Stage Racing Before It Was Cool
I’ve had my driver’s license for forty-five years now. In all that time I’ve driven a lot of vehicles but never once have I ever driven a real race car. I’ve done karts in Pigeon Forge but I don’t count that. Spent a lot of money logging laps in Malibu’s open wheelers which is close (yeah I had to wear a helmet) but not close enough.
But I have won a race.
It was in the unlikeliest of vehicles, against the unlikeliest of opponents on the unlikeliest of “tracks” under the unlikeliest of circumstances, but I got to the finish line first so guess what-I’m going to count it in my win column.
The “track” - Breckenridge Street in Owensboro, KY. US 231 North. Two lanes wide. One way. One of the major entrances into town. Runs all the way down Owensboro Grain on the river and merges into Second St., Main St., US 60… the main westbound artery into town. (Author’s note-no bigger than the town is, it’s hard to call these roads arteries, but it sounds better than capillaries. You get the picture). That summer day it was like one long drag strip.
The “opponent” - a brand new Corvette convertible. Shiny. Blue. Beautiful. The perfect ride for its driver who looked like he had just stepped off a magazine cover for a sailing magazine or something.
My “ride” - My Dad’s beloved 1965 Ford Camper Special. Red and white. Twin I-Beam suspension. Nicknamed “Big Red.”
“Red” was like no other Camper Special after Dad got done with his tinker’s magic. Custom camper tie-downs, small convex mirrors attached to the trucker mirrors to eliminate blind spots, fabricated extensions so the rear bumper could be easily extended out to form the back step when the camper was loaded, a folding step attached to the bumper to allow easy access in and out of the back. And those easy tailgate removal systems you now find on tracks today, where you drop the tailgate down halfway and lift out one end... “Red” had that in 1966.
We loved “Red” as it was a part of the family. He carried my Dad to work at the steel mill five days a week. 8-4 & 12 as he worked swing shift his entire career there. On his days off, it was “Red” who carried us out weekend outings to campgrounds, fishing holes or the race tracks, be it Salem, IN, DuQuoin IL or Bowling Green for the “faraway” trips or to the local tracks at Princeton, IN, Central City, KY or just outside of town to Windy Hollow.
Red had crossed the Rockies twice, been to each ocean and the Gulf as well as to the bottom of Lake Barkley (that’s another story).
I loved that truck and loved driving it. Other kids wanted cool cars; me, I hoped one day “Red” would be mine. Because of that, whenever Dad would let me drive it I did so with the greatest of care and respect... except for this one time.
Not “Big Red” but Awfully Close
Dad was working on a project and needed some supplies to finish it. He tossed me “Red’s” keys, told me what he needed, gave me the parts list and some money and sent me to pick them up.
I was in heaven.
I was heading home, on Breckenridge Street waiting for the traffic light change so I could turn right onto Old Hartford Road, when he rolled up to a stop in the left lane. The ‘Vette... so shiny... so blue. It looked fast sitting still. It was hard to take my eyes off of it.
The lustful spell was broken when I heard its engine rev a couple of times. I looked over at the driver and he was looking straight at me. When he caught my eye, he blipped the engine a couple of more times.
OK, I can see where this is going. I was feeling pretty chippy, so in a moment of weakness and sheer stupidity I discreetly slipped “Red” into Neutral and returned the blips. I didn’t want him to know he I had an automatic transmission. How uncool would that be? He looked back over, grinned and turned back to focus on the light that was about to turn green.
So here we have a street race between the unlikeliest of competitors-in the left lane, the slick dude in his blue convertible ‘Vette and in the right, the pimple faced teenager in his father’s red and white Ford Camper Special.
The ‘Vette sped away like he was shot from a cannon, going out of sight around the bend at Blandford’s Tastee-Freeze. Before he got out of sight, I noticed he had Warren County tags. Bowling Green. An out of towner. I took up the chase knowing I had the race won. We were on my “home track.” The way he blasted away I knew he had never been here before and because of that I knew this race was mine.
I soon got “Big Red” up to “full song”, a skosh under 30 MPH. As I rounded Blandford’s bend I could see my opponent dead ahead, trapped at the light on 18th Street. As I got closer I could see his head moving, checking rear view mirrors and then the light, trying to see where I was.
As I approached the intersection, the light changed and I rolled on through without touching the brakes. A quick glance into the rear view mirrors showed me in the lead as I heard him tromp the accelerator, in hot pursuit.
My lead was short lived as he roared past, blowing me away before we got to the railroad tracks at Lincoln Elementary. Resisting the temptation to run with him (as if I could), I stayed focused on my estimated 28 miles per hour. It wasn’t long before I saw his brake lights come on as the 12th Street light turned red, again trapping him.
Like clockwork, the light turned green as I rolled through the intersection. A quick glance in the left trucker mirror (had to have those to see when the camper was loaded) saw him peeling away from his dead stop. He caught me as we cleared Hall Street Baptist, pulled alongside, slowed, looked over and smiled before blasting away, leaving me in his dust. As I watched him get smaller and smaller I could only smile. The light at 9th was just ahead and would erase his sizeable lead.
This was my “track.” My friends and I had made hundreds of trips down Breckenridge and running its length without getting caught by the lights was one of our driving “games.” Let’s say I had plenty of notes for this race.
Again, the light changed as I rolled through the intersection, briefly reassuming the lead. This time his takeoff was more intense and when he went by this time he slowed but didn’t look over, staring straight ahead, now up on the wheel, before roaring away.
The 4th Street light caught him and again allowed me to putt into the lead when it changed as I roared through at my 28 MPH. When he passed me this time he never even slowed, putting me in his rear view before we passed the used car lot before merging with Leitchfield Rd. He screamed to the final light, 2nd Street at the end of Breckenridge/Leitchfield, our finish line, at what seemed to be at least 60 miles per hour faster than me, I was counting on the final light to be red and give me one final chance for the win.
As I rounded the bend at the old Owensboro Wagon Factory, I could see him sitting at the light, waiting for it to turn so he could make the left hand turn onto 2nd Street and claim Victory. This time though he had switched lanes and was now sitting in the right lane, my lane. I guess it was a little gamesmanship to try and break my momentum.
I had come too far to blow it now. I made one final check of the speedometer as we crossed 3rd Street. C’mon “Red” don’t fail me now!
As I got closer and closer the light seemed frozen on red. Is it going to change in time? Plus, he had switched lanes, taking away my right lane, but opening up the inside, the left lane for the turn onto Second St. In other racing the inside position on a turn would be prime, but it was now a shorter path. Would it mess up my timing? Should I lift?
I held steady as I switched lanes and luckily the light changed just as I got there just like it had at all the previous lights. This time though, be it because of the shorter path or an adrenaline laden foot I had cut it so close I decided to lay on the horn as I rolled passed him one last time. The move was two-fold. One was if I cut it too fine to warn anyone going through on Second St. that “Big Red” was a’coming through. The other was to break his concentration and slow his reaction time... just in case.
As I made the left turn onto 2nd Street, I took one more look in the right mirror and saw I had enough room to switch lanes, executing the perfect “slide job.” This not only blocked his advance but it insured we both knew who “won.” I could hear him accelerate and then lift. I snuck a peek in the left mirror to see him switch lanes again and get back on the accelerator. He blew past me one last time, one hand on the wheel and the other raised, saluting me on my Victory, acknowledging I was number one... or something like that. Seeing that raised middle finger disappear in the distance was better than any trophy I could have ever won!
Ahhh... the sweet taste of Victory!
My opponent in his shiny ‘Vette had convincingly won every “Stage” of our race but I had won what was important - the Race. He knew it and I knew it. It was a Herman “The Turtle” Beam kind of race. He would have been so proud!
Herman “The Turtle” Beam Would’ve Been Proud
As we rolled down 2nd Street I was so excited I forgot that Dad was waiting back home for parts to be delivered. We switched lanes and made the hard left turn onto Triplett Street and headed south toward home.
“Hey, ‘Red,’ I’ve got five bucks in my pocket, how about let’s go celebrate like real racers?”
The Shell Station became our Victory Lane, an ice cold Dr. Pepper, my champagne. “Red” got the rest of my five bucks in Hi-Test. The extra fuel would throw Dad’s religious fuel mileage calculations off but that’s OK - it was our secret. “Red” earned it.
That day, there were no trophies, no trophy girls, no TV crews, no photographers, no adoring fans, autograph seekers or cheering crowds. There were no sponsors to thank, no “hat dance” to perform, no crew members to celebrate with. There were no purses paid, no points earned and certainly no Stage points awarded.
Just a pimple faced teen, his borrowed but trusty ride and sweet memories from their only win together, the “Great Breckenridge Street Race”, back before “Stage” racing became cool.