SKIING AND RACING CARS - FUN AND TRAGEDY in the late 60s and early 70s in Austria
In many Winter Olympics my little country was (and is) a dominant force and this is no accident. In high school or my Gymnasium, it is mandatory to take skiing classes and we have two weeks every winter when those of us able to ski with proficiency were brought to a two week ski camp in the Alps. We even received massive scholastic credits for doing well in the almost daily competitions in all three major categories, Slalom, Giant Slalom and Downhill.
On this my elders did not skimp. I had three specialized pairs of Kneissl skis for all the required disciplines, I traveled with a professional box of waxes and applicators, had a snow thermometer to pick the correct wax, my edges were sharp enough to shave with, my beautiful Kastinger leather ski boots were hand made and my adjustable bindings were the best a professional skier could get. I was ready! I was also very good but my school did not permit us to compete with the national junior teams. Studies had to come first and our talents were simply used to beat the crap out of other schools but never to showcase what we could do on a broader stage. It was fun even though and I skied pretty much until I simply felt that I could no longer afford the possibility of an injury. Yet, the reason we lived in Sutton, Quebec for almost 18 years was that my house was exactly two miles from the parking lot of Mont Sutton, a superb ski area only about a 40 minute drive even from Newport. I took this photo at the last time I was skiing on Mont Sutton in 2011 - it reminds me of a very much younger me:
And this image shows our home away from home during winter vacation: Hotel Hierzegger at the Tauplitzalm in Styria:
Sadly, skiing like all great things only lasts for a few months and I had to channel my energy in other venues during the snow-free months. This is when I discovered motor sports, My father had been an excellent hill climb racer in his youth and did very well in road races as well. To my surprise he was very supportive of my desire to do the same and even gave me an old DKW racing car he had intended to restore to enter in vintage racing events. The poor thing had three cylinders and was a two stroke power plant it shared with the early post war Saab 96 models. It also was wicked quick and after I had painted it in my very personal shade of green with orange accent stripes and orange wheels, it looked quite respectable. Here is a borrowed photo but mine was the same year and body style:
After some testing, the Austrian Automobile and Touring Club issued me a provisional racing license and I spent a lot of my weekends of my 17th and early 18th year entering hill climbs and the very popular races at abandoned air fields. Sadly my machine was very much the ugly duckling in the field and certainly not the fastest but I made a lot of friends and gained experience. Among my friends then were the later Formula One champions Nickly Lauda and Gerhard Berger both of whom I still correspond with. I also was friends with Rochen Rindt who tragically became the first and only World champion posthumously after his deadly crash at Monza in September of 1970. I was at the race and everyone who knew Jochen was heartbroken. He was only four years older than I when he died...
My next car was a Renault Gordini, a 1962 model. Again, I do not have a photo of my car but it looked exactly like the one depicted other than my trade mark green and orange color:
The Gordini was a factory built racing machine based on the popular rear engined Renault R-8 and had a sophisticated double overhead cam engine and superb suspension. With this puppy I won finally seven of 19 races entered and was welcomed into the more rarefied atmosphere of "serious competitors" in my tiny country.
Sadly, in order to support my hobbies I had to make a living and so, my flying job intensified and my newspaper job took the rest of my time and something had to take a back seat and this had to be my fledgling racing career. I took it up later after I had moved to the United States but those early years of adrenaline rushes are still an incredibly dear memory but so is the fact that in those days, death was just around the corner in car racing. In the two years of my active participation, my Austrian club lost four people in deadly crashes, more deaths than NASCAR had in the last ten years...!
This will be another story but in 1974 and 1975 I was pretty unbeatable in the ice races on Lake Champlain and drove to a number of Ralley wins, just enough to even get me the editor's job at Ralley Magazine in Dallas Texas where I moved to in 1976 with my new American wife Irene. Saab liked what I was doing and in 1976 I was given a brand new factory Saab 99 EMS to compete nationally. Hellman's Saab in Fort Worth even painted it in my green and orange livery and I raced from Oregon to Canada. The car was not competitive against the new Audi Quattro coupes which were lighter and had 120 more horsepower, or the Porsche 911s and the new Lancias but I had a good time and accumulated enough points and press coverage to keep me on Saab's roster.
Then my two daughters came into our life and the racing was suspended again and I resumed to focus on my day jobs as editor and pilot, at that time for the beautiful and much missed Braniff Airlines. I flew this N 1805 DC-8 hundreds of times. It was painted after designs by Calder as were all of our planes which were called "The Flying Colors of Calder". Those were great times for me.
Thank you for reading this. More tomorrow.