By all accounts, Bench Racing Weekend 2017 was another success. Here is recap offered by attendee Bill Blaylock:
"BRW has been around for some 40+ years, beginning in Chicago and later moving to Indianapolis at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near the airport. Today, it is put on by Chuck Shuman, his wife Anne, Clare Poremsky and volunteers from the racing community in Indy. It begins informally on Friday afternoon when vintage cars are rolled into the hotel ballroom (two of the cars were Len Sutton’s 1962 Watson and Ted Horn’s sprint car “Baby”). It began formally Friday evening with a program in the hotel’s auditorium where Donald Davidson interviewed Bob Jenkins in a “fireside chat” format. This session could not have been better. Donald led Bob through the best stories of Bob’s career (I had not previously known, for example, that Bob briefly served as a Formula One commentator in Europe).
As always, there were tours of race shops on Saturday morning. The tours for this year included the new Juncos Racing shop and the Throckmorten Racing facility (formerly Grant King’s race shop).
Then there were the Saturday afternoon programs. Doak Ewing started showing his extensive collection of race films of the 500, beginning with the 1940s. In a longstanding BRW tradition, he runs his 500 films year-by-year and back-to-back almost continuously from early afternoon into the evening. Attendees come and go and come again to catch their favorite 500s. In the past, I have personally been in Doak’s viewing room as late as maybe midnight, when only three or four of us were left, cheering on Hurtubise (yeah, cheering as if each hadn’t already seen, maybe a hundred times among us, Herk do his second turn pass to take the lead on the opening lap in 1961).
Later on Saturday afternoon, Doak took a break and I did my “Racers Remembered” presentation, where we reviewed the careers and accomplishments of 26 men and two women who were significant to racing and who passed in the last year. Unfortunately, as we all well know, there were too many names to choose from. With more time, my remembrance could have included the lives of 50 notable individuals.
But the highlight of the afternoon began after my presentation. It was a one-hour session where Dave Wilson interviewed Mel Kenyon, again in a fireside chat format. Mel was fantastic. He put out racing stories and facts faster than I could write them down. Most of his interesting comments were in response to questions from the audience. Some the racing history tidbits I did manage to capture:
- When he finished 5rd in the 1966 500, he ran the last 70 laps on three cylinders. That was when he learned to drive deep into the corners with no brakes. He had to because he was way down on straightaway speed.
- He drove the City of Lebanon Special to 3th place in the 1968 500. The car was owned by Lindsey Hopkins, but had no sponsorship funding. Mel had to raise the money to run the car and did so by his own early version of today’s “crowd funding,” with contributions from groups within his home town of Lebanon, Indiana, and with other help coming in from all over the country. During the race, when he came in for his last pit stop, he told the crew that the throttle return spring had broken. One of them replied, “You’re doing good. Keep it up,” and they sent him back out.
- Back in those days, the handling on Indy cars was such that they started the 500 with a push and ended the race loose.
- His last effort at the 500 was in 1976.
- In his career, Mel won 284 races in the US, Australia and New Zealand. About half were on dirt and half on pavement. He only ran something like 6-8 sprint car races. I assume nearly all of the 284 were in midgets. He raced for 61 years.
- Mel talked about midgets at Raceway Park (5/8 mile paved track; used to be “Indianapolis Raceway Park”). He said that, several years ago when USAC still ran there, the midgets were turning 135 MPH laps and would hit 170 on the straights!!!
- He raced a midget with an in/out box and no clutch on the road course at an SCCA event at Watkins Glen one year. He finished 2ndand was told he could not come back with the midget. This was soon after Rodger Ward had won a race at Lime Rock in a midget.
- Mel was not very complimentary about the handling and driving of a roadster (“They drove like a truck”). He said he never could figure out the Federal Engineering roadster that he tried to qualify in 1965. He did not make the field that year.
- When asked what it was like to transition to a rear engine car, he said it was actually pretty easy for someone who had raced midgets extensively. The cars drove smoothly and were very nimble, like a midget, and the sight line distance from the nose to the steering wheel, was similar to that of a midget.
- When asked to compare the Ontario Motor Speedway with IMS, Mel said that OMS was a great track. It was very smooth, including the pit lane, and had sight lines for drivers that were much better than IMS in that there were no trees, grandstands or other infrastructure to block a driver’s vision. A driver could see a long way around the track.
- Mel turned 84 on April 15.
BRW’s Main Event is dinner Saturday night along with a guest speaker. This year the speaker was Dick Simon, who ran in 183 USAC/CART races, including 17 Indy 500s. He later became a prolific car owner, entering as many as five cars for an event. Some of the highlights from the dinner program:
- Again, Donald Davidson used a fireside chat format to lead the discussion with Dick.
- In addition to Dick, there were four other Indy veterans present, including Mel Kenyon, Paul Goldsmith, Johnnie Parsons and Eldon Rasmussen. They are always engaging with attendees and fun to be around.
- Dick told a Mark Donahue story. Dick was struggling when he first got to Indy in 1970. Mark came around and asked how long the travel was on the throttle pedal. They measured it to be three inches. Mark told Dick to reduce it to one inch. Dick didn’t see the need to shorten the travel and assured Mark he could slam the throttle down almost instantly. But he followed Mark’s advice and changed the travel to an inch. To his surprise, he gained several tenths of a second in lap times.
- Dick said that for those years when he was a rent-a-ride car owner, every rookie he took in qualified for the 500. Raul Boesel was his best driver, and Lyn St. James was the easiest to work with (would listen and learn).
- Dick had a couple of funny stories, one of which was that at one point the FBI thought that Dick was the famous D.B. Cooper (the guy who hijacked a plane in 1971, parachuted out of it over a remote area of Washington state with $200,000 ransom money and was never caught). The FBI learned that Dick was from Washington; that he knew the Washington terrain; that he knew how to parachute; that he knew how to scuba (the FBI thought Cooper had buried the money in a river) and that Dick owed Dan Gurney $200,000 for a car. They came to take Dick into custody but he avoided that only because his wife produced Dick’s calendar, which indicated – and which the FBI confirmed – that Dick was in New York pitching a sponsorship deal to General Foods on the day of the hijacking.
- And lastly, Donald Davidson gave us all a demonstration of his acute photographic memory by reciting, without any notes or prompting from Dick or anyone else, Dick’s finishing position or DNQ status for every 500 he entered from 1970 through 1988.
After the dinner session, many of us retired to a designated conference room (adorned with an extensive offering of snacks, desserts and adult beverages) for some pure bench racing, or back to the conference room where Doak was running his classic Indy films, or in and out of both. It was a good Bench Racing Weekend. I look forward to next year’s.
This was a day and a half of bench racing at its finest. The feedback from attendees was very enthusiastic and attendance at this year’s event set a new record. Planning for Bench Racing Week 2018 is already started and you can expect another terrific event in 2018.
Below you can see the 2017 Event Schedule in Detail: