The Highway “66" Promotion
Original Fiction by R. Jerome Stephens
The Great American Race, you say? Hah! That’s a laugh! ! Why it’s nothin’ but a time versus distance event, what the English call a rally. Why, in my day, we actually raced on a public highway – in 1940 – and on ol’ Highway 66, no less. And if you don’t believe that, you can look it up.
Happened this way. Seems there used to be a Hollywood studio, T K O Pictures, that ran into trouble of some kind or other. I think they specialized in movies about boxin’, and all their stars ended up lookin’ like Rocky Balboa – and back then, you couldn’t have that; leadin’ men needed to look handsome. Why the studio didn’t use stunt doubles for the fight shot, I don’t know; maybe they wanted those scenes to look more realistic. Anyway, they needed a new group of handsome male stars as they branched out into other kinds of films, and they needed to do it as cheaply as they could.
At the same time, Highway 66 was now fully paved from end to end, and all the towns and cities wanted to promote the route as strongly as was possible. It meant business for all the restaurants, tourist courts, hotels and any other kind of business along the road. An association was formed to do this, but eventually, it raised the question of, what was the best way to do it?
Somehow - Nobody knows how, any more - These two groups got together and decided to have an auto race from Chicago to Los Angeles, endin’ up at the T K O Studios, with the winner getting $10,000, a film audition, a date with a beautiful starlet and a dinner-reception at the Grauman’s Chinese. Together, they persuaded the state highway departments of all the states from Illinois to California to go along and cooperate with them so they could use the public roads.
And then, Phillips “66" got into the act - They thought promotin’ the race would help promote their gasoline, as their emblem on all of their gas stations was so similar to the US 66 signs - They offered free gas to all of the competitors, and entry forms were available at all of their gas stations.
That’s where me and my brother Marc come into the story - We were workin’ at Uncle Elmer’s place in Squaw Springs, Missouri, but nobody ever called it that - With all the tourist courts (you’d call’em motels now) around town, it was always called Squeaky Springs.
Uncle ran a garage in town, right on the road, called Elmer’s Repair and Towing, and out front were 3 Phillips “66" pumps, in the familiar orange and black colors. Me ‘n’ Marc drove his tow truck, and we were kept busy haulin’ in cars and trucks that broke down or crashed out on the road. We found that was a great way to get and education in the auto world, and of people too.
When we found out about the race, we got real excited. Ten thousand dollars was a lot of money back then, and both of us already had a lot of experience going up and down 66 just in our business.
And Marc was as handsome as all-get-out, and I mean, movie-star handsome. He took out girls for miles around on weekends, with a different girl each night. As these girls usually had a little sister or girl chum who wanted to go out too, I’d end up also gettin’ a date, but it sure wasn’t for my looks, as I was always a little chubby - They didn’t call me “Butchie” for nothin’.
So, we sat down and went over the entry form - They wanted 5 X 7 glossy photos of us, plus all of the pertinent personal data – height, weight, age, occupation (they didn’t want professional racers) - And make and type of vehicle entered – it had to be a stock production car.
We qualified on age - Marc was 21, I was 18 - And getting the pictures was easy, though I wondered what they thought of mine - But the stumblin’ block was, what car? Marc’s was a Model A Ford roadster, which by now wouldn’t be fast enough - And Dad’s old Pontiac wouldn’t be up to it - So we went to uncle Elmer for advice.
Uncle had always loved us kids, even before we started hangin’ around his garage - He put us to work for him, long before it was legal, just to keep us from gettin’ in the way - and once we learned to drive, he showed us how to hook and unhook a disabled vehicle, and along Highway 66, that was steady work.
He thought about the problem, and then made a surprisin’ decision. Years earlier, Uncle Elmer had met the famous “Cannonball” Baker, who owned all of the transcontinental speed records. He’d driven many different makes of cars, but the most reliable of them all was the Franklin. It wasn’t the fastest, but had an air-cooled engine – which gave it and advantage drivin’ through deserts and mountains. As a result, Uncle always had one, and traded his old one for a newer model. The last one he bought was the last one out of the factory in 1934, when car production stopped. It was a two-door Victoria, with a sloping grille and sporty-lookin’ front fenders, and it had a V-12 engine. And Uncle was willing to loan it to us… !
Both of us were in awe of him and his car, and we felt it wasn’t right, but Uncle insisted - I guess he wanted us to have the best chance in life we could get. Finally, we agreed, and finished making out the entry form, with “The Cramer Brothers” as the name of our entry.
But there was a statement on the form that said that the studio reserved the right to refuse any entry for any reason, and that only 25 entries would be eventually accepted - Marc and I began to wonder if we’d make the cut, but a couple weeks went by, and then we got a registered letter tellin’ us to report to the starting line in Chicago! We were going to race! !
Then Uncle brought the Franklin into the garage and gave it a tune-up. He also tore down the brakes and rebuilt them – the Franklin was a heavy car and needed that done from time to time. He also saw to it that the car got the best and fastest tires available – racin’ Firestones.
After it was washed and waxed we took it out on 66 for a few trial runs - With the V-12, it cruised well at high speeds, but the car’s heavy weight hurt its ability to pull out and pass, compared to other cars - It was better if we could build up speed before pullin’ out into the other lane – in those days, US 66 was mostly a two-lane highway.
And then, Uncle sat down with us and plotted racin’ strategy - As it was goin’ to be a not-stop race, the team with the least stops would win the race - Therefore, we’d have to eliminate as many stops as we could - That meant carryin’ a basket of sandwiches, thermoses of hot coffee and tea, and bottle of water to drink and cool us down while crossing the deserts out west.
But what surprised us was Uncle’s solution for avoiding gas stapes – he took out the back seat, and loaded it up with 5-gallon cans of high-test Phillips, and gave us a funnel with a hose attached long enough to reach the gas tank! We could re-fuel without stopping! ! Of course, we didn’t put this gadget in place until after the start of the race – never let your competitors know your intentions …
And he asked us how we intended to share the driving. This was easy – Marc was basically a “night owl,” and I was a daytime type, so we’d split up the driving by night and day - And the off-duty driver was supposed to nap.
We spent two days before the start in Chicago by driving over all the different routes possible in and around St. Louis and Joliet, checking them out for time and distance. The by-pass around Joliet, a dogleg through little Plainfield, saved a lot of time – I forget how much – but the by-pass around St. Louis used the Chain of Rocks ridge over the Mississippi, and traffic jams were created every time a semi had to make the turn in the middle of the bridge. We figured downtown St. Louis would be quicker, as we would be going through on a Saturday.
With this done, early Saturday mornin’ we headed for Columbus Drive, in Chicago’s Grant Park, where the cars would line up for the race. We, the Cramer brothers, would be ready …
It was about 8 when we got to Columbus Drive, and most of the racers had already gotten there. It was about what we expected, a whole lot of Ford V-8s from different years, and the guys were mostly garage men like us. But, being garage men, we suspected that a number of those cars weren’t strictly stock, either.
There were a few teams of salesmen, guys who were used to travelin’ the road, and they drove a 2-door Buick, a LaSalle Coupe, a Hudson Super Six sedan and a brand new Nash Ambassador sedan – The last was a father-and-son team.
Then there were a number of cars and teams that didn’t fit into any category, like the teachers from the vocational school who’d entered the school’s old Hupp 8, that the kids had worked on. Or the guy and his fiancee, highway civil engineers, who planned to marry at the finish line in L.A., who were runnin’ a Cord roadster. And why a couple of farmers wanted to enter a supercharged Graham 8, we’ll never know.
Some of the garage men had chosen a Lincoln-Zephyr, a Chrysler Airflow, and a Studebaker Land Cruiser, as these cars had been built for the open road, with power to match. But they would be challenged by the guys who showed up with an old Auburn V-12 boat-tailed speedster with 6 forward speeds, and the guys who’d dug up a ‘31 Gardner roadster out of a junkyard for 50 bucks – they said the car would hit 80 in one block.
But, maybe the little Terraplane 8 had an advantage in passing on the two-lane highway, being able to dart in and out between the semis. Needless to say, we were all speculatin’.
One entry that interested everybody was the Pierce-Arrow V-12 sedan, that had come off a used-car lot in L.A. A car that big and heavy didn’t figure, but then Marc remembered that a Pierce had set some speed records on the Salt Flats some years ago, and maybe some stuff had been done to this one. This car was a rollin’ scam – but what , we couldn’t guess.
And then, Sonny Boy and Joe College showed up in a ‘36 Cadillac convertible. One look at them and we all hated them – they were nothing but a couple of rich kids, out for fun.
To determine the order of the start, we all had to draw numbers out of a hat, and luck was against us – we were number 23 of 25! But with two thousand miles to go, anythin’ could happen. At the start, each team was given a book with pages to be stamped at the various checkpoints along the route – they didn’t want anybody takin’ a shortcut, if it could be helped. And each car got a large decal for each of the front doors to identify it as a racer.
Starting at 9 AM, each car was waved off at one-minute intervals, to keep them from collectin’ in bunches. We quickly found a side street where we pulled off and connected up the hose with the funnel to the tank. Of course, we wouldn’t need to use it for a couple of hundred miles, but now was the time to do it…
Now, in the tellin’ of this story, you have to remember that none of the racers saw everything that happened in the race – we all just saw bits and pieces of it, and after it was over, we had a big get-together where we put it all together like a two-thousand mile jigsaw puzzle. And that wasn’t easy. So, what I’m tellin’ now is, what we all figured out.
I was at the wheel, findin’ our way across big Chicago, with Marc keepin’ us on 66 with one eye on the road signs and the other on the map of the city. It was quite a trick, tryin’ to time the stop lights so we wouldn’t lose time – what with the fixin’ the hose and funnel in place, we were sure we were running dead last.
66 ran through Cicero and Berwyn on Ogden Avenue, then went down Harlem Avenue to Joliet Road, and we still hadn’t seen any of the competitors. The light at 47th Street caught us, but as we sat there, we notice a lot of cars backed up around the bend ahead, and Marc looked at the map. Not far ahead was a railroad sidin’ crossing 66, and we could see the chimney of a chemical lane nearby. Marc said to turn right, and when we got the green, went down 47th Street as far as East Avenue, then turned left. Five minutes later, we were back on Joliet Road – we had passed everybody caught by a lazy switch engine and a string of tank cars!
Joliet Road was wide-open and four-lanes, and I opened ‘er up, just makin’ the light at Mannheim road. Me ‘n’ Marc were laughin’ our heads off, as we roared down the road, as fast as the Franklin would go. We were sure we were miles ahead of the rest of the, as the road narrowed to two lanes at Welco.
Then the work began, of passin’ the semis on the road, and waitin until you got a clear stretch to pull out in. Sometimes, you’d think you got it – only to find somebody passin’ a truck coming the other way!
Beyond Plainfield, as with any other town the road went through, it would take a while for the trucks to build up speed, makin’ it easier to pass them then. But the faster they went, the chancier a pass got, and you really had to time it right.
We were havin’ a blast, passin’ cars and trucks, sailin’ over the bridges at the Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers, belivin’ we’d be easy winner – then we cam to Braidwood… .
Not every town was willin’ to pass you through at speed, and Braidwood wasn’t. We’d stopped at the sign, but the “fuzz” on a motorcycle pulled us down for doin’ 26 mph in a 25 mph zone, and we had to follow him to the town’s hall where court was in session, bein’ a Saturday mornin’. We had to sit around until our case came up and that cost us as least a half an hour.
When our case came up, we weren’t sure that we weren’t speedin’, so pleaded guilty just to get out of there. And the Judge fined us fifty dollars – that hurt.
Meanwhile, the grad crossin’ where the railroadin’ was done became unblocked, and that started a wide-open race with all the other racers on the Joliet Road, and it seemed like everybody was trying to pass everybody else – by hook or by crook. In places, they were even runnin’ three-wide, and when they got to the light at Mannheim, they kept barrelin’ through, even after it changed – running closely, they honked their horns and made through, as a group, doin’ better than 80.
A rivalry had sprung up between the Auburn and the Gardner, and these two made it to the front, with the Lincoln-Zephyr right on their tails. They passed and re-passed, but when the road narrowed at Welco, the Zephyr squeaked by, with all the rest in a parade behind it. But, whenever they caught up to a truck, the Fords were the ones that took the chance to get around – and sometimes, it was paper-thin.
They all got lucky at Braidwood – the cop who’d arrested us was the last one in to testify in court, so they all slipped through the sign with a rollin’ stop.
Back on the road, we didn’t know where we were in the race – Were we still first, or were we now last? All we could do was to speed on, and hope, as we went through town after town that clung to Highway 66.
Somewhere beyond Chenoa, we saw the wreckage of the Gardner, with nobody around. Seems that the Terraplane, dodgin’ in and out, had passed three semis runnin’ together, and this frustrated the guys right behind them – The Auburn and the Gardner. Desperately, the Auburn took to the shoulder with the Gardner on its tail. The Auburn made the pass, but before the Gardner could get back on the road, a concrete culvert loomed… . Fortunately, the crash threw the men out into a muddy field, and neither was hurt, and a not-racer gave them a lift to the next town.
The by-pass around Bloomington was still under construction, so we had to drive through that town. While passin’ through, we saw one of the Fords pulled off by the police. The car had been a fire chief’s car, and before that a police interceptor, and because of those thins, it had been disqualified. Somebody, for some reason, has ratted on that entry.
We hurried on to Springfield, where we stopped for our first checkpoint stampin’. We asked our position, and were told we were 23rd, so of those still runnin’, we were dead last. But this was changin’,as we began to pass phillips gas stations with our competitors pullin’ in and fillin’ up. Our strategy was beginnin’ to work, as Marc climbed over the seat and emptied one gas can after another into the funnel, as we roared on.
We caught up to one of the Ford just before the by-pass around St. Louis split off, but didn’t pass him – we just let him turn off as we headed south. Wait’ll he gets caught in the snarl at the Chain of Rocks Bridge, we thought, with all the others – we’ll be back in front, we were sure. So with confidence in our plans, we crossed the mighty Eads Bridge into St. Louis… .
… . Only to run into more trouble. The torn-up streets in downtown St. Louis were barricaded, and we tried followin’ the detour route, only to get lost. Next thing we knew, we got stuck in a traffic jam outside Sportsman’s Park, where the Cardinals had just finished playin’ a ball game! We had to ask directions back to 66, and we’d lost at least fifteen minutes in trying to find it. Once we found Gravois Avenue and Chippawa Street, we were on our way again.
The next checkpoint was just past the city and alternate routes, and as they stamped our book, we asked where we stood in the lineup. Somehow, despite everythin’, we were up to 17th – maybe it was because our route was a little shorter, we didn’t know. Back on the road, we soon couth up to the boys in the Hupp… .
… . And then a violent, late-afternoon thunderstorm came out of the Missouri hills, with booming thunder worse than truck backfires, and flikerin’ lightnin’ that soon became blindin’ flashes. Sheets of rain bucketed down, makin’ our wipers work furiously. Even with our headlights on, we couldn’t see to drive any more that 45, and I knew none of the others on the road could go any faster than that either. This went on all the way across the state, and it was pointless to even thin about passin’. All we’d learned in our years of goin’ up and down 66 meant nothin’ in that storm, as we drove through all those hills and curves.
We came to an underpass, and there was the Cord, and the Caddie, and the Auburn. The people in the first two were puttin’ the cars’ tops up, but the boys in the Auburn, soaked to the skin, were still sittin’ there, waitin’ the storm out – they had no top. We wondered how much longer they were goin’ to want.
And just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Some idiot in a DeSoto goin’ east came over a hilltop behind a semi, and tried to pass it in all that rain goin’ downhill. At the bottom was a bend to the right, and as he tried to back in line, here came one of the Ford Boys, who swerved to the shoulder and missed him. But another Ford right on his tail, tried to swerve, clipped the left front of the DeSoto which spun its back end into the brakin’ truck, which jack knifed, and wrecked the Desoto – and the Ford, the Buick, the Hudson, and another Ford behind that, all runnin’ too close together.
By the time we got there, the road was still blocked, and Marc was wishin’ we had our tow truck. People were tryin’ to push cars out of the way, and we used the Franklin to do a little of the pushin’ to clear the road ourselves. Finally, when it was cleared, we drove to the next town and called up Uncle Elmer, who sent out our truck with a couple of other boys.
The only bright spot in that soggy afternoon and evenin’ was when we passed Uncle’s garage, with a banner across the front sayin’, “Good Luck Marc and Butchie” on it, with the whole family standing there and wavin’. I blew the horn long and loud as we drove past, and Marc leaned out into the rain and waved.
About an hour before sunset, the rain stopped, and our speed picked up, all the way to the Kansas line. There were shorter routes into Oklahoma, but Kansas had a few miles of Route 66, and insisted we stay on it, so they had a checkpoint for book stamping at Baxter Springs. We found that we were now runnin’ 14th, but the cars ahead of us that weren’t caught in the accident had a long lead over us. As it was night now, Marc took the wheel, and I curled up on my corner of the front seat, hoping the latch on the “suicide” door would hold …
And after the storm, the wind began to pick up …
Night had come down on the Oklahoma plain, and with it the traffic had thinned out, except around towns with their Saturday-night life. On the road, the only light came from the lamps of cars, as Mark sped the Franklin onwards. Not long after the checkpoint stop, a car with four very bright headlights came up fast behind us, and swooped past – it was the Nash, which had stopped back at Springfield for some reason, and now was makin’ up time.
Suddenly, Marc realized why the Nash was so fast – as the only new car in the race, it had the new Sealed Beam headlights, which allowed a driver to drive nearly as fast at night as in the daylight. The Franklin’s lights were no where near as good, but Mark knew he could drive usein’ the Nash’s lights, so he speeded up and got on the Nash’s tail, mile after mile…
One by one, all that night, the Nash and the Franklin passed car after car – but it wasn’t all that easy. The wind that had picked up was a crosswind, blowing harder and harder, and while the heavier cars like ours weren’t affected too badly, the smaller and lighter cars were gettin’ blown around. In fact, a high gust of wind blew the Terraplane off the road and into a ditch, somewhere between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
The Nash was somewhere between light and heavy, which gave us an advantage while chasin’ it, but when it came to passin’ a semi, its driver would kick down the gas pedal which cut out the overdrive, and 3rd gear would shoot it forward – we didn’t have that advantage. But hang on to the Nash Marc did – all that night.
At the Oklahoma City checkpoint, we’d moved up to 8th, and then 7th as the Nash stopped. But twenty miles later, the Nash caught and passed us again, and again Marc gave chase. He realized that the3 extra pair of headlights on the Nash were actually the car’s added fog lights with the lenses removed, givin’ it an even greater advantage on the road, with the driver flippin’ from high to low-brights as needed.
Every once in a while, Marc would wake me up to refill the tank, so I’d turn on the dome light, crawl over the seat to get in the back, and pour can after can of gas through the funnel down the hose. Then, I’d toss the empty cans out the window so they would be out of the way. I’ll admit, though, that I’d wondered if it might have been to our advantage to dump the empties on the highway…
In the small wee hours, we reached the checkpoint at Amarillo, and found we were runnin’ third, behind the Pierce-Arrow and the Nash. Between runnin’ a non-stop race and not gettin’ caught in the Missouri crash, the old P-A had built up a long lead over everybody. But now, with the Nash’s headlights to drive on, they and us closed in on it in the next 30 miles and passed it. But eh guys runnin’ it were no fools – they just speeded up and ran on our heels the rest of the night.
Dawn came as we rode up to Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and at a stop sign. Marc climbed out and ran around as I slide over and took the wheel. With the driving he’d done, he deserved a nap. Back on the open road, now that it was daylight, the Nash had opened it up as wide as it could go, and we gave chase in that open country. The Nash had a top speed somewhere above 95, but the best we could do was about 92 - 93 mph.
The Pierce which had been followin’ us, pulled out and passed us while were wide-open, and gave chase to the Nash. If this hadn’t been Sunday mornin’, with no traffic on 66, it wouldn’t have happened. Still, we chased those cars all the way to Albuquerque, where we were waved through town on Central Avenue all the way to the checkpoint, where were still in 3rd place.
It was very warm for 8 am, and we were told it was now 85 degrees, and yesterday, the temperature had almost hit 100. Marc and I stopped to check our tires, and they all showed about 40 lbs. of pressure. We lowered them to 24 lbs. For each tire – we’d seen too many cars in our young lives that had been wrecked by blowouts in hot weather. Doin’ that gave away speed and handlin’, but we figured to run them on the safe side.
Havin’ done that, we crossed the Rio Grande and headed for the high desert…
Just west of Albuquerque, the country became a series of high, rollin’ hills – and as we plunged into a valley between two of them, we saw the Nash and Pierce-Arrow stopping – for an enormous herd of sheep crossin’ the road! There was no way around this – all we could do was stop too, and wait there in the sunshine as the temperature rose. We shut off the engine to save fuel, as the sheep were taking their own sweet time to cross the road. Marc wanted to nap, but couldn’t in that heat. I tried to console him with the thought that the sheep, with all the wool they wore, had to be a lot hotter than he was, but he just scowled.
Watchin’ all those sheep passin’ by reminded me of the Sunday School, right when we should have been in church – was this an omen of some kind? I didn’t dare say anythin’ about this to Marc just then – not with the mood he was in.
We must have been sittin’ there for almost an hour, when I got out to stretch my legs, and looked up the road behind us. A lot of the traffic had backed up, and it appeared that every last competitor still in the race was there? Even the Auburn Speedster that waited for the rain to stop at the overpass! That meant the race was back to Square One – we were all startin’ even, once again …
When the last sheep had crossed the road, and the traffic from the other direction was gone, our race turned into the damnedest free-for-all I ever saw. The farmers in the Graham, several cars back, made a long a long leap-frog pass of everybody for the lead, shot through a steel bridge over a dry creek, and entered Bobville … . a speed trap!
Bobville was nothin’ but a general store and curio shop with gas pumps out front, and a sign sayin’, “Welcome to Bobville - Speed limit 30 mph.” Behind the sign was Bob, on a motorcycle, and he’d been waitin’ all morin’ for a speeder – he got the first one off the bridge. Once he got them off the road, he gave them a long lecture on the virtues of slower drivin’, and the dangers of speed, wrote them a ticket, and made them come into his store/courtroom, where he tried and convicted them, finin’ them one hundred dollars. That put the farmers out of major contention.
Meanwhile, the race was really heatin’ up, and with everybody doin’ nearly 90 miles an hour, it made no sense to stay with them, it all that heat – of both kinds. I backed off and let everybody go by, as long as I could watch them from a half a mile back.
Just this side of Gallup, one of the Fords had pulled off, with the hood up, and radiator steamin’ – so the heat was beginnin’ to take its toll. As the police waved us through the town at speed, I noticed a big thermometer on a buildin’ – 100 degrees. This would be a hard day on everybody but us – if we just used our water supply wisely, on us.
Highway 66 had been followin’ the main line of the Sant Fe Railroad for some time before we entered Arizona, and at the speeds we were goin’ the whole string of racers had caught up to the Super Chief! Just for fun, a lot of racers decided to race the Super Chief, but most backed off when they realized that a grade crossin’ was comin up.
But not the guys in the Nash, who were still in the lead, and felt they’d get an advantage over the others if they’d beat the train. Yes, they were faster, and they figured they could just make it … .
… . but they were wrong. The engine punted them as though they were nothin’ but a football, and they flew through the air for fifty yards before comin’ down. The engineer stopped the train down the line, and all the racers filed by slowly. Somebody went for help, and the guys were gound to be alive after all – lucky as hell. But they both ended up in a hospital.
Another ten or twenty miles farther on everybody was back up to speed, and another ten or twenty miles, another Ford had pulled over with a steamin’ radiator. And the thermometer on a building said 110 degrees, in Holbrook. And every time I asked him to, Marc poured water over me, but it evaporated rapidly.
We’d opened up the bottom of the windshield for cooler air to flow over us, but it was no use – all the heat from the engine hit us like an open furnace door – we had to close it again. An what air cam in through the side windows was stiflin’.
About halfway to Winslow, another racer was pulled off with the hood up. This time, it was the Lincoln-Zephyr sedan, and the V-12 engine was steamin’ badly. Those guys were very unhappy – they’d been in the lead when it’d overheated.
Thirty miles beyond Winslow, Sonny Boy in the Cadillac had just passed a string of cars when he blew a tire just as he was gettin’ back in line – the Caddie spun in the middle of the road, and collected the Hupp, the LaSalle, a couple of Fords, and some traffic from the other direction. I was watchin’ this from a distance, slowed down, and found a place where I could drive the Franklin off the road, around the pinnin’ and wreckin’ cars, and back on again. I hated to see anythin’ like that happen, yet it meant there were fewer competitors to worry about.
The road west of Flagstaff found us passin’ car after car pulled off the road, overheated and steamin’. Marc had a list of all the racers, and was checkin’ off the ones we’d passed who we hought wouldn’t be passin’ us back, and finally, all the Ford were behind us. West of Seligman, here was the Auburn Speedster pulled off, but it wasn’t steamin’. Those boys had made it back up to the lead, but their two-speed differential had broken.
And then, approachin’ Kingman, we saw smoke in the distance, and as we got closer, here was the Cord burin’ with fire blazin’ from the hood, and a very unhappy couple watchin’. Lord only knows what caused that – maybe the supercharger … They, too, had been in the lead…
We were eatin’ the last of the sandwiches about supper time when the Black Mountains rose before us, and tired as I was, I still had to drive through them. I’d never seen as twisty and windy a ford as that, climbin’ up and down like a shelf for a huge snake. There were no guard rails, and lookin’ over the edge – which you had to do almost minute – was scary. The Franklin was a real handful just to keep it on the road …
… And then we came to a place where cars had stopped. Somebody had gone over the edge and down … but I was too busy drivin’ to stop and ask who. And the way the Franklin was handlin’, it could have been us as well. All I could do was go on.
We crossed the Colorado River at Topock and got to the last checkpoint in Needles as the sun was settin’. We were now up to second in the race, but now some questions were raisin’; Why hadn’t the Pierce-Arrow stopped for fuel, or over-heatin’? And which of the other two cars not crossed off the list – the Chrysler Airflow and the Studebaker Land Cruiser – went over the edge? And what had happened to the other one?
At Needles, Marc took the wheel. In all that heat, it had been hard for him to sleep, but he’d managed to take some naps in between re-fillin’ the tank, and was rested up a little. But when night came, it seemed to give him energy, and he became alert again.
Needles was the place where westbound traffic would stop during the day, and wait for night to come, because drivin’ across the Mojave Desert was impossible durin’ the day in summer, for both carsand their passengers. We got lucky – one of the cars leavin’ Needles was a brand-new Lincoln Continental, as fast as a Zephyr, with those new headlights. Some Hollywood-type was drivin’, and Marc got us on his tail, chasin’ him as fast as he could go, all the way to Barstow, where he stopped.
After that, we were on our own, as far as seein’ ahead at night was concerned. But, thankfully, the desert cooled off at night, and we felt like human bein’s again.
And then… somehow, we had caught up to the Pierce-Arrow, which was still going as fast as its lights allowed. On the open road, the Pierce was faster, but we had the problem of over-drivin’ our lights too. Maybe, in traffic in a town, we could get ahead – and besides, we were far enough behind so maybe the guys in it wouldn’t think it was us. As the miles went by, Marc bided his time…
And then we came to Cajon Pass … As the road went sharply downhill, the Pierce speeded up, and its tail lights showed that they were all over that road as it plunged downward in the night. Finally, it seemed to slow down, and when the road leveled off, it pulled over to the side and stopped. We pulled up alongside them, and Marc asked,
“Brake failure. We almost crashed a couple of time, but got it down in second gear. Only the emergency is working.”
“How come you didn’t overheat, like just about everybody else?”
“Guess it doesn’t – we’ll tell you. We built a water tank onto the firewall and connected it to the cooling system. Car’ll never overheat.”
"Why didn’t you ever stop for gas?”
“See those tire side mounts? They’re hollow, and they hold 60 gallons of fuel. We keep the spare in the trunk.”
Marc was surprised, but he still had one more question. “Are you going to try to finish?”
“Yes, but it won’t be easy, using only the first or second, and stopping using just the emergency brake. We figure we’ve got about 75 miles to go, like this.”
“Well, lotsa luck, you guys. We’ll wait for you at the finish.”
With that said, Marc drove away and we headed for San Bernardino and all those other towns we had to pass through on our way to the finish at T K O Pictures. We were finally in the lead – or were we? There was one last racer unaccounted for, and we didn’t know which one. Still, the Franklin with its V-12 engine was one of the most powerful cars in the race, and we’d hardly stopped, or even slowed down, as far as that went.
It was after midnight as we threaded our way through Rialto - Fontana - Upland - Claremont - Glendora - Monrovia - Pasadena -Glendale - and maybe some other towns I’ve forgotten. Marc had woken me up so I could watch the map and the road signs. This place was more confusin’ than the Chicago area, and we sure didn’t want to get lost now.
Finally, we came to Hollywood, and here was the T K O Studios with the finish line banner … but nobody was around, and all the lights in the place were out! What had happened?
We’d come all that way … and we thought about all we’d been through. And all our competitors too … Was all this for nothin’?
We climbed out of the car and sat on the runnin’ board. At least, we were the first ones here, so it seemed. And the Pierce-Arrow was still comin’, so we wouldn’t be out here alone, parked under a street light.
Maybe an hour or so went by, when here came a car – the farmers in the Graham. They were disappointed – with all the cars they’d seen pull off the road, they’d thought they’d be the first here!
But win? No – theirs was one of first cars to have a radio, and they’d caught a station in L.A. with a news broadcast. T K O Pictures had gone bankrupt during the race, and the company was now in the hands of the receivers! They’d stopped off at a newsstand somewhere, and bought a copy of the Los Angeles Times. And there was the main headline: “T K O PICTURES CLOSES.” Underneath was the article detailing what had happened to them. The race was a last-ditch publicity scheme, and it hadn’t worked. And that left us racers out on a limb, with nowhere to go.
We hung around for the rest of the night, waitin’ for the rest of the guys to come tricklin’ in. Third was the Pierce-Arrow, and right behind them was on the Fords. Then came the Hudson from the Missouri accident, with banged-up front fenders and grill, and a missing left headlight.
About dawn, we posted a message on the studio’s front gates with the names of the teams that had finished, and told whoever finished after that to join us at the Brown Derby Restaurant for breakfast. There, as we ate, we had big round-table discussion of everything that had happened…
The car that went over the edge in the Black Mountains was the Chrysler Airflow, but fortunately, those boys didn’t get hurt. The Airflow had the smoothest ride on the road, but it was nose-heavy, and didn’t handle, most likely leadin’ to the crash. And the Studebaker Land Cruiser had been T-boned at a stop sign in Amarillo, before dawn on Sunday mornin’, by some drunken cowboy in a pickup truck – worse luck. Those guys went to the ER room in the hospital there, treated and released.
After breakfast, there was nothin’ else to do but spllit up and go our separate ways. Me ‘n’ Marc called home, told the folks what had happened, and Uncle Elmer got on the line and asked who we and car were, and he was happy that it didn’t get so much as a scratch. But he told us to hurry back – there was plenty of work waitin’ there for us.
We took a couple of days off to catch up on our sleep, and then headed for home. We wre too disgusted with what had happened to stick around and take in the sights out there. But back on The Mother Road, we didn’t hurry – we wanted to see what we’d been too busy drivin’ to look at. It took us about 10 days to see the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, and the Old Town in Albuquerque. And maybe a few other sights I don’t recall right now.
Our last day on the road started in Oklahoma City, and we were takin’ it real easy – who wanted to hurry home to go back to work? We let all kinds of cars and trucks go by us – it didn’t matter now. So, we straggled home to Squeaky Springs about suppertime.
But when we pulled the Franklin up to the garage, here was Uncle Elmer and all our family, havin’ a great big party, right there! And the banner over the doors said “Welcome back Marc and Butchie race winners.” Everybody was cheerin’ , and Uncle made us a formal presentation of a trophy with as winner on it. Uncle had taken one of his old trophies he’d won as a midget auto racer and reworked it, but we didn’t care – we now had a sybal of what we’d don. And we were written up in the local papers with our pictures take, too.
Sure … we really hadn’t won anything in Los Angeles - And the disapointment was hard to take - but in the eyes of the people who knew us - We were racing champions … !
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