Monday, January 14, 2019

An Evening With Chip Robinson

Chip Robinson today.

I was fortunate to be invited to a local Porsche Club Of America dinner, at which Chip Robinson was the featured speaker.  I remember him as one of Al Holbert's co-drivers, but in-period I never gave him his due.  His talk, and his answers in Q&A, were very interesting and candid.  A candid, retired, road racing driver is always worth a listen.  Words I've put in quotation marks are paraphrases, but close to what Robinson actually said.

Robinson's first passion was off-roading.  But he soon found himself successful in small-bore open-wheel cars.  This quickly led to a full pro season in Formula Super Vee, in which he was likewise successful.  Some may remember FSV as a rung on the ladder to a CART ride (I saw Michael Andretti race an FSV at the Minnesota Fairgrounds in the early 1980's).  Robinson finished second in the championship in his first year, but ran out of sponsorship money and believed his career to be derailed.

Out of the blue, he got a call from Bob Tullius offering him a ride in the Group 44 Jaguar XJR-5.  "I think Tullius admired my no-drama approach to racing," Robinson said.  "Besides, I was cheap." Robinson remains grateful to Tullius for the ride, giving him his big break, and for saying "You've got a contract for the season, take your time, adjust to the car and the series."  In his opinion, Tullius is a good guy.  This contrasts with other things I've read about Tullius (including from front-rank drivers who drove for him).  Which, I suppose, just goes to show that people are multifaceted and it depends on the person, the day, and the circumstances.

I was a big fan of the XJR-5 because it was an all-American effort at top-rank sports car racing on this side of the pond,
Lee Dykstra did the chassis for Bob Tullius.  Also because of its lovely, clean, graphic design--and the sound of that
big, normally-aspirated Jaguar V-12.  But it didn't make the downforce or the power of a Porsche 962, and when
Jaguar decided to go FIA racing, it passed on further developing the XJR-5 in favor of a new, clean-sheet de-
sign and hired Tom Walkinshaw to run the team instead of Tullius.  Coming from open-wheel cars, Robinson
remembers this car as big, heavy, and unwieldy.

He was successful in the Jag, which led to a ride with Al Holbert in his Lowenbrau Porsche 962.  Many will remember Holbert's 962's as the cars to beat in IMSA GTP racing in the 1980's.  "But when Al was killed in the plane crash, the team just folded, without words being said or announcements made. Everybody just went home.  We didn't make another race."

Robinson remembers the 962 as having much better brakes, power, grip, and handling than the XJR-5. He also remembers turbo lag, even at this late stage of the 962's development (1988), but it was not a problem: "You just drove around it--get into the throttle earlier."  By this time (Robinson reminded us) Holbert was building (and selling) his own 962 chassis tubs.  He was also running trick, proprietary, engines jointly developed with Andial.

Al Holbert's "regular" co-driver in this iconic car was D. Bell, whovever he was  ;-).  But when Holbert and Porsche began
laying the ground work for a CART racing program, Al retired from driving and hired Chip Robinson to drive with Bell.
Wins and championships continued, but when Holbert's private plane crashed in September of 1988, the 962 program just
folded up.  It turns out that my memory is only partly faulty: I did see this car race at Road America in 1988, and have Al
Holbert's autograph to prove it.  But it was in the gold/white/green/red Miller Beer livery.     

After the collapse of Holbert Racing, Robinson again got lucky: a contract to co-drive the Nissan 
GTP with Geoff Brabham.  Once again, he was part of a dominant IMSA GTP program.  "I got there just when the car was coming right.  It had been blowing tires and crashing; some of us in the paddock called it The Black Coffin."  When the Electramotive (Nissan) team switched from Bridgestone to Goodyear tires, that problem disappeared.  It turned out that the Bridgestones couldn't handle the downforce the chassis was generating.  Don Devendorf (Electramotive's Principle) was a genius.  That car had massive downforce.  Of course, a V-6 allows for even bigger side tunnels than a flat 6."

Above and below: the Nissan GTP.  Robinson escaped its early developmental problems, when it was nicknamed "The
Black Coffin," and arrived to drive just when the car was coming right and clearly faster, and just as reliable as, the
Porsche 962.  It's a symptom of my own Aesthetic Disease that I paid little attention to the now-dominant Nissan:
The "look" of the car, and the graphic design of its livery, left me cold.  Also, it dethroned the 962 just as the Glory
Years of CART got under way.  Around the turn of the decade, my Road America spectator budget and my TV
eyeball attention were totally focused on CART.

When should you quit?  Robinson's answered the question as follows:  He drove some CART races for Dick Simon, with indifferent or worse results.  Simon was running a shoe-string operation.  "When Nissan shut down its GTP operation, we had 225 people involved in developing and maintaining two cars.  By sports car racing standards, the budget was insane.  I was not interested in driving for teams that were struggling from race to race.  Also, Bobby Rahal has the best quote I've seen about race car driving: 'You have to want to go into that turn at 225 m.p.h.'"  Also: "I found myself living in airports.  For the last two years of my career, I bought a motor home and drove to the races, by way of National and State Parks.  It was a great experience."  In other words (mine), if you want to succeed at the top level in motorsports, you must be single-minded in pursuing that goal.  That's not a way to live a balanced life.

Robinson was asked about his IROC experience.  "I qualified 4th at Daytona, and thought 'that's OK.' So, I'm driving into Turn 4 and Dale Earnhart is way back in my mirrors.  'Still good,' I thought.  Next thing I know, he's next to me, on the inside line.  Ovals are a specialty."  He was also asked about the toughest drivers he raced against.  That was interesting too.  He didn't mention some of "the greats."  He provided a fairly long list, of which I can't recall all, some of whom were predictable, and a couple of which were call-backs for me.  "Hurley Haywood... Bob Wolleck... I remember the tenacious drivers.  Price Cobb was hard to pass, and would have been harder, except that his Porsche 962 was on those atrocious Goodrich tires.  Davey Jones was fast, but made mistakes.  You could beat him by sitting on his tail and forcing him into a mistake.  I remember lapping Alex Job, in a car that was throwing oil, three times in a couple of races.  I went to the Stewards: 'Why is this guy even out here with us?  He's a hazard.'  Alex is a monument to persistence and dedication in this sport."

When I was invited to hear Chip Robinson talk, I went mostly to hang out with the couple who asked me.  Boy, am I glad that I went.  As the expression goes, "He could write a book."  But when legendary figures like Derek Bell, Brian Redman, and David Hobbs get book deals only because they are legendary, I'd never have heard Robinson's recollections but for this talk.  Thanks, Merrill & Denise!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Memories of Zot

Road America 500, 1964.  The GTZ was a beautiful car, with an aluminum Zagato body over a tubular space frame.  Thus
Giulia Tubolare Zagato: GTZ.  In retrospect, it was the final flowering of the 1950's Gran Turismo racer concept, like its
big-bore Italian brother, the Ferrari 250 GT SWB and Porsche's offering, the 904 GTS.  Yet it raced highly modified
production cars like the Ford Lotus Cortina as a "GT," and against production sports cars like the Lotus Elan in the
SCCA.  By the mid 1960's, European-spec GT cars were obsolete and uncompetitive in SCCA sprint racing. 

In 1964, Chuck Stoddard was invited by Alfa Romeo to drive a factory GTZ entry at Sebring.  This was because of his winning record in Giuliettas in the SCCA's Central Division in G Production and D Production.  At Sebring he co-drove with Jim Kayser, another noted Giulietta driver of the time.  They won their class (beating, among others, Jim Clark in a Lotus Cortina).  The other three factory-entered GTZ's failed to finish.  The Kayser/Stoddard GTZ is now in the Revs Institute Museum in Naples, FL.  I knew Chuck personally, because he owned an imported car store in my town, where I worked in the summers of 1963 and 1964.  (Talk about a great first summer job!)

Chuck, doing his thing in the GTZ at Sebring.
After Sebring, Alfa made Chuck an offer he couldn't refuse: "We'll sell you a GTZ at a very friendly price if you will campaign it in the USRRC in 1964."  It turned out to be the only GTZ campaigned in the SCCA, in-period.  He ran in U2L in '64 and then in C Production in '65.  He then finished 4th in the Run Off's at Daytona (the first year of a truly National Championship run offs).  And then he retired from racing.

"Zot" was named by Chuck's regular crewman, John Huddleson.  Chuck himself had a penchant for gag names.  He had a mini-fridge in his office (which I cleaned) labeled "PHOOD."  But he didn't name his cars.  John read the "B.C." comic strip (we all did), and thought the idea of the GTZ ant-eater vacuuming up ants was funny.  As it turned out, John was prescient.  John's own contribution to The Saga Of Zot was significant.  In practice for the USRRC race at Mid-Ohio in '64, Chuck lost a gear in the tranny.  So he was ready to DNS.  John said, "Well... we could rebuild it..."  So they towed home from Mid-Ohio to Cleveland, rebuilt the tranny overnight, and John towed the TZ back to Mid-Ohio while Chuck slept in the back seat of the '58 Pontiac Bonneville tow car.  He finished 3rd the next day.

Watkins Glen: winner, U2L, USRRC.  Mike Gammino's Ferrari GTO was at
the Glen with race number 23.  The two cars made a beautiful pair when
Mike lapped Chuck.  But Mike was DNF.  Chuck finished 6th, behind the
three factory Cobras and two privately-entered Cobras.

I was privileged to clean the car and hold tools for Chuck in 1964 when he prepped the TZ on weekday evenings between races.  It was a remarkably reliable car, especially for a highly-tuned one.  He never had a DNF in Zot in two full seasons of racing.  So the checklist was mostly that: brake pad wear, etc.  I was also privileged to "crew" for Chuck twice.  He ran an SCCA National at  Mid-Ohio to shake down the TZ (finishing 2nd to a Porsche 904).  At Watkins Glen he won U2L, headed only by five Cobras (including the three factory entries).  Aside from Chuck's trouble free run, my main memory of Watkins Glen is how difficult the Cobras appeared to be to manage.  Even the 289 was a squirrely car to drive.

Chuck's car was "factory racer" in all respects.  In fact, it had been Consalvo Sanesi's test mule, reconditioned before sale to Stoddard.  (Alfa ran a factory team of TZ's in major European races.)  As such, it was very long-geared: set up for long, fast European circuits like LeMans and Monza.  This worked well at places like Watkins Glen and Road America and Meadowdale; less so at tighter circuits like Mid-Ohio.  The TZ had very wild valve timing, and thus a high-speed "brap-brap-brap" idle.  The Conrero tune got about 175 h.p. out of the Giulia's 1.6 liters.  The TZ weighed about 1400 lbs. dry, so it was about 1800 lbs. on the starting grid, ready to race.  Notwithstanding this set-up, Chuck was able to get the clutch in, in street driving, and sometimes tested the car on Route 20 where it ran past the dealership.  The only change he made to the car in two seasons of racing was to replace the factory Jaeger "watch movement" tach with a more accurate U.S.-made Sun electronic instrument.

The TZ in the Road America 500 (USRRC) in 1964.  Stoddard drove solo (!)
to another U2L class win in a typically crowded field of big bore and small
bore cars.
Stoddard's favorite circuit was Road America; he had back-to-back wins there in 1964 and 1965.   In '64 he won U2L in the USRRC and in '65 he won C-Production in the June Sprint Nationals.  Road America was of course well-suited to the TZ with its long straights at the exit of (mostly) fast corners.  Chuck had plenty of experience of Mid-Ohio (his "home track"), Watkins Glen, and Road America. But many of his earlier races in the 1950's were at airport circuits like Cumberland and Akron.  He ran once at Meadowdale and Greenwood (in Iowa), both of which had short lives as active road racing circuits.  This resume is typical of road racers from the Midwest who "came up" in the 1950's.

Stoddard's record in the TZ over two seasons was: four 1sts, three 2nds, two 3rds, and one 4th (at the Runoffs at the end of 1965.  After a successful 12-year career in the SCCA, most of it in Alfa Giuliettas, he sold the TZ and concentrated on building his imported car dealership, which became an "exclusive" Porsche-Audi store (as required by Porsche when it took over its own distribution in the U.S.) in 1968.

Above and below: Mid-Ohio, 1965.  Chuck is a big guy (6'-3"), and the TZ was a tight fit.  It was the only closed car that
he ever raced.  Victory lap with his then lead-mechanic, Bob Nikel.  Chuck generally took only one "helper" with him to
a race event.  His racing philosophy was "If the car isn't ready, don't put it on the trailer," so he really didn't need an
experienced pit crew--just an extra pair of hands, sometimes, and someone to keep the lap chart.  He started racing
in a Siata in 1953. He bought the TZ from Alfa Romeo for $6000, raced it for two full seasons, and sold it for the
same price when he retired from racing at the end of 1965.  In the 1970's and later he became one of the U.S.A.'s
"Mr. Porsches."  But in the late 1950's and early 1960's he was "Mr. Alfa Romeo." 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Book Report: "Alfa Romeo TZ-TZ2: Born To Win," by Vito Witting de Prato

"GTZ" has nothing to do with Gran Turismo.  It stands for "Giulia Tubolare [tubular] Zagato.  Doesn't that trip nicely off the tongue?  For me, this is a good book, but not a great book.  It is expensively produced and elegantly designed, with lots of large photos (including color) on high-quality paper stock.

Knowing something of the TZ myself, it was disappointing to see that the author, Vito Witting da Prato, knew nothing of Chuck Stoddard's very successful SCCA seasons in 1964 and 1965.  da Pratto wrote, wrongly, that the TZ was not raced in the States.  (For the sake of a second edition, if there is one, I corrected this in direct communication with him.)  Along the same lines, it was disappointing that the book does not include a table of the car's FIA race results.  (da Prato's accounts of Sebring and the Targa Florio are good, and his accounts of LeMans are passable.)

Another complaint is that English is da Pratto's second language.  He has lived in the States, and clearly has a command of spoken, idiomatic English.  He wrote the book in English.  But his command of formal, written, English is insecure and often confusing.  It often seems like he's trying to translate Italian into English, particularly technical language.

That said, da Pratto was presented with some unusual challenges.  The chassis history of TZ's is not well-documented, sometimes intentionally so by Alfa Romeo, Scuderia St. Ambrosia, and Autodelta.  There are differences in perspective and memory among some of the key players in the development of the TZ.  da Pratto tries to resolve this somewhat by inserting sections into the book called "The Protagonists Speak."  I found those Q & A sections unenlightening and often even more confusing.  There are a lot of allusions to, but not clarifications of, internal politics at Alfa Romeo and between Alfa and Zagato and Autodelta.

Having got my carping out of the way, I'd like to say what I really enjoyed about the book.  First, the pictures and drawings, many rare and previously unpublished.

da Pratto gives a fine account of the roots of the TZ's design in previous Alfa Romeo models, and its (unusually long) gestation and development.  Zagato in particular was pursuing a "true" Kamm tail design, of which the TZ may be the most pure real-world example.  It is interesting to think about the TZ as one of the last, most fully-developed concepts of a GT car, like the Ferrari 250 GT SWB or the Porsche 904.  The TZ really was dual purpose and could be road driven.   As required by the FIA, well over 100 examples of the model were produced.

The TZ2 was, essentially, a different car--a race car.  From the outset, it was intended for competition only.  Only 12 or so cars were produced.  It shared a power train with the TZ, but the frame was highly modified and the body was fiberglass.  All TZ2's had limited-slip differentials and close ratio gearboxes; none of them had windshield defrosters.  They had dry-sump engine lubrication.  They rolled on 13-inch wheels, damped by two-way adjustable Koni shock absorbers.  The suspension links were adjustable.  TZ2's were 200 kilograms lighter, and 4 inches lower.  There were, essentially, no interchangeable parts.

Although the TZ's gestation period was unusually long, it was still (barely) competitive with later, less expensive designs like the Lotus Elan.  The TZ2, an "evolution" of the TZ, seems to have been doomed before it raced.  For one thing, the rear-engine revolution was well underway by 1965.  For another, the FIA by then required 500 examples (not 100) to be produced to qualify as a GT car.  So the TZ2 found itself running in the Sports class with cars like the Porsche 906.  And by 1966, Alfa Romeo, encouraged by the results of the TZ, was back in big-time sports prototype racing with the Tipo 33.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Report: Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks, By Brian Redman

To answer the basic question, yes, this is a page-turner.  At least if you are interested in road racing in the 1960's and 1970's.  Redman's writing is as engaging as his after-dinner speeches.  The book has plenty of high-quality pictures, most in color, some rare.  It is organized in an interesting way: some chapters are an account of a given season, others group his experience of legendary circuits.

Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks is, in many ways, a backward-looking reality check.  Redman bears down on his theme that the human cost of racing was unacceptable.  He stresses how he (and others) were in denial about the risks.  It wasn't so much that drivers tried to refute or deflect thinking about risk.  They simply put it out of their minds. Redman often couldn't sleep the night before a major race. Then he went out and raced--hard.  He is grateful to have survived three potentially fatal crashes.  He gives full credit to Jackie Stewart (and others) for leading a charge toward passive safety.  He didn't participate in it.

Road racing at the top level was so different then.  In 1970, by then a firmly established pro driver, Redman was paid $750 per race (plus expenses) except for $1000 each for Daytona, Sebring, and LeMans, by Porsche.  His 10-race income was $8250.  My salary for my first job out of college, which did not involve risking life or limb, was $8400.  Using the rule-of-thumb X10 Inflation Factor, Redman would have been making something north of $84,000 in today's money.  No front-rank international driver would pick up the phone, now, for that.

For that matter, Redman explains his few appearances in Formula 1 thus: he could make way more money racing in Formula 5000 in the States, in a more competitive but relaxed series, in a car that was just as fast as a Grand Prix car.  Yes, he did race Ferrari 312 PB sports cars in Europe very successfully in the early 1970's.  But who needed the pressure and emotional abuse of driving in Formula 1 for Enzo? Redman was, first and foremost, a driver-for-hire.  He went where there was the most money, best chance of winning, and least aggravation.

BTW, off-topic, the best, most makes-the-hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck-stand-up, racing I have ever seen was Formula 5000.  Those cars were insane beasts.  They handled better than Can-Am cars.  But that made them faster through corners.  There was nothing between you and and a hard hit if things went pear-shaped.  And they were open wheel cars, so the chance of something going wrong was higher than in a Can-Am car.   

Redman confirms that drivers could feel the frames of Porsche 917's flex.  And so on.  It was a thrill to read about, and recall, the glory days of balls-out road racing.  But I don't miss them.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Book Report: The Bridgebusters; the True Story Of The Catch-22 Bomb Wing

This is a well-researched and written book: Thomas KcKelvey Cleaver is a screenwriter and World War Two air war historian.  It was recommended to me, in part, for perspective on the novel Catch-22.

Most informative, for me, was Cleaver's writing about the Italian Campaign and the air war as fought by medium bombers.  His chapter on the Allies' backing-and-forthing on grand strategy in the Mediterranean is very good.  So is his account of slogging up the Italian peninsula.  Cleaver confirms something that Joseph Heller didn't write about but which is implicit in Catch-22, that Axis fighter opposition was almost nonexistent.  But B-25's bombed from lower altitudes than the heavies.  Heller does not overemphasize how much the bomber crews dreaded flak or the measures they took to avoid it. Cleaver lets the servicemen speak for themselves.  The first-person accounts from personal and unit diaries are vivid.

Air combat in the Mediterranean was not as predictably fatal as it was for the heavy bomber crews operating out of England.  That said, the Brenner Pass was.  A B-17 crew member operating out of England could rotate home after 25 missions.  The number of missions required of Heller's Wing went from 60 to 70 and then "for the duration" (right before the end of the war).  This was because of a shortage of replacement crews after mid-1944.

It had not occurred to me that a tight bomb pattern was mission-critical.  It was well-established, even during the war, that so-called strategic bombing in France and Germany was inaccurate.  In Catch-22, Colonel Cathcart insists on a "nice, tight, bomb pattern that will look good in the aerial photographs" so he can be promoted.  Actually, to take out bridges and rail lines, tight bomb patterns were a necessity.

And now, to fly into flak-infested skies:

Cleaver establishes that Heller flew "only" 60 missions, when the number had been raised to 70 (and later "for the duration.")  Devotees of Catch-22 will recall that never-ending increases in the number of missions drive the plot of the book.  Heller flew no missions in his last month on active duty, and was rotated home at a height of operational tempo in December-January 1944-1945.  Heller was eligible for separation based on the complicated "points system" the Army used: time-in-theater, number of missions flown, etc.  But Heller was 10 missions short of what General Robert Knapp required.

Cleaver says that Knapp was the model for General Dreedle in Catch-22.  Maybe.  Heller's sketches of "General Dreedle, who ran a fighting outfit..." and his bureaucratic wars with General Peckem are consistent with that.  But in Catch-22, it's Colonel Cathcart who continually raises the number of missions in an effort to impress Dreedle.  The characters in Catch-22 are inventions and composites. Further, Heller has observed that the themes, and tone and sensibility, of Catch-22 are more about the 1950's than World War Two.  And that his own experience of the war was limited and that he, personally, enjoyed everything about the Army until the last two months or so of his service.  He said that he didn't have the sense to be scared until the Avignon mission.  (Here's the link, again, to his appearance with Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen Ambrose.  Heller was 72 at the time and his perspective was retrospective.) 

In the appearance linked to, Heller says that he "arrived in the squadron at just the right time for me:" tough missions against Monte Cassino were in the past and tough missions against the Brenner Pass were in the future.  Fifty-eight of Heller's 60 missions were against bridges with no Axis fighter planes and little flak.  His first 37 missions were "milk runs."  He found his (much later) reading about the losses of the Eighth Air Force heavy bombers appalling: 60 planes (600 crew) lost on the Schweinfurt mission alone.

The mission to the Avignon bridges (August 15, 1944) woke Heller up to the fact that he was in combat. A fictionalized but realistic account of Heller's experiences at Avignon appears in Catch-22. Besides the pilots' evasive action, and his own mic jack being disconnected, a crew member received a leg wound from flak, which Heller helped to treat.  In the novel, this crew member is transformed in to Snowdon. The Settimo Bridge mission (August 23, 1944), which Heller also flew, to create a road block with a land slide by attacking a village, also figures in Catch-22.  Cleaver believes it was the pivotal point in Heller's disenchantment with the war.

Cleaver uncovered the fact that, for his last month or so in-theater, Heller was detailed to the making of a film to promote the Bomb Group's (and its commanding officer, Colonel Chapman's) record.  Training In Combat was about training replacement crews, the absence of which required increasing the number of missions.  The film-maker recruited Heller, a friend, to play the part of "Pete the bombardier."  He referred to his film as "the Colonel's boondoggle."  This sounds like the Colonel Cathcart we know from Catch-22.  Hyping the training of non-existent replacement crews is straight out of the novel's sensibility, too.

Cleaver speculates that Heller did make a deal with Colonel Chapman, the one that Yossarian rejects in the novel.  Heller would stop grousing about the increased number of missions if he didn't have to fly them.  He even got sent home.  Cleaver believes that Heller had "a well-developed personal conscience," which bothered him, and which (in part at least) inspired Catch-22.  Yossarian is Heller's avatar--the Heller who did the right thing.  Heller died in 1999, long before Cleaver uncovered the boondoggle film, so we can't ask him.

Having read biographical material about Heller, and contemplated his other novels and public appearances, I'm not persuaded that his personal conscience was any more well-developed than average, if that.  With the possible exception of Dunbar, the characters in Catch-22 are not stand-up guys.  Many of them are not even "characters," in the conventional novelistic sense: they don't "develop."  Some are two-dimensional personifications:  Milo Minderbinder stands in for capitalism, for example.  What Heller did have was a superb nose for hypocrisy.  He could smell it from miles away. For me, hypocrisy is the theme that drives Catch-22.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Off-Topic: Catch-22, Joe Heller, And Me

Joe Heller, circa 1983 (from the back cover of his novel God Knows).

Catch-22 has influenced me more than any other book I've read.  A paperback copy was given to me by a fellow college student in 1966: "I think you would enjoy this."  Boy, was he right!

What is Catch-22 about?  Is it antiwar?  Anti-capitalist?  Anti-"the system?"  Anti-tribal and anti-conformity?  Anti-authority?


Here's a link to a good panel discussion about Catch-22:

The first 12 minutes are the best: actor Scott Shepherd reads Chapter One.  In the rest of the 1.5 hour video, Bob Gottlieb (Heller's Editor) and Mike Nichols (who directed the film Catch-22) have some insightful things to say.  Christopher Buckley can be usefully ignored: use the slider.  The film was fine but, as Scott Shepherd's reading shows, it's Heller's writing that's killer.

Is Catch-22 funny?  It's hilarious.  But the book's brilliant "circular structure," which Buck Henry's screenplay for the movie mimicked, gradually reveals the dark side of what Heller is about.  (One of my favorite sentences is "And if that wasn't funny, there were lots of things that weren't even funnier.") Does Catch-22 have a Jewish sensibility?  Do I?  Maybe.  Bob Gottlieb says "Jews are not neurotic, we're just accurate."  My own son says, with a nod to my Mel Brooks obsession,  that, if reincarnation is true, that I'm "coming back" Jewish.  It's no accident that my other favorite books by Heller, God Knows and Picture This, rely on anachronism.  So do my favorite Brooks films: Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men In Tights.  The point of anachronisms, as Heller and Brooks use them, is "same shit, different century."  History is just (as Barbara Tuchman put it) "the march of folly."

Gottleib says that the only two books that "took a lot out of" Heller were his first two: Catch-22 and Something Happened.  The rest of his books were "notional."  Heller would get an idea, and develop it. Does this mean that the themes of his later books were trivial?  I don't think so.  In God Knows, King David is no longer on speaking terms with God because God is no longer speaking to him.  In Picture This, Aristotle contemplates 2000 years of Western Civilization.  Both books are as savagely funny as Catch-22.

Heller's position as an honored American novelist is far from secure.  He is not highly regarded by Lit Crits.  One issue the Lit Crits have with Catch-22 is "the problem of the ending."  After showing humanity at its worst, Heller suddenly goes all optimistic on us: Yossarian goes AWOL to try to join Orr in Sweden.  Maybe escape from insanity is possible?  Mike Nichols makes this even more explicit in the film.  In the closing scene Yossarian is paddling a little yellow life raft, alone, on a wide, wide sea.  I was in the audience in Chicago in 1994 when Heller was on book tour, promoting Closing Time. In the Q&A, I asked him about "the problem of the ending:" Did you wuss out, Mr. Heller?  That's what the Lit Crits say.  His response: "I don't see how I could have ended the book any other way."  (Nice dodge!)

Another Lit Crit complaint has been that Catch-22 is insufficiently edited, too repetitive.  Repetition is required by Heller's "circular" organizational scheme, but Gottlieb says, in retrospect, "I can see room for cuts."  Heller poked fun at himself in this regard in the book (I believe): ex-PFC Wintergreen threw General Peckem's memos in the waste basket because "they were too prolix."

Kurt Vonnegut is often mentioned in the next breath with Heller, doubtless because they wrote about similar themes.  But they were different.  Heller was known for a small, tight circle of friends (one of whom was Mel Brooks) and to suffer fools ungladly.  Vonnegut liked to go to the Post Office because he could meet people and get into conversations while waiting on line.  His relatives in Indianapolis agreed that Vonnegut was one of the most pleasant, considerate, people they knew.  They just couldn't read his books.  They found some of his words and most of his ideas offensive.

Both "played with" time.  Heller used conventional chapters.  He might even have been prolix. 😉 Vonnegut learned to write on the Cornell Sun.  He liked short sentences and paragraphs, written with punch, and to break up his text into bite-sized bits, smaller than chapters.  Both wrote about stupidity and cruelty.  But, where Heller saw them as willful and self-interested, Vonnegut was inclined to cut humanity a break.  Why was Dresden firebombed?  Vonnegut believed it was bureaucratic inertia: the planes were fueled and loaded with bombs and, "we gotta go somewhere on a mission today."  (Compare this to Heller's squadron's protest about the mission to Orvieto in Catch-22.)

Another trait they shared as writers was indifference to "literature."  Which may be another reason they are disrespected by Lit Crits.  They did not think that their writing needed to be deep, or profound, or subtle, or mysterious.  Gottlieb says that Heller was easy to edit.  If Gottlieb suggested changes, Heller was all in for revisions and trying to make them work.  No "writer's ego."  Vonnegut's history as an established author was only slightly different.  He says somewhere in Palm Sunday (I paraphrase) that "nobody edits me any more, and I don't want to be.  My publisher just relies on me to turn in stuff that will make the cash register ring."  Vonnegut's take on "literature" was that stories are like Model T Fords: you just tinker with them.  If a writer has to be "difficult," for his editors or his readers, to be great, Vonnegut and Heller fail the test.  All I know is that I vibrate like a tuning fork to the ideas and prose of Vonnegut and Heller.  Especially Heller.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Photo-documentation Of The History Of Porsche 917-025

There's no particular point to this post.  I just think an original car that's not iconic is interesting and fun.  Miles Collier Jr.'s choice to restore a car with no particular provenance is admirable.  So is the current owner's decision to keep it that way (with only a couple of mods, to help with track days).  There are many "Gulf" 917's around these days, and a few 917 parts bin recreations, and even a couple of "new" cars.

Porsche built an initial run of twenty-five 917's for FIA homologation, and a number of successor cars.  They were campaigned by the factory itself, John Wyer, Porsche Salzburg, and Hans-Dieter Dechent (Martini & Rossi).  But considering that a good portion of the initial build was intended for sale to private entrants, surprisingly few were campaigned by true privateers.  917-025 was one.

Apparently only five of the original chassis were initially sold to private entrants.  917- 005 was written off in John Wolfe's fatal crash at LeMans in 1969.  917-010 went to David Piper, and was probably the most successful 917 in private hands.  Piper placed well in some FIA races and won non-championship events.  917-018 went to Alex Soler-Roig who won the Spanish National Championship with it.  But its only FIA race resulted in a DNF at the Buenos Aires 1000 Km in 1971.  917-021 went to the Swedish AAW team (I have not researched its FIA record).  The subject of this post, 917-025, went to Zitro Racing.  Dominique Martin's best FIA placing with it was 9th at Monza in 1971.

917-025 has not changed hands often.  Zitro owned it 1970-1972.  Emerson and Wilson Fittipaldi owned it for ten years until 1982, and raced it in South America.  David Piper owned it 1982-1984 (I've found no pictures of 025 when Piper owned it).  Miles Collier owned it from 1984-2005, and restored it to original condition.  Since 2005 it has been owned by Peter Vogele, who frequently demonstrates the car in European vintage events.  Vogele is Swiss, as was Dominique Martin.  I'll guess that that has something to do with 025 remaining so original.

917-025 in its "plain white wrapper" at a non-championship event at Hockenheim in 1970--probably it's first race.

Buenos Aires in 1971: 10th overall and 7th in class, 20 laps down, driven by Dominique Martin/Pablo Brea.  The car has
acquired its signature blue blaze paint job and exterior-mounted central mirror. 

Practice, Spa 1000 Km, 1971.  This picture gives a better view of the central wing developed by John Wyer's team and
later made available for customer cars.  025 qualified 11th, 25 seconds off the pole pace.

On race day at Spa, the bodywork shut lines were taped.  The car was DNF (accident), driven by it's primary driver,
Dominique Martin, and Gerard Pillon (both of Switzerland).

At Monza, 1971: Martin / Pillon finished 9th (its best placing), 20 laps down to the winner. 

LeMans 1971: Martin / Pillon qualified 18th, 24 seconds off the pole.  Patino Ortiz owned 917-025, thus "Zitro Racing."
He had previously owned a Ford GT 40, also campaigned by Zitro Racing, also driven by Martin.

Pre-race (above) at LeMans 1971 and retirement (below): DNF, transmission.

LeMans was 025's last race for Dominque Martin.  Patino Ortiz may have written the checks, but clearly Martin ran
Zitro Racing.  $30,000 was a lot of money for an obsolete FIA Group 5 race car in 1972; one can guess that the
Fittipaldi brothers didn't pay the asking price.

I have no information on 917-025's career in Brazil.  Emerson Fittipaldi raced in Formula 1 well into the 1970's, and so probably drove the care rarely, if at all.  Wilson Fittipaldi may have driven it after he retired from front-rank racing.  But, because they owned it for such a long period of time, it seems likely that they used the car to showcase up-and-coming Brazilian drivers in a high-powered car.

In its earlier Fittipaldi days, 917-025 appears to be the same car raced by Dominique Martin (central mirror and wing),
with only a small front splitter added.

But later on in its Fittipaldi career, the car sprouted massive front and rear wings.

Although this picture is from the recent, Peter Vogele, era, it shows 917-025 as restored to its 1971 Zitro livery by Miles
Collier Jr.  The Collier Museum / Revs Institute has two rare and notable 917's, so parting with 025 probably wasn't
too difficult for Collier.

At the Goodwood Members' Meeting in March of 2017, Vogele has 025 restored to its LeMans appearance, right down to
the competition numbers.  Its tow hook is in a prominent location on the front deck, and Vogele likes to run large fender
mirrors, but his respect for the car's FIA racing provenance is nice to see.

At the LeMans Classic, 2017.

At a 2017 Monza vintage event.  Vogele seems to be experimenting with non-standard spoilerette adjusters.

But the cockpit remains bone-stock "customer car."