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In second NASCAR Nationwide race, Dakoda Armstrong comes home 15th, but not unfettered, at Auto Club Speedway

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Dakoda Armstrong after the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

Dakoda Armstrong after the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

On March 23, 2013, making his second-ever start in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Dakoda Armstrong finished 15th in the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

Q. Fifteenth position—pretty good for your second race.

A. Yeah, I mean, we were better than that, but we were struggling on restarts there. I think we restarted ninth on that last one. Those people that had new tires behind us—you get stuck three-wide between everybody, and it’s really hard to get this thing to handle right. You get spread out. We just lost too much ground there to make up. We were hoping another caution was going to come out so we could come back in and use our last set of tires. Everyone else that took them was going to be sitting ducks. Didn’t work out that way.

Q. Overall was it fun or frustrating?

A. For a while there it was fun. I thought we were getting it, and I thought we were going to have a good finish. I’ve just got to get my restarts down and figure out what it needs on those.

Q. Your boss, Richard Childress, has to be fairly impressed.

A. Well, at least we brought it home in one piece. That’s one good thing.

Written by baggyparagraphs

March 24, 2013 at 11:33 am

More Corvettes at the Pete: the 60th anniversary, some special cars, and other men who raced them

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The Petersen Automotive Museum hosted a gala to celebrate the Corvette’s 60th anniversary, and Kirk Bennion, exterior design manager, presented the new C7 ’Vette, making its West Coast debut. Beforehand, a panel of important figures in Corvette racing history told battle stories and signed autographs. And the museum opened an exhibit of significant examples.

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The first Corvette in 1953 excited some people with its advanced styling but disappointed others with its weak six-cylinder engine and Powerglide transmission. In any event, it was a remarkable product offering from a conservative corporation. The ’60 ‘Vette in the background is known as Big Tank.

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“The American kid was out there racing that car,” Dick Guldstrand said. “You had to take your lunch money and do it yourself.” He drove his own ’56 Corvette to the track at Santa Barbara, taped off the headlights, stuck in a roll hoop, qualified for the race and won it.

Doug Hooper, left, remembered the early bias against Corvettes. “That was not the true sports car,” he recalled people saying. Only European makes qualified as such. “Thank God for [Zora Arkus-] Duntov. If it weren’t for him, there would’ve been no Corvette.” The engineer kept introducing new parts and features each year. “He kept it alive.”

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Corvettes at the Petersen Museum: the 60-year anniversary, some singular cars, and the men who raced them

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The Petersen Automotive Museum hosted a gala to celebrate the Corvette’s 60th anniversary, and Kirk Bennion, exterior design manager, presented the new C7 ‘Vette, making its West Coast debut. Beforehand, a panel of important figures in Corvette racing history told battle stories and signed autographs. And the museum opened an exhibit of significant examples.

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Chevrolet’s Kirk Bennion, exterior design manager for the 2014 Corvette: “We wanted to play up the premium finishes and details.”

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Doug Fehan, program manager for Corvette racing, makes a point about the car’s success in road racing. Joe Freitas, left, remembered seeing Phil Hill excel in a Ferrari at March Air Force Base. Road racing “got in my blood real early,” he said. “Those early Corvettes were a hell of a lot of fun going sideways.”

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Zora Arkus-Duntov, the engineer credited by racing panel members with keeping the Corvette alive, understood the trend toward mid-engine single-seaters and led the creation of the Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle. First in an intermittent series, it’s known as CERV I. Bosses at General Motors didn’t want the company involved in racing, so the concept went nowhere fast. Stock-block Ford V-8 engines later ended up in Lotus cars, a combination that captured the glory at Indy.

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Paul Reinhart, an early driver, remembered kissing trophy girl Jayne Mansfield after a victory. Bill Krause, right, got his start in Offy-powered midgets.

A tour of the old WXYZ radio studio, origin of the immortal ‘Lone Ranger’ and ‘Green Hornet’ programs

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A view from the WXYZ control room into the studio, where Maccabees Building engineer inspects the remains.

A view from WXYZ’s control room into the studio, where the Maccabees Building engineer inspects the remains.

In the early spring of 2012, I was given a tour of the old WXYZ radio studio, which occupies the top floor of the Maccabees Building, in Detroit’s cultural center. A fraternal organization, the Maccabees provided low-cost insurance to members. The name derived from the Old Testament family, Maccabees, whose members showed invincible resolve against oppressors. The building by architect Albert Kahn features a splendid, vaulted entry lobby with marble and brass and tile.

The tight staircase leading up to the old WXYZ radio studio.

The tight staircase leading up to the WXYZ radio studio.

Making my desire known, I was introduced to building engineer Bill Willard, whose office was about three levels underground. He took me up to the studio, which sat above the fourteenth floor, beyond the reach of the building’s elevators. We went through a locked door and climbed a staircase to reach the chamber.

Detroit movie theater impresarios George Washington Trendle and John Kunsky sold out to Paramount for $6 million before the depths of the Great Depression. In April of 1930, with a third partner, they purchased WGHP, a 1000-watt station, for $250,000. Radio at the time was still a rich man’s plaything and a risky venture; WGHP was losing $125,000 per year, according to Dick Osgood’s account in “Wyxie Wonderland: An Unauthorized 50-Year Diary of WXYZ Detroit.” After pulling some strings with the United States government, which had reserved the call letters WXYZ for the military, the station was renamed. Trendle was boss and James Jewell was dramatic director.

Rather than shell out fees for programming, it was decided to produce shows right here. At first, while the station was supporting sixty-five musicians for its live fare, the losses totaled as much as $4000 per week. Then a genius writer named Fran Striker, who lived in Buffalo, was retained for $100 per week. “The Lone Ranger” was an early collaborative effort. The first episode was broadcast on January 20, 1933. The Michigan Radio Network soon relayed the show in Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Bay City, and Flint. After some episodes, at least partly owing to the suggestion of a boy who listened in Chicago, Tonto was added to the story. The name came from Tonto Basin, Arizona. His name for the Lone Ranger, Kimosabe, came from a camp near Cheboygan, Michigan. For some time Tonto and the Lone Ranger shared the same horse, Silver; Tonto’s Scout was introduced after a naming contest among listeners. New York’s WOR and Chicago’s WGN were soon carrying the show. Before long, The Lone Ranger was earning hundreds of thousands in fees for broadcast rights. Wanting the property for movie serials, Hollywood’s Republic Studios paid $60,000 for rights. “The Lone Ranger” and “The Lone Ranger Rides Again” thrilled national audiences in 1938 and 1939.

Looking from the studio space back into the old WXYZ control room.

Looking from the studio space back into the control room.

“The Green Hornet” made its debut on January 31, 1936. The formula remained constant: a right-thinking WASP, who spoke perfect English and evinced the utmost in personal propriety, was accompanied by  a savvy man of color. The Hornet, who would sting crooked politicians, was aimed at civic-minded young people. Universal would soon serialize “The Green Hornet.”

Meanwhile, the mill kept churning atop the Maccabees Building. “Ned Jordan, Secret Agent” followed in 1938 and the next year “Challenge of the Yukon” offered the variation in the form of Sergeant Preston’s sidekick: a husky replaced Silver. Other WXYZ programs throughout the decade were “Warner Lester, Manhunter,” “Dr. Fang,” “Thrills of the Secret Service,” and “Covered Wagon Days.”

Old WXYZ radio's workshop area high atop the Maccabees Building in Detroit.

Props like the horn for the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty car were stored in the workshop area

“It was an amazing period in Detroit broadcast history because ‘The Green Hornet’ and others were coming out of this little radio station,” Erik Smith, a long-time Detroit broadcaster who started at WXYZ Channel 7 in 1948, told me a couple of years ago in a telephone interview. “It was a national powerhouse.”

WXYZ co-owner John Kunsky renamed himself King, and in 1946, just before the advent of television, King-Trendle showed perfect timing once again, selling WXYZ to ABC for $3.65 million just before the television era began.

In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the shows were the basis for TV series, most notably “Ranger” and “Hornet.” More recently, in 2011, “Hornet” was a feature film. Starring Seth Rogen, it surpassed $225 million in box office revenues.

Audiences will sit down on May 31 to watch the new $250-million Disney production of “The Lone Ranger,” starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, and probably won’t have an inkling about the obscure origins of Tinseltown’s newest franchise. It all started in the minds of a few creative people who were locked up together fourteen stories above Detroit.

Bill Willard stands outside the old WXYZ control room where James Jewell directed radio classics.

Bill Willard stands outside the WXYZ control room where James Jewell directed radio classics.

Written by baggyparagraphs

January 6, 2013 at 9:45 am

GM squandered our good will, setting off years of licks for corporate America

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GM general counsel Aloysius Power, center, admits to a Senate subcommittee that he damn well did order the spying on Ralph Nader, although he said Eileen Murphy, right, looking bored, who was the company’s first female lawyer when she was hired in 1959, directed the operation. Assistant general counsel Louis Bridenstine, left, grimaces at the news.

By Ronald Ahrens

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, General Motors was the most admired corporation in America. The company had received credit for single-handedly saving the national economy in 1955, when chairman and chief executive Red Curtice decided, despite the forecast of a recession, to go ahead with plant expansion worth $1 billion. Curtice was subsequently named Time’s man of the year; GM executive Ed Cole, the father of the Corvair, would appear on the cover of that magazine in 1959, and Curtice’s replacement Fred Donner also got a cover in 1962.

But all that good will was thrown away. On November 30, 1965, Ralph Nader, the son of Lebanese-immigrant parents, published Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. While Nader’s book is a sweeping exposé in the tradition of The Jungle, it might have made no mark whatsoever; some 20,000 copies were sold in the first three months. Not bad, but not quite a blockbuster. GM’s legal department assured otherwise, though. Led by chief counsel Aloysius Power and egged on by Eileen Murphy, GM’s first female attorney who was the department’s librarian, the company started spying on Nader. He received harassing calls at his unlisted number in northwest Washington, D.C., and was tailed as he traveled to TV appearances in February of 1966. One investigator interviewed Nader’s acquaintances to learn his political beliefs, whether he was anti-Semitic, and whether he was gay.

English: Head-and-shoulders portrait of Ralph ...

GM put the tail on Ralph Nader (and tried to get him some, too).

Standing at a drugstore newsstand on February 20, Nader was “leafing through an auto magazine when a woman apologized for being forward but asked if he would like to participate in a ‘foreign affairs discussion’ at her apartment,” according to the New York Times.

Three days later, Nader was choosing a package of cookies in a supermarket when “a young woman asked him for help in moving some heavy articles at her residence.” After he said no, the woman didn’t ask any of the other men in the store.

By March 10, the spying story had broken. Bunkie Knudsen, GM’s new executive vice president for overseas operations, was with Donner in Honolulu at the beginning of an around-the-world tour of company facilities. In the early 1960s Knudsen devoted some effort to critiquing Donner’s policies and his personal style, which was imperious, and his emphasis on long meetings that mired everybody in minutiae. Donner was also too involved in determining the particulars of individual car models. Nevertheless, Knudsen was clearly on the boss’s side, now, perhaps not in the least because he hoped his next promotion would be to GM president. He recorded the reaction to the Nader bust in his diary:

“Fred found out we—through our Legal Dept.—had been investigating Nader. We had to admit it after first denying it. Fred is very upset as he should be. I can’t understand why they would do such a thing.”

At a cocktail party the next evening, Knudsen found Donner feeling “blue” and questioning his own leadership ability. But he also said the legal department “got their just due since they have been continually lecturing on the need to be Simon Pure.”

Shock from Across the Dateline

On Saturday, March 19, the men were in Adelaide, South Australia, where the fall festival was in progress. Donner took a call from Roche and learned the “accusations relative to [the] investigation were true and Jim’s statement is one of eating crow. This whole thing will hurt us badly both with the public and with our competition.”

The next week, company president Jim Roche and the legal department were in Washington, separately appearing before Congress. Roche sweated out his auto-da-fé before Senator Abe Ribicoff’s traffic safety subcommittee, admitting guilt and accepting blame. But Power, making a basket with his fingers, Murphy, looking desperately bored, and Louis Bridenstine, assistant general counsel, frowning and reflecting great solemnity, also appeared before the subcommittee. Power said it was he who’d authorized the investigation of Nader—but not to harass him. And Power said Murphy handled the details.

In a WASP-y outfit like GM, it didn’t go unnoticed that the three guilty parties—Roche, Power, and Murphy—all happened to be Roman Catholics.

That Saturday, now in Sydney, Knudsen wrote, “It appears Fred has some questions in his mind vis-à-vis Jim. He can’t say. He keeps on feeling sorry for Jim. The Nader investigation has hurt Jim and Fred can’t be blamed in any way. Jim who is the most detailed man got caught with Power on the investigation—his buddy and a fellow churchman. This hurts Fred deeply and brings out the religious affiliation. Fred has never said this but it is very obvious.

Two weeks later, after stops in Singapore and Bangkok, they made their way to Beirut. After meeting with dealers and distributors, Donner and Knudsen went on an excursion to see the ruins of the Baalbek Valley. It was a “nerve-wracking” trip, Knudsen reported. “They pass on curves and going uphill and they drive very fast. They are reckless and have many accidents. I would suggest that Ralph Nader come to his hometown and see how they drive.”

In the Aftermath, Scorn for Corporations

Knudsen was right in predicting the incident would hurt GM.

“General Motors had been marked as arrogant and mendacious,” wrote Ed Cray in Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Times. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed later that year, and Congress wasn’t inclined to cut Detroit any slack on complying with new regulations.

Roche succeeded Donner as chairman and big cheese in 1967, and the next interval saw GM involved in a huge recall of Chevrolets with faulty engine mounts that could cause sticking throttles. The company showed additional insensitivity when Roche’s successor as president—not Knudsen, after all, but Ed Cole—was quoted in the New York Times saying, “There is no real danger and no reason a person shouldn’t drive the car in a normal manner. A person driving a car should be a skilled driver, and if he can’t manage a car under 25 miles per hour, he shouldn’t be driving.”

Cole—along with influential automotive editors like David E. Davis, Jr.—never quit defending the Corvair, either.

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July 20, 2012 at 7:00 am

How I met former Shelby American employee William Jean, Jr.

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William Jean, Jr. was sitting on a bench outside the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum on April 21, the day of the Ford-Cobra-Shelby Reunion, when I noticed him. It was the regalia: a Hawaiian shirt with Carroll Shelby’s autograph, for one thing. A name tag hanging from a lanyard marked Mr. Jean as an original Shelby American employee.

When he was just out of Venice High School, he went to work for the company at 1042 Princeton Avenue, in L.A.’s Venice neighborhood. His father was a fabricator there—the man, according to his son, who welded the fender flares onto 427 Cobras.

The younger Mr. Jean worked as a detailer, preparing cars going on the transporter, a six-car trailer pulled by an old Ford cab-over tractor.

Now sixty-seven years old, he said he viewed the celebration as “a little bit of history.” I had him repeat the line when I took the picture. It didn’t make the cut with my report for the New York Times, so I thought I’d post it here.

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April 24, 2012 at 12:45 pm

How headlines are conceived and written

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How headlines are conceived and written

Written by baggyparagraphs

March 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

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