The Greenwood Revival: The Culture

Glen Shepard said, “I think the race car is a denominator that brings people together.”  This was certainly my experience earlier this month at the Greenwood Revival.  I’ve already covered the course and the cars, but to leave it at that would be to rob Greenwood of its true mortar.  That Saturday, just as in many Saturdays in the ’60s, it was the culture that held the Greenwood Roadway together.

As opposed to other sports, racing has a certain friendliness to it.  Follow any driver around the pits on race day and you’ll catch him joking with his opponents, slapping backs and smiling.  I’m not sure why this is.  Perhaps it’s because no matter what place you finish or what class you were in, you still got to drive a car as fast as possible for several hours (or 10 seconds, depending on your sport), and what could be more fun?  Maybe it’s because, unlike basketball or hockey, there can be only one winner for a pretty large field of entrants, and it probably won’t be you, so you’d better enjoy it while you’re out there.

But I think it has more to do with what Greenwood veteran Glen Shepard called “that little car.”  Take a Miata, a Lada, a rally-prepped old Escort, or a multimillion dollar endurance prototype- put a number on it, weld in a roll cage, and they’re all the same in our eyes.  Who among us wouldn’t love to hoon it around a race track?  We can’t help but feel happy for the guy who gets to do just that.

Left to right: Glen Shepard, Dean Elder, Chuck McGuire, Glenn Branstad

I’ll admit that my favorite part of the Greenwood Revival was the driving.  But slipstreaming behind that was the drivers seminar, where organizers gathered Glen Shepard, Dean Elder, Glenn Branstad, and Chuck McGuire, all of whom raced at Greenwood during its heyday; and had them share some memories with those of us too young to have been there.

Chuck McGuire bought his first sports car in 1958 while he was stationed with the Army near Nurburg, Germany.  When he returned to the States, he discovered the world of amateur racing and was hooked.  Soon he’d bought a Triumph and was racing all over the midwest, including Greenwood.  He paid $35 to race his first even there in 1964, when he laments that he was run off the track by a three-cylinder.  The radiator came loose, and that ended his season.  But he kept coming back in the years to come, and took 2nd in his class in 1966.

His memories of the place are fond ones, as he lived only 35 miles away, and used to tow his car there behind a ’54 Pontiac station wagon, packed with his family.  Coming up over the long, straight hill, “you couldn’t see anything.  You had to keep your butt anchored down,” to stay up to speed.  During bad weather, “you had to maul your way through the gumbo to get to the track,” on the skinny tires of the day.  Another driver commented  that though those tires did well in the rain against wider rubber, the joke of the day was that the manager was afraid their burnouts would groove the track.

ambro3

Glen Shepard first came to Greenwood in ’64 in an Austin-Healey Sprite, but ran out of gas halfway through and coasted into the pits.  After a splash, he tried to reenter the race, but track marshal Bud Severson stopped him.  This was a one-tank race only.  When asked later about where he’d finished, Glen simply said, “Somewhere near the middle.”

He came back in ’65 with the money to buy a brand new Sprite from someone near the course.  No dice.  The Sprite was sold to another racer just two hours prior.  Without another option, and with the race looming the next day, Glen bought an H-Modified Jabro instead, though he’d never driven one before.  He ended up qualifying second- right behind the guy who had bought his Sprite out from under him.  He distinctly remembers cutting the Sprite off at the first corner.

But nobody took himself too seriously.  As Chuck said, it was “gentleman’s racing.  No money.”  Glen showed off the little pewter cup he’d won for winning third that race, like a vessel for the memory itself, far more valuable than any cash prize.  He went on to get his racing license and drove at Daytona Beach that same year.

Dean Elder, too, drove an H-Modified Jarbo that season, and Glen remembers asking him some questions about the car he’d just bought.  Dean was one of the founding members of Greenwood, experiencing most of its races.  He distinctly recalls the USAC stock car races there.  In those days, he says the drivers used to roar by, “head on their arm, smoking a cigarette.”  Some of those same drivers kept smoking on the roofs of their cars after they’d crashed into the swamp on turn 4.

Glenn Branstad only drove one race at Greenwood, in 1963, but vividly remembers chasing a Corvette in his 1300 cc B-Production Alfa Romeo, “and finally getting by it.”  “This is a busy course,” he said after driving it again.  “Busier than I remember it.”  Since the Alfa was so light, to pass cars like that Corvette, he used to brake unusually late, diving into the corners with an inside line.  He would drift sideways, then drop a gear and fire back out of the corner, spinning the tires with “as much of a burnout as 1300 ccs could get you.”  Glenn is still racing today.  What a boss.

Chuck stood up, just remembering one of his old racing suits, hanging behind him.  It was, he explained, just a normal pair of coveralls, soaked in Borax for fireproofing, an affordable alternative to a Nomex fire suit, which cost $80 at the time.  This piqued Dean’s memory.  He told a story about Grant Crenshaw, a friend of his who once pulled into the pits after a close call with a bullet-quick Echidna.  Gesturing toward his Borax-treated coveralls, he asked Chuck, “Have you ever noticed that when you get urine on this it turns your suit brown?”

Well all erupted in laughter while Dean, a true student of comedy, stood there with a deadpan expression.  Someone asked him what corners at Greenwood made his suits turn brown.  Again with the stonewall, “How many corners are there?”

Someone else asked if it was possible to pass cars faster classes in the hairpin. “Oh sure,” said Glenn.  Dean stood back up.  “That had something to do with the tension in your anal sphinchter.”  We lost it.

Another highlight was when Glen Shepard shared about some 8mm footage he had of a Corvette flipping on turn 2.  “Was that in 1964?” someone asked.  It was, and the speaker and her husband had driven up from Arkansas to see if anyone had any information about their Corvette, which had crashed there in 1964 under a previous owner.  Awesome.

You may not have heard of any of these guys.  They were all casual, amateur hobbyists who raced for the love of it.  But you may have heard of Carol Shelby, Jim Hall, and Al Unser, who all frequented Greenwood in the ’60s.  And according to Glen, everybody there was an equal.  Maybe it was because Greenwood was always so Spartan, with little more than the pavement, and there were no special garages or offices for the pros to escape to.

But I still think it had to do with “that little car.”  I think that the Shelbys and Unsers enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the budget gentleman hobbyists.  Perhaps places like Greenwood were even an escape from all the media nonsense and the sponsor sharks.

It was a true driver’s track- a place of skill, not to be mastered, even by the veterans.  So it drew them in flocks.  Unser towed a car all the way from California just to drive there.  But it was so backroad, so unknown, that there’s barely any surviving footage of those races.  The very obscurity that gave the Greenwood Roadway its lovable, laid-back mix of world famous celebrities and neighborhood heroes proved its undoing.  The last major race was held in 1966, and it was left to crumble.

But the racers one and all were thrilled that over 400 people turned out to the Revival to celebrate Greenwood.  I could see the joy in their eyes that the memories would live on, that though the Greenwood Roadway now stood in the shadows of tall grass and construction waste, and though the echoes of their small-displacement beasts had long since faded from the Iowa bluffs, that the memory of the ancient track could now live on.  The culture would survive.

Want to hear what some of these monsters sounded like?  Check out our video of the parade lap here, here, and here.

 

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