Hot Rod Deluxe - - Contents - —DREW HARDIN

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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