Travels With Clarence – We Make Manhattan

The hearts started pumping again, the air went out of the lungs with a sigh of relief, and we continued east.  I reached into the cooler, grabbed a beer and handed one to Clarence.

“Thanks, man, I thought we were done.”

We were a day behind schedule now and Clarence was visibly in a hurry to get some miles behind us.  I glanced at the speedometer a couple of times and we were doing well over 90.  Once the needle hit a 100, and I warned him that he had better slow down.  We wanted to get there in one piece, I reminded him.  It was decided then that the detour to Hannibal was out of the question, I would have to wait several years before I would get to scratch that off my list, but the stop in Indianapolis was still on.  We were going to drive by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so we both agreed it would be foolish not to stop for a short look around.

I had a detailed model of this Indy car in my collection, as well as several others.

We made Indy the next day, took the Indianapolis Motor Speedway exit, and there it was.  The most amazing race track in the world.  We spent a few minutes admiring the two and half mile oval known as the “brickyard,” then went into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall Of Fame Museum.  I was in heaven.  The speedway opened in 1909.   Almost every famous race car driver competed here.  Mario Andretti, who I would actually meet in Gasoline Alley several years hence, the Unsers from Albuquerque, Foyt, Mears, Gordon, Earnhart, Billy Vucovich, who was killed in a fiery crash in 1955, Haroun and his rear-view mirror, the first winner of the 500-mile race, and many others that won here and made a name for themselves overnight.  Over 75 cars are displayed here, all the winners that the Museum owns in chronological order so you can see how the cars developed.  One of the most amazing cars on display was the Andy Granatelli STP-Paxton TurboCar, a turbine-powered car, basically a jet engine on four wheels.  Andy entered turbine-powered cars in 1967 and 1968.  Neither car finished the race.  In 1967, Parnelli Jones led almost the entire race and suffered engine failure with three laps to go.  The loss was blamed on a six dollar part in the transmission.  Changes in rules have eliminated turbine engines from competition, but interestingly they had no more horsepower than the piston-powered engines they competed against.

The original surface of the track was a tar, sand and gravel mix, later replaced with brick, thus the nickname “the brickyard.”  I am always amazed at what that would have taken to brick a two and one half mile track.  I mean, I’ve laid brick on a patio before.  The surface was later covered with asphalt, leaving one-yard of the historic brick surface exposed at the finish line.

I had followed the race, run on Memorial Day weekend, as long as I could remember.  My favorite driver growing up was Mario Andretti, mostly because it was my Dad’s favorite driver, probably.  There was another connection to the race in my family.  I had heard stories that my Uncle Joe had been a mechanic in Gasoline Alley for a few years.  He had just driven out there from New York, one year, wanting to be on a pit crew.  My Uncle Joe was a mechanic and owned an automotive repair and body shop on Long Island for years.  My Aunt and Uncle, my Dad’s sister and brother-in-law, were one of the relatives I planned to look up after arriving on Long Island.  They lived in Woodmere and that was all I knew.

In case you’ve ever wondered what “STP” stands for, it is “Scientifically Treated Petroleum.”  When we were kids we had STP stickers on everything; our bikes, our car bumpers, our school books, even our lockers.  I never knew what the initials stood for, and I have never put a can of it in my car.  I could never figure out where the stickers came from either, but they were everywhere.  Most kids had stacks of them and would just give them away.  Somehow, I think it must have been a pretty successful advertising campaign, and the revolutionary turbine cars at Indy didn’t hurt either.

After an hour or so of walking among the cars at Indy, Clarence had had enough and was ready to go.  He made a call to his wife on the pay phone in the lobby, telling her that we would be there tomorrow morning.  We had another 770 miles to go, and at 100 mph, I figured we could probably make it.  Back in the car, it was my turn to drive, and I kept the Datsun under 90.  Clarence fell asleep, the radar detector remained silent, and I put a cassette in the stereo.  Rocking out to CCR, Credence Clearwater Revival, Clarence didn’t stir.

Later that night, we changed drivers again, and I quickly drifted off to sleep.  When I woke up, we were in Pennsylvania.  I took the controls again after we stopped for something to eat at a Howard Johnson’s and, after a wrong turn or two, I was lost in a wooded area of New Jersey.  

“Were in the hell are we?” Clarence popped awake.

“Not sure,” I said.  All I could see were big estates on both sides of the road and acres of trees.

We came to an intersection, on there on the left was Bell Labs.  I had worked for Mountain Bell, and knew that we must be in Murray Hills, New Jersey, because that was where Bell Labs was, and there it was.

Well, without GPS which hadn’t been invented yet, or a map reader that wasn’t asleep, you could understand how I made a few right turns I shouldn’t have made, and ended up here.

Clarence took over the reins, and within minutes we were headed in the right direction again, on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  Manhattan was visible in the distance.

Watch for more “Travels With Clarence” in the future.




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4 responses to “Travels With Clarence – We Make Manhattan

  1. Danny Amira

    You better have this done by the weekend, if I have to wait I’m going to kill something

  2. I’m sure neither of you nor the Big Apple were ever the same…

    This made a great series. I’ll look for more in the future. 🙂

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