Back when - WAY back when - long before there was a BARC, I used to read my brother's Popular Science magazines when a gent named Tom Cahill was the PS automotive editor. Eventually, my brother went away to college and the stream of Popular Science magazines dried up. By then, though, I was hooked on automobilia, so when I needed a fix, I'd go to a newsstand and buy a Motor Trend.
Then one day, a magazine called Road & Track caught my attention in a newsstand on the corner of Front and Main Streets in Binghamton. I was looking for something a little more exotic than road tests of Plymouth station wagons or Lincoln Continentals, so I bought that Road & Track and thereby changed my life forever.
If I was looking for exotic, I found nirvana. There it all was - Ferraris, Aston Martins, Le Mans, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Nino Farina, Marquis de Portago, MG's and Morgans, Tazio Nuvolari, Monaco. For a motorhead kid in a dreary mill town in upstate New York, it was like finding life on another planet.
I kept reading Road & Track after that, until I went to a military prep school. There, instead of Road & Track, I had roommates and friends who were also knowledgeable about European racing. However, after two years, my military prep school career was cut short by an intense aversion to marching, cleaning rifles and Saturday morning inspections.
Something that happened to me in the summer of 1958 bears repeating. I was at a party on Martha's Vineyard during Labor Day weekend. Also at that party was a friend of friends by the name of Mark Donohue. At the time, Mark drove a Corvette, and after talking with him about racing for a while, he offered me a ride. And what a ride it was! He roared out the back roads of Martha's Vineyard at night doing 130 - faster than I had EVER gone before. The interesting part was that it wasn't even scary. Mark knew exactly what he was doing and was in complete control of that Corvette. He went on to great things in racing, of course, ultimately winning the Indy 500.
So it was that I returned to Binghamton Central High School in the fall of 1958 for my senior year of high school. By then, I had heard of Watkins Glen, and neighborhood friends told me about some other guys at school who were sports car nuts.
Before I met them, though, I went to the Glen for the Grand Prix in the fall of '58. I still have the program. My friend and I, not knowing anything about where to watch races at the Glen, ended up on the outside of the track at the top of the hill. We watched all the races from there - MG's, Formula 3, C Production, D Production, G Modified - but it didn't strike me as particularly exciting.
Then it happened - the start of the feature race, C-D-E-F Modified. Walt Hansgen and Ed Crawford were on the front row in Briggs Cunningham's Lister Jaguars. Tex Cobb - he of lilac suit fame - dropped the green flag, and the sight of those two Lister Jaguars coming over the top of the hill at full chat was one of those moments that change a young kid's life irreversibly. I was electrified! I'd never seen ANYthing go that fast or make that much noise!
Back in Binghamton, I finally met Joe Tierno, Dave Nicholas and Dave Zych. I vaguely remember that first meeting, but my recollection was that we regarded each other warily, wondering if there really could be others who were racing enthusiasts and knew about Fangio, Maseratis and the Mille Miglia. It didn't take long before we'd convinced each other that we were the genuine article, and it's been friendship ever since.
Later in the fall of '58, we cut up brown paper grocery bags, taped #69's on my '51 Mercury with masking tape and drove to Watkins Glen. In those days, there were public roads that intersected in or around the race course, so they couldn't close off the course. Nobody knew about that - or at least if they did, they weren't there that day and, for one unknown reason or another, neither were the local constabulary - so we had the course to ourselves. I did several hot laps in the Merc - as hot as a 4-door, flathead V-8 '51 Merc with an automatic transmission can do - and lived to tell about it. To this day, I still get a case of nerves when I stop to think about that.
There isn't much to do in Binghamton in the winter time for teenage racing enthusiasts except attend school, shovel snow and go to basketball games, so the four of us would do things like go down to Forno's - the local Jaguar dealer - and sit in the XK-140's and dry shift them. When there wasn't any snow on the roads, we'd put fifty cents worth of regular in the family sedans and take them out on the back roads and do things with them like drift them through curves at 70 miles an hour.
|The Cardiff Giant - Steve Vail|
I distinctly remember blasting my father's '56 Dodge station wagon over some back roads which we had designated "Kelley Race Course" - named for BARC #8, John Kelley. Nicholas was in the passenger seat and, cresting a rising turn in the road at 70 mph, there were 2 or 3 teenage girls right in the middle of my exit line, thereby necessitating a drastic braking maneuver while the car was semi-airborne. When the car came down, it veered off the road to the left and through a barbed wire fence into a mercifully smooth and flat section of pasture. After disentangling the car from the barbed wire, we went on our way, all the while under the curious watchful gaze of those teenage girls, who must have thought we were some kind of nuts. Which, of course, we most certainly were.
Some time in that period, we staged the Binghamton Grand Prix at night through streets on Binghamton's West Side. Nicholas drove the family '59 Ford Galaxy; Tierno drove the "Iris Idiot" - his family's purple Cadillac; and I drove the above-mentioned '56 Dodge station wagon with push-button automatic transmission. After only a couple of laps of spirited driving - characterized by much fishtailing and squealing of tires - "The Law" appeared, but since he was on foot, we roared off into the dark of night, our legal records none the worse for the experience.
When there was snow on the roads, there was a little triangle of streets somewhere on the west side of Binghamton that we called the Winter Race Course, and in the dark of night - after several beers at one local establishment or another - we'd slide around, learning the nuances of drifting and hanging the tail end out in a '51 Mercury or a '54 Cadillac. In the process, several of the neighbors' galvanized trash cans had their useful lives shortened considerably.
The fact that none of us ever had to be scraped off the pavement or pried from the wreckage is, I think, a tribute to level of driving skill that we all possessed. Certainly we all knew others of our generation who tried similar feats, with disastrous results. Yes, the gods looked out for us and we were extremely lucky. There could have been stone walls or large trees beside the road when I went through the barbed wire fence. But none of that happened and all of us are still here to tell the tales.
Anyway, March came, and with it the 12-hour race in Sebring, Florida. For race nuts, Sebring represented one of the few opportunities on this side of the Atlantic to see such things as the factory Ferraris and Maseratis, or legendary drivers like Stirling Moss, Phil Hill and Masten Gregory. It was too much for me and Nicholas to resist: financed by his collection of 30 silver dollars, we commandeered my father's 1954 Imperial and set out for Sebring - a 24-hour drive - at 2AM. We got stopped for speeding in South Hill, Virginia, however, and that was the end of that adventure. I don't remember now how much the fine was, but it was more than we had, so we had a choice - sit in jail until May or call parents and have them wire money. My mother, being the all-forgiving soul she was, wired the money, and back to Binghamton we went.
In June of '59, we all graduated from high school and spent several weekends that summer going to SCCA races in places like Montgomery, New York; Lime Rock, Connecticut; Bridgehampton, Long Island; Thompson, Connecticut; and, of course, Watkins Glen. The antics continued unabated and the BARC legend continued to grow and attract racing enthusiasts whose love for the sport was exceeded only by their love of beer and breathing oxygen.
But that's another installment, which we'll call BARC: The Post-High School Years. We'll have BARC sneaking into the pits and Zike barfing on tokay wine at Montgomery. We'll have John Kelly running through the streets of Watkins Glen at night in his underwear. Nicholas and Vail finally make it to Sebring. And BARC crews for Denise McCluggage at Sebring in '62.
IN MEMORIAM: Unfortunately for all, Vail will never write that next story. Steve succumbed to cancer while living in Texas, in 2004. He was truly one of a kind and is missed by all - and remembered by all.