I loved everything about stock car racing, the sound of the unmufflered cars, the perfume of their fuel in the air, the excitement of the finishes, the crashes and especially the greasy French Fries sold in paper cones behind the stands. Nearly overtime we went I bought a plastic racer at the souvenir stand. These and other toy cars I would race in my bedroom, doing the whole program, from the heats and consolation races to the feature, pushing three cars at a time in rows to determine a winner. I dreamed of being a race driver and of the day I would even be old enough to drive a car period.
In the summer of 1956 we moved from Downingtown to a stretch of highway on the fringe of a small village called Bucktown, population 100. On one of the first days I was at my new home, pitching a rubber baseball against the back of the house, I was interrupt by a boy standing on the lawn. He was my height and age, but a little heavier. We became instant close friends (after all, there was no one else nearby our age, but us) and he was crazy about cars, not unusual in that farming area in those days. You couldn't do much without a car to take you somewhere to do it.
But that summer I just turned fifteen, so neither Richard Wilson, which was the boy's name, nor I had a driver's license. That was to prove not a problem since we soon found we had a source of vehicles free for the choosing beneath our very noses. His parents and my parents, a number of other couple went out to some bar together every Saturday night, leaving about 8:00 o'clock and staggering home somewhere after two in the morning. They always met at his house and carpooled together in a couple cars to their favorite watering hole. They took turns in this and all the other cars were left behind at Richard's house, many with the keys still dangling in the ignition or tucked behind the vision or stuffed in an ashtray. Those were more trustworthy days and people did that, but their trust was mislaid for a quarter hour after they had driven off into the evening we were checking out the ignitions and visors and ashtrays. By eight thirty we fifteen year olds had highjacked somebody or others' wheels and were heading up the road, probably making a stop at Rock's Drive-in for a milkshake or a burger, maybe trolling for girls. We could always score our shake or burger; hardly ever a girl.
We would spend the night zipping around those country roads outside Pottstown, sometimes going without lights because someone thought they had spied a county cop. We weren't alone, you see. Sometimes we let Richard's brother Tommy tag along and we might pick up Tommy Frame and Jim Witlach to joyride, too.
Things did not always go well. For instance, one night we took a car belonging to a person named Moses. I can't recall if that was his first or last name. We had been having a good old time when we decided we should turn around and head back. It was a narrow backroad, nothing but cornfields or woods along the shoulders. Cornfields had wagon trails along their borders and so we pulled into one of these, squeezed between a fencerow and the corn on rutted round. Fine and dandy until I threw it into reverse and discovered there was none. Did Moses now he had no reverse? I have no idea. I wasn't gonna ask. I put it in neutral and the other guys pushed it back on to the road.
As I was in descent with one such curve not far ahead I did what you would have done, pressed down on the brake. The car did not notice. The brake petal went flat down to the floorboards without effect. I then yanked up on the emergency brake, with did nil even though I almost pulled it to the roof.
This was not good.
"We don't have any brakes," I yelled.
No one believed me...at first. There was nothing to do but hang on and steer. Fortunately those old Studebakers were a design ahead of their time, a low sitting car with a low center of gravity and we made it around every turn, all four, and eventually we drifted to a stop. I was too shook up to drive anymore, so Richard drove the car back to his home, going very, very slowly for a change. We pulled up and parked it where we took it from, tucked the keys back up in the visor and went inside; well, Richard, Tommy and I did. Jim Witch and Tom Frame walked down the road heading to their own places or hitching a ride. But the scares of that night were not over for me.
In the wee hours the adults returns in varied states of inebriation. It was time to head home. I went out and climbed into the backseat of the Studebaker in silent terror. Now let me explain the Wilson's driveway. They sat on a hill. Their drive went ahead rather flat, then took a quick dip down a steep decline, straightened slightly at the bottom where it deadened into the main road, Route 100. If you did not turn sharply onto the highway you would go straight across and over a high embankment. There was also the danger of traffic spreading from either direction, especially from around a blind
I knew the car had no brakes. I knew I could't tell the; how would I know that fact. I slumped down on the seat as we went over the hill. The situation was quickly apparent. The car was rolling fast now, my mother was screaming and my dad was fighting the wheel. He was a professional driver and somehow he made that turn at the bottom and we arrived home safely.
I never told my parents about what I knew and how until their fifties wedding anniversary.
TO BE CONTINUED