Veteran and racer, the late Hully Bunn.
(Mark McKeon Collection)
As was so totally obvious last weekend, the
Indy 500 owns Memorial Day weekend. What an event this year!
Watching parade laps prior to the grind on the bricks is a tingly,
near-spiritual experience. You can only imagine what is going
through the minds of 33 great racing drivers. You get to thinking of
those 100 years of Indys past – the long-distance bravery, the
joyous victories and spillage of milk, the tragic, gladiatorial
deaths. And all this comes on that same weekend we honor our
country’s veterans of foreign wars.
No one could question the
enormity of the role those same veterans have played in racing here
in the US. At no time was that greater than the couple of decades
following the Second World War, the years when passion for American
motorsports went on a rampage. Indy fields were chock full of vets
from WW II and the Korean conflict. They were also on the roster of
virtually every other automotive competition.
On a Sunday
afternoon back in 1974, we took a modified out to an open
competition at the newly opened Cairo Fairgrounds in upstate New
York. The sun was hot, and to say that the track was a gritty,
hole-filled dust bowl would be kind. But a standing-room-only crowd
packed the place, psyched to see a special feature for old-time
drivers from the great stock car days of the ’50s in the Empire
State. It was at the very dawn of what we know now as the vintage
Our car was an already-elderly big block coach with
a water pipe cage on a ’54 Chevy frame. It was outdated and
under-funded. Dick Berggren and I had both won with it in New
England in earlier years, but no dice with the much stiffer
competition out in New York. I was surprised when a tall, lanky, and
mild- mannered gentleman came up and asked if he could drive it.
When he introduced himself as Hully Bunn, we all stood at immediate
A Connecticut native born in 1920, Hully Bunn had
been ready for the bugle call in 1941, and off to the European
theatre he went. As we got to know one another over time in more
recent years, he confided how horridly unforgettable the conflict
was, most particularly the Battle of the Bulge.
home with a raft of medical problems. No question there was some of
what was once called “shell shock” and that we now label PTSD. He
said he sought to engage in something unpredictable, loud, and
dangerous that could capture – and calm – his soul. That something
became midgets and then stock cars.
Hully’s need and ability
to survive in chaos were likely reasons that he was a racing success
from the start. His mastery of long races was renowned. He won the
inaugural Race of Champions at Langhorne, dodging all the
fire-filled devastation. During the race, he nonchalantly poured
quarts of oil into a radiator-type hose running from the cockpit to
the oil pan. He had purposely gone down there with a flathead that
was “nice and loose.”
He had wins at Bainbridge, Ohio;
Morristown, NJ; opening day at Lebanon Valley, NY; and on and on. He
claimed to make a good living out on the racin’ road for almost 20
years until expense creep overwhelmed him. The tipping point was a
spectacular rollover at Lebanon Valley in 1965. He hurt his back,
and it ended his career. Almost.
That day at Cairo was
something. Over 20 enthusiastic old-time heroes suited up for
battle, as in days of yore. Former NY State Champion Jeep Herbert,
aboard Joe Leto’s potent, state-of-the-art Pinto, egged them all on
with wild broadslides during warm-ups.
But during the actual
race, there was no contest. Hully just plain smoked ‘em with that
unlikely #181 coach.
With a smoothness I still remember
vividly, Hully - with no warm-ups or even seat time for ten years -
cruised around the bottom, deftly avoiding every rut and crater. He
didn’t look that fast, but that, of course, meant he was. In no time
he was in the lead. He won it handily by a quarter lap.
promoter Kenny Shoemaker greets Hully and the #181
in Victory Lane at Cairo. (Coastal 181
Bergie, Bruce Cohen, and all of us were
flabbergasted. When we rushed up and congratulated him for getting
us our only win out there, he just smiled. He thanked us and said
he’d really enjoyed it because he had brought along his son who had
never seen him race. And here’s what he had to say about the car:
“This thing is GREAT. You don’t need to do a thing to it, except
maybe to look for a new driver.”
Hully died at 91 last
August. He was in another league, just like so many veterans from
that “Greatest Generation.”
May you be honored forever,
Hully – and American Vets one and all.
(R) joined other Langhorne stars Bill Wimble
Roger Treichler (in chair) at Lenny Sammons’
Motorsports Show in January 2010.
© 2012 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181
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