Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mustangs and Tigers and Cobras and Dares: 'All I wanted to do was beat the Corvette,' legend says.

SARATOGA SPRINGS – His name is Shelby.
Carroll Hall Shelby was born on January 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas. Among car enthusiasts, he is a living legend. To the general public, his name may be something of a mystery.

The achievements of Carroll Shelby, however, lie in the revving of engines between the coolest of cars and the fastest races.
On a cold and snowy Wednesday night, Shelby charmed 400 automobile enthusiasts at the Saratoga Automobile Museum, many of whom came armed with cameras to record the evening.

They paid $50 apiece to hear Shelby reminisce about his career as a race car driver, and as a builder of some of the racing world's most memorable cars.

The man who has spent the past half-century in the race car industry came to town by airplane. The method of travel is not as strange as it sounds.

'Ever since I was three years old, there have been three things I cared about: airplanes, automobiles and locomotives,' said Shelby, who celebrated his 82nd birthday last week. The museum's galleries showcased some of the more popular cars with which Shelby has been associated.

A white 1964 Ford Shelby Mustang sat along one wall, a bright red 1966 Sunbeam Tiger sat across the room on another. Next to it were a bright yellow 1967 Ford and a 1966 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe - one of six of its kind in the world - and with an unusual history.

'That car there,' Shelby said, 'I sold to a nut case named Phil Spector.' He described how Spector, a renowned record producer in the 1960s, got so many speeding tickets driving the sleek and sharp-looking car that he eventually had to sell it to an associate, who gave it
to his daughter, after which it was stored away in a garage.
It remained hidden for decades. The value today is $4 million.

Moderating Shelby's discussion were Brock Yates, editor-at-large for Car and Driver Magazine, and Ken Gross, whose duties as auto editor have graced the inside pages of Playboy Magazine for 16 years.

Shelby served as a flight instructor and test pilot during World War II. He returned home to Texas and began a series of unfortunate ventures as a dump truck entrepreneur, an oilfield roughneck and a chicken farmer until turning his passionate racing hobby into a successful career as a driver in the 1950s.
Health reasons forced Shelby to retire from driving and the renaissance man of the automotive industry was born.

'My real ambition was to build my own race car,' he told the crowd at the museum, and set clear goals to beat the competition.
His name marks the vehicles he created, the Shelby Cobra and Shelby Mustangs, achievements that made him a household name as a manufacturer both of racing and road cars in the 1960s.

He told the crowd assembled at the museum that the road to creation of the vehicles began with a simple question in which he challenged himself.

'All I wanted to do was to beat the Corvette," said Shelby. "And we did that." After that he set his sights on the Ferrari, in the process speeding down the road of immortals.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
Published in The Saratogian, Jan. 20, 2005

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Tailfin coves down Memory Lane

SARATOGA SPRINGS - From the looks of the activity going on in the parking lot, you half-expect a gum-cracking waitress to be roller-skating down memory lane and right up next to your car window asking to take your order.

And not your ordinary car windows either. These painted metal bodies come in starmist silvers and patina ivorys, surf blues and burma greens, whose revving engines are the sounds of the past bursting through time, and where conversations revolve around things like V-8 engines, tailfin coves, customized grillwork, and something that sounds like “400 foot pounds of torque at 3,200 rpm.”

Across town, at the Saratoga Automobile Museum, a 1903 Weebermobile and a 1930 Duesenberg once owned by Tyrone Power are on display. Here, in Mr. Ed's parking lot however, they seem to be waiting for Chuck Berry to materialize out of thin air and perform his notorious duck walk to a bomp-da-bomp beat.

“This is my eighth year being involved in the Cruise-in,” said Eugene Sakos Jr., who everybody calls “Mr. Ed,” and runs things at Mr. Ed’s Ice Cream Station and Pizza, on Route 29.
The “Cruise-in” is a public gathering of classic autos, hot rods, muscle cars, and “just about every kind of car you could imagine,” says Sakos, seated quite appropriately, alongside a vintage Seeburg jukebox inside the shop. Above his head, the walls are lined with advertising signs of another era: Orange Crush, Tab and “refreshing Buckeye Root Beer.”

“We get about 75 to 150 cars every week and people come from all over the area,” said Sakos, "Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Greenwich. They come from everywhere.”

A few miles southwest down on Route 9, PJ’s Saratoga Style Bar-B-Q is prepared for its own Cruise-in.
“We accept cars from the baby boom years, between 1946 and 1964” said Carolyn Davis. “Of course, cars prior to 1946 are welcome. The cooler (looking), the better.”
An adjacent area is set up for summer evening dancing, where a DJ spins tunes.
The green-trimmed house across the large lot is a classic home preserved by the Davis’ in the nostalgic purity of the vintage 1940s and ‘50s. They have also decorated the interior with era collectibles, and provide private tours of the home.

“We’ve had Bonnevilles, Packards, customized ‘Vettes,” said Dean Titus, standing beside a sign announcing subs, salads and soups at his Memory Lane Cafe on Route 9 in Malta.
Opened in 1998, Titus is entering his fourth season as host of the classic cars cruise-in which he celebrates with his own classic collection that begins with his 1933 Dodge Pick-up.
When the weather is accommodating, the number of cars and spectators can be huge.
“One night we had 142 cars here,” Titus said, gesturing beyond the red-and-white checkerboard cloths covering the picnic tables. “We estimate that there were 500 to 600 people here that night,” he recalls of the exhibition of classic cars, custom and muscle cars, and hot rods, that splayed out into the yard and through the area in between the trees.

A DJ spins tunes vintage from the 1950s and ‘60s and the nostalgic atmosphere returns every spring for classic car owners and gum-cracking waitresses alike. And from the looks of things, it wouldn't seem to surprise anybody to see Chuck Berry duck-walking across the parking lot, guitar in hand and asking the timeless question that stops all time: Maybelline, why can't you be true? Oh Maybelline, why can't you be true? You've started back doing the things you used to do..."

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, May 2002

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Mining disaster

by Thomas Dimopoulos

I remember being 5 years old and sitting with my classmates in a circle of chairs that weaved around Mrs. John's kindergarten room.

"Today class, we're going to play a game called telephone," Mrs. John explained. She went on to tell us that she would make a sentence, whisper it to one of the students, who would in turn whisper it to the next person until the phrase worked itself through the room.

"Nicky painted his doggie Louie," she began, hands clasped around whispering lips, sending the phrase around the room, until it reached the last person in the semi-circle. He promptly stood up and recited the phrase that had reached his ears: "Icky-doo Louie is a pain in the coo-lee."

If you were unlucky enough to be channel surfing Tuesday night, you probably were seduced into staying up into Wednesday's early hours where you saw a modern version of the kindergarten game played live on TV by adults using cell phones and satellites. In spite of the technology, the connection hasn't gotten any clearer.

Three minutes to midnight, the flammable words came across the news wire: "Family members report 12 miners are alive." It came just in time to make it into East Coast newspapers with midnight deadlines, and was perfect for breaking news TV.

A community's worst fears had turned into "unbridled joy," read the story. Bells rang out from the church, and the townspeople, who were previously keeping a solemn vigil, streamed into the streets screaming "Praise the Lord!" and "They're alive!"

"Miracles happen in West Virginia and today we got one," said the wife of one of the men who had been trapped in the mine. As ambulances screamed by her flashing their red lights, she said, "The Lord takes care of them."

On MSNBC, an excited Rita Cosby popped in with the breaking news, which silenced the stories of bodies being pulled from a collapsed ice skating rink in Germany, multiple car bomb attacks north of Baghdad, and the rising death count in a landslide in Indonesia. She too, invoked divine intervention.

"It's miraculous," cooed Cosby as she lumbered up to the townspeople, poking a microphone into their faces.

"What did it feel like when you thought they were dead?" she asked breathlessly.

"Uh, it felt bad."

"How do you feel now that he is alive?"

"Well gee Rita, it feels great."

All this and yet no one had seen any of the miners. Nor did they pay much mind to the report that had come over the news wire which began with the sentence: "Family Members REPORT." It just spun and spun, until it was out of control. A few channels away, CNN's Anderson Cooper was not faring much better.

Touted by the network as its new primetime poster boy, Cooper is a lot of fun to watch in his raingear while he's trying to keep his balance on a rooftop during a hurricane. There, you could see the winds whipping by in a fury and hear the shredding of metal debris caught in the hurricane's path.

In West Virginia, the story was literally, underground. Mine workers have their place in America's tragedy as well as in its history. Many of their stories captured in old black-and-white photographs, laboring beneath the earth with oil lamps fastened to their helmets as they shoveled through damp tunnels, the unhealthy air pouring into their lungs.

The site of the tragedy at Tallmansville, W.Va., is about 50 miles south of the city of Monongah, site of a mine disaster in 1907 that killer more than 360 miners and is the country's worst mining tragedy.

What the scene needed early Wednesday morning was an experienced hand. Unfortunately , CNN decided to remove its last newsman a few months ago when they took away Aaron Brown's chair and put Cooper in it. Ratings, you know.

Had Brown been on the scene, you could be sure he would have asked the question nobody else seemed to want to know: "Do we know where this information came from?"

Three hours after the first reports of survival, the other shoe dropped. "Families say 11 of 12 miners reported to have survived have died," read the reports on news wires. The previously jubilant family members said they had been "misled."

The owner of the mine blamed the error on a "misunderstood conversation."

A woman looked into the lens of the TV cameras and cried. "We had a miracle and it was taken from us. Can you explain to me why?"

No one could explain the misunderstood miracle, but in the news, like in life, you always need to get another source. At the very least, you can never believe everything that you hear.

It was a simple lesson Mrs. John taught her kindergarten class.

published in The Saratogian