Is it safe?
I am not a racer. Don’t have the skills or the funds, sadly. I’m fortunate, though, in that my career as an auto journalist has afforded me rides and drives in a number of race vehicles and venues, from Pikes Peak to the Baja 1000, on ovals large (Las Vegas) and small (Irwindale), dragstrips from Detroit to Pomona, and road courses from Atlanta to Laguna Seca. Every time I belted in, I was glad for the safety equipment on and around me. I’ve been fortunate, too, that in the instances I spun or—a couple times off-road—rolled, speeds were slow enough—and the dirt forgiving enough—that the only injuries were to my pride.
So when I get around pioneering lakesters, drag cars, jalopies, and Indy cars—like the little digger on this page—i look at them with a mix of admiration and incredulity. It’s incredible that those guys (and gals) climbed into tiny, rickety, sometimes flimsy machines and drove them so fast, with little or no margin for error. I admire their guts, their determination, and what had to be a very strong belief in themselves and their mechanical abilities. How else could they put themselves in those truly life-or-death situations? I can’t imagine doing the same without rollcages, firesuits, HANS devices, and so on.
Then again, if you are of a certain age, the simple act of growing up would seem hazardous in contemporary eyes. When I was a baby, my family drove from California to visit relatives in Missouri in what was then my dad’s brandnew VW Beetle. I rode snugly bundled in the luggage well behind the back seat. As a toddler, my mother would take me on errands in her Plymouth business coupe, a gray twin to our cover car but without all the good, go-fast stuff. Business coupes had no back seat, so I stood in the back, hanging onto her seatback. And when I was in junior high school, our wrestling coach would regularly transport the team to away meets in the bed of his pickup.
Any one of those circumstances in 2018 would result in a citation at least, and possibly a visit from child protective services. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, well, that’s just how you did things. Same with the race cars of the period. That’s just how they did things. It wasn’t safe; has racing ever been safe? But it was as safe as sanctioning bodies and contemporary technology could make it until they figured out a better way.
By the standards of the day, our dragster pilot was safe. His head was below the rollbar, even if his elbows were awfully close to those slicks.
But a weird thing happens when you mix period performance with contemporary safety regulations. Whenever I see modern safety equipment on a vintage race car, it looks, well, wrong. Necessary for driver protection, certainly. But from a purely aesthetic standpoint, things like modern rollover protection and fuel cells are sore thumbs on an otherwise period-correct car.
Further complicating this is the fact that, as much as I love car museums, I’d much rather watch a car perform in its element. Max Balchowsky’s Old Yeller sitting in the Petersen Automotive Museum? Awesome. Old Yeller thundering down the front straight at Laguna? Priceless.
That’s why I’m so appreciative of the various forms of cackle events taking place at tracks around the country. We can relive the sights, smells— and tears—of historic, nitroburning fuelers that have been restored to their period-correct spec, not a 21st-century rulebook. Steve Gibbs’ new Nitro Revival events add burnouts to the experience, so you can get your fill of both nitro and tire smoke. (The next Revival is scheduled for Monterey in May; see page 11 for more info.)
No, it’s not the same as sending these cars down the quarter. But it does bring out another tier of nostalgia race cars to an audience that seemingly can’t get enough of the good old days, whether they were safe or not.
> We could use some help in identifying this diminutive digger, shot at the NHRA Nationals in Detroit in 1959. Dude, watch those elbows!
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