Chris Wohlwend is a magazine writer and editor and author of the memoir Ridge Running: A Memoir of Appalachia. The article below is about one of his experiences pursuing the worldwide field of auto racing.
The glass of champagne wasn’t something I had planned, or even cared much about. But I was standing beside Dick Smothers – half of the Brothers comedy team – and I was not supposed to be there, having crashed the VIPs-only scene. And that made me the envy of my traveling companions, therefore drawing a chuckle at the memory a half century later. The place was Sebring, Florida, and the year was 1971.
While my knack for gaining entrance to places where I am not welcome is handy when you’re in the news business, I had actually been swept along to the champagne by circumstances.
I had cadged press credentials for the 12 hours of Sebring with a couple of friends, Steve Horne and Tom Stokes. The three of us had set up our base around my decidedly un-sporty vehicle, a 1962 Chrysler New Yorker equipped with push-button automatic transmission. Its faded look was augmented by a coating of bug carcasses accumulated during our drive from Knoxville, a look that stood out from the other infield vehicles. Its surroundings included fancy campers and cars that looked like they could either compete on the track or were part of race-team support. There was no chance of the Chrysler being confused with the vehicles sporting Ferrari, Porsche and Alfa-Romeo livery.
At race’s end, with no idea where Stokes and Horne were, I was mingling with participants and crews behind the pits when I noticed the well-lit VIP tent and the crowd jockeying to get inside. Admittance required the correct credentials and a pair of uniformed Florida Highway Patrolmen stood at the entrance to make sure of your legitimacy. Of course, I tried to get in, flashing my credentials, but was quickly turned down by the no-nonsense troopers.
A couple of bystanders witnessed my attempt and asked what was going on. I told them the constabulary’s rules. They scoffed as they were joined by other friends. It seemed they were the Jim Baker racing team, a group from Atlanta with a disdain for the sophisticated European entrants – they raced Corvettes. “I don’t think a couple of Florida troopers can stop us,” one of them said.
A decision was quickly made and I was invited to join the bull-rush of the troopers. And within a couple of minutes I was drinking champagne with Dick Smothers in the company of such competitors as Derek Bell, Vic Elford, and Mario Andretti.
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