Our motor sports writer, Bob Ottum, was a news executive with The Salt Lake Tribune until last March, when we enticed him out of the desert. For some years before that he had been a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondent and often drew assignments to report on racing activities at Utah's famous Bonneville Salt Flats. He covered record-seekers driving everything from motorcycles to pure jet engines that had been turned into cars by the imaginative device of adding assorted wheels and a cockpit.
Of course, last weekend, when the jet-powered Green Monster was about to set a world record of 434.02 mph at Bonneville (see page 66), Ottum was 2,000 miles east in upstate New York watching Formula I racers scoot by at no more than 150 mph in the sixth running of the Grand Prix of the United States (see page 28). It was ironic that Ottum missed the record at Bonneville but fitting that he should be at the Grand Prix. Despite a prevalence of pennant races and football games, more than 65,000 found their way to the out-of-the-way village of Watkins Glen. It's a lively sport, and it deserves a lively writer like Ottum.
Describing the big jet cars at Bonneville, Ottum once wrote: "On the salt flats you can see to infinity, and the jet first appears as a wavering dot growing out of the middle of a mirage. Then it suddenly materializes, takes shape and comes flashing through the measured mile in a marvelous silent blur. Then, about the time you turn your head to follow the car and murmur something appropriate like 'wow!', the paralyzing roar of sound comes along behind it and almost knocks you down."
Mickey Thompson, the racing driver, once told Ottum, "The only way you can write about this with any feeling is to feel it." And he took Bob on a 140-mph run around the oval at Bonneville. Driving with one hand, gesturing with the other, he explained the techniques, occasionally muttering, "This stuff can really be dangerous," as he fishtailed his car out of skids.
October 11, 1964
Last spring, while Ottum was gathering material for his memorable cover story on A. J. Foyt, winner of the Indianapolis 500, much the same thing happened. "I'll show you how I'm going to drive on Memorial Day," said Foyt, and they drove off in a Hertz rental car. "Now, this is the way I usually take this corner," said Foyt. "See how you sort of skid? We're not going very fast, but you get the idea." Ottum says, "We were going as fast as the stock speedometer showed—120 miles an hour—and I got the idea just fine."
Although his primary responsibility is auto racing, Bob has done pieces for us on such ornaments of American sport as harness racing's George Levy, yachting's Bill Cox and bicycling's Jackie Simes, and he is working on a story with the Boston Celtics' Tommy Heinsohn for our October 26 basketball issue. He has a delightful, self-deprecating knack for establishing easy rapport with whatever subject he is writing about, despite apparent surface disparities. After a recent Ottum-Heinsohn interview in a Massachusetts restaurant, the basketball player unwound himself and stood up until he reached his full height of 6 feet 7 inches. Ottum hopped up, too, all 5 feet 7 of him. The waitress looked up at Heinsohn and then down at Ottum. "Well," she said, "what happened to you?" "I got my hair cut," Ottum said.