Long Night in Chi-Town

 

This is a story early in my racing career that seemed sureal as I was exposed to a side of life I'd never seen before, and If i'm not exposed to it again, I will be gratefull.

 

 

INDEX

These articles, stories and accounts of my life, as I recall them, and are copywrited. Unauthorized use will be pursued at my determination, to the degree that I am inclined. Any hard feeling caused by memories that don't match yours are unfortunate and you'll just have to get over it! Feel free to contact me if you have a request for their use.

I thought it got cold in Hamilton , Ohio , but this evening was making me wonder if I had made an intelligent choice several weeks ago. I had started a new job at Nichels Engineering, a well known Winston Cup stock car racing team in northwest Indiana, and being recently widowed and not having made many new friends yet, I was working alone in the shop that night to occupy my time and perhaps convince my new boss that he had made a better decision than I had made regarding my employment with him.

My initial duties upon arrival at Nichels Engineering were to sort and destroy parts as a result of Chrysler withdrawing their support in favor of a new agreement with Petty Enterprises. Apparently Nichols was ordered to return or destroy any unused Chrysler parts, and it broke my heart to cut, hammer and or pulverize many of the specialty custom items including several sets of 4-valve hemi heads.

Ray (Nichels) had just received a new contract with Harley Davidson for race research and development work, and my current assignment was to oversee and design the building of a cylinder head flow bench and a race frame welding fixture.

I had already completed the design and building of a rotating welding fixture for the road racing bike frame, and was in the midst of building the cylinder head flow bench. We were using a Paxton automotive supercharger powered by a 5 horsepower 3-phase motor, pulling thru a 4” oil field control valve. I had just completed the final ‘tulip' grinding on the valve's inlet edge, when I noticed the now familiar tune heard when an employee punched in the code required to open the security lock at the shop entrance door.

I was working in a small room off to the side of the motor assembly room, located at the rear of the shop. The entire front wall of the motor assembly room was glass, so I was able to lean back slightly from my work and see who was entering the building. It was Ralph, a short, muscular man in his 40's with a receding hairline and a weathered face that looked like a ferret on steroids.

Now old Ralph here, was an interesting character. We never worked along side each other on any task, but watching him scurry around with a broom and dustpan or distributing parts from the store room, he was constantly talking ‘jibberish', often to himself, it seems. His gait was erratic in a manner that made you knew it was him when he passed by without having to look up, but my most notable memory of this guy, during my short term of employment, was the occasional startling encounter of him trying to stretch his neck.

The men's room was a large open area with two huge circular wash sinks, and rows of lockers and clothes racks along three of the walls. On more than one occasion, some of us would be scared shitless when we would enter the men's room to find him hanging from one of the clothes racks with a towel around his neck. He would never look up or acknowledge you in any way, and you were sure he had just hung himself, until he would extend his legs just enough to lift out of the towel, and then turn to you and give you a half smile without speaking a word. I swear, that prick did that on purpose.

Prior to this particular evening, from my perspective in this small room behind the long glass panels, I was able to observe some of the pre-race ritual between Ray and the sponsor of the Pontiacs being fielded for David Pearson.

This ritual meeting of the sponsor, a Chicago businessman named Chris Vallo, and Ray was usually held just outside these glass widows of the engine room. The race car, covered and tied down for the trip to the track, was hooked up to the large diesel truck and stood in waiting inside the large shop, just outside these widows. The shop back door would open and a large Lincoln would drive in and pull up just behind the trailer, and sit there until the back door was lowered, at which time the driver, a huge dark haired gentleman, would depart the drivers door and go to the rear door and open it and Chris would get out and shake hands with Ray.

Chris and Ray would have this discussion at the side of the car, just on the other side of the glass from my position in the engine room, and I came to learn that this was Rays way of presenting Chris with the ‘bill due' for this races expense total. While generally a pleasant discussion, there were times when Chris would appear to be displeased over something that Ray had said and it would become apparent from the red in Chris's face that he was more than casually annoyed.

When this occurred, the driver would approach the two of them with his right hand inserted into his heavy overcoat. Both Chris and his driver ‘Rocko' would always wear heavy overcoats regardless of the weather conditions. Obviously, it could very cold in the Chicago area, but they would wear them even in the sweltering summer time. Chris would invariably turn slightly and raising his hand, stopping ‘Rocko' from coming any closer, indicating that here was not an issue here.

Things always seemed to get themselves worked out and as the discussion would come to a close, Chris would again, turn to ‘Rocko' and would bark out something at the same time holding up a number of fingers, at which time ‘Rocko' would go to the trunk of the car, raise the trunk lid and remove the top of one of several large heavy boxes that indicated that they were used for shipping heads of lettuce in the produce trade.

I could have pissed myself when it became apparent that it was not lettuce or cabbage, but large amounts of cash in the boxes. As “Rocko' passed the window near me I was able to observe that the bills were in stacks about 1” thick and rather than being banded with the usual thin paper bank wrappers, these were bundled in what appeared to be cardboard bands secured by black tape. When he passed by that window he would glance in my direction, nod his head in greeting, and proceed, but never smiled. He was a huge, well groomed gentleman that seemed to be a pleasant sort, but if he ever made a lunge in my direction I am certain I would have soiled my socks on the spot.

At the conclusion of this business transaction, Ray would indicate to the truck driver that he should mount up and head out. The front shop door would be opened, the race hauler would head out in what ever direction was required to get to the next race, while Chris and ‘Rocko' would head north to Chicago. Ray would stuff the cash inside his shirt, walk to the front of the shop and lower the door himself. As he walked towards the door the sun would often cast a long eerie shadow that would reach back to the motor room, only to be erased by a wide path of darkness as the door closed. Ray would then turn and walk up the stairs to a small veranda that overlooked the shop before going into his office on the second floor.

The motor room was currently not held in high regard, as they had been having trouble with motors dropping valves and head gasket issues. It turned out to be some ‘issues' regarding the use of compression ratio charts left over from the Chrysler ‘Hemi' motor builds that obviously would not be applicable for use with the ‘wedge' design Pontiac motors that were being used in the house cars.

David Pearson was driving at this time, and while known for his coolness and patience on the track, he was becoming increasingly impatient with the inability to compete for more than a few laps before dropping out with motor problems.

But, as luck would have it, they got the motor to hold together long enough o get a high qualifying position at Michigan International Speedway, and by the response of Chris Vallo, you would have thought they had won the Dayton 500. They barged into the motor room in mid afternoon and asked all the motor guys to gather around. After asking ‘Mini', the main engine assembler, to clear his tool box side tray, Chris asked ‘Rocko' to empty the surprise he had in his pocket. I was not a part of the race team motor group, but ‘Rocko' noticed me watching from my dyno room and tapped Chris on the arm and pointed in my direction, prompting Chis to invite me over as well. ‘Rocko' brought out a leather pouch about the size of a baseball and turned it up and emptied it onto the tool box side tray. It was a bag full of diamonds.

In order of what Chris perceived as the largest contributor to the success of the day, he invited the five of us to step up and pick out three of the diamonds on display at the side of ‘Mini's' tool box. My contribution was minimal at best, but I did not hesitate to complete the procession and picked out three of them based only on the size. The following day, I had them appraised at a local jewelers and used the proceeds to pay off my car.

Back to ol' Ralph!

He was not aware that I was working back in the engine room and made a B-line to the toolbox closest to the door that happened to belong to a guy that I had made the most acquaintance with since my arrival. We had worked together on chassis disassembly and I had made him a very heavy special hammer out of 3” diameter cold rolled steel welded to a 14” long piece of 1” round steel. He needed a heavy backing hammer to place behind the tapered tie rod end housings on the steering arms. We would use the large home-made hammer to back up the blow with a regular hammer and the ‘shock' of the hammer blow would distort the taper just enough to release the tie rod ball joint.

At any rate, I watched ol' Ralph reach up and open the tool box drawer that held a selection of screwdrivers, and take out an entire handful of them and turn towards the drawer.

It then dawned on me that I had heard repeated disgruntled comments about misplaced or borrowed tools, and It became apparent this might be the very reason for all that chatter, and I walked out of the motor room and walking toward him asked what he was doing. He replied that he was changing the battery on his car, to which I replied inquiring how he was going to it with seven screwdrivers.

He took exception to my tone of voice, and it was on! He tossed them into the top of the open toolbox, and pushed me up against the wall. I pushed him back and he swung at me, hitting me above the eye and knocking me to the floor at the base of the toolbox. Then he jumped on me, and honestly began to kick my ass while I was unable to get off the floor. It was then I remembered the heavy, sharp edged hammer that I had made for my friend, and knew it was stored in the bottom drawer of the lower tool box section.

I managed to pull the drawer open and pulled it out and swung it at ol' Ralph here. I managed to hit him on the foot and was sure it was going to stop him from pummeling me further, but was not prepared for the upcoming events. He was wearing tennis shoes and I had managed to get a good swing at him and when I hit his foot with it, the hammer was at such an angle that the sharp edges of the 3” diameter weighted end hit his foot and severed the top surface of his tennis shoe as well as his big toe.

This managed to get him off me right away, and he began swearing like a sailor. Than he began crying like a little boy as we both noticed what looked like his big toe protruding out the end of his tennis shoe. It was bleeding some, but I told him deserved it all and he could kiss my ass, as I went to the men's room to wash up and get ready to go home. I could hear him outside in the shop starting to yell louder and telling me to come help him.

I finished drying my hands and when I walked out to where he was, I was startled to see him sitting down in a pretty big puddle of blood that had already stained his one pant leg and was starting to stain the ass area of his pants. I was getting concerned at the amount of blood, but was still pissed at him for hitting me, and headed for the door. He continued to yell and curse, and began asking me to call an ambulance. When he said that, I did turn around to get a better look and did agree that we needed some help, because I could see that blood was still squirting from his toe, and went in the office to call an ambulance.

When the paramedics arrived, they asked questions as to why this had come to happen and Ralph and I both agreed on what we told them. I imagine it was required of them, but they called the police, and shortly after they arrived I was arrested for aggravated assault despite my pleading and explanations.

As mentioned earlier, I was in a new town with a new job and was living by myself, and was becoming concerned that I did not know who I was going to call for help in this matt er. I became more concerned when I heard their dispatcher tell them to take me to the East Chicago precinct. I thought they meant a precinct on the east side of Chicago, not a police station in northern Indiana, and all I could think of was being in jail with a bunch of Chicago's worst element. Nothing I learned on the way made me think any different about my destination and as I was put in was I assumed was a holding cell, I tried not to make eye contact and sat on a bench along the wall near the front of the room.

No one spoke to me, for which I was appreciative, but the culture shock was startling. It stunk of urine, cigarette smoke and just fowl smelling guys. No one seemed fully dressed for the cold weather, few had a full compliment of teeth and there were one gentleman that I was concerned was in the wrong cell, as this seemed to be only for men. The longer I sat there, the more worried I became about not being able to let anyone know where I was and was more worried about where I might be headed for in the morning. Sleep was not possible but I was beyond tired, and despite the surroundings was entertaining thoughts about food as I had not eaten since lunch at the shop.

I had been brought in about 10 o'clock , and startled by a commotion from the outer room, I noticed that the clock now said 4:00 in the morning. As I became more alert I heard a rather loud voice say to one of the guard(s): “Hey Eddie, you got a Cronk-er-dite in here?”. I sat up, and others stood when we heard the door locks rattle and around the corner came a gentleman in a long, dark overcoat. Damn, it was ‘Rocko'!

As I stood to finally speak to some one I recognized, I noticed that several of the other attendees quickly stepped away from the door and ceased speaking. ‘Rocko” took the keys from the guard, opened the door and handed me a jacket he had brought with him. He returned the keys to the guard, told me to follow him and we headed out into the parking lot where I was told to get into that big Lincoln I had seen outside the windows in the race shop.

At this point, I was not entirely convinced that I had just taken a step upward. I had never spoken to this man, and my observations up to this point gave me no reason to believe he was either friendly or compassionate in any way. But he began to speak and was smiling as he apologized for ‘retrieving' me earlier. He seemed to be indicating that he some how had access to recent additions to the Chicago area holding facilities and he did not recognize my name and only became aware of my need after recognizing that I was taken from the Nichels race shop.

He took me to a nearby clothing store where a gentleman was waiting to let us in. Despite the fact that it was 4:30 in the morning he seemed to be pleasant enough, and after looking me up and down, took us to an area of the store and actually picked out a pair of jeans and a shirt that turned out to fit me quite well. As we were leaving he detoured momentarily and returned with some underwear and socks, and at no point did he mention the fact that I was wearing bloody clothes, and maintained a pleasant tone thou out or visit. We left right away, and I was aware that no money had changed hands.

‘Rocko' took me to what I assumed was his house where he instructed me to shower and put on the newly acquired clothing. He had instructed the lady of the house to fix me breakfast and it was ready when I returned downstairs. Not only had she prepared a nice breakfast, she had dressed and applied makeup as well before I came down. It was a magnificent house, more luxurious than any I had been in before.

The ride to the race shop took longer than I had imagined it would. Apparently ‘Rocko' lived some distance away from Rays shop and the East Chicago facility, but we arrived just as the other guys were coming in to work, and I was afraid I might be in trouble from the incident last night. As I got out of the car, ‘Rocko' said don't say a word! It has all been taken care of!

When I walked inside the door, the blood had all been cleaned up, the toolbox was clean and the screwdrivers were not around and the drawers were closed. As I walked towards the engine room in the rear of the shop, I glanced up to see Ray out on his balcony. He looked at me, nodded his head and then turned and went into his office.

I never saw Ralph again.