It’s the driver not the car..

In the late spring of 1972, high-school buddies Allen Hopkins and Mike Sturdevant picked me up at my house in order to go on a little road-trip to inspect a motor for sale.  “Hop” as we called him was a “gear-head” and a Mopar fanatic and he had knowledge of a hemi-engine for sale somewhere up near Greene, NY. So the three of us piled into his 1966 Plymouth Belvedere and headed up NYS Route 12 to go and see if this motor was anything Hop wanted.

As we neared the village of Greene, a small sign caught Hop’s attention.  “Look at that, a rally, let’s check it out on the way back.”  Now I do not remember anything about that engine we were originally going to see, but I do have a vivid recollection about that rally.

As we headed back, Hop was clearly into the planning mode.  As he discussed this, it became clear to me that Hop had no interest in observing this event; he was going to compete in it!

We pulled into what was ordinarily the Green airfield, but today was the site of the auto rally.  As we approached, a gaggle of BMW coupes, a few Corvette’s and a variety of British sports cars were either parked and waiting or on the track competing.  A small set of bleacher seats oversaw the rally layout, defined by plastic, orange pylons, strategically placed over the tarmac forming a serpentining lane of obtuse turn angles, switch-backs and abrupt angles, all designed to test the handling and dexterity of car and driver.  The track layout made its way around a circuitous route that ended where it started, allowing one car at a time to be timed with a stop watch, start to finish.

The announcer had a public address system and was located behind the bleachers in a small, elevated box-like room, delivering a turn-by-turn analysis and comment about each car and driver as they completed the course.

After parking the car, the three of us were wandering around, looking at the cars and watching the competitors navigate the course.  I saw Hop talking to the men at the start line and all of a sudden, he was gone!  Mike and I watched as he got into the Plymouth and took off for the highway.  We looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, not knowing quite what to think, but decided to watch the festivities and see what would happen next.

As we sat on the bleachers, twenty-minutes later Hop rolled back into the parking lot and made his way over to us.  “What was that all about?”, I asked.  Hop replied, “Had to put extra air in my tires and get a quart of oil.  Now I need to find someone to lend me a helmet.”  I said, “Are you shitting me?  You’re gonna run the Belevedere through this course?  Hop was already searching for a helmet as the words were leaving my lips.

I glanced over at the men who looked like the guys running things and you could see the big story was this helmet-less kid entering the contest in the antithesis of a sports car.  Hop came back, sporting a helmet and heading for the car, we followed along, wondering what in the hell he was going to do.  He opened the truck and got out a tire iron and began taking the hubcaps off the wheels.  “Don’t wanna have to go find them scattered in the weeds”, he said.  When Hop put the helmet on, Mike and I burst into laughter.  His size 8 head was hugged quite tightly by this size 7 helmet and it was just plain funny.  He looked like a cartoon character.

We had been looking at the clock, which was located just over the top of the announcer shack, and we were noting the various times; 2:45, 2:42, even a 2:39.  As it became clear to the crowd of spectators that Hop had entered his big 4-door-Plymouth, a din of excitement mixed with laughter began to build in the group.  Hop got into the car and pulled into line behind a black BMW which was behind an MG, as they nervously waited their turn.  We found out later that the entry fee included for each competitor three trips around the course, culminating with each driver’s fastest time.  Because we had arrived late, Hop had only one lap in which to compete and he was to be the last driver of the day.

Bright orange plastic cones outlined the road-course that meandered over the cracked, tarmac surface of the aged and little-used airport.  As the circuit ended where it began, just before the finish-line, a series of cones about one-hundred yards long indicated the end of the line by being spaced ever and ever closer together as the finish line appeared.

The BMW crossed the line, 2:41, not too bad, but it appeared that the 2:39 was the time to beat.  Hop and the MG nudged up one car-length and then the MG shot off and down the runway as Hop waited.  The MG had a mechanical failure of some type about half-way around the track and the flaggers were busy getting him off the roadway as Hop began to nervously rev the engine of the Plymouth.  Once the all-clear was indicated, Hop was given the count-down, three-two-one, GO!

You could hear the big 4-barrel carburetor gulp gas as he lumbered down and out of the start-gate.  Spectators were laughing and carrying-on as Hop burned around the little track, tires screaming, motor racing, but he was making amazing time.  Out through the worst of the switch-backs, through the off-camber turns, it was obvious that Hop’s driving skills were making up for whatever he didn’t have in terms of the ideal car.  As the land-yacht headed towards the finish-line, Hop mistakenly began to serpentine the Plymouth in and out of the finishing line pylons, thinking this was a part of the course!  He did so successfully, never touching a single piece and when he crossed the finish line, he had beaten the best time by full 6-seconds!  2:33 and with it the trophy, even after showing off his skills needlessly doing a slalom run at the end.

All of the hoity-toytee’s stopped laughing and no one would even talk to us.  It was great.      

As we piled into the car and rocketed out of the airport, I held the trophy out of the back window as we waved good-bye to the brave men and women who made up the membership of the local sports car club in Greene, NY., now 50-years a memory of the day when a very confident 20-year-old gear head named Hop taught “the grown-ups” a valuable lesson about the importance of the driver’s confidence and ability over the quality and price of the car.


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