Here’s a life lesson from our very own Jill Amadio. Whether you’re a writer and need to make that deadline or a racecar driver in your first race… just put your foot down and get on with it.
As I’ve noted before, newspaper reporters often find themselves with unexpected assignments. One of my editors when I was living in Connecticut assumed that being a Brit I was brilliant at anything I tackled. It’s the accent, of course. Wonderfully misleading. Besides, no one else in the newsroom wanted to take this assignment on. I’ve never refused a project because whether one is aware of it at the time or not any experience can become grist for the mill when turning to write crime novels. As did this story, which has already spawned a main fictional character in my mystery series.
Although most journalists who cover auto racing itch to get behind the wheel at a race track, even if it’s only while the race car is in the pits, I never, ever aspired to be a race car driver, However, the only job on a newspaper I could get when I first arrived in America was as a novice automotive reporter because I once covered the Macau Grand Prix when working for the Bangkok Post in Thailand.
To tell the truth, I knew very little about cars in general, especially race cars. But all that changed when this editor sent me to cover a Can-Am Grand Prix during a steamy October weekend at Watkins Glen, New York. Volkswagen Worldwide Corporation was staging its Stingy Driving race, sort of a crowd warm-up before the big event whereby each participating member of the press was loaned a VW Rabbit with a ration of fuel, a precisely-measured 32 ounces, and let loose on the track. The winner would be the driver who squeezed the most mileage from this meager ration of liquid gold. That meant a very light foot on the gas pedal.
Assigned identically set-up cars, we stood dutifully at the starting line. Taped to the passenger side window of each Rabbit was a glass vial containing the precious gas. A narrow plastic tube ran from the vial, across the hood, and into the engine much like an I.V. line dripping life-saving fluids into a heart patient.
The start was a la Le Mans whereby drivers queued up very neatly on the tarmac across from their cars like Brits waiting for a bus and sprinted over at the signal. There were supposed to be three of us females reporters competing, along with 21 men. One lady was disqualified for reasons unknown to me. The second never showed up. Thus I found myself unwittingly representing the whole world of women drivers in the Bunny Hop VW Rabbit race.
When I realized the honor that had been bestowed upon me, I decided I really wasn’t worthy. I’ve never been much of a women’s libber and I dreaded the thought of what might happen if I let my side down. Would I be chased through the streets by angry females waving signs reading: “Jill’s a Dumb Bunny?”
I offered to step down. I pleaded to step down. But by this time genial Chris Economaki, the iconic, gravelly-voiced ABC-TV race commentator had already pushed a microphone under my nose as we waited for the starter pistol to pop.
“How will you handle the chicane?” he asked me.
I’d never, ever, heard of a chicane. What the heck was it? How did one spell it?
“Oh,” I replied airily, “That’s going to be a surprise. It’s my secret weapon!”
Chris peered at me, a pitying look on his face, and moved on down the line, interviewing other journalists. Next to me was Ahmad Sadiq, art director for Penthouse magazine. He’d brought along a stable of voluptuous models who draped most of their bare flesh all over the hood of his fire-engine red Rabbit.
Nearby stood a car-less driver, Junius Chambers, who wrote for the New York Amsterdam News. He was unable to participate because the Rabbit he’d been given the night before was stolen from in front of his apartment in Manhattan. Was he going to sprint towards my entry and try to beat me to the door? Or was he here simply to drool at the models?
Time for the race to start.
The popgun popped and we all ran madly towards our cars. We jumped in (no one got in the wrong car; I knew mine was white) and fastened our belts. Or at least, I tried to. I got my elbow caught in the shoulder strap and ended up starting the car with the harness doing a great job of hanging my left arm uselessly in the air as I clumsily changed gears and steered with one hand suspended.
No matter. I was on my way around the track for the first lap. The only problem was we were supposed to drive as slowly as possible to preserve the fuel and thus achieve high mileage, a great promo for VW. Here we were on one of America’s most famous race tracks and to win we were to dawdle all the way. Well, women never like to follow the crowd, just ask any husband, so I must admit I gave in to temptation and led the rest of the field at first, all 21 of the men behind me as I pressed the pedal to the metal.
The circuit was 3.377 miles and went up hill and down dale in a zig-zaggy fashion, twisting and looping most of the time. Thousands of spectators — most of them still bleary-eyed from a night camping in the track’s infamous Snake Pit swamp — were on the hillsides, a veritable tent city spread out behind them. These fans were obviously not too keen on watching 22 silly Rabbits hopping along at a snail’s pace. They’d traveled here from far and wide to watch Grand Prix champions tear up the track at better than 180 m.p.h.. But they were good sports.
Halfway around my car coughed, choked, bucked a couple of times, and sputtered to an ignominious stop. Nonplussed, I wondered if the car was going to roll over on its back and expire like a real rabbit. What was happening? Was I a victim of the dreaded chicane, whatever it was?
“Hey, lady!” shouted one of the rather rude spectators. “Step on the gas!”
I looked at the transparent hose. Aha! An air bubble was blocking the flow from the vial to the engine. What to do? My Rabbit needed an emergency transfusion. I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of hung-over hippies who’d jumped over the guard rail and were offering to push the car home.
Dodging my competitors who drove sedately past shaking their heads, a track mechanic ran over.
“Get a move on, lady! You can’t stop there!” he yelled. Did he think I’d stopped to do some sightseeing?
“Oh,” he said brightly. “You’ve got an air bubble. Here, I’ll blow it out.”
This “expert” stuck the plastic tube between his lips and took an almighty breath. Instantly, the air bubble disappeared. It had been sucked into his mouth along with half my bottle of gas.
“Hey! You’ve swallowed my ration!”
His face turned green as he spat out some of the liquid he’d stolen from me.
“I knew it was a mistake to let women on this track,” he muttered, stalking off.
With what was left of my 32 ounces I restarted the Rabbit and continued around the track accompanied by hoots of derision from the fans. I decided to enjoy the scenery, waving to my fans and trying to eke out as many miles as possible from my seriously-denuded fuel supply.
The Watkins Glen circuit was a sweet grid and if you weren’t in a hurry as I certainly wasn’t there’s a lot to see. The first curve is a ninety-degree turn which got you all psyched up for that infamous chicane which, after all my fears, turned out to be merely a split speed bump to slow the field down. So what was the big deal? The chicane was followed by a very nice straightaway from which one may observe the lovely foliage on the surrounding hillsides. Then the track sent you along a tortuously twisting loop that could be hazardous if you’re not paying attention. It was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon in upstate New York, I must say, and I was pleased the editor had given me the assignment.
Almost at the finish line my Rabbit slowed to crawl and, with a lurch, stopped dead in its tracks. Out of gas. I had to be towed back to the start/finish line. At the same internationally famous race track where Niki Lauda steered his Ferrari to victory I had completed two and a half laps in the most sensational car race of my rather short racing career. Very short. I never took to the track again.
The winner of our Bunny Hop was Bill Turney of the Hartford Courant who feather-footed his Rabbit gently enough to get 72.8 miles per gallon. Second was Jim Patterson of the Long Island Press, at 64 miles per gallon. My mileage? A paltry 36. I knew Volkswagen wouldn’t be too happy. The two winners were awarded all-expense paid trips to the Bahamas. Neither invited me along.
I don’t know if the guy who selfishly swallowed my petrol perished (sorry, God) or merely suffered several extremely painful spasms. I never wanted to be a race driver anyway. But I was inspired to create such a character in my series as the daughter of my amateur sleuth.
Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. She is the ghostwriter of 14 memoirs, and wrote the Rudy Valle biography, “My Vagabond Lover,” with his wife, Ellie. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep.” The second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead,” was released this year. The books are based in Newport http://www.jillamadio.com
Books: Digging Too Deep, Digging Up the Dead
Non-Fiction: My Vagabond Lover: An Intimate Biography of Rudy Vallee; Gunther Rall: A Memoire, Luftwaffe Ace and NATO General