Memory: A blazing fireball was racing into the stands — headed straight at me — so I fled in a panic.
High-pitched engines shriek by, one after another, in endless, killing, head-splitting noise. It’s March 1964, Sebring, Florida and after a long hot day of watching cars in the pits or going round the track I just want to escape, run back to the parking lot, hide out in the station wagon I came in. This is torture; I cannot get excited watching the cars race, so boring to me, a fifteen-year-old girl. Here are scads of race fans, maybe thousands, swigging bottles of beer or Coca-Cola, standing three-deep at fences lining the track.
It is now nighttime and late in the race. The stadium lights are blinding; loud-speaker voices are deafening in the area across from the pits. The announcer is yelling like his pants are on fire, describing who’s in the lead, who’s overtaking, who’s just skidded into the hay bales. Collective groans and alternate cheers. Mostly men, everywhere – in the stands or milling around, in racecar pits, food huts, jumping onto the track, signaling with flags. Drivers fly toward the corners, jamming their brakes, popping their engines, making me cover my ears. How I don’t want to be here; I don’t understand why this is considered “fun”. My Aunt Ruth brought me here because I’m visiting from Colorado and she needs an event to entertain both me and her son, George. She says, “Girl, nothing’s more exciting than a car race!”
I’d rather spend the evening in the Sebring library, Aunt Ruth. Loud noise is anathema to me. Cars are okay but … these look and sound like angry neon bees – taxicab yellows, bright reds and blues, ripe lime greens – zooming by us, screeching at the corner, revving up for the straight (that’s what my cousin George says, and, “Don’t you know anything?”)
Racetrack dust spirals in the high-beam glare of headlights. It is now so dark I can’t even see the whole track, as we’re near an end which, I decide, makes it even more boring. I don’t know anything; I just don’t get it. I feel as if I should be a boy to enjoy this.
Perhaps noticing I’m a bit droopy, Aunt Ruth escalates a contrived excitement level by whooping and hollering at her ‘favorite driver’: “GO! GO, A.J.!” as he charges by in a blue car. She’s bought me and George some popcorn and a couple of root beer floats. The treats raise my spirits. I try to get into the spirit of this “endurance race” by doing more than just enduring it. I place my allegiance and winner hopes on one of the cherriest red cars because they’re the neatest. I pick out a number. I watch #82 go around, around, around. 82, 82, 82…
I wince from an especially jarring noise right in front of me, a series of ear-shattering thuds and blasts. I don’t see the source in the dark, but I hear it. It rocks my subconscious but doesn’t register because I’m clueless. I may even be thinking this is supposed to happen, so little do I know about car races.
It’s early spring in Florida but we’re sweating like it’s a July night of fireworks. It takes my hot teenaged exhaust-filled brain several seconds to process the fact of actual fire, coming directly in front of me. Orange flames are leaping from the other side of the track, getting bigger and moving fast and so close to the bleachers you could feel the radiant heat.
But the passage of time and I seem to stand still, making a memory. Then, I’m awake, running in a surge of spectators clamoring to get out of the bleachers and to safety. I’m feel I am being chased by a spinning fireball. The underlying buzzing bee noise continues, as cars speed past, swerving around fellow drivers who have crashed. Someone is burning. On top of that is screaming. Everyone scatters; I am lost from Aunt Ruth and cousin George in the frenzy.
Miraculously, we find each other in our parking lot amidst flashing lights, wailing sirens of ambulances and fire trucks that rush into the area. We decide to leave immediately and beat the outgoing traffic. I’m relieved to be out of there and make a mental note that I will never again – never again, as long as I live – go to a car race.
Thirty years later. It’s 1994 and I am at a car race. I’m living in Seattle and have been married three years to Larry Perkins. I overhear him talking about an experience he’d had as a race car driver, in his Ferrari 250 GTO. Although he has occasionally told me stories about his racing days in the sixties, they are formless to me and surreal. I don’t connect him with that era, that role, or with race cars at all. I know him as my sailboat mate, my lover, my bicycling partner, a rocket scientist, an exciting raconteur, a visual artist. A man who erupts into frequent fits of laughter. An intense highway driver who tailgates and passes others triumphantly. I don’t know anything about any risk-taking race car driver, or even what a Ferrari is, much less a 250 GTO.
Trying hard to relate, I surprise myself. And him.
Me: I went to a race once, in Florida. When I was about 14 or 15. There was a fire.
He: Where was the race?
Me: Sebring, I think. My aunt took me there.
I describe the fire and how everyone had stampeded.
He: (in astonishment) It was 1964. I ran that race. With Bill Eve, my co-driver.
Me: In a red car? (All I knew, from old photos, was that one of his race cars was red.)
He: Yep … it was real scary.
Me: What number was your car?
Larry gives me background on that spectacular blaze – one that got lots of attention then, and sometimes still does. Near the end of the 12-hour race, on the main straight across the track from Aunt Ruth and me, a big snarling Shelby Cobra ran point-blank into a “delicate little Alfa Romeo.” A roar of engines, a quick brakes-tire-chirp and … WHUMP … right into the Alfa’s gas tank, lighting up the whole night sky.
The Cobra (Dan Gurney’s and Bob Johnson’s) flipped end-over-end up the track, landing on its top and bending the car something awful. Bob, the driver, miraculously walked away with just a broken nose. “He could have died,” Larry says. The Alfa Romeo TZ was a mess, having exploded into flames, starting to burn furiously with the driver inside. Quick action by a rival team member from the nearby pits pulled him out and saved his life.
It was officially a “racing accident,” but Larry thinks it was an avoidable one. The Alfa driver had car trouble and was barely putt-putting along, slowing to (illegally) turn directly into his pit. There was no way Bob, coming up at 140 mph in the dark, could see that Alfa sitting in his path.
My family and I had all been in the dark, too, and hadn’t seen these details. There wasn’t much lighting at the track. The drivers could only see what their headlights picked out. But that fire really lit up the landscape.
And fire safety wasn’t that good either. Racers wore cotton suits and Italian drivers often sported nice short-sleeved polo shirts. Everyone involved in the disaster recovered, and the rescuer, a guy named Jocko Maggiacomo who also had burns, was later given a heroism award. The Alfa driver – Consalvo Senesi – opted never to race again, living to the ripe old age of 87.
So where was Larry, in all this? Well, his car – a Ferrari 250 GTO – had paused in the pits with an electrical problem. When the crash came, all hell broke loose with wild-eyed people yelling … jumping over the pit wall … running toward the fire … (unlike us, running away from it). Larry and his crew started shoving people aside and spraying them with a hose. Just a few yards from the fire, there was plenty of flammable stuff scattered around – gasoline, grease, oil, brake fluid, rags, rubber – with the risk of a big flash-over. Larry described the whole thing as a “very hairy scary berzerka.”
The race ended an hour or so later, and everyone packed up to go home. The crash and fire had ruined the day for many, but not for Larry’s team – they had just finished their first “real Sebring” and the result were: Car #82, Ferrari 250 GTO (s/n 3223 GT), L. Perkins/W. Eve, 27th Overall, 3rd in Class. The silver cup from that incredible long-ago event sits proudly on a shelf in his office.
This flashback memory of Sebring in 1964 gave me goose bumps. It turns out, astonishingly, that the first time I saw Larry and his red car, I was a pimply high-school student and he was 31, a hotshot race driver who was pedal-to-the-metal all the way, just like he is now. He had one of the most dominant race cars available in the ‘60s. Today, owing to the unique dynamics of vintage car collecting, it has become a supremely valuable example. There were only 36 250 GTO models built by Ferrari and one recently sold for around $70 million. The one that Larry drove at Sebring in 1964 was the first one built and has a long, long racing history. No doubt it could command a higher price at auction.
Before Larry and me – before I had the remotest notion of “car love” – this man and machine had merged in a synergy I could not begin to fathom. When the jolting memory of 1964 popped up three decades later, I still knew and cared little about racing. I had no concept of The Car, its popularity, its mystique or why it was revered. Why were thousands of photos taken of this thing? How can millions of words be written about a single car?
I knew even less about race car drivers who had their own mystique. They appeared to be the sexiest, most charismatic of competitive high-risk takers, with unflinching boldness and confidence. It would take years to comprehend that I had married one. Minutes upon meeting this rather supernatural man, he’d hypnotized me – just like a shiny red Ferrari hypnotizes and then drives some to distraction.
In 1963 Larry had searched the world for the perfect race car and found it in New York. In ’66, after “driving the living s#!t out of it,” he sold it and – he assumed – dismissed it from his life. But in 1994 it turned up again in Monterey under a new owner. Then it disappeared again for a long stretch, across the Pacific. At last, in 2011, the Ferrari 250 GTO drove into Larry’s radar again; he was able to touch it, like a sort of magic talisman. During that stretch the two of us had been going like mad on one journey after another, racing here and there with abandon, free-wheeling toward no hard destinations.
We sometimes detoured, bolted into barriers, fell by waysides, had breakdowns, ran out of gas, but usually chose to “take the scenic route” – all of which proves my motto: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Surely, Larry’s motto was: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you should at least find a fast car to take you there.”
Just when we’d started to slow down to the speed limit, The Car showed up. Again. On its way to Pebble Beach. And that is when I became a “car girl.”
[Source: Petra Perkins with Louis Galanos; photos: As Credited]