Cars and Karts

I met Aaron Rennert and Ray Sullivan on the Washington Square folkmusic scene. Soon the three of us fell in with fellow folkniks Dick and Kiki Greenhaus and their friends, Don & Jo Meisner. Greenhice and Meisners were auto race fans who headed the Safety Inspection team at regional SCCA races. They invited us and another friend, Jock Root, to join the team for the first race of the 1959 season.

I'd never been to a sports car race before, but I knew that with this gang it was bound to be fun. The race would be at a small airport in Montgomery, NY. Don & Jo would be staying at a nearby motel. The rest of us would be camping out at the track, along with a lot of other fans and participants. Jock would camp with us, but ride up with Don & Jo. The rest of us were going in the Greenhice VW Beetle.

Five sleeping bags, a small arctic tent and sundry luggage were loaded onto a roof rack on the VW. Ray and Aaron were avid photographers. They, their gadget bags and I were fitted cozily into the back sea.. Dick and Kiki settled into the front seats and off we went.

The airport consisted of nothing more than a pattern of blacktop landing strips in a large field. The only facilities were a water faucet and two old plank outhouses. I don't know about the men's, but the women's didn't have a roof.

We set up the inspection line on one strip. As a novice I was put to assisting in the brake test. I just had to watch one side of the car while a driver got up to a specific speed, then hit the brakes. If he stopped within a specified distance, all the brakes locked and the car did not pull, he passed that part of the inspection.

All around us, preparations for the races were under way. Haybales were being positioned on the blacktop to make a twisting road course of the air strips. Cars were arriving, some on trailers, some just being driven in. Drivers and crews were changing plugs, checking engines, taping numbers on doors. The sound of engines and the smell of burning Castrol filled the air. Excitement and anticipation. I loved it.

We were still working when the practice laps began, but had qualified all the cars that met specs by the time the racing began. And I was beginning to learn what it was all about. Different classes for cars with different size engines, so there'd be fair competition. All of the cars had to pass legal requirements for road machines, but some were specialized for racing. Others were the owner's transportation with just changed plugs and added numbers for racing. Race driving was not just a matter of standing on the accelerator. There was a lot of skill and judgement involved. Sometimes a driver misjudged and a car ended up nosed into the haybales that lined the corners. Fascinating.

We'd picked our spot on the camp grounds when we arrived, and left the VW there. When the racing was over Dick set up the barbeque grill and Kiki got a batch of shish-kabob going. Then Dick set up the tent he and Kiki would share. The rest of us unrolled our sleeping bags and blew up our air mattresses---except for Jock Root who planned to simply wrap up in a blanket for the night.

By the time we'd enjoyed our supper, it was getting dark and we were plenty tired. I think we all fell asleep quickly. I know I did.

I was awakened suddenly, in the dark. It was beginning to rain. Dick and Kiki invited me into their tent. It was big enough to accommodate two comfortably, or three good friends, but no more than that. The guys were on their own. Ray and Aaron got along well enough, if a bit uncomfortably, in their waterproof sleeping bags. Jock's blanket got soaking wet. It was a big old red and black checked blanket. The red dye ran. By morning, Jock was tinted with spots of pink.

Dick and Kiki had gotten coffee going first thing. It was especially welcome, especially delicious, that morning.

It didn't rain again that weekend. Our stuff dried out during the day, while we were enjoying the races. After it was over we returned to Manhattan, looking forward to hot showers and the next race. Jock didn't join us again, but the rest of us were hooked.

Here's how I briefly became a "professional photographer".

The autumn of 1959 my folks invited me to Savannah for Thanksgiving and offered to buy my round trip train ticket. I wasn't working at the time so I was cash-short but long on time. I planned to take them up on it.

Then I realized that Nassau Speed Week, with world-class sports car racing and the first Gran Prix of Go Karts, would start the following weekend, and Savannah was not so far from Nassau. I got to wondering if I could afford to hop over to the Bahamas for the races.

My ex-husband was editing a couple of automotive magazines at the time, so I called him and asked if I could finagle a press pass. That would not only get me into the races for free but give me run of the track and pits which is the fun way to watch a race. He called back and told me I could have the pass, AND that the race promoters were going all out that year, giving members of the press free accommodations. Wow! Terrific!

Ray Sullivan offered to lend me a Leica with an assortment of lenses, a gadget bag and a mess of film (they rolled their own from bulk). Great! I'd have the pass and the props to go with it. All I'd have to provide would be the plane ticket and my food.

It turned out I didn't have to worry much about food. A bunch of the drivers and other race people were staying at the same hotel, and were happy to invite a single female (who was a representative of The Press to boot) to dine with them. Various of them gave me rides to the track and back and invited me to the parties after the races.

The races were great fun. I wandered happily around the track, fell in with the crew of one of the cars, and watched most of the racing from a flag station where I could take lots of pictures. I shot plenty of film. Unfortunately I shot one roll twice but the rest came out pretty well.

Once I was back in New York, I returned the borrowed camera, Ray Sullivan and Aaron Rennert developed and printed my pictures and I did a short article about the Go Karts in Nassau for one of my ex-husband's magazines. That paid enough to cover the cost of my plane tickets. So I pretty much broke even on the trip.


Dick Greenhaus and Don Meisner both faunched to race sports cars, but it's an expensive hobby. Even in '59 and '60 when relatively low-priced sports cars like the MG, TR-3 and Sprite were being imported, racing was still too expensive for the common working class. Then Go-Kart racing burst on the scene, and it was touted as "poor man's motor racing." Karts were at their very simplest then. A couple of hundred dollars could get you on the track. We hoped to do it cheaper.

Of course it was to be a group activity, the seven of us who worked the sports car races together making up a kart-racing team. My ex-husband was editing one of the new magazines for go-karters, so I called and asked him if there was any chance of using his connections to get a discount on a kart. He said the magazine had just received a go-kart kit for review and if we wanted to put it together and write an article about it, we could have it.

So there we were, the gang of us building a go-kart in the Greenhaus third floor walk-up live-in loft. I learned to disassemble a Clinton chain-saw engine and put it back together again. But my specialty was putting the master link in a chain---and during our time as a racing team, I got lots of practice.

We got the kit together, and needed a place to practice with it. Fortunately the Greenhaus loft was in a commercial district where Sundays were very quiet. We lugged the kart downstairs, took it to a nearby empty parking lot and started going around in circles. I did a couple of laps, but decided I was not temperamentally suited to be a racer. I'd be better as a crew member. Jo and Kiki chose the same option. Ray and Aaron drove some, but were more interested in photographing the action to participating in it. So Dick and Don became our official drivers.

While we were roaring around the vacant lot, a cop car pulled up. Someone had complained about us. We explained what we were up to and soon had the cops each taking a few turns around the lot on the kart. Grinning, they left us to our fun and games. We invited them to come back any time we were running, but they never did. However, various of our friends came around to try it, and a few went to the races to watch.

We needed a racing number and chose 97, after the the train in the folk song. You know, The Wreck of The Old 97. Perhaps not the most auspicious of choices. We called ourselves the RSV racing team. RSV for Ridiculously Small Vehicle. We even had a logo. After we'd been in a few races, Dick drew it up. He was working at an epoxy lab, and used some to make us lapel pins. Each was a black epoxy-coated disk with three links of copper chain set into the epoxy. Significantly, the middle link was broken.

There was racing every Sunday at a Drive-In Theater on Long Island. When we felt we and the kart were ready, we hefted it onto the roof rack of Greenhice' VW bug, the five of us crammed inside, and off we went.

Once, with the kart atop the VW Beetle, we stopped for gas and a group of teenagers came up to look us over. One asked, "How fast can that thing go?" Dick answered him, "About forty miles an hour." "No," he said, "I mean the one on the top."

Race after race, Dick and Don took turns driving. Race after race, we never finished. Within a few laps our kart would inevitably throw the chain. That's where my skill came in. I'd get the chain back on again and we'd get the kart back onto the track, only to have the same thing happen again.

Eventually we were able to spot the problem. The kart frame would flex in the corners, throwing the sprockets out of alignment. We had a few thoughts about how to stiffen it, but by then Dick and Don had some ideas for how a racing go-kart should be designed. We decided to build a new one, from the tires up. Don was a draftsman by trade and drew up the plans. We bought some of the materials we needed and got some parts through my ex-husband in exchange for more articles for his magazines. Dick and I wrote together under the penname Lee Green. (Later in life, Dick used that as a penname for some other writing.) Ray and Aaron provided photos.

We even got a fine new Homelite engine through the magazine. Since the Homelite company was within easy driving distance, Dick and I went up to get an interview for our article. Homelite was very interested in the kart market, and was testing engines for them on the track at Lime Rock, Connecticut, where the SCCA races were run. They had a classy test kart set up with dual engines and Dick was invited to take a few laps in it. He did and had a fine time tearing around the track. Then they invited me to try it. The kart felt powerful enough to be scary. I took what were probably the slowest laps ever driven around Lime Rock.

We did the necessary metal turning and welding on our custom kart at Zelf's Do-It-Yourself Machine Shop where I learned a little about lathe work and tried my hand at throwing a bead. Zelf's was a fascinating place in an industrial area just off Canal Street. There was a doll factory nearby and it was disconcerting to see disembodied arms, legs and heads among the scatterings of trash in the gutters.

There were a couple of cubbies in Zelf's that were rented out to tool & die makers who wanted convenient access to the machine shop. We became friends with one who was building a machine to automatically put fake stones into oval jewelry settings. The settings looked a lot like a bunch of brass cockroaches lying on their backs, their legs in the air. A conveyer belt carried them along and the stones were dropped into their waiting prongs. I dated him a time or two, but nothing came of it. Not even a gift of cheap costume jewelry.

We were still assembling the kart in the Greenhaus loft when Dick and Kiki decided to split up. That dampened our enthusiasm for the project. The custom kart never did get finished.

Kiki went on tour with a dance troupe. Dick moved to New Jersey. Ray married and moved to Long Island. Aaron became more involved in his family's business. I went onto a late shift at work, and after a while quit my job to write full time. By then, we had drifted away from the racing scene. But the gang didn't completely disperse. Don and Jo, Aaron and I, and some other friends who joined us, were all still hanging out together, getting involved in various activities together, when I decided to leave New York in 1971.

© 2021 Gary Ross Hoffman

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