It’s been going on for decades – race teams competing day after day,
week after week, with an impossibly overloaded schedule.
There were the traveling midgeteers in the post-War boom, headed by
the legendary Pappy Hough, who was said to lead his caravan of
“Little Pigs” race cars, tooling down endless Eastern highways, eyes
wide open but sound asleep.
More recently there’s UMP’s
Summernationals (aka “the Hell Tour”) when the dirt late models rack
up thousands of miles through the steamy Midwest heat with only a
night or two off along the way. The tour is so physically demanding
that towards the end, car wash wands are pointed more on the drivers
than the cars – to cool them down and wake them up.
to wonder just what impact this kind of relentless fatigue would
have on performance. How about those East Coast NASCAR Sportsman and
Modified point chasers in the ’60s who raced from the Gulf of Mexico
to the Gulf of Maine, typically 100 or more events in a season! I’ve
talked with a bunch of them about it over the years.
luxury on wheels back in 1961.
Collection – North East Auto Racing Photos and
Multi-time Sportsman champ, Rene Charland (rig pictured above),
gave his usual wise-cracking answer about how the trials affected
him. “The travel was hard on those other guys but different for me.
I had two guys all the time, and they would take turns driving down
the road. Me? I was king. I could sleep on the floorboards between
them. That’s why I beat everybody.”
Ernie Gahan, top modified
man in 1966, remembered a particular ride home to New Hampshire,
after finishing up a week with a 400- and a 200-lapper on Sunday in
upstate New York. “Oh my God, those years were something. That
Sunday night I don’t believe I had slept since Thursday, but I had
to get home for Monday morning. I was coming up over Hogback
Mountain and I got so damned tired that all I could see out of the
windshield was darkness. I just grabbed onto that wheel, gritted my
teeth, and waited for the crash….But, before it came, everything
suddenly stopped. I realized I had already pulled the truck off the
road and fallen asleep.”
And Bill Wimble, in his book
I’LL NEVER BE LAST AGAIN, recalls: “Many nights I would be
in bed at home just two nights a week. With the farm and racing, my
sleep deficit grew and grew, and it became scarily evident. One
morning I woke up with my car’s front bumper against a neighbor’s
mailbox. I had run Montreal the night before, driven back to Lisbon,
and fallen asleep at the wheel. I rode right across their lawn,
never waking up.”
Just recently Denny Zimmerman (former
modified “Eastern Bandit” road warrior, subsequent Indianapolis
Rookie of the Year, and current midget racer) ruminated about his
experiences. “I usually traveled alone, following Eddie Flemke.
Generally speaking I was okay, though I did run off the Thruway near
Trenton, New Jersey, once, falling asleep.”
compelling issue, though, is whether sleeplessness can also
compromise on-track driving performance so dangerously. Denny thinks
not. “I found I could easily doze off all buckled up, in line, ready
to go out. But once you fire up that race car, the adrenalin really
takes over. Racing is intense. There’s that focus that comes over
Likely Denny is right that adrenalin has been a savior.
It certainly would be an interesting question for a sleep research
team. There had to be something that has kept so many American
racers on the move and out on the track for all those weary
circuits. No one I talked to could provide an example of a driver
who crashed because of sleep deficit (and admitted it).
one thing is for sure. There is a fine line that can’t be crossed.
Enter any other variable - like partying, and there can be big
Everyone admires former national champion Bugsy
Stevens, even the more if they have read the book
BUGSY! he did with Bones Bourcier. Bugsy’s wisdom and
stark honesty are apparent throughout. Speaking of his modified
point-chasing days with Lenny Boehler, he wrote: “We raced in Baton
Rouge on a Saturday night. I got tangled up with some of those
Louisiana boys after the races. They hauled me down to this tavern,
and we had ourselves one hell of a time. I crawled out of that place
skunk drunk at 3:00 a.m. …I ended up sleeping in the car.
soon as it got light, someone woke me up, and at 6:30 I was on a
plane to New York City. Then we landed a small plane in a cornfield
just down the street from Thompson (Connecticut Speedway), and a few
minutes later, I was walking through the pit gate like a hero.
“Some hero. Later that afternoon, I was halfway down the back
straightaway when everything went dark. All I can figure is that I
must have passed out from the hangover and lack of sleep. That coupe
hit the third-turn sandbank running wide open, flew over some trees,
and nosed into a swamp.
“Was it stupid? Of course it was. The
crash could have killed me, and it all went back to that barroom in
Baton Rouge. I’ve got no real excuse for it. All I can say is that
those were different times.”
© 2013 Lew Boyd - Coastal 181
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