Book Review by Richard Parks, Photographic Consultant Roger Rohrdanz
Sometimes I come across a book that looks rather dull or at least forgettable and then find some real gems. I wasn’t going to review Road Trips, Head Trips, And Other CAR-Crazed Writings at first. In fact, when I first glanced through the book I read some really artsy, verbose and simply silly writing. All authors have a dark side and I’m not excluded. We sometimes fall in love with the sound of our words and fail to think if we are boring our readers. When we are really into ourselves we write the most awful prose and think we are Shakespeare, or at least Mark Twain. But there can also be real jewels mixed in with the mish-mash of other writings, so patience is called for before judgment is rendered. Road Trips, Head Trips, And Other CAR-Crazed Writings is an anthology written by over thirty authors, each penning a chapter and sometimes sharing that chapter with another author. All of the writers are well-known and respected in the field of journalism and fiction. You will probably have heard of; John Steinbeck, P. J. O’Rourke, Dave Barry, Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, S. J. Perelman and Jack Kerouac. They’re all in this book and each one of them has written something that is important to him that concerns the automobile. A few of them wax poetic and others are simply acting cute; as if they were telling an inside joke and we are on the outside. One chapter that I had overlooked at first caught my attention and it was that chapter than made all the difference. Once I read that chapter I was going to do this book review and maybe read a few of the other chapters too.
Road Trips is a hard-bound book measuring 7 ¾ by 9 ½ inches in size, with a red cover and cloth binding to hold the pages to the spine. There are 258 pages on un-waxed paper with no photographs and only two drawings, which are on the dust cover jacket or sleeve. The book is entirely prose and the topics are historical and narrative. I counted 32 authors. The dust cover jacket or sleeve is unremarkable, but sturdy and you should never lose the sleeve, which protects the book. The sleeve also adds value and esthetics to the book. For as plain as this sleeve is, it is much prettier than the book without the jacket. Jean Lindamood writes a chapter and edits the book, bringing together a large number of writers, some dead and some living. She actually does a very commendable job, and though she tells us that it is rare for a woman to be involved in automobile subjects, she knows cars and the people who love cars. P. J. O’Rourke does the introduction. Road Trips is published by The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY. The copyright and publishing date is 1996 and the book is out of print, but you can probably find a copy at your public library, at a used book store or on-line at eBay or other books outlets. It isn’t a major work for the average land speed racer or hot rodder, but it is interesting and we could all stand to read a short story by writers outside the car world. We might also broaden our image as car guys to quote some of these authors. The ISBN # is 0-87113-654-6 for a reference point, but the title is clear and any dealer should be able to tell you if it can be located. No price is listed on the book jacket, but expect to pay a used book rate.
The chapter that drew me to this book was on Frank Lockhart and titled “Tragic superhero of American racing,” by Griffith Borgeson. Lockhart was America’s darling in automotive racing during the mid to late 1920’s. Borgeson writes in a style very similar to the late Jim Murray; almost like an odist would pen poems to an ancient and mythic hero. Borgeson, however, cuts right to the facts of the legend surrounding Frank Lockhart; who stood only 5 foot three inches and weighed 135 pounds. Frank loved everything mechanical and from the age of three, in 1906 in his native Ohio, he would watch the mechanics toil on that new invention; the motorcar. Early in his life his father died and his mother took him and his brother Bob to California to live. He was a loner and shunned relationships and school so that he could work on all things mechanical; words baffled him, but he understood mathematics well. Lockhart had a charisma and a drive to him that was remarkable. He could get people to assist him on projects and he didn’t hesitate to do so. He rebelled in school, doodling and drawing streamlined cars during class and being chided constantly by his teachers; but he knew what he wanted to do and his will simply overpowered the opposition. Strangely, he graduated to the relief of all parties. His persistence paid off when he talked a man into giving him a Model T and he and his brother carried the parts from Boyle Heights to his home, twelve miles away. He talked a man into giving him an engine to put in his car and rebuilt the engine at the age of sixteen. Ray McDowell gave him a place to work on his car and Frank looked to this man as a father figure. Lockhart raced at Ascot, winning a small purse here and there, but happy doing what he wanted to do in his life. He was a moral man, eschewing vices as being wasteful and married the only girl that he ever dated. He was demanding of those around him and his mother gave him literally all the money she had so that he could get the equipment to go racing.
For a man who struggled in high school, Frank Lockhart excelled at math and was offered a spot at Cal Tech, but he had no money to attend school and he preferred to drive race cars instead. He won a lot of races and hardly anyone ever beat him on these dirt tracks, but there was little money in those days. He was noticed and when another big time driver took ill, Frank was given his car with a Miller engine in it. He won the race in a rout and went to work for Harry Miller with master mechanic Ernie Olson as his crew chief. Lockhart and Olson were mechanically gifted and re-engineered parts for greater efficiency. In 1926 Lockhart won the Indy 500 and his name was known all across the country. Frank pioneered the use of a locked rear end. He started the trend toward truss rods. He took the best designs and ideas from Miller, Duesenberg and other car builders and refined them further. Lockhart was simply driven to improve everything that he touched, whether it was car parts or how a driver piloted the car around the track. Frank and Zenas Weisel perfected the supercharger intercooler, based on Weisel’s design. In 1927 Lockhart ran for a record 144.2 mph at the Culver City board track using the new technology he and Zenas had perfected. He dominated the oval track racing that year. That same year he came in second at the Indy 500 and he would have won that race as well except for a broken connecting rod. He also set a record at Muroc dry lake, attaining a top speed of 171 mph and a two way average of 164.85 mph. By the end of the year his winnings had made him a very wealthy man. At the top of his fame there came a breach in his relationship with Ernie Olson. Lockhart wanted to take the offer of Fred Moskovics and develop a record breaking land speed car, called the Stutz Black Hawk. Olson preferred to have Frank enter the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. When his mechanic left him, Frank turned to the Weisel brothers, Zenas and John and set about building the Black Hawk. The car was light and aerodynamic, having made extensive use of wind tunnel testing and coming in at 2800 pounds, almost two-thirds lighter than Segrave’s monster Sunbeam, which weighed 8000 pounds. Lockhart’s goal was to set a record around 225 mph, then wait for the record to be broken before going out and resetting another record. All wind-tunnel testing indicated that he had a car with the potential to go as fast as 330 mph.
Lockhart knew that his run would have to be perfect, for testing had shown that a crash would have disastrous consequences based on the design. The car was fast, but it was also fragile. Moskovics had put up $35,000 for the project, but Frank was a perfectionist and spent somewhere in the area of $100,000 which took most of his winnings from the year before. To ease his financial obligations, Lockhart switched from his tested Firestone tires and accepted $20,000 to run another company’s brand. He was now ready to run, but it was early February, 1928 and the weather at Daytona Beach was terrible. He managed to get the car to run over 220 miles when a tremendous roll-over crash occurred and the Black Hawk submerged in the water. No one thought the car or the driver could survive, but Lockhart was only slightly hurt and the car was repairable. In mid-April the car was back at Daytona and the weather was perfect. Frank made three runs and the car responded as he hoped. The fourth run saw the car reaching its potential until the tire blew and the car crashed, ending Lockhart’s life. He had told others that the Achilles Heel was the tire and if it blew, it would probably take his life. The story ends there and the author does not tell us what happened to Frank’s wife, mother, brother or other people in his life. We are left to speculate what would have happened if Lockhart had set the record and lived to tell about it. How many more Indy 500 races would he have won? How many more land speed records would he have set? How many additional inventions would he have made? Would his name have become a household name instead of merely a footnote? We are only given 11 pages on America’s tragic superhero and we wish there were more.
As for the other stories; they sometimes struck an interesting note, but often they simply disappointed. There was Jack Kerouac’s rambling story of a fag on a road trip, which really seemed to have no point to it. P. J. O’Rourke recounted a road trip he took through Mexico with a beautiful blonde, who acted as his photographer. The descriptive prose was first rate but the story could have been called ‘Road trip through Hell.’ John Steinbeck’s short story was called ‘Travels with Charley’ and it too was pleasant prose reading. Charley by the way is a dog; Steinbeck’s traveling companion. The writing was very descriptive, but in the end I didn’t remember much and Steinbeck is stingy with names, dates and places. S. J. Perelman’s writing wasn’t much better than Steinbeck’s, but superior to Kerouac’s. The best thing that Perelman did was confine his writings to two short pages. Peter Egan wrote of his road trip through Europe and he did have a way with a sardonic word or two. At least he gave us nouns that had names, dates and places to them and he seemed to hate the French. Egan dropped plenty of names of road course racing greats and made the claim that no matter how much you hate the trip at the time you take it, if you live long enough you will come to enjoy going. I’ll admit that some of the writing was funny. Some of it was even charming. But none of the short stories matched Borgeson’s story on Lockhart. Is this a book worth finding and adding to your library when I can only recommend eleven short pages? Yes, if the subject is about Frank Lockhart. Besides, some of you hot rodders might also be ‘literary cats’ and dig that Kerouac. Road Trips gets a 5 out of 8 sparkplugs.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.
I rate this book a 5 out of 8 sparkplugs.
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You can find this book at most bookstores or a used copy on the internet