1962 or so, then traded three years later for a sporty 1965 turquoise Malibu that, truth be told, I wouldn’t mind driving today. Following the pattern of the day, in 1968 she bought a yellow two-door Impala, with the popular option of the era, a white vinyl roof. She stopped upgrading after that, and the yellow Impala was the car my brother and I drove after taking Driver’s Ed in the mid-1970s.
Hands down, though, the hot wheels in the family in the 1960s and 1970s belonged to my mother’s Aunt Sue in San Antonio, a retired teacher. She tooled around the Alamo City in her early ’60s white Thunderbird, a bitchin’ ride with creamy leather bucket seats and the power windows. Power windows! I had never seen those before. In the late 1960s, alas, she traded the T-Bird in for a boat-like Lincoln Continental, painted gold, with plenty of room. I liked riding in her Caddy when we visited San Antonio on family vacations, but she just couldn’t top the T-Bird.
My interest in cars and racing faded away, replaced by baseball and girls and other primal quests. I bought my first car in May 1979 for a summer job as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, a rusty 1971 AMC Hornet station wagon. Desperate for the required transportation for the job, I bought it for $500 from a graduate student. It served its purpose but I never drove it unless I had to in that gas-crisis summer, when long lines snaked around service stations nation-wide. I took it back to Princeton and parked it behind my eating club during my senior year. I used it to move to Brooklyn after I graduated and heaved a sigh of relief when I donated it to Goodwill as soon as possible.
I didn’t own a car for 11 years, until my wife and I moved to the suburbs and we bought a tan 1984 Saab two-door. It had a manual transmission, so I had to take driving lessons to learn how to drive the thing. To my surprise and pleasure, I actually learned how. Three years later we bought a red four-door 1986 Saab when our son was born. The tan car died in a train station parking lot and we got a Taurus station wagon. After we divorced, I got the red Saab, which proved increasingly unreliable. I liked the unique look of Saabs and their solidity but 1986 was a wretched model year and the car became a terror ride as I wondered when it would stall at a stop light or just not start, as once happened after I picked up my son after a Labor Day sleepover with a friend in Westchester County. A $200 AAA pick-up to my repair shop in Stamford ensued.
Fed up with Saab’s clunkerness, I got to the point where I rented cars on the weekends my son was with me so I could have reliable transportation. In April 2005, that year of miracles, I made the best consumer purchase ever when I bought a 2004 Hyundai Elantra at the short-lived Hyundai dealership in Stamford, Connecticut. The dealership closed a month after I bought the car, but I’ve had nine years of trouble-free cruising.
My silver four-door blends into every parking lot in total anonymity. Nobody’s going to be impressed by the tape deck it still has (how’s that for old-style technology?) but it gets me around the suburbs and handled ferocious New York blizzards, so long as I don’t actually drive during a snow storm. As much as I dream of late-middle-aged-life crisis Corvettes and T-Birds–my car fantasies always involve classic American Iron from Detroit–I’m sticking with the utilitarian services of my Elantra and its tape deck.
Truth be told, even expensive current models fail to impress me. The Westport train station parking lot packs in row after row of grey, black and silver sedans from BW, Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. They all look alike and I stroll past them. I only nod and gaze with passion with longing at the stray Corvette or curving Porsche. If I see a low-slung piece of superpowered road-candy, or an antique. I’ll whip out my camera to get shots from different angles.
Still, I can look back on my days as the car-crazy kid following Sir Jack Brabham and the home-state Team Chaparral. And sometimes where I accelerate through the mild uphill curves of the backroads of Westchester and Fairfield Counties, I grip the wheel of my Hyundai, feel the wind in what’s left of my hair and think, “Ja, fine European road handling.”