Kenny & Victory Speedway
by I.M Daytona Pitman
A fictional story that is sure to remind us all of a different time....
Painting by Paul Irving: www.paulirving.net
For years it had been a ritual; every Saturday night between May and October, Kenny could be found at Victory Speedway, the 5/8 mile oiled clay on the grounds of the Orange County Fairgrounds. It the longest track in southeastern New York, so it drew fans and drivers from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Not really an oval, the front straight had a slight kink to the left just about at the start/finish line. Because of this bend in the track, the first few rows of grandstand seats near the Turn One were in line with the first half of the front straight. Kenny and his friends always occupied these seats so that they could watch the cars come right at them as the stockers approached the start/finish line.
Those were also the best seats from which to watch the starter, Tex Enright. It was Texs habit to slowly walk down toward the first turn as the cars formed up for a two-by-two start. At the appropriate moment, Tex would turn toward the cars as they started to accelerate out of the fourth turn. Starting almost at the outside rail, Tex would first walk and then run toward the approaching cars, angling slightly across the track as he advanced. When the cars were nearly upon him, Tex would break sharply to the right, run a few steps and then jump into the air, waving the green flag. Alternately, if the cars were not lined up correctly, he would simply run to the inside of the track and shake his head "No." He would then walk back up toward the first turn and repeat the performance as the cars formed up again.
There was always banter between the announcer and Tex, especially if the announcer needed to fill in some time while a wreck was cleaned up. Because Tex had no microphone, the announcer had to "interpret" the signals that Tex gave him. In one such exchange, the announcer reported that Tex had gone to a friends house in New York City. "How did you like the house, Tex?"
Tex held out one hand and wiggled it to show that the house was only so-so.
"Not that good, eh? You say you went down to his basement and he had a huge set of trains?"
Tex nodded and made an expansive move, slowly spreading his arms wide, to show how large the train set was.
"Tex, that wasnt his basement; that was the subway!"
Rumor had it that Tex was actually a high school teacher from New Jersey, but Kenny never found out if that was true.
Kenny and his friends liked to arrive at the track early so they could watch the cars pull into the pits, keeping an eye out for their favorites. Occasionally, Kenny got to crew for Eddie Stevens, who had been a year ahead of Kenny in high school. Eddies was a low-buck operation that relied a lot on donated help, parts, and money. Eddie still ran a "full race" flathead in his 38 Ford coupe, at a time when most of the other cars ran overhead-valve engines.
On this particular Saturday night, Kenny couldnt be late. His girlfriend, Bobbi, was riding up to Victory Speedway with her cousin, Marie, and Maries husband, Art, who had never been to the track. Unfortunately, Kennys boss, Phil, didnt care that Kenny wanted to be at the track in Middletown by 6 PM. Phil was supposed to return to the store by 4, so that Kenny and his cousin George could hit the road, but at 4:15, Phil called to say that he wouldnt get back until 5.
"Nasty break!" Kenny said, returning from the pay phone. "Phil wont be back until 5."
"Bonus time!" George announced. When Phil messed up their plans by either returning later than he was supposed to, or calling to ask Kenny to close the store, Kenny and George treated themselves to "closing bonuses." Closing bonuses were usually ice cream sodas or sundaes that they awarded themselves. Sometimes, just to be cool, it was Tiparillos. Tonight it would be both.
George finished his black-and-white soda and Kenny his chocolate sundae before Phil returned. George also stashed a couple of Pepsis in Kennys car for the trip up to Middletown. When Phil arrived, George and Kenny donned their letter jackets and split for Kennys 56 Ford Victoria. Kenny let the cars exhaust rap off and then he peeled out so that Phil would know that Kenny didnt appreciate Phils late return.
They cruised up the Palisades Interstate Parkway, driving just above the speed limit, knowing that the Parkway Police were out in force, and they could let the car out when they got to the New York thruway. Once on the thruway, Kenny opened it up while George kept an eye out for state troopers. Kenny recounted a trip last year when their other cousin, Max, drove his brand new 57 Ford Fairlane to the track. During that trip, Max got into the fast lane and Kenny put his 56 into the slow lane. They then paced each other as they accelerated. At one point, they passed a car in the center laneone on either sidewith their speedometers pegged at 120.
Kenny was driving in the fast lane; the speedometer not pegged, but close. He was just finishing the story when he passed under a bridge and discovered that the road took a turn to the left. Hed been through that turn many times, but this time he hadnt been paying attention to where he was. Kenny kept his foot in it, fearful of having the car spin out if he let off the accelerator. As the car negotiated the turn, it also started a controlled four-wheel drift, tires chirping on the expansion joints and lane dividers as the car crept sideways!
Looking to his right, Kenny saw that Georges eyes were wide and his knuckles white where his fists grasped the seat and door handle.
"If we get a flat now, were not getting out to fix it," Kenny said softly, underscoring the situation. George didnt laugh until after they were through the turn.
They turned off the thruway at the Middletown exit just as a 54 GMC wrecker exited from the opposite direction. Kenny noted that this was the red, white, and black wrecker that was used as a push truck at Victory Speedway. George rolled down the Fords window the better to hear the trucks exhaust sounds as they emanated from a split manifold, glass packs, and chrome stacks. George and Kenny both knew that the exhaust note of that truck could break windows.
Kenny pulled into the track at 5:55; he and George had made the trip from Teaneck, New Jersey to Middletown, New York in fifty-five minutes. Kenny wondered if it was a record. They had to wait while Richie Kolka pulled into the infield with his "K-2" 39 Ford Coupe on a trailer, and then they parked the Ford and trotted to the refreshment stand where they were to meet the others. As it turned out, Bobbi and her guests hadnt arrived yet.
At about 6:20, Kenny spied Bobbi and her cousins approaching. After introductions, Kenny suggested they each get a sausage, pepper, and onion sandwich. Kenny thought he would probably drive all the way up here for the sandwich even if there were no races.
Marie and Art had never been to the races so Kenny made a point of telling them about the track and drivers. He led them down toward the first turn where they took seats in the front row. Some of the cars were circulating on the track, making last minute adjustments to ignition timing and carburetor jetting.
As soon as everyone was seated, Marie asked, "Is it safe to sit here?"
"Yeah, we always sit here. These are the best seats," Kenny told her.
Kenny described the cars and drivers for Marie and Art. "The real hot shoes are Sonny Strupp and Otto Harwi," he told them.
"Both of them drive Ford coupes with overhead-valve engines. The red and gold number 24 is Sonny Strupps car and the number 1 is Otto Harwis. I would bet on one of them to win the main," Kenny continued.
"What is that car with the W on it?" Art asked.
"Thats Whip Mulligans 34 coupe," George reported. "It has a GMC 6-cylinder engine."
"So does the 6JR," Kenny added. "The 6JR is also called the Mushroom Special because of the special valve tappets in the engine. Its driven by Carl VanHom. He has a chance of winning."
"The only other guy that has a chance," George added, "is Ray Brown in the #356 Ford coupe."
"Theyre not here tonight," Kenny went on, "but sometimes twin brothers, Aldo and Mario Audretti, come over from Nazareth, PA. and give Sonny and Otto a run for their money."
Someone had started a fire in the infield to keep himself warm. Kenny could remember sitting in the stands during a snowstorm.
"A Cairomaniac," George announced.
"No. Thats a pyromaniac," Kenny corrected.
"No it isnt. Thats a pyramid fire," George retorted.
The cars were circulating to warm up. After a few minutes of warm-up laps, Tex brought the cars to a stop on the front straight, and walked to each car, instructing the driver to take a particular position for the start. As Tex walked toward the first turn, Kenny explained what the starter would do.
"Isnt that dangerous?" Marie asked.
"Tex did get hit once when some new driver pulled to the inside of the track on the start." Kenny replied. "He wasnt hurt too badly though."
Tex took up a position near the first turn and signaled the cars to make one more lap. Then he started to walk back toward the start/finish line.
As the cars exited turn 4, Tex executed his usual procedure. Marie clenched both fists and brought them up to her face, drawing in a gasp as
Tex approached the onrushing cars. She relaxed when Tex made it to the inside of the track uninjured.
On the start, Stutts Van Steenburg went for an opening between Richie Kolkas K2 and the W of Whip Mulligan, believing that his 55 Chevy 2 door, having enclosed wheels, could push the open-wheel cars aside. That plan worked until Richie Kolkas car climbed the rear wheel of Dee Dee Krugers coupe. For a while it looked like Richie would gather it up, but his right, front wheel dug in and put the K2 on its side.
The K2 slid along the front straight and looked, for a moment, like it might roll onto its roof. Unable to avoid the K2, the 356 hit it from the rear, accelerating it and driving it toward the outside rail. As the rest of the pack started through the first turn, the K2 encountered the outside guardrail.
The ancient wooden guardrail was not up to the task of stopping the sliding car, and gave up in a shower of splinters. Continuing its slide, the K2 crossed the ten feet between the guardrail and the grandstand walkway, eventually coming to rest a few feet in front of Marie.
"See," Kenny said, "not even close."
(We'll let you in on a little secret Vault Visitors... I. M. Daytona Pitman sometimes goes by the name of Tom Piantanida and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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