The man in the red helmet started the engine of his blue-striped, white sports car and rolled up to a middling place in the two-by-two starting pattern on the broad asphalt track. His name came over the loud speakers without emphasis: "Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kuhn, driving No. 771, an AC Bristol." Not a fan paused to give a second look; no tingle of anticipation stirred the audience.
It was the start of the third race of a four-race national Sports Car Club of America program at the Road America course, which twists for four miles through the green hills near Elkhart Lake, Wis. This was a race for production cars, which, roughly described, are machines tame enough to be driven in everyday traffic and spirited enough to be raced. Their drivers—heroes only to families and friends—were men tame enough to work office hours during the week and spirited enough to drive a car like Billy-be-damned on the weekend.
They represented the broad backbone of American sports car racing—the submerged part of the iceberg, so to speak, which keeps the glamorous, publicized tip afloat.
Of the thousands of U.S. sports car enthusiasts, the SCCA claims the lion's share of licensed racing drivers—1,400. For every Carroll Shelby or John Fitch there are hundreds of obscure Robert Kuhns. Besieged by success—new race courses are creating a multitude of new fans, an upsurge in sports car sales—the SCCA still shuns professionalism and gives the Kuhns a chance to win trophies. Races are spread out over a wide variety of car classes and driving talents. In a typical race meeting, the fan can watch just about every kind of sports car sold in the U.S.—and see the gamut of driving styles.
July 14, 1957
Amateur auto racing is one of the easiest "dangerous" sports in which to translate Walter Mitty-like dreams of derring-do into positive action, for the prospective driver can buy a contending racer from the showroom floor, have it tuned or tune it for racing himself and learn in a drivers' school the rudiments of competition.
The man in the red helmet at Elkhart had taken to cars as a youngster. Kuhn's dad opened the first garage in Canton, Ohio, and young Robert had climbed onto his lap to take the steering wheel as soon as he could arrange it. Pop built him a car of his own, at 12—a chain-driven wonder, made of motorcycle and Model T parts, that could zip along at a heady 70 mph.
A former home town barnstorming pilot and a West Point graduate, Kuhn jumped with the first U.S. paratroop regiment in training, checked out on gliders during World War II (but never managed to get into the shooting war) and later served as Air Force Project Officer for the B-47 jet bomber, which he learned to fly. Now Kuhn, at 42, is stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, as Liaison Officer between Air Force and industry in the production of jet fighters.
In 1950 Kuhn saw a sports car race at Watkins Glen, N.Y. He got the message.
"I had seen track racing for years," he said, "but this was my first taste of road racing. This is what cars were made for. Well, in 1953 I bought an MG. I drove my first race at Thompson, Conn., started seventh and finished seventh. I found out right there that there is a lot more to road racing than meets the eye. The startling thing is the extreme speed with which these cars can take off and slow down.
"More than that, I discovered that road racing is an awful lot like flying an airplane was in the old days—I mean the days when you really had to fly by the seat of your pants, before they had all the gadgets they have now. I think racing is more exacting and actually more fun than flying.
"You have a terrific sense of traction stability and buoyancy in the corners. You almost become a human gyroscope. I found out that I had to develop a keen sense of timing in the corners—to know when to cut off, brake and shift, and just how much to accelerate coming out of a turn. The big thing is to maintain adhesion whether you're slowing down, cornering or accelerating. There is absolutely no sense in spinning the wheels."
Slipping and sliding not only slows a driver, Kuhn soon discovered, but also chews up tires. And race tires, at $45 each, can use up a modest racing budget quickly. So Kuhn tries to drive smoothly enough to make his tires last for six races or more. Not counting tires, he can compete for $35 to $125 per race, depending on the distance to be traveled and accommodations.
Kuhn has nursed his tires and his budget carefully enough to have competed often and successfully with the MG, a Siata V-8, two Abarths and the current AC Bristol, a six-cylinder, two-liter English roadster that is the hottest thing in Class E production racing these days. His No. 771 is so stock, Kuhn says, that it even has a heater in it and, in fact, he turned it on during a winning drive on a cold day at Louisville this year.
On the Thursday night before the Road America races, Kuhn left Dayton in a 1949 Dodge panel truck, towing No. 771 on a trailer, with one of his five children, 17-year-old Christopher, and an old Ohio chum, Frederick (Red) Martin, who manages a Volkswagen agency that Kuhn owns. On the next day, No. 771 passed inspection, and on Saturday Kuhn put in 30 practice laps.
Hard by one of the more elaborate racing rigs, Martin placed two tiny folding stools, two clipboards with lap charts, a small fire extinguisher, a small blackboard for signaling, a box of chalk and a copy of SCCA's competition regulations.
The red helmet hopped up over the last rise at the end of the first lap. Eighth place. Engine singing healthily, no complaints. Kuhn had started behind 14 cars; he had picked up six places already. Pressing ahead, Kuhn moved up to sixth place on the fourth lap and to fourth place on the fifth tour. He was only 10 seconds behind the race leader—a larger Mercedes 300SL—and two other AC Bristols stood between. He still had a long gap to close to approach the third man, but close it he did. With 20 miles of the 60-mile race remaining, the little Bristols snarled around corners nose to tail and down the straights side by side. After a dozen miles of this kind of zestful sparring, Kuhn pulled away. At the finish, the man in the red helmet was a solid third over all and second in class.
It had been a good race, and Kuhn had only one mild regret: "I'm afraid I burned a little too much rubber out there today."