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.
Watching an authoritative-looking official take one of the small cards and hand it to the business-suited man beside him, I decided that I needed to know what those cards were about. The exchange – after a smiling hand-shake – was on the top floor of the press tower at Road Atlanta, and the time was late November 1970.
The relatively new facility was hosting its first Sports Car Club of America’s annual championship spectacle, 16 separate races contested over a weekend. The American Road Race of Champions is the national pinnacle of amateur racing, featuring everything from Volkswagen-powered, hand-built open-wheeled single-seaters to souped up sedans to screaming racing vehicles with legendary livery such as Shelby, McLaren and Lola.
My two companions and I were there because we liked fast cars, and I had parlayed my position at The Knoxville Journal into press credentials for the three of us. My badge allowed me just about anywhere. But my friends’ access was more limited – I was the only one of us allowed into the press tower’s top floor. I was the Journal’s night news editor and rock ‘n’ roll critic, Steve Horne was the night police reporter, and Tom Stokes was a college friend who sometimes read the newspaper. I had managed to get Horne and Stokes credentials as photographers.
So as soon as I had the opportunity – when I was sure no one would notice – I checked out the cards. They were invitations to the Datsun Awards Banquet scheduled that night in a fancy Atlanta hotel. I picked up three and quickly exited the tower. Back on the ground, I handed my companions their invitations.
The three of us had already familiarized ourselves with the paddock and pits area, crossed the bridge to the infield, and made our way to the hill overlooking Turn 5. And I had interviewed our legitimate reason for attending the event. Ed Zink, a successful builder of racing cars, was from Knoxville; 14 of the 22 Formula Vee entrants were his creations.
And now we had a good reason to drive into Atlanta when the day’s racing was finished. Atlanta, we reasoned, would offer motels where we could find a cheap room.
But the banquet came first, so we made our way to the hotel. In the parking lot, we changed into more presentable shirts and attempted to knock the red-clay dust from our jeans. Horne, who had brought an extra pair of pants, insisted that Stokes and I stand guard while he changed in the dark lot.
Inside, we followed the signboards and discovered there were two tables where we could present our invitations. Horne and I went to the first and Stokes the second, our choices later proving significant.
We were in, and we soon discovered that Datsun was sparing no expense – open bars offered bottomless alcohol and waiters and waitresses circulated with hors d’oeuvres featuring shrimp and other fancies.
As we circulated, marveling at our good fortune, we showed our sophistication by switching from beer to cocktails for a round or two. But I had to wince as my companions, alcohol ramping up their confidence, made outrageous claims about Ferraris and Benzes. I reminded them that none of us owned a car that would get us the 200 miles from Knoxville to the track, that we were only there because my dad had loaned me his 1965 Ford station wagon.
Then we noticed that the room was being magically expanded – a wall began to roll open and we discovered that we were going to be seated for dinner, that the appetizers we had been wolfing down were, in fact, only appetizers. We found a table and were seated with a quartet of mechanics – fortunately for us, their knowledge of life’s finer offerings was as limited as ours. They, too, brought beers from the bar to accompany their steaks.
We tried to keep up with the technical talk until one of the mechanics tried to include Stokes in the conversation by asking what kind of camera he used. His answer was something along the lines of “depends on the situation.” I tried to change the subject with a remark about the juiciness of my steak. Finally, Horne waded in with a comment about Ed Zink’s success with the Volkswagen-powered entries and the conversation veered back to their side of the table.
Sobered somewhat by the intake of food, we were relatively alert when the Datsun master of ceremonies took his position at the on-stage microphone to thank us for welcoming Datsun to the U.S. market, for recognizing that their cars were competitive.
And, he added, Datsun wanted to recognize several members of the racing press. “When I call your name, please stand,” he said. There was the long-time racing writer for The New York Times, someone from Sports Illustrated, familiar names from the automative publications, and Tom Stokes from The Knoxville Journal.
Stokes stood up and graciously acknowledged the applause with a wave as Horne and I looked on in disbelief. After he sat down and accepted grinning nods from our table companions, Horne and I wanted to know how he managed to get recognition, especially since Horne and I actually worked at the Journal and he was only with us because we had invited him along.
“When I gave the girl at the table my invitation,” he explained, “she wrote down my name and my newspaper.”
As the to-do broke up and we headed back to our car to find cheap accommodation, Horne and I came up with a plan. We would rent a room for two – and Stokes would sleep on the floor.
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