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From the editor: Down a rabbit hole

From the editor: Down a rabbit hole

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I fell into a rabbit hole recently. You may come with me, if you’d like. I promise it may be interesting … or not.

It started when my brother Bill sent me a link to a 2017 article from Road & Track … c’mon, did you think this rabbit hole wouldn’t be about cars? … He said, “Our favorite cars when we were young.” When we were much younger, R&T was a must read every month and I guess Bill still reads it. The article was about Jim Hall and his fabulous Chaparral 2J race car that he designed, built and raced in 1970.

It may have been that my brothers and I saw these cars race at Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, which was a few hours north of our home in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago.

The Chaparral 2J raced in the Canadian-American series, which meant that generally, a car builder could do almost anything, put as much horsepower in his engine as possible, for example. From that era, a 1968 McLaren used a 350-cubic inch Chevy engine that developed 600 horsepower.

Back to the Chaparral. Hall, a mechanical engineer by trade, designed the first ground effects car, the 2J. There were two big fans at the rear of the car that created a vacuum and literally sucked the car to the track, providing unbelievable traction for the rear wheels. The R&T article told the story of the Chaparral 2J and how in 2017, Jim Hall drove it again at his racetrack in Midland, Texas. Fascinating history, really and a well-written story.

From there, I thought of my experiences at the Laguna Seca race track in Monterey during the annual historic races. For several years in a row, some 15 or more years ago, I would always head down there in mid-August, to be a spectator, to be part of a pit crew, if possible, either for Jerry Layer, who first raced a 1964 Lotus 23B, or my brother Peter, who owned a number of historic race cars, including that 1968 McLaren.

My job was to help out in any way I could. I loved watching the historic cars race around that famed track and I fell in love with countless cars, including the beautiful blue Bugatti Type 35s that dominated the European racing world in the years before World War II.

I remember when the great racing driver Sir Stirling Moss was there in the paddock, surrounded by a crowd of people, holding court and signing autographs. He was wearing a fireproof Nomex driving suit and his chest was bare, since the suit was peeled down to his waist, because it was a warm day and the suits were warm. At that race, Moss drove an early 1960s Austin Healey Sprite, called a Bugeye in America (and a Frogeye in Britain), that competed in races when it was new. It had a rollbar, a removable hardtop and a tiny 948cc engine. It was called a Bugeye because of the placement of its headlights.

What is Stirling Moss doing today? I checked Google and found out he has retired from public life, following a fall and a long stay in the hospital.

Before I left Google, though, I also found a 1995 video of Moss and others talking about the great Italian road race, the 1955 Mille Miglia, where Moss, at age 25, drove a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR to victory in the almost 1,000-mile race at an average speed of 100 miles per hour on public roads. It’s a record that still stands. In the seat next to him for the 1955 race was journalist Denis Jenkinson, who had the task of being navigator, telling Moss what was coming up, right turn, left turn, whatever, at racing speed. How I would have liked to have been that journalist! Maybe in another life.

In the video, Moss climbs into the well-kept 300 SLR, a sensational car, and drives it again. What a beautiful sound that supercharged engine makes! If you want to see the video, check out Petrolicious.

… Now it’s a few hours later, I’ve traveled across time, the country and the world, shared a few experiences with my brother Peter and his band of merry friends … and as I emerge from the rabbit hole, it is dark outside and time to go home.

I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did.

You may reach David Stoneberg at 967-6800 or editor@sthelenastar.com

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star and The Weekly Calistogan.

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