Baggy Paragraphs

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How headlines are conceived and written

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How headlines are conceived and written

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March 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Daniel Yergin’s new book, ‘The Quest,’ illuminates energy questions of the day

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On the same day as I finished reading “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” I saw in the newspaper that the estimate for North Dakota’s recoverable oil reserves is now 24 billion barrels–but that’s only a small fraction of the reserves under the Bakken Shale formation. North Dakota is now the number-three oil producing state, after Alaska and Texas.

Yergin, who’s a terrific writer (although this book desperately needed a copy editor), presents the case for a mixture of energy sources in the future. In this follow-up to his equally monstrous “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power,” published twenty years ago, he devotes enormous care to explaining how nations like Kazakhstan and Brazil are helping to meet rising demand from China and elsewhere; how the study of climate science has exerted its influence; how renewable energy has developed to this point.

Yergin quotes Churchill: “Safety and security in oil lie in variety and variety alone.” But he would substitute “energy” for “oil.” The problem remains that none of these anointed alternatives matches the bang for the buck that oil provides. Greenies and politicos can mandate change, but ultimately it comes down to the consumer’s pocketbook. Having driven the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma–two plug-in electric cars that were heavily subsidized by the federal government–I’m unimpressed. OK, I love the Karma because it’s gorgeous. But it weighs about as much as a rhinoceros and achieves the equivalent of 20 mpg.

Meanwhile, Chevy just suspended operations at the Volt factory because people aren’t buying the car, not even after the $7500 tax kickback. Having also visited a wind farm and a solar-thermal generating station, I’m aware of the upside and the downside to renewables. The upside is that this type of heavily subsidized power generation helps to meet peak demand. The downside is that windmills routinely kill protected golden eagles and other birds. If this slaughter went on at an oil well, the greenies would wet their pants about it. And solar-thermal generation uses an awful lot of groundwater from the aquifer. In any event, renewables are impossible without governmental subsidies.

The Fisker Karma was awarded Automobile Magazine's Design of the Year.

The other day, President Obama said, “Here is the truth. If we are going to control our energy future, then we’ve got to have an all-of-the-above strategy. We’ve got to develop every source of American energy—not just oil and gas, but wind power and solar power, nuclear power, biofuels.”

Here are a couple of suggestions for the President. Stop taking credit for the increase in domestic oil and gas production; you have nothing to do with it. In fact, North Dakota wouldn’t have passed California for third place among producing states if the Golden State’s industry weren’t strangled by regulation. And Mr. Obama wants to end the $4 billion annual subsidies that oil and gas industries receive. Maybe he’s right. But in that case, he should also stop funding pet projects in renewables and stop bribing consumers to buy government-supported cars.

A final thing to take into account is that the improvement of the internal combustion engine isn’t finished. People tend not to think past 1973, to hold any hope of further gains in efficiency. Call me crazy, but I’d guess onboard carbon capture is more likely before there’s ever a truly practical battery-powered car.

After reading “The Quest,” I conclude that the rapid increase in oil and gas production should continue as our national priority, along with efficiency gains. The real and immediate prospect of North American energy independence is something we’ve dreamt of for several decades. We shouldn’t have qualms about exploiting the advantage.

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March 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Veda Anderson, widow of former GM labor chief, recalls her husband’s tragic death

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Veda Anderson was 40 years old on November 18, 1959, when her husband Harry W. Anderson died in a hunting accident on St. Anne Island, on the Ontario, Canada, side of Lake St. Clair. The retired General Motors vice president was 67 years old. His partner that morning in the duck blind, retired General Motors president Harlow H. “Red” Curtice, fired the lethal shotgun blast.

The following transcript comes from a telephone interview I conducted with Veda Anderson at her home in Pocatello, Idaho, on September 16, 2008, when she was 89 years old. She is now 92.

Harry W. Anderson

Baggy Paragraphs: Did you get a phone call?

Veda Anderson: No. They tried to protect me from phone calls. Kris [four-year-old Jane Kristen] was in nursery school at the time, and I went in to pick her up. As usual, we stopped on the way to have a treat and so forth. When I came home, parked in my driveway were two automobiles of two very good friends: Doctor [Albert C.] Kerlikowske, who lived next door, and Elwood [L.] Cushing. They were in my living room.

BP: Was this in Bloomfield?

VA: No, in Ann Arbor. We lived on Geddes Road in Ann Arbor. I walked into the living room and said, “To what do I owe this visit in the middle of the afternoon.” They both looked very solemn, so I said, “Did something happen to Harry?” Cush said, “Yes.” I said, “Is he all right?” They said, “No.” That was it. Kerli said, “You have to make some arrangements. You better have him sent to Detroit, because all his friends are there.” I said, “But he lives here, so bring him home.” Then another good friend of Harry’s, [George] Albert Lyon, of Lyon Manufacturing Company—we called him Uncle Burt—his chauffeur arrived, and a few other people, and we walked out into the kitchen—I had a living kitchen then; we called it a living kitchen because it had a fireplace and a lounge, and we lived there more than in the living room—and there was a woman sitting there, and I spoke to her. Cush said, “Do you know her?” I said, “No.” He said, “Who are you?” She said, “I’m with the Detroit News.” He said, “How did you get in this house?” She said, “I walked in the back door.” He said, “Leave, immediately!” She said, “Well, I came here to …” He booted her out. And then it started: people driving in my long driveway. They were all reporters. They had heard the news much earlier than I did. All the newspapers knew it. They knew it out West earlier than I did, because I wasn’t home. Nobody said anything to me until I got home. It happened early in the morning, and this was afternoon. The people started coming, and Cush and Kerli got rid of them as best they could. There was even a reporter up on top of my roof. And they were waiting for Harlow to come to talk to me. When the police released him in Canada, he started to Ann Arbor to talk to me. There were so many reporters following him that they made a wrong turn once and it took them an hour to turn around. The next morning—we had a big gate out on Geddes Road and there was a long driveway around the hill to our house; we were out in Superior Township—the next morning GM had somebody at the gate so that we had a little privacy.

BP: To keep the reporters out?

VA: Yeah. (Chuckles.) Kris had kind of the croup in the night, so I called Doctor Towsley, who was a pediatrician, and he owned the farm next door—Harry Towsley—and he had trouble getting into the house to see her because of the guards at the gate. And Harlow came. He was so distraught. It was really something. He hardly knew how to walk, how to talk. It was so difficult for him, and it was such a sad thing for him. In fact, he died two years later with a broken heart. He just didn’t snap out of it.

BP: Well, how could you?

VA: You couldn’t. Your best friend.

BP: And they really were best friends.

VA: Oh, yes, through the years, through the years—Harlow and Dorothy and their family. We tried to talk to him, that it was an accident. You know, you just don’t know what to say. But he was … the next day they came to me, well, that night, my attorney, Dick Cross, from Detroit, drove out and was there, and George Romney was on his way—he was president of American Motors then—the Romneys of course were our very dearest friends; he was in the airport when he heard about Harry, and he was on his way to a meeting in New York, but he canceled the meeting and came out and spent the whole time there.

BP: The day of the incident?

VA: Pardon?

BP: The day of the shooting?

VA: Yes. Then he drove back to Bloomfield that night, and he and Lenore came again the next day.

BP: What could they say to you?

VA: Well, I was planning a funeral and I would have George Romney’s brother-in-law Karl [M.] Richards [an executive of the American Manufacturers Association] do the funeral for me. [Mormon funerals are conducted by lay members of the congregation.] He said, “Thanks for not asking me to do it. I wouldn’t have liked to give a sermon to the president of General Motors”—when he was the president of American Motors.

BP: I see some irony in that because he had been during those years preaching to General Motors about the size of their cars.

VA: They were all very good friends. Even the Ford people were good friends.

BP: Was your husband a member of the church?

VA: No, but almost. He contributed to the church, and another couple months and he would have been because he certainly read everything and believed everything about our church. He also gave General Motors stock for the property over where the temple is built now in Bloomfield.

BP: In order to make that purchase?

VA: Yeah. So he was involved, and he really believed it.

BP: Are you a lifelong member of the church.

VA: Oh, yes. My dad was a convert.

BP: And you are from … where?

VA: Pocatello, Idaho, where I am now.

BP: How did you ever come to Michigan?

VA: During World War Two, I was with the War Relocation Authority. I taught school in the relocation centers with the Japanese, and then when we closed the centers I was sent to Chicago first, then Cleveland, then Detroit to set up offices to bring the people out of the centers and into the workforce. I moved to Ann Arbor to set up the Adjutant General’s school in the Law School. There were some Japanese people there teaching the language, and I had an office in Ann Arbor. Then I went back to school after we closed the offices.

BP: You went back to school at the University of Michigan?

VA: Yeah.

BP: And then you were working on a master’s degree, I take it?

VA: No. I had my master’s [bachelor's degree from University of Utah, master's from Stanford]. I was working on a Ph.D.

BP: Which you obtained?

VA: Long, long afterwards.

BP: Ph.D. in education?

VA: In sociology.

BP: Tell me the story how you met your husband.

VA: I met him on the Snake River out here in Idaho. He was a lousy fisherman, and I was a good one.

BP: You helped him bait his hook or tie a fly?

VA: (Laughs.) No. We invited him over to the Slash E ranch; he and his friends were staying at another dude ranch that we thought was a Boy Scout camp. (Laughs.) And then he went back to Michigan. He started writing me. He wrote letters every day, and that was it.

Dr. Albert C. Kerlikowske circa 1955

BP: Was this in the early Fifties?

VA: No, that was in the Forties.

BP: During the war, or a little after?

VA: During the war.

BP: So even though you were here in Ann Arbor during the latter part of the war, you met your husband in Idaho?

VA: That’s right.

BP: I guess I want to fast-forward a little bit to back beyond his death. Where was his funeral held?

VA: We held it in the Presbyterian Church because we [Mormons] just had that little church in Ann Arbor…over by Tappan School. I think they sold it to someone when they built the Green Road chapel.

BP: So you had the funeral at the Presbyterian Church on Washtenaw?

VA: It was huge.

BP: So how did you get along after his death? How did you recover from the shock and grief?

VA: I had a child to take care of. I was involved with the Kidney Foundation; I was one of the founders. And I was involved with the Detroit Metropolitan Opera group. And I was involved in education, especially later: I was appointed to be a Regent at Eastern Michigan [University]. I was there for eight years. I was busy!

BP: Did you ever remarry?

VA: No. When you’ve had one good one, you don’t need any others.

BP: You maintained your friendships also with the Romneys and everyone from General Motors?

VA: Oh, yes.

BP: Were most of them in Bloomfield?

VA: Yes, most of them live over there. Well, the top officials, and most of the boys—I call them boys—the men on Harry’s staff were in Bloomfield Hills.

BP: Can you name a couple of examples?

VA: Lou … what’s his name who succeeded him? [ Lou Goad?] Arnie Guyrock [?], Earl Bramlett.

BP: I guess I don’t know those names. Your husband was vice president of what?

VA: Personnel and labor relations. He’s the one who dealt with Walter Reuther all the time.

BP: And so as far as the Knudsens, what part did they play in your life after the 1960s?

VA: Bunkie and Florence? They were just good friends, they were very good friends.

BP: You would see them several times a year?

VA: At parties in Bloomfield and they were always with all the GM folks.

Left to right: Ed Cole, Lou Goad, Bunkie Knudsen

BP: What was Florence Knudsen like?

VA: Oh, she was a fabulous gal. Really, really lovely. Down to earth with a lovely family. Well, I don’t know how to describe her except that she was very knowledgeable and very much a good wife to Bunkie. They had a beautiful home before they sold and moved into the condo. It was out on Twelve Mile Road, as I remember.

BP: In Bingham Farms.

VA: Yeah. And she enjoyed every single thing about the property. Her Christmas cards were always pictures of a beautiful tree that she could see from her bedroom or something like that.

BP: They played golf and went bowling a lot.

VA: And as they grew older, they were very dear friends to the Romneys because they were neighbors. Last time I saw either one of them was at George’s funeral. And then I went over to Bloomfield to the funeral of another dear friend of mine, or I was going to Mount Clemens, and it was the same day as Bunkie’s funeral and the same time, so I couldn’t attend.

BP: How would characterize Bunkie Knudsen in informal settings: what was his primary characteristic?

VA: He was very outgoing. He had a great sense of humor. The thing that I remember most is how he treated me. You know, when you’re a widow, in lots of circles, they still go with just couples. But he would include me in everything. They were just that kind of friends. He loved his family. He was a great family man. I’m sure he was a wonderful worker in his own field, too. I didn’t ask for the use of an automobile if I would go anyplace, but if he found that I was going on a trip, he’d say, “Can we get an automobile for you? Can we furnish that for you?” I missed him when I was there last month. I had to rent a car.

BP: The last thing I would like to ask today: He went out somewhat spectacularly from General Motors in 1968.

VA: He went to Ford.

BP: What was the buzz about it at the time.

VA: Well, I think most of the people I knew thought he should be the president. When it became Eddie Cole, I think he was terribly disappointed because he was next in line, really, and he was the one who should have been. Very few people around that I knew, knew Ed. He was in a whole different group. It seemed that…to me, that was the beginning of the end.

BP: For?


Link to Harlow Curtice letters on this blog.

How would David E. Davis Jr. critique God’s offerings?

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The literary efforts of David E. Davis Jr. had a profound and beneficial effect on the American automobile industry and “did a great service to the United States in the one major manufacturing industry we have left.” So said retired General Motors product czar Bob Lutz, whose voice was among the many raised April 28 at the memorial service for the incomparable, bewhiskered editor, who died in March.

The service was in two parts, beginning at the First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the city where Davis had moved Car and Driver from New York in 1978. About 200 people attended and heard his sister, Dr. Jane Makulski, say, “If I have one regret, it’s that no magazine will have a column where he critiques what God has offered him.”

“Your pals are still gathered about you for the sake of freedom and whiskey,” said his pal Ham Schirmer, ending the eulogy that emphasized the great man’s love of cars, dogs, clothes, his wife Jeannie, and all his pals.

Part two was held immediately afterward at the car guys’ warehouse, as it’s informally known, next door in Ypsilanti. This former industrial building along the Huron River is home to vintage and special-interest cars, some undergoing active restoration or repair. In recent years, about 2000 square feet of office area was reserved for Davis’s operations.

Enjoying the food, drinks, and live music were luminaries such as the actor Edward Herrmann, a friend from Pebble Beach, and the writer P.J. O’Rourke, whose sometimes hilarious essays followed Davis from title to title.

O’Rourke’s toast summed up Davis’s tastes in food, alcohol, and automobiles: “To suckling pig when you’re hungry, Sazeracs when you’re dry, all the cars you’ve ever wanted, and heaven when you die.”

Former Time journalist Charles Eisendrath lauded board member Davis’s work on behalf of the University of Michigan Journalism Fellowship.

Representatives of the Car and Driver fraternity included Davis’s peer Brock Yates, former editor-in-chief Csaba Csere and executive editors Rich Ceppos and Mark Gillies, current editor-in-chief Eddie Alterman, technical director Don Sherman, columnist John D. Phillips III, and staffers Darin Johnson, Tony Quiroga, Juli Burke, Michael Austin, and Erik Johnson. Aside from Yates and Csere, all of the former either started their careers or served intermediate stints under Davis at Automobile.

Davis left Car and Driver in 1985 and soon launched Automobile. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio and managing editor Amy Skogstrom represented the magazine. Editor-in-chief Jean Jennings, who unseated Davis in 2000, was not present, reportedly at the request of the Davis family. Automobile alumni included William Jeanes, Bill Sharfman, Ken Gross, and James Lee Ramsey, who were Davis’s soldiers during the ’80s and ’90s. Kevin Smith, the original Automobile co-executive editor with Jennings, traveled from California. So did Davis’s art director Larry Crane. Kathy Hamilton, former senior editor, flew in from New Jersey.

Motor Trend was represented by Todd Lasa, Frank Markus, and alum Jack Keebler.

Larry Webster waved the Popular Mechanics flag; spy photographer Jim Dunne also paid tribute. Kevin A. Wilson, former AutoWeek executive editor, did the same for Crain Communications.

Michael Jordan, Automobile’s West Coast editor for nearly 22 years, took time off from his position as Inside Line executive editor to come to the rites, along with news editor Kelly Toepke, who started in the early 1990s as Davis’s assistant.  

John Hilton, long-time editor of the alternative monthly Ann Arbor Observer, contributed to Car and Driver and Automobile in the 1980s. He lent his eminence to an assortment of locals ranging from Paul Eisenstein, of—present dean of Detroit’s automotive journalism establishment—to Lindsay Brooke, senior editor at­ Automotive Engineering International, a publication of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Davis’s long shadow fell across three generations of automotive journalists, who came together to honor his singular career during a memorable and often poignant afternoon.  

The Davis family requests memorial gifts be sent to:

Knight-Wallace Fellows

620 Oxford Road

Ann Arbor, MI 48104

The no-bull bull elk David E. Davis, Jr. passes away

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Homburg homme: The great David E. Davis, Jr. snapped my brim.

Being part of Automobile Magazine’s launch twenty-five years ago qualifies me to answer the same question forever: what’s David E. Davis, Jr. like?

After his death yesterday, it’s what was he like? Men, especially, were overawed by him. My most memorable interrogation about Automobile’s imperious founding editor happened during a vintage car auction. Discovering my affiliation, a pair of bidders invited me out to the parking lot for a steak dinner. I was flattered—and then startled to find their motorhome staffed by a whore named Turbo. But the dinner conversation was strictly about David E. “Tell us more!”

Calling him Dave betrayed unfamiliarity. I followed Jean Jennings’s lead and referred to him as David E. Only now do I learn the initial stood for Evan. As someone who’d been a guest in his home, a passenger in his cars, an officemate, how did I answer the question? What was he like? The simple adjectives “big” and “large” always fit. David E. was about six-feet-three and said, in one of our last meetings, “I need to lose a hundred pounds.” Everything about him was exaggerated: the eloquence, the elegance, the encyclopedic erudition that made him ever fascinating. And he was fantastically creative, erupting with ideas and opinions. I saw him as an eighteenth-century dandy and wit. He might have reported to his readers about wringing out an exotic car that was equipped with the latest technology, but it will not surprise me if he yet turns up somewhere in Samuel Pepys’ vast diaries. Beyond the immediately apparent aspects, self-aggrandizement was another characteristic. Yet for all his pomp and boasts and preening, he also projected a kind of helplessness, and it’s hard to imagine him completing—maybe I’m all wrong—a do-it-yourself project around the house or making anything other than scrambled eggs in the kitchen. The thing was that he could be disarmingly frank about his own vulnerabilities, hitting you right away with the story of how his MG overturned on the racetrack in 1955, the accident scraping off half his face, with an ambulance attendant throwing away cartilage that belonged to his nose. He could also seem like one of the loneliest and most abandoned persons ever. One year around Christmas I was doing some research at the magazine’s library, and in the nearby kitchen the great man was talking to an unseen counterpart or continuing his end of a broken conversation, calling himself “roly-poly, lovable David E. Davis, Jr.” and forecasting that his own sons wouldn’t be phoning for the holiday.

I grew up with a difficult and distant father. Sometimes with David E., two years older than my dad, it felt like childhood all over again. I had way of sticking my foot in my mouth around him, and it started fast. Kevin Smith and Jean, Automobile’s co-executive editors, were about to offer me a job in 1985, but first I had to meet the boss. Even after reading Car and Driver when I was eighteen, and reading intermittently in graduate school, I had no idea who David E. was. Now the four of us were lunching at an Ann Arbor restaurant. Kevin and Jean had laughed at my droll stories the previous night at dinner and were laughing again today. I told them about hunting in Nebraska with my father, shooting crows for sport: we couldn’t eat them but fired our shotguns and watched the varmints plummet to the ground, where they remained. We wore elaborate camouflage suits, and into the woods along with our sporting arms we carried a battery-powered portable record player. My father favored side two of a 45-rpm disk, a track titled “Single Distress Crow with Actual Owl Hoots.” After the owl’s solo contemplative introduction, a crow screams for a while, followed by a cacophony of cawing crows. (When I was twelve I knew this recording as well as any Monkees’ single.) The revolving record, amplified through the unit’s speaker, fooled real crows; they flew over, reconnoitering, and we blasted them. “All so absurd and pointless,” I said.

“Yuk, yuk!” Kevin and Jean said.

“I have one of those record players,” David E. said.  

Kevin once subsequently noted that David E. had a way of mentally drawing a red line through your name. That line had just been drawn through mine.

Nevertheless, after lunch, we four returned to the office and conferred. Gesturing to Kevin and Jean, David issued the strongest endorsement I would receive from him, saying, “These guys want to hire you.”

On a dreary, wintry Monday morning a few weeks later, I was his employee and had the important mission of shuttling with him to the Sports Car Exchange, in Dearborn, to pick up the Ferrari 308GTBi Quattrovalvole that would appear on Automobile’s inaugural cover, along with its putative competitor, the Toyota MR2. On our way in, David E. drove the red MR2 that was part of the magazine’s first test fleet. He was hung over. “Would use your young eyes to tune the radio to seven-sixty?” he asked. His friend, WJR’s incomparable broadcast host J.P. McCarthy, sometimes beckoned David E. to ring in with a comment. But McCarthy ignored him today. I took the hangover advisory to mean “Shut up.” He talked idly about having been the subject of a cover story of some local Detroit magazine, which made the inevitable Hemingway comparison. I was unsure whether he’d been pleased or insulted and whether remarking its invidiousness was the right response.

I shot this bull elk while somehow neglecting to portray the great bull elk beside me. Baggy Paragraphs Photo.

Finally, we reached the dealership, which was a wonder—I saw for the first time an Aston Martin Lagonda, to which David E. expressed indifference—and after speaking with our host there, we left in tandem. David E. led in the Ferrari. I followed along and wondered about seeing Kurosawa’s Ran, which he had mentioned as a powerful film.

As I soon discovered, David E. had his impressive side, but he could also be pretty crass. At an early staff meeting, the managing editor, Patti Eldridge, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, rested her feet—which along with her legs were swaddled in shimmering purple hose—atop his desk, leading him to ask, “Could I suck on one of those?” Impatient and aggressive, he was something else behind the wheel. In another of our first cars, the pale yellow Mercedes-Benz 300E, he negotiated a local expressway, conducting fellow associate editor John Stein and me to a meeting. With a slower car blocking the left lane, he flicked the wheel, moving the 300E right. Matting the gas pedal, he accelerated to 100 mph while flipping off the other driver. 

Like the 300E, time races along, and it wasn’t for twenty-two years, until 2007, that we again paired up as driving partners. In that time I had been fired from the staff for incompetence, hanging on for the next decade as a freelance contributor and then quitting in a fit of pique about the magazine’s lousy business operation, denouncing David to everybody I could think of, including his bosses in New York. Hearing my complaints, one of the associate editors at the time said, “I don’t know why any of our freelancers work for us.” The magazine was sloppily managed. Editorially, it was a ramshackle derivative of Playboy, with a dash of Travel & Leisure . (The degree of Hugh Hefner’s mid-1950s influence on David E. couldn’t have been calculated.) The primary mission was to perpetuate his indulgent life-style, which included surrounding himself with a coterie of admiring senior contributors. Being on the B-list could mean waiting months for payment and no verbal acknowledgement of work well done—indeed no acknowledgement of my personal presence in the same elevator.

My four-year hiatus away from the magazine included a couple of highly instructive years as a marketing communications copywriter. Altogether, my rift with David E., if he noticed it, wasn’t so different from his self-publicized feud with Brock Yates, which had begun after an unfavorable review of Yates’s Ferrari book. But when David E. was ultimately nudged from his bailiwick, Jean took me back as a contributor. She and executive editor Mark Gillies gave me some choice feature story assignments. And my utility role expanded. I was likely to be sent anywhere. So in 2007, leaving on assignment for the new Toyota Land Cruiser’s press preview, who should I see in the airport’s departure lounge but David E., as whiskery and winsome as ever at the age of 76. Bound for the same press preview, he was representing his new title, Winding Road. His magnanimity toward me didn’t extend to finding an open seat near him in first class, but the next day he did suggest we drive together. We spent the morning alternating turns behind the wheel of our test vehicle on the Big Sky resort’s mountainside, an enjoyable interval of chatting about this and that while trying not to jolt the passenger’s head during the four-wheel-drive torture test. Hearing the confession that I’d never learned the art of left-foot braking, he absolved me, saying, “The Europeans don’t bother about that or heel-and-toe downshifting.” Clouds descended over the mountain, and wet snow started to fall, making us reflect about the onset of the northern Rockies’ long winter.

After lunch we did the test’s highway portion, driving down to Yellowstone and back, seeing elk and geysers. Listening to the summary of my research on the 1960s rivalry for GM’s presidency, David E. recollected about that affair’s two principals, Bunkie Knudsen and Ed Cole. And as long as he was thinking about the 1960s, he threw in the amusing and well-known tale of his cuckolding Ford’s design chief. I took a photo of a bull elk that day, but goddamn if I didn’t even think to take a portrait of the bull elk right beside me.

My final glimpse of him came last November. A few minutes into my presentation during the monthly open house at Bill Milliken’s car guys’ garage, in Ypsilanti, David E. rose and escaped through an interior passage to the office he kept there. After his departure, my tongue loosened, and I sailed through the slideshow, but disappointment lingered over another failure to dazzle. 

Because of his inescapable sartorial influence, I long ago took to buying expensive neckwear made of fifty-ounce English silk. (It was from David E. that I learned the meaning of the word foulard.) “When I was kicked out of Olivet College at Christmas, 1949, I went to work as a sales trainee with a firm that sold mail-order custom-tailored men’s clothing,” he wrote in Thus Spake David E.: The Collected Wit and Wisdom of the Most Influential Automotive Journalist of Our Time. “The senior salesmen were the most sophisticated men I’d ever been around. They ordered me my first two bespoke suits and a gorgeous, navy blue Chesterfield topcoat. They taught me how to act like an adult, how to wear a hat, how to behave in bars, how to qualify a prospect, how to close a deal. But the most important thing they taught me was ‘Dress British, think Yiddish.’ I owe them a lot. I wish they were still around to read this book. Maybe they’d feel that their efforts on my behalf weren’t wasted.”

Knotting my tie before his memorial service, I’ll think the same, hoping anew to please David E.

Written by baggyparagraphs

March 29, 2011 at 1:12 am

Parable from Malcolm Margolin

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Twenty-five years ago today I was starting as associate editor at Automobile after struggling to publish my own newspaper, and Malcolm Margolin, the publisher of Heyday Books, in Berkeley, sent this:

Dear Ronald:

Sounds like a big change.

There’s an old story about a man whose house was crowded and life miserable. He went to a rabbi for advice. “Get a cow and keep it in the living room,” advised the rabbi. The man returned in a month to complain that the house was even more crowded and his life more miserable. “Get a horse and keep it in the bedroom.” The man did so and returned to the rabbi after a month to complain even louder. “Get a goat and keep it in the kitchen.” Another month and the man returned to say that he was going crazy, things were getting worse and worse, and he was never so miserable in his entire life. “Get rid of the cow, the horse, and the goat,” advised the rabbi. The man did. When he next saw the rabbi, he looked relaxed and smiled. “My life is bliss,” he said.

Who knows, after running your own newspaper perhaps a job with a magazine will be bliss. I hope so.

Warmest regards,

Malcolm Margolin

Written by baggyparagraphs

November 1, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Howdy Holmes: Q&A with Chelsea, Michigan’s greatest contribution to the Indy 500

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Howdy Holmes qualified second at Indy in 1984. His speed of 207.970 placed him on the front row between polesitter Tom Sneva and Rick Mears. | Photo courtesy of Howdy Holmes.

Howard S. “Howdy” Holmes III, president and CEO of Chelsea Milling Company, is the eighth-generation Holmes in the business of flour milling, the fourth generation in Chelsea, Michigan, and the third generation to market the company’s Jiffy mixes, the first of which was created by his grandmother in 1930. With the purpose of making his racing history better known in the local area, Baggy Paragraphs visited the his office on July 30, 2010, to talk with Holmes for a story in

Holmes is 62 years old, but delayed entry into the family business while pursuing a 20-year-long racing career that saw him compete six times in the Indianapolis 500, where he was rookie of the year in 1979. Holmes retired from racing after the 1988 season. He revamped the business, which had been a sole proprietorship, and brought in modern management practices emphasizing teamwork, equality, and an open-door policy. During our hour-long interview, he was interrupted by a sales staff member and later by the company’s technical director, who had one bag of devil’s food cake mix with shortening and another evidently without for Holmes’s inspection. They discussed the volume, color, and texture of the mixes.

Despite being a modern business executive, Holmes made the decision to eschew the use of a personal computer, and he says many have expressed envy at the amount of free time he must have today.

Besides his business career, racing also caused him to delay marriage, and he wed late, in 1986, before becoming the father of one son, Howard S. Holmes II, also known as Howdy. (There’s a story about why the son is Howdy II, but I was eager to devote the time to racing; and besides, genealogy is generally confusing to me.) Howdy II will be a senior in college in the fall and is working at the company for the fifth summer.

Holmes at the Chelsea Milling Co. office on July 30, 2010. | Baggy Paragraphs Photo

Howdy Holmes: Some folks remember every round of golf they played and what they shot and what ball they played and what irons they used, and stuff like that, and you know, if you were to ask me what the stats were, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with really good answers. I can tell you plus or minus five or six how many Indy car races I did or how many Indys or how many years in this—that kind of stuff.

Baggy Paragraphs: It says you were a graduate of EMU [Eastern Michigan University] in 1968.

Howdy Holmes: I think that article didn’t say I was a graduate.

Baggy Paragraphs: It says you were a senior.

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, right. Because I left, that article was accurate. I left in my senior year to start to pursue my boyhood love of becoming a race car driver. Now, mind you, I had no more idea than a rabbit how to do that. But that didn’t seem to matter. My interest, I guess, was spawned by going to the Indianapolis 500 with my family. I’m the eldest of five kids and other than Christmas the one thing we did together, and I think we all remember very fondly, was to go to the Indy 500 each year: go west on [Interstate] 94 to [Interstate] 69 and then stop just inside Indiana, Pokagon [State] Park and have the obligatory burnt chicken, deviled eggs and stuff like that, and then drive a little bit farther and—I’m sure you know this—even today, within a 50-mile radius of Indianapolis, all the hotels double and even triple the price and charge you for three days even if you’re staying for one. So we’re a pretty conservative family, and we would stay outside that 50-mile radius. So that was, I believe, 1957, the first race. So for me, basically, it was this boyhood dream. And in the mid-’60s, Ronald, they built Michigan International Speedway out here, which is I think identical to the Texas speedway. If I’m not mistaken, it was built by the same guys—I can’t think of their names—the same architects. I think they’re both two-mile, they’re identical, much like Ontario Motor Speedway was very similar to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In any event, anybody who lived within 50 miles of Cambridge Junction, in the Irish Hills, got in the mail an advertisement promoting the Michigan International School of High Performance Racing. It was a pretty slick, six-color brochure, said the school was going to be taught by Stirling Moss [laughs]. I’m thinking Stirling Moss had no idea where Cambridge Junction was. He might’ve heard of the state of Michigan. And so I went whimsically and thought this would be— You know when you’re a little kid and you dream about things, a couple things happens. You don’t have any sense of reality of what that may be: probably the good thing of fantasy, it always ends up the way you want it to, that way. So I went to the school and it was one of these situations where, “I’m just going to do this.” Actually, it was taught by a guy named Kenny Love, who was a South African who was in North America racing in the Continental Series, which was basically Formula B cars, SCCA classification Formula B, and they had races in Canada and the United States. And then his mechanic was a guy by the name of Kenny Smith. So these were two guys who were over here racing on a shoestring, and he was the instructor. So after that summer—I think that was ’68 maybe—I worked for a guy in Ann Arbor whose name was John Stringer. He had a company by the name of Road Sport International, and to me, he was a big deal and was a nice find. I was kind of the go-fer. As it turns out, he just had a small race shop and loved racing, wasn’t a Roger Penske, per se. But with my limited experience, anybody was more experienced that I was. So a couple years of hanging around there, doing odd jobs and things. Then I finally took the plunge by ordering a set of tools through a catalog for $69.95, from the Auto World catalog, built a homemade trailer with another guy, a close friend, and purchased a Royale RP3 from John Stringer, who somehow had the Royale distributorship for the Midwest. I think I was the second car that he had sold. As you know, those cars, Formula Fords, had four-cylinder, English Ford Cortina engines. The guys down here at Chelsea Milling Company built me about a 12 by 20 foot plywood garage in the corner of one of the warehouses, and I bought my engine manual from Ulrich’s Bookstore, in Ann Arbor, and that’s the way I started. What were humble beginnings, looking back, I mean, for me it was a really big deal. I never had been mechanical as a kid. You know, when you look back, it’s a great way to do things, is to just jump in with both feet. You make a lot of mistakes, but you learn it. Of course, more from your failures or mistakes than you do from one’s successes.

Baggy Paragraphs: You were about 24 around this time?

Howdy Holmes: I was 23, I think. My first race was—have to think about this. I did SCCA Detroit Region Formula Ford in ’71 and actually won the regional championship, and halfway through I had the regional thing wrapped up, the central division, and the question was, “Well, shall I do national races?” I really wanted to go for that. And it looked like, with the schedule, I might not have a chance of winning that, so I stayed, did a couple of national races, and then oddly enough the guy who was sent to Atlanta for the runoffs from this area, Detroit region, central division, a guy by the name of Jim Harrell, out of Adrian—and Adrian later on in my career plays a big role—anyway, Jim Harrell asked me to be his mechanic. I thought, “Wow!” You know, for a guy who knew nothing about mechanics and stuff. And it turns out, he ends up winning the national championship that year. Next year, [I] go to Super Vee, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Formula Atlantic, and all that kind of stuff.

Baggy Paragraphs: In Formula Atlantic, you actually were pretty hot and outperformed Bobby Rahal. I just wondered about your account of those days. What engines did they run in Formula Atlantic?

Howdy Holmes: A BDA: A Ford 1600cc twin-cam BDA done by Cosworth. I could tell you that of all the cars I’ve driven, Formula 3, Formula 2, Indy cars, blah, blah, blah, Atlantic to me was the best example of horsepower to weight and balance, just marvelous machines to drive. And of course they weren’t turbocharged or anything like that, so you could drive with your foot. You want the tail end to come out, a little bit more gas. You want to bring it? To me that’s what driving’s all about. So I remember Formula Atlantic days fondly. I was champion in ’78. Gilles Villeneuve was ’77. He was a hell of a driver, and a nice man, too. So you had Rahal in there, Keke Rosberg, Tom Gloy, and of course the big race for Formula Atlantic was the Three Rivers [Trois-Rivières] race. That was the big deal. It was a great series that was in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, I mean just an immense amount of talent. And unfortunately, I think this year is the first year that Atlantic doesn’t have a series. It’s been going for 35 years, something like that.

Baggy Paragraphs: [Shows a business card for Newfoundland promoter Bob Giannou and asks about the Atlantic Series' race in St. John's, Newfoundland.]

Howdy Holmes: It was in July, it might have been ’74, I’m going to guess. It was either ’74 or ’75, I think ’74, and it was in July, and it was around the Confederation Building. It was a combination of the main street that went in front of the Confederation Building and surface streets, and back through a parking lot behind the Confederation Building, and that was it. Saturday’s practice was delayed for an hour and a half because there was an iceberg in the harbor—I’m not shitting you—iceberg in the harbor and it was evaporating, so it was causing this fog. You couldn’t see a thing. Oh. What else? The race course was this combination of regular streets, surface road, and wide-open parking lot with cones. And much like rallies, people were standing right on the edge of the road. And you find yourself drifting through a corner with the tail out and people are within a foot of you. And it was sort of frightening on one hand. But it’s very much like street courses. The more road you use, the straighter the line, the faster you go. It was really bizarre.

Baggy Paragraphs: Well, it’s hard to kill a Newfy.

Howdy Holmes: What else is there to tell? I was there driving for Fred Opert in a Chevron. I believe I started fourth and finished second. I’ll never forget Newfoundland.


The men of Jiffy. | Holmes collection

Baggy Paragraphs

: That’s the thing about racing. I think that it’s like going to sea, you know? Boys used to run away and go off to sea. You have incredible adventures and all kinds of people. It’s fascinating.

Howdy Holmes: They’re a hardy group of people.

Baggy Paragraphs: Then the speed and everything. What about getting into Indy cars? You were rookie of the year at Indy in 1979.

Howdy Holmes: I was.

Baggy Paragraphs: To make that step you’re talking about, Indy really was kind of a long ways away, still, from here. You made that big step that you had only envisioned in your mind.

Howdy Holmes: Well, let me tell you how that happened. Being the Atlantic champion in ’78 and Bernie Ecclestone coming to the, he was at the Three Rivers race and Gilles Villeneuve had just made the jump from Atlantic, actually went gone to McLaren before he went to Ferrari, so my career path was more towards Formula One. And all road racers, that’s their career path. What’s odd about that is, my background is road racing, but I’m an American. Road racing in America is about as popular as, I don’t know, American football is in Turkey. I mean, it just, so [laughs], and I know you know that. You also remember that in ’78 Mario Andretti won the world championship, and he was driving for Lotus. And his teammate was Ronnie Peterson, and the car was just spectacular. I mean, they’re good drivers. But we all know the car is more important than the driver. So they were winning everything that year and then Peterson was killed, which I don’t mean that as a negative to why, one of the two was going to win the world championship and Peterson was leading in points. I mean, both of those guys were blindingly fast, especially Peterson, on a single-lap basis. Mario was probably a little better, more consistent. Peterson, he’d do just a screamer, and the next lap would be two- or three-tenths, and in racing, that’s years. So what I’m getting to is that, there were some people that were very interested in having an all-American team at Lotus. And I attended the Watkins Glen race which was always in early October—

Baggy Paragraphs: That was the USGP?

Howdy Holmes: Yes, as a guest of the Lotus team. And being my own manager and things like that, I guess I really didn’t know any better, but the European press knew who I was and started asking me questions and I kind of referred to this project that was going on. That was the end of that. That was a really difficult lesson to learn. And the lesson is: you keep your mouth shut, especially in Formula One. All of a sudden, that possibility was no longer probable.

Baggy Paragraphs: So you were around 30 by this time?

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, about 30. And then what happened was— Wow, what a mistake that was! What a lesson to learn! Yikes! So I went back in ’79 to Atlantic again. I loved the series, but in racing, as you know, there’s this certain kind of progression that at any time, if it gets stalled someplace, they basically take your name right off the list. That’s just the way it works and I was aware of that and didn’t want that to happen. So it seemed to me that the best think I could do was to defend the Atlantic championship. And I drove for Doug Shierson [of Adrian, Michigan], a great guy and sorry he’s not with us.

Baggy Paragraphs: He has since died?

Howdy Holmes: He has, and very, very sad. A big part of my life. But as it turns out, in March [1979], I get a call from a guy, and this is exactly the way it happened:


“Are you Howdy Holmes?”


“How would you like to drive in the Indy 500?”

Now I’m still suffering from this kind of political mistake, and I actually thought it was some idiot trying to be funny. I’m having my own pity party because I apparently think I’ve blown the rest of my career. The guy says, “Are you Howdy Holmes?”


He says, “How would you like to drive in the Indy 500?”

I say, “No, thanks. I’m playing paddleball that weekend.” That’s kind of my sense of humor, twisted as it may be.

And the guy says, “No, my name is Yanto [sp?] Roberts. I’m serious.”

I never knew who he was. I said, “I was sort of kidding about the paddleball thing. Tell me what’s up.”

Speeding at Pocono. | Wikimedia

And it turned out that Sherman Armstrong, who was an Indiana businessman, from Winchester, Indiana, a self-made multimillionaire who grew up in Winchester, worked for Anchor-Hocking, which is the glass company, thought, “Wait a minute. This stuff looks pretty easy. I could do this myself.” So he did. He started Armstrong Mould and made a gazillion dollars, small-time guy, didn’t know what to do with all this money.

Baggy Paragraphs: It’s only 40 miles to Indy from Winchester.

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, but they first got into sprint car racing.

Baggy Paragraphs: I know there’s a track right there.

Howdy Holmes: Oh, yeah! I tested the first March Indy car at Winchester, without a rear wing. Interesting day! Talk about pucker power! Anyway, Sherman Armstrong had gotten Paul Leffler, who was the best mechanic in sprint cars in those days, and they were winning everything and they got bored, so they were looking for something else to do. Somehow, they thought, “Well, let’s go to Indy.” They got hooked up with Starcraft and a couple of other companies, and Texaco hired this PR firm out of New York, where Yanto Roberts comes in. The theory was: “Hey, this is a new Indy car owner. Why not come in with an unknown Indy car driver? Rookie-rookie sort of thing and see what we could do?” Well, I was the choice. It happened, and, geez, we qualified thirteenth. I’ll never forget—”

Baggy Paragraphs: Do you remember roughly your speed? Two-ten?

Howdy Holmes: No, it wasn’t even close. It was in the high 80s [180s] in those days. What’s interesting is that, in those days, practice would start the first Saturday of May. But that weekend I had an Atlantic commitment in Mexico City. I won the race in Mexico City, and I had all the flights lined up to get out of Mexico City as quickly as I [could]. But you know what happened, I won the race in Mexico, so you had to stay around for the celebrations and all that stuff, which is fine, I mean, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And then, I had talked with the promoters down there, and they knew that I had this flight to get. So they put me in the back of this car and I had an escort, two motorcycle—you’ve been to Mexico, right?

Baggy Paragraphs: Never been to Mexico City.

Howdy Holmes: Well, I want to tell you, there’s 29 or 30 million people in Mexico City, and the driving is a nightmare. The motorcycle cops are out of control and I’m in the back of this car with a police escort on the way to the airport, and one police motorcycle guy would get in front, go to the next intersection and slide to a stop, put his hands up and we’d go blasting through. And then these cops would keep changing places. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. I mean, not in Indy cars, I’ve been in horrible wrecks. That’s nothing compared to being… Of course, you’re not driving, you know? Long story short, I get to Indy, the car is not ready, I don’t get on the track until Thursday, the first day. These guys, good competent people from sprint cars, but hadn’t been used to open-wheel cars. I brought part A and part B so I could make a seat, with the paper, or the plastic bag and all this kind of stuff so I could touch the pedals, and I mean it was a zoo. Well, geez, I get out on Thursday—

Baggy Paragraphs: Had you driven on an oval?

Howdy Holmes: No. Well, a little bit. In 1977, they had this thing called Mini-Indy, which was a Volkswagen series. Volkswagen had a Super Vee series for a number of years, and then they tried to do a thing called Mini-Indy, which was supposed to be a step up to Indy cars and they had a race at Trenton, Phoenix, there might have been another one, maybe someplace else. [Milwaukee and Mosport were also on the schedule; Holmes finished second and third in four starts.] So that’s the experience that I had. Anyway, I breezed through my rookie test and had maybe 35 laps on the car before qualifying. I qualified 13th and finished seventh. You know, looking back, and at the time I realized that there was a sea change going on, a paradigm shift if you will, because the path, so to speak, to Indy cars had been midgets and sprint cars. And all Indy car races had only been on ovals, the Trentons and the Phoenix and Milwaukees and so on. There was in those days an uprising with the owners. It was the beginning of CART, and USAC—and remember that there was a plane crash where five of eight USAC officials perished—and that was the tipping point where CART basically broke away, for good reasons, in their minds. The stated reason was the board of directors for the USAC were 21 people, and they were all basically friends and associates of the Hulman family in sprint car racing. But USAC was the sanctioning organization, the administrative body, that also put on the Indy 500. So there was a lot going on. I basically was, I’d been a business guy ever since I was a kid. I sold Cutco cutlery and so on. And I’m running my own marketing business and advertising business in motorsports and being my own mechanic; I told that story. So I was kind of like the prototype corporate driver, is what other people would say. I came with attorneys and not chief mechanics. And I understood that racing is entertainment first; that’s the way it’s sold. And it’s the only sport that demands overt commercialism to survive. So the truth is, racing’s about putting deals together, more than anything. And I was pretty good at that. I was a pretty good driver, too. My personal disappointment was, I wish it was more about talent, a driver’s talent, skills, skills on the track, than skills off the track. But, hey, that’s the way it is. So, I have to tell you, the car was a Wildcat. It was four-year-old car. Wildcat was the name that Pat Patrick used for their brand, for making their own car. It was a four-year-old car, had an Offenhauser engine. The hot stuff at the time was the Cosworth V-8. Offenhauser was a four.

Chelsea Milling's technical director Neil Bucsh (yes, that's how it's spelled) shows Holmes two variations of a devil's food cake mix. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

Baggy Paragraphs: Turbocharged?

Howdy Holmes: It was. A hundred and sixty-one-cubic-inch, I think. But the good news was that the car had been around, so there was fair amount of knowledge on what it took to set up the suspension and stuff. Although we did a good job in qualifying and we did a good job in the race, the fact is, on lap two, we spent two minutes in the pits.

Baggy Paragraphs: After they threw the yellow flag?

Howdy Holmes: No, no, no, no. There was a mechanical problem with the car. On the second lap I came into the pits because a hose clamp had come off the turbocharger that [went] between the plenum chamber and back in… They found it. Went back out thirty-third and finished seventh.

Baggy Paragraphs: You’d lost a lap by that point.

Howdy Holmes: Two.

Baggy Paragraphs: You finished seventh on the lead lap?

Howdy Holmes: No. I wasn’t on the lead lap. I don’t remember how many laps. I’m going guess three or four. But two of them were right there. But Goodyear guys told us—

Baggy Paragraphs: But otherwise you kept the race pace.

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, I mean, who knows? But Goodyear, they always do cornering speeds and things like that, we consistently had the fourth-fastest cornering speeds. So it turned out to be terrific.

Baggy Paragraphs: A huge success!

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, and I’ll tell you another thing which I discovered during that experience, Ronald. I’d always believed, and maybe some people still do, that the most difficult thing would be road racing, and of course the most difficult thing to drive would be a Formula One. Both not true. Oval driving is considerably harder than road racing, and here’s why: because once you—especially the big ovals—once you get going, you’re not braking, you’re not shifting. You don’t have perception changes, depth perception. You’re not turning left, not turning right. You’re just basically going around in a circle. What that means is, your band of concentration is very narrow. You don’t have constant reminders to keep you sharp. So the focus window is considerable smaller. Oh, by the way, your average speed is a whole lot faster. And there are walls. And they hurt.

Baggy Paragraphs: [Mentions Nelson Piquet's unfortunate experience at Indy in 1992.]

Howdy Holmes: In road racing, you’re always looking at the apex. Different people might disagree on this one. In oval racing, yeah, the apex is important. But instead of looking always to your left, you need to look to the right because the more you can straighten out that curve, the faster you go because the less friction you’re generating, side-bite. So the idea is to straighten out the corner as much as you can; you’ll go faster the longer way around. It may a hundred, a hundred-fifty, maybe seventy-five RPM, but the whole trick is, you buy those RPM for the whole length of the straightaway, and that’s why you’re fast.

Baggy Paragraphs: And that also means going up really close to that wall at time. I see these cars come up just inches from the wall, and I can’t imagine doing that. So you were in seven Indy 500s?

Howdy Holmes: Six: ’79, ’82, ’83, ’84, ’85 and ’88.

Baggy Paragraphs: By ’88, you were 40, 41 years old.

Howdy Holmes: A young pup [laughs].

Baggy Paragraphs: And starting to look at the end of things.

Howdy Holmes: Well, really, honestly, I started my exit. I had a five-year exit plan. In 1983 is when I kind of made the decision, it’s time to start detoxing my way out of racing and preparing for my return to Chelsea Milling Company, which, for the record, I always intended to come back here. My mom and dad knew it. I don’t think any of us thought it would be 20 years, but it was, and I’m very thankful for it. So it was a five-year plan. I raced in ’83, ’84, and ’85. Two-thirds of the way through the ’85 season I got hurt pretty bad at Laguna Seca.

Baggy Paragraphs: Who were you driving for at the time?

Howdy Holmes: Forsythe Brothers. Real kind of bad concussion. No broken bones but a fairly bad concussion. So I was out the last third of ’85, ’86, and ’87. It was a good news/bad news kind of situation, because I’d already made the commitment to have this five-year business plan, exit/reentry. It gave me a lot of time to think. I happened to meet the right girl [Caroline] in ’83, and that was helpful of course—and different.

Baggy Paragraphs: What do you mean: different?

Howdy Holmes: Well, I was used to being, I was a single guy for a long time. I guess I always thought I would be single forever. But things change. So that’s what I mean, different, in that sense. I came back to Chelsea Milling Company in November of ’87, but then this John Capels ’88 season opportunity came up. I don’t know, honestly, why I went for it. It probably, in looking back, was the best thing I did, because it horrible relationship. I persevered through ’88. As an example, at Indy, we just couldn’t get up to speed. The last day of qualifying we got bumped out of the field. Turns out, we had a crack in the plenum chamber. John Capels was telling me I didn’t know how to use the boost. It was ugly. Anyway, we went back on the track, the last ones to go out, the gun goes off as I’m starting the first turn, and we got back in the race by seven-one-thousandths of a second.

Mears, Holmes, Sneva. | Holmes collection

Baggy Paragraphs: Do you remember who was bumped?

Howdy Holmes: I don’t, but whoever it was, and I don’t remember, I would feel very sorry for them. I mean, it happens.

Baggy Paragraphs: Seven one-thousandths. So you started last.

Howdy Holmes: Started last, finished twelfth or thirteenth.

Baggy Paragraphs: Did you? So you ran the whole race.

Howdy Holmes: Probably other than competing at Indy, you get asked from time to time what was the best memory, this, that, and the other, for me it was since it all started as a fantasy, sitting in the stands, to race at Indy was kind of the best, but to race six times, start six and finish six, a sixth, a seventh, two tenths, a twelfth, and a thirteenth. Actually, I had the highest average finishing record of anybody who started three or more races when I retired in ’88.

Howdy Holmes: I think the ones that stand out to me the most, some of these names, they’re not well-known names. I guess the guys that I respected and hung with a little bit—drivers generally don’t hang together because it’s a pretty dangerous sport, so you don’t want to get too close to somebody. But the ones that come to mind are Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears and Johnny Rutherford. Of course, A.J. [Foyt] and Mario [Andretti] and [Gordon] Johncock and all these guys. It’s very unreal to be sitting in the stands as a spectator and watching Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr. race in the Indy 500, and then find yourself competing against them. I mean, it’s really different. So those are names that come to mind. Bobby Rahal and I, I would say, are really good friends.

Baggy Paragraphs: Even today?

Howdy Holmes: Even today. We don’t see each other often, but whenever we do, it doesn’t matter how much time has gone under the bridge. We just pick up where we left off. Keke Rosberg would be another one of those names. He’s got a son, Nico, that’s in Formula One now. Paul Newman, probably, is certainly on that list.

Baggy Paragraphs: You were close to him?

Howdy Holmes: Very close to him. Even though we didn’t compete in the same series and stuff like that, we just sort of—I met him in 1972, I think, at Road Atlanta. He came up to me and said, “I understand you’re the new hot shoe.” And I’m going, “You gotta be shittin’ me! What? This is Paul Newman!” And he said, “I want to talk to you. Come into my motorhome.” I tried to act like I do that stuff all the time. Of course I didn’t. The thing about Paul, and his wife, Joanne, is their status is legendary, but in practice they’re just down home folks, Paul was. I’m sorry he’s gone. But he was like, he was just one of the guys. I mean, we used to call him Chicken Legs, because he had no calves. He had these legs that were kind of like [gestures]. So he’d never wear any shorts. So I had a good relationship with Paul. So that’s another one. I mean, as an example, how well did I know him? Well, Paul Newman sang “Happy Birthday” to my wife [Carole] in a Portland restaurant in 1985. So I’d say, pretty well.

Baggy Paragraphs: You were relatively newly married at the time, I gather?

Howdy Holmes: We weren’t even married yet. We didn’t get married till ’86.

Baggy Paragraphs: What are your reflections on Indy racing today?

Howdy Holmes: One, I don’t go to the races. I haven’t since I retired. I do take seven employees each year to the Indy 500. To me, it’s an opportunity to get to know them a little bit better away from here. There have been a lot of changes. Honestly, I’d have to say I don’t think many of them are for the better. The racing is different than back then, so to speak. Of course, everybody says that. I think it’s very unfortunate that the split that took place with the IRL and CART—

Baggy Paragraphs: Fifteen years ago, or fourteen years, but we’re still feeling the effects?

Howdy Holmes: Oh, are you kidding me? I don’t think it’s ever going to recover to where it was. And there’s some very strategic reasons that I believe that’s true. You had a history going, and a momentum, that you can’t replace. I don’t care who’s involved. You just can’t replace that. It’s broken. The line’s broken. So then you have to rebuild. The competition for the consumer dollar—let’s keep in mind that all other types of racing haven’t been just standing still while Indy car or the Champ car series or whatever you want to call it decides that they’re going to go bonkers and have a spitting contest. I think it’s tragic, what happened. I don’t think they’ll ever recover from it, which is too bad. I’m old-fashioned. I think a great deal about tradition and principle and things like that. I still love going to the Indy 500, but the racing is pretty boring and it’s very predictable. It’s a spec series. I’ve never driven one of these cars but I understand you can pretty much go around most anything flat out. And you said it earlier, they all finish the races. That wasn’t the way it was in the old days.

Baggy Paragraphs: You had the drama of, “Well, yeah, he’s a quarter lap ahead, but will that Buick live?”

Howdy Holmes: Yeah. I want to be conscious of the owners and the mechanics and the sponsors and the drivers and everybody that’s involved and not be critical or judgmental, but it is very different. It’s not the same product. And at the end of the day, it is the entertainment business, even though racing is a very serious profession. A lot of people don’t see it as that, but it is a business. I feel a little sorry for those that are doing it now because it isn’t what it used to be, and there will always maybe sort of be a asterisk. I feel sad about that. But what are you going to do? It’s kind of like a piece of you has gone away and my reaction is to be very thankful and appreciative of having had an opportunity during a time when it was really something. I mean, it was a really big deal.

Baggy Paragraphs: Even at Michigan International Speedway through the late-’90s, they were drawing big crowds for those Indy races, and you’d see whole sections where they’d all be wearing the same orange cap from some company. There was a lot of interest. And then a couple of things happened, including three people dying among the spectators. And the crowds just dropped way off. Then they quit the race.

Howdy Holmes: That, and let’s not forget that NASCAR was making terrific gains during that time.

Baggy Paragraphs: How about the way the sport has changed?

Howdy Holmes: So the racing’s different, and the politics is very different. Women’s presence in racing is a good example of that—I think a good example of that. Politics isn’t always a dirty term, although that’s the way it’s usually portrayed. For Sherman Armstrong, Janet Guthrie drove for Sherm Armstrong in, I think it was 1978, if I’m not mistaken. The year I won the Atlantic championship, Janet debuted with—was it Sherman? Might have been Sherman. Yeah. And that was a big question that a lot of people struggled with. People said, “It’s dangerous and all.” Well, all those things are true. But you look at today and there’s some really good drivers. Say what you want about Danica Patrick, but she’s got the right stuff. I don’t know this Simona—

Baggy Paragraphs: Simona de Silvestro.

Howdy Holmes: I maybe can’t pronounce her name, but I’ve seen her drive. She knows what she’s doing. Have there been women out there that don’t know what they’re doing? Yeah. But I want to tell you, there have been a lot more men out there that don’t know what they’re doing than there have been women that don’t know what they’re doing. And the percentages aren’t even close. So you can come to your own conclusions on that one. I suppose I find myself, Ronald, kind of thinking, you know, “Here’s this old fart talking. Aww, it ain’t like it used to be!” And all that kind of stuff. And in a lot of ways, it isn’t. But the important thing is, whatever the time, and whatever the environment, you’ve got to make it happen.

Baggy Paragraphs: As a driver?

Howdy Holmes: As a driver or as a business person: whatever it may be. The environment might change. But it’s a little unfair to compare the Thirties with the Eighties in any sport, whatever it may be, auto racing included. I can only share that the things that I see, and it’s not for me to judge per se the things that you and I are talking about. It’s not disputable. Those are facts. At the end, every year that I go to Indy, and take employees down there, I seem to have a greater and greater appreciation for the fact that I did that. And honestly, I go, “Holy smokes! This really is a big deal!” When you’re in the middle of doing it, I never thought of it that way. I looked at it as a job and a career, and the blinders were on.

Baggy Paragraphs: I don’t think a racing driver can afford to be that self-conscious.

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, which is another way of saying you can’t listen to your emotions. Oh, that’s right, we’re talking about guys. What are feelings?

Baggy Paragraphs: How about the future of racing?

Howdy Holmes: I think there is a future for racing of all types because it is so mysterious and automobiles are so ingrained in our life. With the open-wheel stuff, there’s a culture that’s different here in the United States than it is in Europe. Here, it’s the stock car stuff and it gets you from point A to point B, and who doesn’t know about cars? I think that the thing that’s really important is that, let’s not forget that one of the biggest reasons that racing is going to continue, Ronald, is that it’s about technology and it’s about engineering and the studying that takes place in the field. As long as there are people out doing that, and corporate America can utilize racing as a way to entertain and to explain things and introduce products, it’s always going to be there.

The element of danger is always there. I don’t think anybody would really like to see somebody hurt, but crashes are spectacular.

I think it’s exciting. And of course when somebody gets hurt, it’s tragic. But most of the crashes, people don’t get hurt.

Baggy Paragraphs: [Mentions Mike Conway's violent crash at Indy.] How was that guy not torn limb from limb?

Howdy Holmes: That’s my point. The cars are safe.

Baggy Paragraphs: The era that you raced in, if you hit the wall you were likely to crush your legs right up to your knees.

Howdy Holmes: Well, I used to be six foot six.

Written by baggyparagraphs

August 3, 2010 at 6:14 pm

My ride up the hill at Goodwood in a Ferrari 458 Italia

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Here’s the link to video of my ride up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on July 2, 2010. Pat Blakeney, a racing professional, drove a right-hand-drive Ferrari 458 Italia from the British press fleet. His smoothness at the wheel is something you’ll surely notice.

It’s an unedited video with much chit-chat as preamble, but the fun begins at 7.48 and you can slide the controller to that point. The course is 1.1 miles and includes as its major obstacle “The Flintwall,” which from the car looks as big as the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

Written by baggyparagraphs

July 10, 2010 at 6:01 pm

West Philly Team’s X Prize sendoff includes pom-poms, platitudes

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West Philly pulls out. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

The West Philly Hybrid X Team, the pride of Philadelphia, leaves the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday, undertaking a most special mission.

They’re heading 600 miles away to Michigan International Speedway, site of the Knockout Round of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize. That competition’s round continues through June 30.

Teachers and students from West Philadelphia High School’s Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering comprise the team.

At noontime Wednesday, they got a big sendoff ceremony at City Hall. The Mayor and two Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders were there to wish them well.

West Philly has two cars. The Ford Focus gas-hybrid is entered in the X Prize’s mainstream category, namely, four-seat cars, with a $5 million prize for the winner in the quest for 100 mpg. And the Factory Five GTM diesel-hybrid is in one of the two alternative categories, the one for cars with side-by-side seating. There’s another for tandem front-and-back two-seaters. The prize in each alternative class is $2.5 million.

The GTM is a kit car and looks a hell of a lot like a Ford GT-40. It’s very sexy until team manager Simon Hauger fires up the 1.9-liter Volkswagen diesel engine. Then it sounds like a bread truck. Diesel exhaust occasionally wafts into the cockpit. The sporty suspension goes “crash-crash” over bumps in the pavement.

Hauger drove me from the school, which had opened in 1912. Back then, the main building, which fills an entire city block, had 5500 students. This school year—commencement was just ending as we made our way downtown—the student population numbered fewer than 900. The student body is 97 percent black. A whole lot of kids never make it to commencement.

We headed through the campus of Drexel University and straight up Market Street toward City Hall. Partway there, an alarm sounded, and Hauger expressed concern that some air hadn’t been bled from the radiator; with coolant burping into the overflow tank, there was the possibility the engine would overheat before we made it the six or seven miles downtown.

But this issue faded, so he related his history.

Simon Hauger prepares West Philly's GTM diesel-electric hybrid before the sendoff. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

As much as anyone I’ve met in a long time, Hauger exudes integrity and purpose, and it’s hard to imagine the kids not loving and admiring him. He said he studied engineering at Drexel, but during an internship with a big manufacturer—G.E. and Westinghouse both had operations in the city—he realized he wanted something else. He returned to school for a master’s in education and spent 14 years teaching math and science. He wasn’t specifically a car guy, but he picked it up and has become full-time director of the Academy’s automotive program. He’ll take the wheel of one of the team’s cars in the competition.

His hope, beyond that for a good performance, is that that the “collective push” provided by the Automotive X Prize “would drive the industry forward,” he said.

We pulled within sight of City Hall, a massive Second-Empire structure.

“There’s William Penn!”

William Penn is way up above City Hall. Mayor Nutter was somewhere inside, and he would soon squeeze into the GTM's tight, un-limolike passenger's seat. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

How it’s possible to miss a 27-ton bronze statue more than 500 feet up from the street, atop what for 7 years (1901 to 1908) was the world’s tallest habitable building, I don’t know; but I missed it. Philly has lots of gleaming glass towers of recent vintage but none of the early 20th-century landmark skyscrapers that abound in New York, Detroit, and Chicago. This lack is owing to the gentleman’s agreement that no structure would surpass the height of City Hall. It wasn’t until 1987 that the 61-story One Liberty Place was erected.  

We went around to the northwest corner of the square, passed through the mouth of a driveway, and parked. Hauger was supposed to meet the mayor and take him on the very short trip along the building’s west side to the site of the ceremony itself. I swung my feet over the door sill and got out.

While standing around before the ceremony was supposed to start, I shot the breeze with a local radio reporter, who guaranteed the mayor would be late.

“What’s the mayor’s name?”

Michael Nutter,” he said.

“Is he Democrat or Republican?”

“Are you kidding? A large Eastern city? Of course, he’s a Democrat.”

Lots of people were massing, and it seemed like a good idea to interview someone besides another reporter. I found myself talking to Florence Palmer, who said her 15-year-old son, Shamere, was part of the team. Shamere appeared on cue. He was tall and solid, and it was no surprise when he said he plays football. His little brother, 2-year-old Shaquan, had him by the leg and wouldn’t let go. Shamere described his first in the Academy’s program. He had started by sweeping up around the shop and was assigned to the diesel-electric GTM, which he simply called “the black car.”

Jerry DiLossi, the program’s technical advisor, encouraged him to join the team.

“I’m able to visit places and get somewhere in life,” Shamere told me. “If football doesn’t work out, then I know a little bit of autos, and I can put a couple of dollars in my pocket. My mom told me it was a good idea to take it up.”

I told Shamere I’d be seeing him next week at MIS. Then I found myself talking with Serrett Bailey, whose colorful skirt was familiar from the shop. She said her 16-year-old son, Darmell, was second in order among her four kids, who range from 21 to 9 years old. (The author Jason Fagone, following West Philly for a forthcoming book, said Darmell is the quietest guy in the whole operation.) Serrett came to Philadelphia from Jamaica about 30 years ago; the last time she went back was in 1985. She works as a floor clerk at Marshall’s, the department store.

Serrett, Darmell, and Newell Bailey | Baggy Paragraphs photo

We were soon joined by her husband, Newell, who also had a Jamaican accent. He said he’s a laid-off supervisor at a hotel.

It was Newell who’d encouraged Darmell to get involved.

“I love it,” Newell said. “I’m very proud. Why not get him into something that can be of benefit to him in later years?”

Darmell drifted up and posed for a picture with his folks, but he was keeping his thoughts to himself.

Mayor Nutter finally made his way to the microphone, and the sendoff ceremony got going. During the next 15 minutes, the Mayor introduced various members of the team for their turns to address the crowd. The kids who spoke did a very nice job. And the Eagles’ cheerleaders performed with excellence.

When it was all over, it found myself alone with the Mayor, so I stuck out my tape recorder.

Q. What was your impression of riding in the car?

A. It’s a little tighter than what I’m normally used to, but I think once you get used to getting in it, it’s great.

Q. It sounds like a delivery truck—I don’t know if you noticed that.

A. No. I was just excited about being in the car and what the kids have done.

Q. It’s not your normal VIP limo at any rate.

A. Well, I wouldn’t know much about that. But I’ve heard about those limos.

[Here, I became overwhelmed with self-consciousness about interviewing the Democratic mayor of a big Eastern city in a completely informal situation, with none of the numerous other reporters shouting questions or showing any interest in him at all. I couldn't think of anything else to ask him but didn't want to let the opportunity pass. A long "duh" moment followed, and I apologized, saying I was used to interviewing auto execs, which isn't true at all; I never interview auto execs; and in fact, within the last few weeks, I'd interviewed two Congressmen and the Assistant U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the Mayor of Ann Arbor. Mayor Nutter graciously waited for me to get my rings around my pistons.]

Q. What’s your general takeaway from the—?

A. I think the larger issue here is that these young people have committed themselves to being involved in something very, very positive. They’ve had some success in the past, which they’re now building on. The fact that there are only 22 teams left, and they’re one of them, is an achievement in and of itself. But it also demonstrates the power of what young people are all about, and when they’re focused, they have good adults around them, they can accomplish almost anything.

Mayor Michael Nutter sends off West Philly team members to the X Prize. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

Thursday morning’s Inquirer carried a long piece on West Philly. The reporter had spent a couple of days with the team, and he managed not to succumb to the fallacy, mentioned by Hauger and volunteer coordinator Ann Cohen, that attributes the kids’ utter redemption to their work on the cars.

There has been extensive media coverage, and Hauger spoke of an NPR reporter’s surprise, on visiting late one afternoon, that so few kids were around. Where were they?

“Detention,” Hauger said.

“Isn’t that incongruous?” the reporter asked.

Hauger and Cohen now laugh because he admits not knowing what “incongruous” means. But the plain fact is that parental support could generally be better, and the students’ commitment levels vary.

As I’d told Newell Bailey, and maybe Florence and Shamere Palmer, too, it’s hard to predict the X Prize’s real payoff. Maybe the connections made today will solidify in 30 years.

It can take that long for incongruities to be worked out.

William H. Taft to Henry B. Joy

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William H. Taft

New Haven, Conn.

December 5, 1914.

My dear Mr. Joy:

William Howard Taft official portrait, by Anders Zorn, 1911, now hanging in White House Blue Room

 I am in receipt of your letter of December 2nd, in which you quote a passage from an article of Ida Tarbell, in the American Magazine, for December, on page 62, reading as follows:

“They appeared in private conversation on every hand, in public discussion, in the press and even in the very questions which pestered President Taft on his speech-making tour in the fall of 1909 until he finally threw up his hands and said in effect: ‘Well if you will let me alone I will tell you why I signed the bill. I knew the wool schedule was all wrong but the combine back of it was so strong I did not dare, for political reasons, to turn it down.’”

The statement is wholly untrue.

Sincerely yours,

Wm. H. Taft

Mr. H. B. Joy, President,

Packard Motor Car Company,

Detroit, Michigan.

Written by baggyparagraphs

December 18, 2009 at 5:29 pm


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