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“My Checkered Flags”

I started out as a kid totally lost in the hot rods, customs and dragsters of the late sixties and early seventies, but I was exposed to SCCA racing just before I reached that magical age where I could become a driver. It was an SCCA regional event at Nelsons Ledges, and I’ve been hooked on road racing ever since. I ran time trials on the “short course” every chance I had, in whatever I owned at the time: a 1960 Mini, a 1980 Ford Fairmont wagon, a Subaru 360. It was my dream to join SCCA, actually participate in (instead of watch) a Drivers School and work my way up to a national license. Funny how life gets in the way of your dreams, isn’t it?

Fast forward: 20 years, more than a few jobs, a few moves and a family later, and we arrive at that time in your life where you’re old enough to start looking back at the things you dreamed of when you believed anything could happen just because you wanted it to. Lots of things changed in those 20 years, but I never lost my love of road racing, and I realized the time had come to make that dream a reality. A friend was racing a 1967 Mini with VARA, and I’d spent a couple Saturday’s in his garage and couple weekends at events working on the car – and having that fire relit. Amateur racing had evolved well beyond a level of competition that I was interested in, but vintage racing looked a lot like the SCCA I remembered from my youth, so I decided I would find a car and prepare it for vintage events.

Taking into account my moderately successful career, the usual family obligations and the cost of living in Southern California, it became obvious the available budget for building my “race team” would limit my possible choices. I also had to consider the fact that I didn’t have a tow vehicle, let alone a trailer, so I was going to do it “the old fashion way” by driving my car to the track. I always had a soft spot in my heart (and maybe my head) for British sports cars, but finding an affordable, suitable donor was proved almost impossible. I also have an attraction to the simplicity of air–cooled German sedans. After all – Volkswagens were Porsches, through some twisted tracing of their family tree. They’re also inexpensive, plentiful, simple to work on and reasonably priced parts are readily available. It didn’t take long to find a clean, solid 1960 Volkswagen Beetle that would soon become my first vintage racer.

Converting my humble little Bug into snarling period–correct vintage racer meant taking it completely apart, cleaning and repainting everything, replacing all the bearings, seals, bushings, hoses, lines, gaskets, shoes, belts and anything else that either looked old or was old, and installing the required safety equipment. Once all that was done, I had enough left to mount a high performance air cleaner and exhaust system, buy numbers, class designations and pronounce it “ready to race.” It was a proud day when my clean, green, forty horsepower racing machine was born!

Green VW

I ran my first novice weekend at Willow Springs International Raceway. If you’ve ever raced there, you know it absolutely deserves the nickname of “The Fastest Road in the West.” I can tell you, it isn’t so fast with forty horsepower, but running through Turn 9 flat out on 165x15 Winston Californian Radials is still damned scary, especially when it’s your first race weekend. As you can see, I got my first checkered flag. I didn’t beat anybody – I was the only car in my class. The truth is, I was 20 seconds slower than any other car there, and being in the “Rookie Race” with a couple Big Bore American sedans, a few open wheelers and fair number of full on production racers was the single most frightening thing that has ever happened to me on a race track. Can you image “diving” into Turn 1 flat out at 70+MPH (with a tail wind) and looking in your mirror to see some Mustang closing at twice your speed? But I survived, and I finished the weekend in one piece, carefully backing “MY” little racer into the garage that Sunday night – my first checkered flag draped across the passenger seat for all to see. Over the next couple years I got a nice little collection of flags. I never beat anyone; I “earned” them all for being the only car in my class. The flags were nice, but I never had that “flagman enthusiastically waving it across the nose of my racer” feeling.

Sadly, the Bug came to an inglorious end in a low speed off–track excursion and had all of its salvageable remains moved to a 1964 Karmann Ghia.

Red Ghia

It was a lovely little car, very aerodynamic looking. Of course, what it made up for in aerodynamics it gave up in weight, and forty horsepower is, well, forty horsepower, so it wasn’t any faster. It was also in the same class, so the checkered flags were pretty much a given; finish the race on Sunday and get a flag. My time with the Ghia was short–lived. Fortunately, it was someone else’s off track excursion, and the realization that I could never afford to rebuild a Karmann Ghia body, that led me to sell it. It went to good home where it continued to race right up until this year. The down payment was my next, and final, vintage racer – the Plum Bug is born.

Blue VW

The Super Beetle above was the down payment, but it was pink when it arrived, four hard, thick, miserable coats of pink enamel. The flywheel fell off when the engine came out, I did a short reenactment of “Arachnophobia” when I pulled the interior out and I coated the inside of my garage (and probably my lungs) with pink dust in an effort to get back to the original dark green paint. It took a lot of work to end up with the car you see in that picture, which was taken at a tire test event covered by some automotive magazines. By this time in my racing career, I’d moved up to a real tow vehicle (a 72 Chevy C10 Pickup) and a trailer to go along with this more purpose–built racer. Purpose built meaning it wasn’t licensed and had no interior. The engine was basically stock, but now we had over sixty horsepower on unleaded pump gas. I ran a couple events and “won” more checkered flags, again for being the only car in my class, and finishing the race.

On a more personal note, along with being on my third race car and adding fifty percent in the horsepower department, I also had a marriage come to end. A divorce is one of those things that make you reevaluate some of the choices you make, especially when your soon-to-be Ex aims one of those fingers–of–blame and a few choice words at your pride and joy. I packed the flags up and set them aside. I really didn’t “win” them any ways, I just didn’t loose. Besides, I’ve always enjoyed the driving, just being out there at one with the car, looking for that last tenth of a second, or as B.S. Levy put it “There’s a strange, almost silent solitude down in the heart of it -- A sense of peace no one on the outside would ever imagine….” I was just a test driver at peace, not a real racer. Sounded good at the time.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at my next event to find Another Car in my class! It was a new driver in a car new to him, but on paper he should have been faster. Heck, it doesn’t take much to outrun 60+ horsepower of air–cooled fury. I had a good weekend; the car ran like a Volkswagen always runs and my lap times were the best I’d ever turned at that course. By the start of Sunday’s flag race I’d long since accepted the fact that my class “dominance” was about to end. I started in the lower third of the grid and spent most of the race driving my heart out to keep up with a street legal and well driven Triumph TR6. He had me on the straights, but I could out–brake and out–handle him. In the end, horsepower won, but I still had one of “those” grins on my face as I watched him take the checkered flag thirty feet in front of me. We exchanged waves and thumbs–up on the cool off lap – it was one of racing moments you cherish forever. As I pulled into the pits and prepared to make that turn to the paddock I was waved on through to the flag stand.

I hesitated – Me? Yes! Okay?!?!? And they handed me another checkered flag… Now I knew the other car in my class started the race, and I was pretty sure I’d seen him on course – So did that mean I’d actually Beat Somebody? I actually EARNED this flag? Pandemonium broke out in my head!! This flag truly means something! It was the first, last and only checkered flag I received for actually finishing ahead of someone in a race. My limited budget kept me from running more events that year, and by the time I made the season closer the other car & driver in my class had more experience, and he easily outran me. As I was loading up he came over to shake my hand. He said he’d driven his heart out hoping I wouldn’t catch him, because he actually wanted to win his class. He had “that” look on his face; I knew the look, and I knew the feeling.

The following season started and ended very quickly. On the second lap of the second Saturday session I found another car hidden in a cloud of dust. The impact shortened my Super 24.5 inches and destroyed the car I hit. Both of us came away with some injuries, but the other driver was back on track in a year or so. I, on the other hand, decided that maybe it was time hang up the ’ol helmet and end my driving career. It’s been five years since “the accident” as it’s become known in our house. We’d only been married six months, it was my step–kids first race, and I ended up in the emergency room with a busted up face while they languished in a motel, far from home, in the middle of nowhere, alone, for the weekend.

This brings the story up to this box of stuff I found while cleaning out the garage, a long forgotten box from a very difficult time. Inside this box are all that’s left – my shoes, and my gloves, my slightly dented helmet, a pair of crushed goggles, time sheets, the log books, magazines – and my collection of checkered flags…Wow!! In a rare moment of forward thinking, I had made it a habit of marking each flag with the event date and course. I unfurled them and laid them out, chronologically, across the workbench. As I looked over them, from the first to the last, I couldn’t help but get choked up, thinking about everything else that was going on in my life at those points in time. I stood there for a few minutes while all those emotions poured over me. When my head finally cleared, I began to see something in those flags that I had never realized; I realized that each and every one meant something. That first one was the realization of a life–long dream – I prepared my own car, and I Raced It! I Was A Racer! I wish I was smart enough to see that, to appreciate that, back then. All of those flags kept telling me over and over – YOU did it! And then I looked at the One flag I thought I’d earned, the one from that weekend where I actually finished ahead of another car in my class – where I “won”....and it doesn’t look any different – and it shouldn’t, you know? Each flag was a victory, in and of itself. Victories come in many different forms, and you don’t have to beat someone else to achieve a victory. After a little while, I took a deep breath, tossed the shoes, the gloves, the helmet and the goggles, carefully furled the flags back up and put them back in their box.

Maybe it was just foolish pride that kept me from tossing those checkered flags when their meaning was questioned, but today they are treasured keepsakes from a time in my life when I got to live a dream. Someday, soon, they will be displayed as proud reminders of the true meaning of the word “victory” and inspire me to keep working towards my goals.

Eric Roberts