This is the second in a trilogy about the movie Stroker Ace
with Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson
These are 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 am not writing for prose or poetry, but just to tell a story. Neither do I try to be politically correct. I consider that an act of cowardice, trying to placate the uninformed, ignorant of history folks that are filled with ego and braggadocios, demanding that their perspective be the prevalent one.
We had been invited to participate a day earlier than we had originally thought so that we could be in Talladega on the same day as the Cup cars were involved in a Goodyear Tire practice session and tire test. I was looking forward to just chatting with some of my friends and associates, and get a feel for how the new tires were holding up and maybe get a jump on some of the information related to tire pressure settings. Instead here comes a pair of those West Coast guys in their blond hairdo’s and sideburns, in tight jeans and loafers, all bug-eyed at the race cars and the drivers that they had seen on television, thinking in their mind, I am sure, that they are going to get into one of these new, smaller T-birds and get out on the track with them ‘good ole boys’ and mix it up with a few of them and report home how they ran with the best of them, hoping to lure one of those curly blonde air-heads to jump in the sack with either one of them.
We would run into guys like this in every town. Those guys that thought that we were actually just ‘souping’ up a show room stock car and driving in circles until the tires wore out, then pull into the pits and get a drink of water, maybe some ice cream, then wave to the ladies and head back out onto the track and see if they can get a little dirt on their face for a post race picture session. All you have to do is shake their hand and you can tell if they have any potential. Limp hands or no calluses and they have no chance. They have no clue!
But, it’s business, so as usual, I smile, extend my hand to them both (it was as I expected with them both). I shake each of their hands, gripping them both as hard as I can, to establish authority, and then looking the tallest of the two right in the eyes, I ask how can I help them today. The Universal Studios have had the specially prepared ’83 T-birds for two weeks now, getting them painted to look like plucked chickens for the opening filming of the movie and I am betting that these guys have spent hours getting the seats fitted to them, adjusting the seat belts, and looking in the mirror and going ‘vroom, vroom’, envisioning themselves dropping off into the first turn at Daytona as they pass Richard Petty and continue on around the track and on to the tri-oval and the checkered flag.
Just as the stunt guys are in the middle of excitedly telling me exactly what they intend to do on the race track later this morning, I look over the right shoulder of the shorter stunt man, and spot two guys in suits rapidly walking towards us. Seeing anyone in a suit and tie walking down pit road at the race track is seldom followed my much of a pleasant conversation, and this was to be no exception. It turns out the forward and the bolder of the two was none other than Mr. Andrew Palmer, that aggravating son of a bitch from the Ford Motor Company. He walks right up into the middle of us and loudly shouts “who’s the guy that ruined those two new Thunderbirds?” I quickly point to ol’ Stump’ and then waving Willy over to me, we start down pit road and head towards the trucks and we do manage to get out of sight before that old prick stopped yelling at ‘ol ‘Stump’ and figures out that he’s been talking to someone that doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, and the last thing that I heard as we climbed into the back of the big tractor trailer, is a loud voice yelling “where did that red neck son-of-a-bitch go?”
We worked in the back of the tractor trailer rig for most of the rest of the morning and managed to get the other cars unloaded and parked in the garage area along with some of the pit equipment before the Universal Studio folks delivered the newly painted T-birds for us to final prep for the filming, and we never had to cross paths with the guy from Ford the balance of that day.
In addition to the several background cars that had been sold sponsorships for, we had prepared a pair of our own race team cars in an identical manner to appear as Four Star Whiskey cars. Hal Needham, the movies director, spent the late afternoon explaining to us how the filming sequence was being done and edited for review before processing. The first four lap driving sequence would be filmed with the camera attached to Burt’s ‘Chicken Car’ and while that segment was being filmed, another camera would be attached to one of our Four Star Whiskey cars and the drivers would then do the same four lap race sequence around the race track with the filming done from the second car. The third and final filming sequence would be done with neither the ‘Chicken Car’ nor the Four Star Whisky car having a mounted camera and the filming would be done from the ‘camera car’, which was actually a high powered three quarter ton truck with a special bed made for mounting the camera and the film crew. In each of the filming sequences the drivers would attempt to run the same groove on the track with simulated passing attempts and other choreographed racing moves that were provided by the screen writers and the director.
It was little to no problem for us to set up the ‘sponsor’ cars and our own two race cars set up with the proper springs, shocks and gear ratios as I had an extensive backlog of chassis set-ups from the previous races that we had qualified for, but the new T-Birds were merely modified to look like race cars and there were no custom race parts made or available to use in modifying the chassis setups for any track, let alone a superspeedway like Talladega. Because these new ’83 T-Birds were designed with a smaller body, they had also designed a new smaller and lighter chassis and all new style suspension parts to better suit the lighter bodied car. It would be about eight months before these cars would appear at the Ford dealer’s showrooms so there were not even any parts available that we could purchase to modify for use in a race car. We just had to try to make them look like a race car, as nothing could be done with any of the suspension.
Another Alabama morning brought the usual high humidity and minimal breeze, but within minutes of the garage area being opened, I spot a familiar looking grille on a car coming around the corner and guess who shows up in one of the only three remaining new style Thunderbirds, but Mr. Grumpy from the Ford Motor Company, and he has rolled upto within a few yards of us with the radio blaring to make sure we all turn and take at look at who it is. He had gone to great lengths in earlier phone conversations to let me know that there were only five of these prototype T-Birds in existence, and that in his opinion we had ruined two of them, so I was very surprised to see him driving one of them. He exited the car and headed right toward me, apparently have been tipped off by some one who knew who I was, and got right in my face and began to tell me how special and rare these cars were and he had not been notified of the movie arrangement with Ford and I guess he was just pissed that no one had consulted him on their use.
My only comment was that it was not me that had made the arrangements,
but someone from the Universal Studios, and I was only the hired help.
He was further perturbed when he looked inside the cars and saw that we
had welded in roll bars, cut up the interior and had generally butchered
the entire insides of the car. There was not going to be any way that
this guy was going to be happy even thought the Ford Motor Company itself
was behind this venture because the movie was scheduled for release
We all went back to work preparing the cars for the filming and the two stunt guys had decided which of them was to drive the two modified T-Birds and who was going to drive our pair of actual race cars. I decided that I would take on the driving duties of the most recent car that had been built at our shop, as the owner was in Pennsylvania and his work load prevented him from spending many days away from work. This was one of the last year’s larger models and was assigned to sport the 7-Eleven convenience store logos and it was one of the assigned sponsors that came along with the Universal Studios contract.
I was some what hesitant to take this assignment as I get vertigo quite easily and that kept me from any serious attempt to become one of the drivers on the circuit, but I figured that since this was such a large track at over two and a half miles that the constant circling would be minimal and the lengths for the filming was limited to four laps, so what the hell, I’ll give it a go. I had both the new T-Birds and our own race cars warmed up and the stunt guys had been making some preliminary laps in those cars and had adjusted the seat and all the belts and was about to attempt some warm up laps in my car when both of the stuntmen came sauntering up to me with a funny look on their face. They both had snuck out a little early and had each made some laps in the small Thunderbirds and both of the real race cars of ours, and while feeling that the new stock ‘Birds cars felt OK at their slower maximum speed, they both had about shit their drawers while coming close to spinning out as they were entering the third turn at the end of the very long back stretch. Hal Needham the producer and director of the this movie was also the co-owner, along with Bert, of the Skoal sponsored Winston Cup car and had spent some time going over the driving line and some details with Harry Gant, that teams driver, but because they were having trouble with the handling of the car, they were asking if I was sure that I had the suspension settings correct on both cars, as both cars seemed to be ill handling in the same manner at the same location on the race track.
I had been at this about 10 years by this time and was quite sure that I had the settings correct, but went over the chassis notes once more in the back of the truck, and felt comfortable with what I had adjusted, and spent some time asking these guys to carefully tell me what position their hands were on the steering wheel and what position each foot was in on each pedal at the exact time that they were having the handling issue. I was pretty certain what the problem was, but didn’t want to get these guys getting hurt or one of them screwing up a car even before we started filming, so I took a chance and went over to the Bud Moore Ford race team at the other end of the garage area to seek some help.
It is common practice on the circuit to not ask another team owner to let his driver take laps in another team’s car, because they had sponsor commitments and did not want their driver to get injured in another car if that car was not well prepared. I had a pretty good relationship with Bud, and they were pretty much done with the tire test, and when I asked if Dale could just take each of my cars out to test the suspension settings, he agreed after asking me to describe to him what I had under the car in the way of springs, shocks and anti-sway bar. I discussed with Dale the castor and camber setting as well as castor spread and toe in settings, and he felt that they were very close to his own settings and agreed to take each car out for two laps each, and to let me know what he thought of the cars handling. The cars had both been run that morning, so they did not need to be warmed up, and Dale immediately boogied down pit road getting small as he exited out around the apron then blended out onto the track on the back stretch. He was hard on the loud pedal as he passed by us in the tri-oval and under the start finish line before disappearing into the banking in turn two. As he passed thru the tri-oval the banking is such that we could see down thru the car window and I could tell that both hands were in a fixed position indicating that at that point on the track he was not encountering any adverse handling of the car.
He pulled back into the garage area after the second lap and without saying a word, jumped into the other car and duplicated the test run, with all four of his laps exceeding the stunt guys lap times by more than three seconds, which was a good sign to me. As he pulled back into the garage area for the second time he pulled up and quickly stopped right next to me and had that Cheshire cat grin on his face and with his helmet and goggles still in place, he lowered the window net and looking out past my elbow he looked up and said is the scrawny pair coming up behind you those two stunt guys? I asked if they were both dressed in jeans and white T-shirts, and did one of them look like a little short, pecker head, when he nodded his head I said yes.
They both stopped behind me about ten feet, close enough for them to hear what Dale had to say, and speaking loudly as he exited the car, still with his helmet on and goggles in place Dale said that both these cars were handling as well as could be expected as long as they weren’t trying to bump draft each other, and if they still could not figure out how to drive them, for me to call his mother Martha because he was pretty sure she could drive either one of them, and then in a more quiet tone as he was leaving, he leaned in towards me and said he was sure the problem they were both having is that they were likely getting out of the gas too quickly entering turn two and the rear suspension trailing arms were unloading and inducing roll over-steer. “Just tell them to be slower getting out of the gas as they enter the turn and to trail brake for the first half of the entrance to the turn and they should be just fine”.
Any visit to Talladega has always been accompanied by a concern in the back of your mind for an adverse occurrence. It was built on an old Indian burial site and the track has always been the subject of many rumors and innuendoes concerning the ‘curses’ that may have been levied by one of the original Native American signers of the land sale documents, and each race that I have participated in has encountered at least one formidable incident often resulting in a casualty. I had personally lost one friend and one driver at this point, and another friend had to have his leg amputated. Having come to the realization that these two guys were uncomfortable in the cars, I spent almost 30 minutes trying my best to make sure these two West Coast yahoos’s understood what I was trying to tell them about getting into turn two without upsetting the balance of the chassis. I was quite sure that neither of them had even minimal experience in evasive maneuvers on 30 degree banking at 190 MPH, and any ill handling race car would inevitably result in a wreck of some description. Before they got on the track again, I took the time to adjust the throttle linkage where they could not go much over 160 MPH.
You knew it was coming. It was Talladega, you could always expect it, but you never get used to the terrible sound of the wail of screeching tires and the inevitable horrendous thud of the impact of 3,800 pounds of steel, rubber and gas hitting the wall at speed just seconds after the screeching began. This time the screeching went on just long enough that you knew it was a spin down off the track, and onto the lower apron, not up the track and into the wall, so you could get your next breath before running to pit road to see if you could see what had occurred before the safety truck and the ambulance arrived at the scene. As I was heading out the long entrance road to pit lane, I glanced back to take inventory of the cars that I was responsible for, and was pissed to find that one was missing, and it was one of the new ’83 Thunderbirds that was not in sight and could not be accounted for, and as soon as I got to pit road and looked down to the entrance of turn one, I could tell exactly what happened. One of those blonde boys had taken the first of those modified ‘Birds out for some reason or another and had lost control just as he had hit the flat spot coming off the tri-oval and just as he had passed under the flag stand, the car had become light and lost traction and in trying to turn too early into turn one he had spun that bitch clear down into the dirt. He had not hit anything with the car, but the abrupt change from the angled race track surface to the flat apron was like hitting a tall curb and he had ruined every piece of the left front suspension, including the left side steering tie rod, while doing minimal damage to the left front fender. No damage seemed eminent to the radiator, oil pan or the exhaust system.
I hooked a ride down pit road in the ambulance and when I got there, and after making sure ‘blondie’ was not hurt, I began to survey the actual damage and was working on a repair sequence with the equipment that I had brought along for incidences such as this, when who but the ol’ Ford curmudgeon, and his attitude had not improved any that I could tell. He was an older guy with white hair, a moustache and very heavy, curly eyebrows, and his face and neck was becoming redder and redder as he came to grips with what had just happened to ‘one of his babies’. His two eyebrows appeared as one because his face was so contorted, there was perspiration or spit dangling from the edges of his moustache, and his neck was beet red and swollen over the edges of his¬¬¬ white high dollar, two mother of pearl button down collar shirt. Just to aggravate him a little bit, with neither of us speaking to each other, I sidled right up to his left shoulder and said that it looks like were both rednecks now, huh!
Well, that just pissed him off to the point that he turned and jumped right in front of me and gave me another one of those ‘you dumb redneck’ looks while pointing the index finger of his right hand directly at my own mustachioed chin and began his ranting. He said that he ‘knew this would happen’, and I ‘was in trouble now’, and I that he was going to lunch with Hal and Bert in Anniston and I had better have that damn car ready this afternoon because he wanted to ‘approve’ of its repair before he headed back to Detroit, and in front of at least a dozen crew members, he said he didn’t care what I had to do, as long as that car was track ready by this afternoon. As he walked out to the parking lot, he was filling Hals ear with some mumbo jumbo about that dumb redneck he had hired to provide the cars for this movie, and Burt, walking just a step behind them both, turned to me and just gave me one of those grins he has and shrugging his shoulders, and turned and followed them to the limo that they were taking to lunch. When I gave Bert a thumbs up to indicate that he didn’t need to worry, I looked off to his right and saw the new Thunderbird that the Ford man had driven down and immediately knew how we were going to fix this busted movie T-bird.
The entire film crew breaks for an extended lunch catered by a company from Phoenix and it was served in groups inside a huge circus tent in the infield at the edge of the garage area, and I knew we had at least two hours to work unattended and unnoticed. I got one of the wrecker drivers to bring that bent up ‘Bird to the parking lot and unload it right behind the car that Ford guy had driven down here, and sent two of my guys to the truck to get the roll around tool box, the come-a-long and all the jacks and jack stands that we had brought with us.
We jacked up both cars and simply removed the good pieces that we needed from the new car and bolted them directly onto the bent up movie car. It actually took only about and hour and a half to make all the changes, and we were actually able to drive the movie car back to the garage area and beat out the bent metal, replace the front spoiler and replace a few of the decals. We took all the jack stands out from under both cars and took them back in the truck, but before we removed the last of the jacks, I sent one of the guys back out behind the Union 76 gas pumps to retrieve a cinder building block, which I put in just the right place under the left front bumper support bar to make the car to appear to not have any suspension problem at all, as long as you were looking at it from the right side of the car.
Just as we were letting the jack out from under the newer car, Bubba Smith came walking by with Ned Beatty, and they just had to ask what the hell we were doing. They had heard about the wreck and the Ford mans response while eating lunch and began to laugh their asses off when they figured out what we had just done. Ned said I was going to be a world of shit when big boy came back from lunch and got a good look at his new car, but Bubba, an ex NFL football player who was playing a body guard to Ned in the movie, said that he would hang around me for the rest of the afternoon, and I took that to mean that he would look out after my ass, and Ned said that he’d like to hang around as well just to see what the big boy was going to say. What could he say! He had told me in front of a multitude of witnesses that he did not care how I fixed it as long as it was repaired that afternoon. Case settled in my book!
I never heard from Ford again, until it was time to return the cars to Detroit. I have no clue as to how that car got back to Michigan.