Sadly, there aren’t many “perks” associated with my line of work—terrible hours, constant deadlines—I know, “Boo, hoo. Welcome to the real world!” However, every now and again—if you’re a good boy and are in the right place at the right time—nice people will let you drive their cars. OK, who I am trying to kid? It’s likely one of the best jobs this side of being Pamela Anderson’s plastic surgeon.
Last weekend was one of these rare times when it appeared that the heavens had aligned properly. I ventured out to Southern California’s Willow Springs Raceway for an annual historic race weekend which features a 2-Hour Twilight Enduro. I’m not sure what it is, but there is something about an Enduro that I find irresistible. On the one hand, there is something special about endurance racing —perhaps it’s the pace, the teamwork or just the plain challenge of it, but I always find myself drawn to these events like a moth to flame. On the other hand, it might also have something to do with the fact that because they usually require two drivers, there is almost always a driving opportunity for an editor who is down on his luck. With this in mind, I made my way to the track with my racing kit in the back of the car…just in case (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
As I made my way around the paddock and caught up with old friends, I ever-so-slyly worked the enduro into the conversation, “So, do you need a co-driver for the enduro?” That’s me, Mr. Sub-rosa. Surprisingly, this smooth line wasn’t getting me to far as most of my friends had made co-driving arrangements long in advance. However, my luck was about to change at midday when I was called up to the timing tower to see one of the race organizers. “I’ve arranged for you to co-drive in a 289 FIA Cobra, if you are interested?” the club major domo asked. Like a character out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, my jaw smacked to the floor and my tongue rolled out far enough to be tripped over. “I woob wove to! Fwwaanks!!,” was my Loony-Tune reply. I don’t entirely remember how I got down from the timing tower, but I’m fairly sure it involved my feet not touching the ground. As I stumbled back through the paddock somewhat in a daze, the significance of the moment finally hit me…I was going to race a Cobra! Visions of Gurney and Miles and Bondurant and Holbert floated in and out of my mind. Like these great drivers of the glory days, I was about to become a Cobra Man!
Soon I met the Cobra’s owner and was given a chance to drive the car around the paddock to get acquainted, seeing as I wouldn’t get a chance to run it before that afternoon’s race. Even after just a few minutes of toodling around the paddock, I was hooked. The car’s seductive, lithe shape belied the ferocious power that was lying in wait under the hood. This was going to be an incredible experience.
As the 6:00 PM starting time approached, I got suited up, grabbed my helmet and made my way out onto the 45-car grid. As friends spotted me in my driving suit they invariably smiled and asked what I was going to be driving, to which I worked up a self-deprecating grin and responded, “The red Cobra.” As one would expect, my good friends were very happy for me, “You bastard!” or “You F—ing git!” Ah, the love of one’s peers.
On the grid, we were slotted into the third row behind a couple of big-block Camaros and a NASCAR stock car, of all things. As I helped the Cobra’s owner get strapped in for the start, he informed me that he would drive the first stint and that I would take the last. He further added that he wasn’t sure if we could win overall, but he felt confident that we could take our class if we kept ahead of the Corvette gridded next to us. I asked him if he wanted me to take it easy, to which he replied, “Well, it’d be nice to win.” I told him I could live with that!
When the green flag fell, my co-driver made a great start and immediately picked up several positions on the front straight, moving us up to 4th position. While it was exciting to see that our car was competitive enough to run at the front of this 45-car field, it was also becoming a little intimidating knowing that the car was probably going to be handed over to me and that, with no previous experience in the car, it was going to be up to me to try and hold our position to the end. While this sudden realization gave me the urge to run off to the “facilities,” I resisted and told myself to remain calm and that I’d rise to the occasion…after all I had big shoes to fill…I was about to become a Cobra Man!
After about 10 minutes of close battling with our Corvette rival, the Corvette made an unscheduled pit stop that resulted in the plastic fantastic pulling behind the wall and retiring. Hot damn! We now had a strangle hold on the class lead and a lot of the pressure would be off of me during my stint. Whew! Now, I could gradually ease into it and really have a chance to enjoy the experience.
For the next 30 minutes the Cobra ran like a freight train, turning quick lap times, lap after lap. Then I noticed an optical illusion of the sort not uncommon in the California desert—as funny as it sounds—it appeared that our car was slowing on the back straight. At first, I was sure it was my eyes playing tricks on me until one car, then two passed it. Even then I might have convinced myself that everything was still OK, were it not for the fact that we were passed by an 850 cc Fiat-Abarth. Considering the Abarth had about as much displacement as two of our four carburetors, the grim reality of the situation settled in and my heart sank. Eventually, my co-driver drove straight back to his trailer, where I caught up with him. “The clutch went,” he said. “I can’t believe it, we’ve never had a clutch go, nevertheless a DNF. Sorry, you didn’t get a chance to drive.” Not to worry, I said, I appreciated the opportunity. But as I headed back to my car to change clothes, I couldn’t help but be disappointed…after all, the opportunity to become a Cobra Man just doesn’t come along every day.