I’ll tell you what, the kids were just about ready to start in on the 66 car as soon as we got the 2 back in the shop, and to tell you the truth I was too. But I decided not to push it just then – I was still short a frame for the 66 car, and we wouldn’t be able to cobble one together out of two wrecks like we did with the 2. PeeWee was going to have to build it from the ground up out of channel steel, and there were a few other issues. Besides we had other things to do in class, and the 66 car would make a good class project for next year.
I might as well jump away from the thread of the story for a bit to explain that the kids and I put together the 66 car the next winter. The flow of the project went a little differently from the 2 car, partly because we knew from the beginning that we had that brand new Simca V8-60 sitting over in that crate. It wasn’t until the following summer that I got PeeWee and Spud to build me the frame, working around their more important stuff, and I had to haul the 2 car down there so PeeWee would have something to take measurements off of and the like. Not surprisingly, he turned out what in many ways was a better frame than the one he’d mingled together out of the 2 and the 53.
For many years I’ve explained that the 2 is a restoration, but the 66 car is a replica that includes a lot of original parts. The fact that neither one of the engines is anything approaching original really doesn’t matter since a race car can go through a lot of engines in its lifetime. The engines not being original doesn’t seem to matter to anyone.
Both the engines in the cars are about as stock as stock can be. The only thing that isn’t stock is the sweeping exhaust headers that give both of the cars such a wonderful sound – and as it worked out, three of those four long chromed pipes are original; we only had to build the right-side header for the 66. We never messed with putting on restrictor plates either, since the cars weren’t built to race. They don’t get a lot of running; I’ve never kept a record, and neither of the cars has an odometer, but I’d be willing to bet that they don’t have 5,000 miles on either of them, virtually all at a parade or a parade lap pace. Really, they’re not race cars anymore and haven’t been since we rebuilt them – they’re just show cars now, although somewhat unusual ones. Over the years they’ve visited the odd car show here and there, and have come away with their own collection of trophies.
But to get back to the story, once the weather warmed up in the spring the Auto Shop II kids, Arlene, and I loaded the 2 car onto a trailer and headed off for a special treat. Since the deal a few years before I wasn’t about to have anything to do with the Smoky Kern, Glenn Mansfield, or the Bradford Speedway, so we headed down to the old, long-gone now LaGrange Speedway which I’d arranged to rent for an afternoon. This was a little different than we were used to with an MMSA midget, since it was paved. Over the years back there in the fifties we ran on pavement once in a while and it was always a little shaky since we were used to running on dirt and the cars had been set up for it. However, I really didn’t want to mess the car up that bad, and I didn’t want the kids trying to power slide it, so the pavement track worked out just fine.
I ran a few laps with the 2, just to make sure everything was working and nothing was too far out of whack, and then Arlene ran a few more, then came in to report that it drove just about like she remembered. I gave the kids a lecture about taking it easy, and Arlene reminded them that she was a surgical nurse and they weren’t going to like what she was going to do to them if they put a ding in her car, and we turned the kids loose. They took it pretty easy, since none of them really wanted to ding up the car, either. I might as well admit that it was enough to get the bug to bite in a couple of the kids, and one of them, Mark Conway, a few years later spent a lot of time campaigning a modern midget around the tri-state area with pretty good results.
With that out of the way, I trailered the 2 car back home and stuck it in the old chicken house with a tarp over it. Bradford traditionally has had a big Fourth of July parade and festival, so when the parade rolled around a few months later I got the car out again, and we shined it up. I made up a sign that said "1949 MMSA Midget, restored by Bradford High School 1964-65 Auto Shop II Class." Arlene got to drive the car in the parade, but I followed along behind with the pickup, with most of the kids from the class riding along in the back. There’d been a lot of stories going around town about the race car that the kids in the Auto Shop class were building, and this really was its first public appearance. I don’t want to say that we were the hit of the show but it drew some attention, including a big picture in the Courier, which was a big deal for the time since Lloyd didn’t run a lot of pictures in the paper in those days. A lot of people asked if we were going to race it and I had to tell them no – it was an oddball as a midget and no longer fit anyone’s rules; it was more a keepsake and a reminder of the way things used to be.
There was a lot of racing talk over fried chicken at the festival grounds, and I heard quite a bit more than I really wanted to know about what was going on at the Bradford Speedway. Things weren’t going well – they were down to just having a handful of cars on a given evening, and a crowd of three dozen people was a big one. It turned out that Glenn Mansfield had for practical purposes pulled out of the track, leaving Smoky to get along as best he could. That probably would have been good except that things had gotten so bad that he probably couldn’t save them. As far as I was concerned it served him right, and I really didn’t much care beyond that. Towards the middle of the season I happened to notice that a "For Sale" sign had gone up in front of the track, and one Saturday night I realized that I wasn’t hearing the roar of cars from that direction anymore. A little asking around revealed that Smoky had just hung it up – he wasn’t bringing in enough income to even think about trying to keep the place going.
I mentioned before that after our deal at the Bradford Speedway blew up back in 1962, Arlene and I had become pretty serious short track race fans. We weren’t out every weekend, sometimes only every third or fourth, but gas was cheap in those days, and when we got an itch to take in a race we tried to go to every different place around that we could. Of course, the kids bugged us about wanting to come along, so sometimes we’d take them – not always; Elaine in particular wasn’t interested, and as a preschooler she could be something of a pain to keep an eye on. The boys, however, were real serious about the racing, Ray naturally more so than Vern. Especially with Ray, I could see that I had a racer coming along, and for a while I’d been wondering what I was going to do about it.
While I was standing around the 2 car at the festival shooting the bull with people and telling old racing stories, I got to talking with Craig Ferrill, another teacher at the school. I’d known Craig since I first came to Bradford, and we sometimes sat in the teacher’s lounge over lunch hour and talked about one thing and another. I’d known that Craig somehow had gotten into Go-Kart racing as we called it in those days, and while not a super serious competitor he liked to go out and tear around in the little things every now and then. Craig had some kids who were a few years older than Vern and Ray, and somehow the discussion got around to Craig’s kids racing the karts, as they came to be called.
"We’ve got a kids’ series," Craig explained. "All age groups, starting at age six. Not all out hot carts with McCulloch engines like the one I race. These just use Clinton lawnmower engines, so they’re not real fast, but the kids sure seem to have fun with it."
"Sounds like it might be fun," I replied thoughtfully. That might not be real expensive, I thought, and might do something to get the boys off my back about wanting to go racing. "I wouldn’t mind checking that out sometime. Where do you race?"
"Here and there," he replied. "The next race we’ll have for the kids will be in the parking lot of the Eagle-Brown factory over in Hawthorne. We just mark out a course with flour and let the kids run it while they learn the basics. With those engines they don’t go real fast, but they’re just learning. It’s real casual. We’ll get going about ten o’clock if you’d like to check it out."
Needless to say, the next Saturday morning at ten I drove the pickup over to the Eagle-Brown parking lot, taking the boys with me. There were a couple dozen kids around, almost as many karts, and a bunch of parents. Like Craig told me, it was all pretty casual, but the boys were excited, and they wanted to be in a kart and out there racing right now. Well, to make a long story short, by now you’ve figured out that I have a soft head when it comes to racing, especially with beginners, so when we drove back to Bradford there was a kart in the back of the pickup. The kart needed some work and the engine wasn’t running, so I got it cheap. It didn’t take long to get it running again, and the boys pitched in where they could in helping fix the thing up.
The next Saturday morning we were in some other parking lot running the kart. Predictably, even though Ray was younger, he was the more serious about racing it, and he got right into it, with Vern behind him a little. Now, if you’ve ever raised boys, you’ll know that they have a tendency to get a little competitive with one another, and having to share the kart soon led to arguments over who was faster. Well, old soft-headed racer Dad could only take so much of that, and pretty soon a second kart joined the first one.
That was the beginning of a lot of Saturday mornings standing around various parking lots and occasionally dedicated paved tracks. I had pretty well guessed that Ray was the faster of the two boys, and having the two karts just proved it. Going one on one, Ray against Vern, Ray could just about drive Vern’s ears off. Then they’d switch karts, and Ray was still the king of the hill.
Like I said, the league was pretty casual, with parents serving as officials and nobody getting too serious about it. But, the problem you run into with those kinds of things is that sooner or later a Glenn Mansfield kind of person does come along and ups the ante because he wants to see his kids winning to massage his own ego. Sure enough that problem reared its head, and sooner than I would have liked; by the end of the season it was getting to be a pain in the neck.
Craig and I spent a lot of time bitching about it in the teacher’s lounge over the course of the winter. Finally we decided that the only way we could deal with the issue was to go with the flow or get out, and none of our kids particularly felt like getting out. What we wound up doing was changing to a different club where they weren’t running beginner karts, but more advanced stuff with McCulloch two-stroke chainsaw engines. These were a fair bunch more expensive and faster, but the boys were up to handling them, especially Ray.
Now a lot of people have their kids in Little League or other ball leagues and spend a lot of time getting splinters in their butts from the cheap seats. I’m glad to say that I wasn’t one of them. Neither of my boys had much interest in baseball or other organized sports. Ray was proving to be a racer through and through; while Vern enjoyed it, he wasn’t as serious about it as his younger brother, and given a choice he’d be about as likely to be found reading a book.
I’ll be honest; several times Arlene and I borrowed the kid’s karts for a little free-lance adult racing around some of those little flour-marked tracks. We never ran an official race, just against each other for the heck of it, but we had some fun with it. Interestingly enough, neither of us ever really had a big advantage over the other one, no matter which kart we were driving, but we had some close racing and a lot of fun. There was more than once in those years that I got an itch to build a stock car or modern midget and have at it; there were some times that it was real hard to keep my promise to myself to not get involved in racing as a driver again.
Over that period Craig and his wife Beth got to be pretty good friends with Arlene and I. None of us were originally from Bradford and even after a dozen years in town we were still sort of outsiders, although we’d all done a pretty good job of fitting into the community. We both knew a lot of people and their kids, and that helped a lot. It turned out that Beth got along with racing pretty well, too, so the four of us often got in the Mustang on a nice summer’s night and took off to some race track or other. I got to know a lot of the tracks, the people who ran them, how things at tracks worked, and what things didn’t. Not that it really mattered, but I could get an idea of how some of my ideas from back there in ’61 and ’62 might have worked out had I been allowed to carry them out. It was mostly just curiosity working its way out; I figured my racing bug was satisfied by keeping the boys going with their kart racing.
After the 66 car was completed in the spring of 1966, Arlene and I found ourselves getting invited to take the cars to various events, like parades in other towns; if we didn’t have something going, we usually obliged. The two of us getting into those cars always tickled us, taking us back to our youth, even if we weren’t doing any more than driving them at walking speed through some little town or other. It was a lot of fun, and introduced us to a lot of interesting people we wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise.
It was in one of those little towns that I spotted the car that I wanted for my next restoration project for the Auto Shop II kids – a ’53 Studebaker Starlite coupe, just like Arlene had driven back when we first got together. This was going to be a much bigger job than the two race cars, and I didn’t even think about trying to get through it in one year with just the shop kids. As it turned out, it took three years, and proved to be my last car restoration job at the school.
For several years there had been talk of trying to put together an Intermediate School District that would manage a county-wide Vocational Technical Center. Back in those days, most schools had their own shop classes – wood shop, metal shop, and of course auto shop. In addition, each school but the one in Hawthorne had their own agricultural classes. Sometimes the classes would get a little on the small side although auto shop classes remained more popular than most. The idea these double-domes had was that if everybody pooled resources they could avoid duplication of resources, and get a bigger bang for the buck.
It looked good on paper and you can still find plenty of people today that think it’s a good deal. But they don’t realize that of the three hours and change a day that the Vo-Tec kids spend at the school, an hour and a half of it is spent riding buses. Since the Vo-Tec classes are only open to kids in their junior and senior years they only have, at the most, the chance to take two Vo-Tec classes during their high school career, compared to eight or ten that they could have taken if they’d had it available for four years at their local schools. The powers that be sold the living hell out of the concept, saying that it was a great new innovation that would better prepare the kids for the work force, and it really was a load of bull. If they could have found a worse way to do it wrong they would have, but according to the Intermediate School District folks it was and still is the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread.
As it turned out, Vo-Tec got voted down by the voters that fall but it was clear that the powers that be were going to try to get it passed again and again until they got one vote more than necessary. Once I realized that, I could pretty well see that the handwriting was on the wall as far as my teaching auto shop was concerned. Oh, I wasn’t worried about it for me. I had tenure and could spend the rest of my career teaching history and government, but it didn’t set well with me that kids wouldn’t be able to have a high school class that would teach the simple basics of how to maintain their cars. More and more, such practical classes have fallen by the wayside in pursuit of book knowledge, with the result that the kids graduating from high school today don’t know how to write a check or balance a checkbook or change the oil in their cars. I for one don’t think that this is a quality education, but I’ve said this for years, and think I’ll get off my soapbox now.