On Speed

Tripping It

Lehighton (PA) Times News

September 25, 1971

LONG POND—It is a very unique and strange feeling—and at the same time there is no feeling at all. It is much as you would anticipate—and it is very much different. It is exhilaration and it is anticipation—of something unusual, something unseen. It is a lightness of spirit that grips the head and relaxes the guts that comes at traveling at 180 miles per hour on four wheels.

It began, as most good things do, unexpectedly. With a simple phone call. “Hello, Benyo? How would you like to travel 180 miles an hour?” (Interval of .00015 second.) “Sure!”

It seems that some of the drivers and cars were stationed at Pocono International Raceway after the inaugural USAC Pennsylvania 500 had been rained out after forty-one laps on Sunday, September 19. They had relatively nothing to do between Sunday and the restart at 2:00 p.m. today; they had no other races to go to, and it was too far to haul their cars home—so they were staying over. Besides being the first United States Auto Club 500-mile race for late-model stock cars, the Pennsylvania 500 was the last event on that organization’s 1971 stocker calendar.

It seems that a few of the drivers mostly independents who owned and maintained their own cars, were willing to take a few people around the track at race speeds. Sure I was interested. I’d never traveled 180 mph on the ground before.

So we took a few hours from office work on Wednesday, and stepped into a slightly different world—which is always a refreshing experience. Before we meet our chauffeur and take our ride, though, let’s take a look at the USAC late-model stock cars.

The cars are usually about 3900 pounds and are restricted to a 429 c.i.d. (cubic inch displacement) engine; they must be no more than three years old. All modifications made to the cars are for safety reasons; the basic configuration of the vehicle may not be changed, so the car remains relatively the same appearance it had in the dealer’s showroom.

It is reinforced all the way around with a roll-cage and tubular framework structure. Each car has a specially padded seat, a fire extinguisher, and other safety features. The cars sport the usual over-large racing tires, and have their engines modified to maximum horsepower…but not so modified that they can’t survived 500 miles on the track.

Our driver is a Southerner with a great deal of charm, a keen sense of humor, and enjoys chawin’ with just about anyone. His car is a white 1969 Dodge Charger sporting the red number “86.” Bobby Mausgraver is 31, married for a year and eight months, sandy-haired, and athletic-looking, sun-tanned and a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina. “Cars are like women,” Bobby says, “every one of them is just a little bit different.” He is full of little amusing platitudes. Such as:

“We’ll cruise around the track at a slow 90 miles per hour so’s you can get some film shot.” He smiles, scratches his sandy, modish hair. “Then you can drop your camera off and we’ll give you a few laps you can talk about.”

A person hearing that pronouncement would immediately assume that it would instill fear. Actually, the prospect of going 180 mph washed over and destroyed any idea of fear. Even the prospect of seeing a film of Bobby Mausgraver taking several flips through the air at Darlington Speedway didn’t tend to dampen anticipation and instill fear; especially since the projector lamp burned out and we were never to see the film of Bobby’s spectacular accident before going out on the track with him. After all, it was a mechanical failure that had caused the 100 mph flips; it wasn’t really a driver error…

The first few laps were, as Bobby said, a slow 90 mph. They were taken in order to warm up the engine and tires and to get a fresh feel for the 2½-mile championship tri-oval. From an audibility standpoint, it was easy to tell, standing in the pits looking toward the skeletal grandstands, that the engine was holding back and that the car was moving slower than its lines indicated it could go.

There is no passenger seat in a stock car that is built for racing. There is an intricate array of support bars inside the car, and an empty spot where the passenger seat had been. There is a mat on the floor, a sofa cushion atop it, and a cushion against the back of the roll-cage—and a lot of metal bars to hang onto, once the passenger has managed to squeeze his body in through the window, between the bars.

Once helmeted and comfortable, with an arm draped over the roll-cage support bar and a foot resting on a side strut bar, the roar of the engine seems to stay outside. The acceleration down the pit road is not unlike a ride with a kid in a new Charger trying it out at the stoplights.

Before reaching the first turn, however, there is some indication that this is slightly different. Where the lead-footed kid would have topped out, wound it to 120 mph, Bobby was still in third gear, with 1000 rpms to go until redline.

Into the first turn just shifting into fourth gear gives a preview of the turns, which is where the feeling of speed comes in. The car goes into the 18-degree turn near the wall, shooting down into the trough as the G-forces begin playing with it, attempting to throw the car to the right, up the banking. The rear of the car begins to strain out and sway, and the car lifts a few degrees to the right as the tires whoosh over the pavement. Power is continuously applied to the rear wheels to hold the traction.

Down the straight the tach builds quickly, the wind passes by with a scream, the engine roars and some smoke and heat flit around in the cockpit as the streamlined aerodynamics of the car let the air go by, but lets little of it into the machine. Coming into the second turn, Bobby applies a quick burst of brake to slow the mad rush into a reasonable attack on the curve, applying more power into the rear wheels. A big hits the windshield and the stain never has a chance to form.

He reapplies the brakes going into the almost-flat third turn, increasing the power little by little so that the car has built up revs as it comes into the long straightaway. Until this point, the strain on the car is transmitted through the car’s body into the passenger’s body: the stress of the Gs, the acceleration, the heat.

Once into the straight, building speed, everything is suspended. There is little sense of speed—the ride is smooth. Some intimation of 180 mph can be gained by watching the grandstands whizz by, but they seem so alien, as though they are merely projected scenery. For the few seconds at 180 mph, there is only the car, Bobby Mausgraver’s grin, a strange silence, a lightness, and an exchange of a thumbs-up gesture between driver and passenger. It is a place, a moment, that would become ecstatic if it could be made to last for more than the few seconds that the limit of the track imposes. It is somewhere you’ve never been before, and it would e nice to stay there a while longer, feeling it as more than just a passing sensation and thrill. After a few laps of it, pulling into the pits becomes one of the world’s greatest letdowns.

There is a feeling of friendly envy against Bobby Mausgraver—he and drivers like him have that clean, quiet place of 180 mph all to themselves.