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Old School Racing a Mercury Comet

By David Swig | Photos by Dennis Gray

David Swig in the Mercury Comet
David Swig in the Mercury Comet

The HMSA season-opener Spring Club Event is always a most-relaxing and low-key way to ring in a new year of vintage racing on the West Coast. The 2012 event was no exception, with Cris Vandagriff and his team pulling out all the stops for a most enjoyable, though rain-soaked weekend.

Fearing inclement weather, I entered the one car in my garage that I felt could stand up to the challenge: a 1964 Mercury Comet Caliente, in the style of the 1964 East African Safari team cars. Prepared to FIA Appendix-K specifications, the Comet runs a K-code small-block 289 mated to a Top-Loader 4-speed transmission, delivering tire-spinning power through a posi-traction rear differential.

Driving on a race track in the wet is always a learning experience, especially when you’re in an untested, unproven car that hasn’t seen the track before. Such was the case here. As the weekend approached, I made the appropriate preparations, which included slathering the windshield with a thick coating of Rain-X, and praying softly that the Lexan side windows might actually provide some useful weather protection.

In an attempt to bring back the long-lost traditions of vintage racing, my goal was to drive from my home in San Francisco to Laguna Seca, race the weekend, and drive home in the big Mercury, hopefully still under its own power. Mind you, I had only driven the Mercury about 100 miles, ever, prior to this. As I embarked on Friday for the two-hour drive to Laguna, the rain was coming down thick and fast. With some significant moisture pooling in the rear seat area I alternated between concentrating on the road and assembling a small fort of rags in an attempt to soak up the rapidly accumulating puddle, which threatened to soak my driver’s suit and the rest of my gear.

This small issue aside, I arrived at Laguna Seca, where the tech inspectors kindly pointed out that the steering wheel nut was loose, and the wheel was about ready to come off in my hands. Thanks to Steve of the HMSA tech crew for catching that! Problem averted, and we were ready to go racing.

Entering Turn 2 on the first flying lap (in the wet), I turned in, though the Comet certainly preferred to continue going straight. This is when I realized that Laguna Seca was probably never intended for cars like my Mercury. At this point I decided to resort to some evasive East African rally maneuvers to avoid flying off the track into 18-inch deep mud and becoming the butt of jokes for remainder of the weekend. Letting off the brakes, the car gradually began to change direction, and all of a sudden I was steering the Queen Mary. A quick stab of the throttle broke the rear tires loose, and from that corner on I adopted a “dirt-track” driving technique that would serve me well through the rest of the weekend. Loose is fast, and on the edge you’re out of control.

In addition to keeping my vehicle on the pavement I would also have to ensure not to accidentally run over the Lotus 26R and Ginetta G4R that also happened to be in my run group. As they approached the Comet they became too low to see in my mirrors. Not much I could do about that, so I softly prayed again inside my helmet that those drivers had enough fear in their hearts so as to preserve the remaining numbers of Lotus and Ginetta automobiles still existing today.

Thankfully all went well, though as the hail storm passed through on Sunday morning many decided it was time to get on the road back home. Balls of hail are not particularly intimidating in a car with a curb weight exceeding most people’s tow vehicles, so I was not overly concerned about this and continued practicing in these unique conditions.

As the rain increases the Comet looks to be more and more fun to drive.
As the rain increases the Comet looks to be more and more fun to drive.
Swig's 1964 Mercury Comet under heavy rain sets up for turn eleven.
Swig’s 1964 Mercury Comet under heavy rain sets up for turn eleven.
Oversteering through a wet turn eleven under heavy rain.
The Comet oversteering through the wet turn eleven under heavy rain.
Ideal conditions for East African Safari Rally-inspired Comet
Ideal conditions for East African Safari Rally-inspired Comet.
David Swig picture
David Swig is all smiles before he heads out in the Mercury Comet.
Tin tops, window wipers, and rain go together.
Tin tops, window wipers, and rain go together.

Overall, it was one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve had on a racetrack in my life. The camaraderie of the participants and the hospitality extended by HMSA were second to none. As I pulled off the track after Sunday’s race, I could not have been more confident in the Comet and its robustness. If it could survive the abuse I inflicted, a leisurely ride up the 101 looked like a walk in the park. The car acquitted itself beautifully in only its first track appearance, and passed all the race trailers on 101 heading back north that evening, receiving perplexed looks from the passengers of most every other car on the road. The satisfaction of driving your car to the track and racing it is something difficult to describe, and I’m thankful that HMSA allows us a venue where this unique tradition continues to be possible.

Author David Swig is the Assistant Business Manager and a Specialist in Bonhams Collectors’ Motorcars Department in San Francisco. Swig is a lifelong automobile enthusiast and a regular participant in historic car activities including circuit racing, road tours and Concours d’Elegance. (See David Swig Bio at Bonhams).