Part 2 of my LeMons New England excursion. This time, I actually get to drive the damn thing. Read Part 1 here!
Barely minutes after the Corvair heads to the track, it was seen turning back into the pits. “He’s pulling in, he’s coming in,” our team shouted, dashing down the grandstand to find out if our TR7 points hadn’t cut it. “Why’s he pulling in so soon?”
We dashed up alongside the Corvair as Jim found a place to park behind the judges’ tent. The Saab-powered, wing-bedecked 300ZX pulled in behind him. After parking next to the Corvair, its driver jumped out. “You ok?” he asked. Jim paused for a moment, then finally said, “yeah, I’m fine. Dunno if I got a black flag or not.”
Jonny Lieberman walked over and tapped on the Corvair’s door. “You hit him!”
“He hit me!” Jim exclaimed. “Can I go back in now?”
“Absolutely not!” Lieberman shot him down. “Now, why’d you hit him?”
Earlier that day, head honcho and LeMons impresario Jay Lamm had announced, during the driver’s meeting, that Jonny Lieberman had moved on as the senior editor of Motor Trend, a magazine that had incidentally named the Corvair Car of the Year for 1960. The Boston Tow Party would be his last to feature his judicial duties. “Therefore, he’s going to be extra mean!” Lamm had said. Either he hadn’t noticed the three cases of Long Trail and Harpoon summer sampler 12-packs we had brought as bribes, or he hadn’t developed his taste for New England beer. Which, mercifully, just meant more beer for the rest of us.
“Why’d you hit him?” Lieberman asked.
“Cuz the answer’s easy!” a nearby staffer commented, “it’s a Corvair!”
“Ok, well, you need a driver change with someone who hasn’t spun out yet,” Lieberman continued. The 300ZX sported a prominent new dent in its flank the size of a honey dew melon. The Corvair’s beefy chrome bumper, meanwhile, showed nary a sign of automotive misadventure—all that remained was a spot of red paint. The Corvair had its first taste of blood.
Midway into the afternoon, the clouds that had loomed all day overhead started to grow more ominous. I started wondering if I would be driving said rear-engined, swing-axled, 40-year old American sedan in the pouring rain, and whether I would be granted a Nobel Prize and generous financial compensation as a result. “We’ll only stop the race if there’s thunder and lightning,” one of the staffers informed me. At that point, a loud thunderclap punctuated the sweltering New England afternoon, being the only sound that could sufficiently overwhelm the buzzy drone from the racetrack, and sending spectators and judges alike diving for the concession stand. The rain increased to gale-force intensity, battering the racecars, which in accordance to safety regulations had their side and rear windows removed. Many didn’t even have hoods, such as the Saab 300ZX. Even if I was going to get seat time in the Corvair, the race track wouldn’t be the only lower surface that would be damp.
The cars headed back onto the track after the rain cleared. In the next four hours of racing we would have our gas cans stolen by sabotagers (they were later returned, empty), witness the triumphant rebirth of the diesel-powered Thunderbird (to scattered applause), and have our battery short out from its positive terminal arcing across the metal battery brace, necessitating a similarly-sized battery from a certain Hooniverse contributor’s Honda Civic as well as guaranteeing that I would have to get the radio reprogrammed. (Herb Chambers Honda, Westboro, first two times free.) At one point, we witnessed a Subaru Outback slam into a flat-black Civic with such intensity that the right-rear tire was hanging on at a cockeyed angle; their team attempted to pull the strut tower straight with a rope and an F-350 diesel, until they decided to tempt fate and go back on the track looking like a puppy with a twisted leg. During another spinout and the ensuing penalty we were told to write our numbers bigger, because the people in the flag booth couldn’t see them very clearly and, as such, couldn’t successfully black flag us. How they could miss the only Corvair on the track was beyond me. Judge Phil took this golden opportunity to spray paint the Black Flag logo on every available body surface, in white paint, as well as a Ford Transit bearing the slogan “Sabine Schmitz Has Bigger Balls Than Me” over the rear trunk louvers.
“Sabine, has, bigger…OH!” Jim said.
It would be a slogan that I would find surprisingly apt, as I geared up for my first drive of the Corvair.
I was already damp from the rain and the sweltering Connecticut heat, so I couldn’t even feel the buckets of sweat that drenched the suit. Andy adjusted the seat forwards for me. “Is this good enough?” No, the pedals were still in another time zone, but it would do for now. My belt was snug and secure around my sunburned shoulders. Jim slammed the door shut. “Ok, you’re good to go,” he said. “Good luck!” he added, more foreboding than reassuring.
I surveyed the controls. Ahead of me was a foam-padded steering wheel the size of a manhole cover, protruding a few inches from my helmet via two thick, metal columns. The only instrumentation was a horizontal speedometer that ended at a wildly optimistic 95mph. My right foot struggled to reach the bottom-hinged accelerator; my left was curled up against the dead pedal, bracing myself against the firewall. Despite the lack of windows, it was already dead hot inside; my suit was already drenched in a combination of rainwater and sweat. I squeezed the gas, the car’s its flat-six engine mustered up some courage, and I lurched up the track entrance. Here we go.
The Corvair managed to be both slow and terrifying: a rare feat in an automobile with less than 88 horsepower. Its rear end constantly fought to slide out from under me, as if I was running across a loose rug: I could feel the bulk of the pancake engine wiggling, fighting my every input, threatening lift-throttle oversteer if I didn’t keep the pedal planted. If there was any hope of beating it back into place with the steering wheel, no dice: the Corvair’s steering had the airiness of a normal car mounted on cinderblocks, as if it was bolted to drywall instead of a steering rack. I babied it through the corners, afraid that the slightest knee-jerk reaction would provoke a spinout, a black flag, an electrical fire, and an overwhelming sense of disappointment. The rear end dominated my movements in the manner of a stern teacher, whose tolerance for shenanigans hadn’t yet been defined by the class clown.
Perhaps it was the Corvair’s inherent sluggishness. Or maybe it was my chickenshit fear of black-flagging into a 20-car pileup and a sprained ankle, but for the next 20 minutes I would be the very definition of a rolling roadblock. Cars wailed past me in droves, squealing their brakes behind me and lurching to the sides, one after another, then tearing off. I had to constantly serve to avoid sideswiping passing cars, whose drivers had the entertaining notion to jockey past me, then suddenly flatten the accelerator and blow past in a banshee wail of open headers that never failed to catch me by surprise. Eventually I suspected that they were toying with me: “hey, there’s no Ponderosa Blue Plate Special on this track, silverhair!” they were probably shouting into their walkie-talkies. We hadn’t retrofitted ours to the car, probably because all they would hear is a litany of swearing and the Lord’s Prayer.
Turn 1 was a sharp left onto the infield, followed by a sweeping right that shot into a series of three lefts that slingshotted cars onto the back straightaway. These corners were about as wide as a lane and a half, but true to Jay’s prediction, we went in three wide. After the brief stint on the back straight, there was a gentle chicane before the big oval: left, right, and left. Fortunately, these were wide enough for a car—say, a Corvair—to spin out with impunity. Unfortunately, the ground was pockmarked like a teenager’s face, sporting a series of pizza-shaped chunks of asphalt half an inch off the ground. I steered the Corvair slowly through here, trying to keep the car composed enough to launch onto the back oval as well as affording those queuing behind me a chance to finally pass. The rear tires constantly fought to stay in contact; I could hear the poor things being wrenched to within an inch of their lives.
Three or four cars would pass me at a time around the infield. But once the traffic jam got to the banked, oval the rest of the pack truly opened up. Here, blue, black, red streaks blew past me en masse on their way to the straightaway. I plodded along the center lane, foot buried in the accelerator, needle creeping closer to 60 with the progress of spilled molasses. The rear end would swing, I would let off the gas for a split second and correct with the wheel, then the car would shift its weight and track ahead. Then the rear end would swing again, I let off the gas, corrected, and kept moving. This happened about 4 times per lap.
By the time I straightened out and heading into Turn 1, there would be a frightening dazzle of taillights, twinkling and glittering in the light of the setting sun. It would have been more beautiful if I hadn’t been barreling towards them at 55mph, brake pedal squeezed to within an inch of its life, feeling the wheels locking up and trying not to bounce off someone else’s bodywork. Since I hadn’t had the foresight to ask one of the other drivers, I could never figure out when to stop braking and from what speed. Fuck it, I said. Every time I entered Turn 1, I did so with a vengeance. For about 8 straight laps I locked up the tires, skidded as close to the pit lane entrance as I could, then rode the brakes, steered left, and braced for impact.
Impact never came. Or at least until the lap when I braked too late, overshooting the corner and plowing head-on into a row of innocent cones. I was sure to get a flag for this, so I pulled into the pits without question. I drove past the penalty booth, past Phil and Jonny, and sat there until a yellow-shirted staff member finally wondered what I was doing here.
“So, uh, what do I do now?” I yelled.
“What are you in for?” a young bald staffer asked me.
“I, uh, I locked up the brakes and hit some cones out there,” I said. Always blame the car, never the driver.
“Wait here,” I was instructed. A while later, a large bearded staffer approached me.
“Well, since this is your first offense, we’ll go easy on you,” he said, with a look in his eyes that said you poor, dumb bastard. “Go on out there, you’re free to go!”
I went back out there. The cars were relentless in their passing: whoosh, BRAAAAAPPBRAPBRAPBRAP, SQUEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRR, and then a respite of silence before the next car blew past me. At one point coming around Turn 2’s sweeping right-hander, I watched helplessly as a beige Accord dove in closer, closer, closer…PAAAUNG! The Corvair’s bumper ripped a chunk out of the Accord’s flank, claiming another victim. With all of the yellow flags, bumper-to-bumper traffic, late braking, flying into Turn 1 three wide, passing, and potential contact, it reminded me a little of the Mass Pike at rush hour—all that was missing was a Lexus RX330 in Desert Sand Metallic two inches off the rear bumper. Cliché? Maybe. But New Englanders don’t flaunt their reputation for nothing.
My stint in the Corvair ended when the car unceremoniously ran out of gas. The engine cut out without warning along the back oval, and thinking I had suffered catastrophic engine damage, I slowly guided it to the inside shoulder as to be less of a nuisance. By then, the engine had conked out completely, burping and farting its way to stillness. I sat there, waiting for the tow truck.
“Need a push?” a track crew member asked. “The truck will push you right into the pits.” I felt a bump from the back, then as the yellow flag came out once again, I was knocked, jolt by lurching jolt, back down the pits by a black-bumpered Ford F-350 wrecker. There was no way for me to signal where I wanted to be pushed to—as a result, the tow truck driver decided to push me all the way to the end of the pit row, as if to penalize me for past (and current) motoring transgressions. I put the cane-shaped handbrake lever on, then promptly forgot how to disengage it.
Naturally, the team feared the worst. I climbed out of my race suit, now stained with the sweat of two fully-grown men, while they doused the engine in starter fluid and checked the carburetors. “Oh that’s why,” Tom exclaimed, “it’s out of gas!” A real doy! moment there for all of us. But given what had transpired over the first day, we were right to fear the worst.
I was far more aggressive in my second stunt. I ran flat-out around the corners, blocked people from passing, swore loudly into my helmet. Occasionally the rear end would step out, threatening a slide, and I would catch it and wrestle the car back into position. Every time it happened, which was about 3 times per lap, I felt like a hero. I was still getting passed by the entire field, but this time I was out to do something about it. “If I can’t go fast, none’uh you bastards can!” I shouted. I may not be proud of this.
But then I caught sight of the diesel-powered ’63 Thunderbird, the only car on the track that was holding up as many cars as I was, and I was determined not to let it out of my sights. It was my brother in arms: both of us were born in the same year, dating from a simpler era of boat-like handling and thick metal dashboards. I chased it through the back chicane, at one point even rubbing up against it, but it surprisingly picked up speed coming out of the oval. No doubt helped along by the BMW inline-six diesel’s prodigious torque and a suspension design that wasn’t the cause of a Senate hearing. It dived into Turn 1 on the left, flanked on its right side by passing cars; I braked late and leaned to the right, as usual, turning in sharply with a wheel on the grass, hoping the flag tower wouldn’t notice. Faster cars would huddle up and squeeze between the two American behemoths. Clearly, he was as much of a roadblock as I was. I felt comforted by that fact.
5 laps in, I found myself barreling down the straightaway, locking up my brakes per usual, when I found myself slotting in alongside a bright-silver Subaru Impreza with a Back to the Future theme, and a terrible maroon and lime-green ’88 Supra with JROC-Z emblazoned on its doors. We were all going too fast for the corner at this point. But the Supra had to cut in to avoid being punted—by me—into the pits, and I was still tracking straight. WHACK! I hit the Supra somewhere by its rear quarterpanel, sending me into the Subaru’s door—we were flying into Turn 1 three wide, sandwiched between each other, a constant grinding of weak Japanese steel and Communism-destroying chrome. Once again, no black flag, though the rest of the team watching from the grandstands would later say that it looked “pretty hairy out there.”
And then, with half an hour to go before the checkered flag, I dive into Turn 1 too fast, lock up again, crank the wheel to the left, feel the rear end step out, countersteer to the right while simultaneously trying to avoid bouncing off 4 or 5 other cars, feel the rear end step out even sharper to the left, then end up perpendicular to the track, ass end halfway in the middle of the course. The crowd applauded.
I crank the key and pump the gas, nothing. Behind me, two rows of cars have stopped, waiting for me to clear the hell out of the way. I signal with an arm out the window to go around, and they merge with the grace and tact of the 90-495 onramp during a Sox game. The wrecker is brought out again, barreling across the infield and punting me across the grass.
“What happened out there?” my team asked me.
“What happened?!” someone nearby piped up. “Corvair. Corvair happened.”
“It’s the slowest car on the track,” Judge Phil said, “so I’m inclined to proclaim innocence.”
There was half an hour left in the race. I wisely handed my helmet and gloves over to Andy, professional Corvair racer extraordinaire, headed back to the pits, and cracked open a beer.
One by one, the awards were rattled off: the Saab 96 for Organizer’s Choice, the Fiat 131 the Grassroots Motorsports Most from the Least Award and a win in our class, the Thunderbird for Index of Effluency—a seemingly obvious choice, perhaps to make up for being the only car on the track slower than we were. Unlike last year, the Corvair didn’t bag any trophies. We didn’t even bring any beer.
But, the Corvair did survive until the last-lap parade, where our team collectively gave Andy a drive-by high five. It also survived a second year with its dignity intact—even as we were loading the car up to the flatbed truck that Jim had thoughtfully provided, people slowly streamed into the faraway corner of the paddock, fingers on camera triggers, grins plastered across faces. “Damn, will you look at that, a Corvair!” said one man in a red Alfa Romeo polo, wearing a pin-bedecked Alfa Romeo cap and carrying an umbrella covered in Alfa Romeo logos. “You think he likes Alfa Romeos?” I said.
During my time in the pits, I had spoken to Jim’s father George, who had shown up on the last day but, with the heat and a bad knee, had relegated himself to pit guard in case any more nefarious types tried to steal our gas. Jim had always loved Corvairs, he told me. Presumably from an early age when he used to drive Jim and his brothers around in a Corvair Greenbriar van, one of many Corvairs at the Brennan family’s disposal, where lil’ Jim would have discovered at a tender age the joys of trailing throttle oversteer. “That was a scary vehicle,” George reminisced.
Suddenly, it all made sense now—why Jim would have chosen such a foolhardy vehicle for cheapo racing duty. There was a sense of loyalty to the infamous Corvair, one of Time Magazine’s 50 Worst Cars of All Time. (Dan Neil must be right; after all, he has a Pulitzer!) Sure, Jim could have ran with one of the hundreds of clunkers clogging up Craigslist at any given moment, but that would defeat the purpose of LeMons, as well as its spirit. What fun would that have been? Racing a Corvair is brazen enough.
The Cult of the Corvair is an underdog’s story, the defenders of a worthy (albeit frightening) car, and when the world is convinced that you’re driving a deathtrap, it takes a hell of a team to prove otherwise, two years in a row. Therefore, Team Trailing Throttle Oversteer is the greatest race team in history, and I shall be signing up next year, post-haste.