"Mileage reading 63.15. Left at T. CAST 54.5."
"How's my time?"
"You're still almost a minute late."
April 19, 1976
"I'll make it up after the T."
The Porsche, a yellow 1973 911T named Bismark III, downshifts from 80 mph to negotiate the linked turns. It comes through the pale corn stalks that cover the Illinois countryside, its rear end twitching on the gravel-strewn road. The driver is Orville J. Meyer—called O.J. by some and Jerry by others. He is a short, powerful man with a mop of blond hair. He saws at the padded steering wheel with deft choppy motions that straighten the car in time for a fast approaching T intersection. He blips the throttle twice, double-clutches into second and yanks the wheel to the left, power-sliding through the corner. In the bucket seat beside him, Helga, his pretty wife, never raises her head from the collection of typewritten sheets, clipboards and stopwatches in her lap and the slide rule in her hands. The Porsche accelerates to 85 on the level farm roadway and the litany continues:
"Mileage reading 66.40. Right at Y."
"Can you get me on time?"
"I'll try. We have another CAST [Change Average Speed To] coming up."
It is Sunday afternoon and Jerry Meyer, a chemical engineer for Du Pont, a metal sculptor, skier, sailor, backpacker, golfer and Porsche fanatic—he is president-elect of the Porsche Club of America's 230-member Chicago Region—is deep in one of his favorite hobbies. In this TSD (time, speed, distance) rally a driver and a navigator must follow a series of instructions over a given distance, proceeding at given average speeds that constantly change and, using that familiar eighth-grade math formula D=RT, compute elapsed time. The rally is divided into legs that terminate at manned checkpoints. Waiting officials, who know the predetermined arrival time of each team, subtract points according to the amount of time a car is early or late. The team with a score closest to perfect wins, and any rallyist receiving a citation from the law is automatically disqualified. At the moment Jerry Meyer is behind his correct time because, for a brief period earlier in the rally, he got lost.
"Helga, you have to get me on time," Jerry says. "I'm trying, Jerry," his wife replies, "but these speed changes keep fouling me up." "Here," Jerry shouts, "let me do it." And as the Porsche barrels down the highway he begins making calculations with the slide rule while steering with his knees. "You have to go right at that Y, Jerry," Helga says. But all he can do is mumble since he's got the slide rule between his teeth as he saws away at the steering wheel once again. The turn negotiated, he spits out the slide rule and resumes calculations, all the while gunning the engine, downshifting, upshifting and providing a running account of rallying, the internal workings of his car, the state of the economy and how, for an upcoming crafts fair, he intends to use old exhaust valves and pieces of timing chain in his sculptures.
Give Meyer a trumpet and he will accompany himself at the same time, although it has been a while since he led his own dance band. And do not worry about a breakdown sidelining the Porsche; Meyer could fix a blown transmission with a can opener. In the past year, between ski trips, a canoeing expedition, backpacking in Colorado and a week of scuba diving and fishing in Florida off an oceangoing sloop he and Helga chartered with some friends, Meyer rebuilt four or five Porsche engines, a number of VW's and his furnace. He installed a sauna in his cellar, ran a couple of drivers' schools for the SCCA and about once a month indulged himself in a rally.
You can look it up. It is all there in the calendar the Meyers keep, detailing these and all other events and activities they somehow manage to attend. The calendar is in the bookcase, next to the sculptured lamp that Meyer made and the passport photos he took himself, in color. ("Nothing says you can't take your own passport pictures and nothing says they can't be in color," Meyer claims.) It isn't that he can't afford to have things done for him, it is just that things seem to come out better if he does them himself.
Meyer, 34, is a senior supervisor of production at Du Pont's East Chicago (Ind.) plant. "I got my personality, at least the I-can-do-it-myself part, from my mother," he says. "When I was just a little kid I remember her telling my father a couple of times how she wanted a larger kitchen. One day my dad took me fishing, and when we got home there was an enormous pile of plaster in the front yard. My mother had torn down one of the kitchen walls while we were gone. 'I sure hope that isn't a load-bearing wall,' my father said. My mother just stood there and smiled. And that's how she got her bigger kitchen."
Meyer, a native of Cincinnati, told the story a couple of evenings before the rally while sitting in his den, a warm, lived-in room full of wind chimes, mobiles, rocks from Colorado and his sculptures. Helga's framed needlepoint renditions of Porsches at speed hung on two of the walls, and in front of the bookcase sat the "stuff-box." A stuff-box holds paraphernalia related to an upcoming weekend's activities. It now contained two Meylan 400 stopwatches and a set of rally tables designed by Meyer.
The Meyers live in Munster, Ind., a quiet suburb of Chicago, where on Friday nights before high school football games the trees in front of varsity players' homes are draped by the cheerleaders with reams of bathroom tissue—getting T.P.'d, they call it. At the edge of his lawn Meyer has embedded two monstrous old gears to keep cars off the grass, another example of his creativity that thrives on recycling discarded material. It also has produced such sculpture as workmen swinging picks, shovels made from old spark plugs and valve guides and a living-room lamp built from the remains of a fire escape.
It comes as no surprise that Meyer places his personal stamp on all his cars. Engineers buy Porsches because Porsches are reputed to be the most precisely designed cars in the world; overdesigned, many car enthusiasts insist. Doctors and lawyers buy Porsches because engineers tell them the car is the most highly refined performance vehicle available. But Jerry Meyer, engineer, lifelong car nut and avowed champion of the marque, took his brand-new $10,500 Porsche Targa, which had been specially assembled for him at the factory, and proceeded to alter the entire suspension system because he wasn't satisfied with the car's handling characteristics. He did the job in his garage—cutting, fitting and repositioning vital parts on an automobile whose owners have apoplexy when it is time just to change the oil. For Meyer the task was as simple as ripping down a kitchen wall, even though, like serious rallyists in general and Porsche owners in particular, Meyer treats his car with surgical fastidiousness. To move it from the garage to the driveway for a washing, for example, he rolls rather than drives the 911, believing that to run the engine for only a few seconds would cause a buildup of condensation, resulting in a rusted-out exhaust system.
Now Meyer guns the Porsche up to nearly 100 mph. "It seems as though the different legs of this rally were laid out by different cars with different odometers," he says, "because our O.D. factor keeps changing and I'll be damned if we can get on time." An O.D. factor is the difference between a rally car's odometer over a given distance and that of the car laying out the rally. At the rally's start, all cars run an introductory "odometer leg," during which they measure this difference and figure it into subsequent calculations, which, at least theoretically, is not very difficult. If, for example, you must travel at 50 mph for five miles, then at 30 mph for eight miles and finally at 40 mph for seven miles, it is not too hard to compute your correct elapsed time for the entire 20 miles. But try this: 5.4 miles at 37 mph, then 3.2 miles at 48.5 mph, followed by 6.6 miles at 51.5 mph. Got it down? Now throw in a garbage truck that cuts you off at an intersection and which you must follow at 15 mph for half a mile, a stop sign where you encounter a 12-car wedding party causing a delay of 45 seconds and an ambiguous direction for a right turn where there are two possible roads to take, resulting in a 30-second delay while you argue with your companion.
If you are cool, and running in the equipped class with a $1,000 computer under the dashboard flashing readouts based on corrections fed in by your navigator, or a Curta calculator, a device resembling a pepper mill into which you put the speed factor (so many minutes per mile) and receive an accurate time, then you've got nothing to worry about except getting lost. However, if you are running in the unequipped class, like Jerry Meyer—who would sooner bring his Porsche to the corner gas station for a tune-up than run a rally equipped—you are in trouble. All you have in the front seat are a stopwatch, a slide rule and homemade rally tables giving the number of minutes required to go a certain distance. There also is your navigator's mathematical expertise to rely on. By the middle of a rally it may be questionable, owing to the fact that navigators are too busy during a rally to look up; after several dozen high-speed corners they tend to become queasy.
Such troubles do not fit into the Meyer system of rally. His system allows Helga, boggled as she is by the three factors warring in her head—the changing mileage, the alternations of average speed and the time they haven't as yet made up—to lean over and give her husband a kiss. It allows Meyer at least a measure of satisfaction in being late, because being late means he can work out the 911 to make up time. And even if they don't win this rally, they will enjoy an afternoon of highly technical perambulation and can look forward to dinner with their Porsche Club friends, which for Meyer is the purpose of it all.
For many competitors, this is not the case. At the Mercedes garage in Barrington, Ill. where the rally started, there had been considerable psyching as Porsche owners eyed each other warily over steaming cups of coffee. Some feigned ignorance, others feigned hangovers, as they prepared to do battle in spit-shined machines worth as much as $25,000. Nor was Meyer always this calm; he admits that he once would have done anything to win.
"I'm a competitive person in a competitive society and although I don't like it, I've come to accept it," he says. "I compete on the job and I compete at my leisure activities. Whatever I'm doing, I want to do it well, but now I try to achieve some sort of balance. When Helga and I began rallying in 1966, we were competitive as hell. I'd found a hobby that demanded skills for which I'd been trained, which I liked. And at the same time it allowed me to pursue my interest in cars without the expense or the time involvement of racing. We worked our way up from beginners to experts and won the Chicago Region Porsche Club Rally Championship in 1969. But rally stopped being fun because we were just in it to win. We started fighting and worrying all the time about who would show up at a rally to challenge us. Finally I said, 'This isn't enjoyable anymore, and if a hobby isn't enjoyable, then it's time to get another hobby.' So we backed off and now, even though we try to do well, we're only in it for fun. If I got involved in the SCCA national rally series the fun would disappear, plus I would have to give up other things like sailing or skiing or backpacking, and I don't want to do that. But I'll keep on rallying on the club level, maybe run an event a month, and throw in a gymkhana here and there because I really enjoy driving the Porsche hard and because I'll always be into cars."
A quick trip to Meyer's garage, outfitted like a miniature NASCAR shop, eliminates any doubts about his devotion to the automobile. Next to Bismark III sits Bismark II, a 1967 Porsche 912. Bismark I, another 912, was demolished by a trailer truck a couple of years back. The crash won Meyer a lifetime membership in the National Safety Council's Kangaroo Club for people whose lives have been saved by seat belts. In the driveway rest Ziegfried, a Volkswagen beetle; Bruenhilda, a Kharmann-Ghia; and The Art-full Dodger, a fully carpeted, paneled and stereo-ed 1974 Dodge van used primarily for ski trips and camping. But Meyer's sense of devotion does not end with internal combustion engines.
The Du Pont plant in East Chicago where Meyer works looms above the colorless landscape with no pretense to architectural beauty. A network of railroad tracks bedded in black dirt angles among the somber buildings, and an acrid blend of chemical smells hovers in the air. It is the kind of place that the typically ambitious young engineer would view as a stepping-stone to a future amid plush corporate surroundings. Not Jerry Meyer. He believes in roots and enjoys his work, finding it a challenge to his creative and organizational skills. "I've seen a lot of men come through here who are just putting in their time...paying their dues before they move on to another plant," he says. "They aren't interested in doing a job. They see their entire lives with that kind of vision and never really devote themselves to anything. And you know something, they never really enjoy themselves either."
By registering early, Meyer had been able to select his position in the rally and had naturally chosen to be the lead car. "If you're car No. 1, you're never tempted to follow anyone else," he says. Even though he and Helga were late they still arrived at each checkpoint ahead of any other team, but Meyer declined to protest the fluctuating O.D. factor. In the old days he would have been hopping up and down outside the Porsche like a runaway jack-hammer. "I've seen rallies where four out of five legs get thrown out by the protests," Meyer says. "Picayune stuff like that kills the sport, and you have no idea how detailed rallyists can be. In an SCCA national rally you'll be told the size of the tire on the car laying out the course and whether it was cold or warm, because a tire's circumference changes with its temperature. You know what information like that is good for? To drive you nuts, that's what."
There is something in the nature of TSD adherents that dotes on minutiae and technical nuance to the point of loading the sport with chicanery and weird variations. Meyer remembers one rally he ran that included the following instruction: Every time you see the word creek spelled out, increase the average speed 10%, but every time creek is abbreviated, decrease average speed 10%. "You're going along at 50 mph and you see creek spelled out, so you increase to 55," he says. "Then you see cr. and nine out of 10 people decreased to 50 rather than 49.5." When he was asked how one managed to drive at 49.5 miles an hour, Meyer just chuckled.
The set of directions in this particular Porsche Club rally were graphic illustrations called "tulip instructions," which the navigator had to translate into English for the driver. For example, a symbol like the one shown here means to make the first right after the railroad tracks. Serious TSD rallyists don't like tulip instructions and would rather contend with more meaningful directives like the "main road rule," meaning on a highway with a bend to the left and a straight-ahead fork you take the bend. Or the "as-straight-as-possible rule," whereby given the same alternatives, you follow the fork. Pro rallyists, who bludgeon high-performance vehicles over animal trails, logging roads and dried-out riverbeds in events like the Safari in East Africa and the Press On Regardless in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, think TSD rallyists are in the same league as card-catalog librarians and would rather demolish their cars without the benefit of any directions at all. But both share a curious relationship to the terrain over which they travel; they regard the world outside their cars as an obstacle to be overcome, never as a system to which they belong.
At a quiet crossroads on the rally route, several children kick a soccer ball in a lot full of leaves. An old man wearing a Stetson hat, an "open road" model, walks his horse inside a rickety corral beside a weathered frame farmhouse where, in the front yard, an Edsel is for sale. A girl, perhaps 11, swings on a piece of 2 x 10 suspended from a tree by two lengths of rusty chain. The scene is frozen for an instant, then disappears with a frantic whine of gears into a valley flanked by plowed fields as, one by one, in Porsches of every vintage and color, the rallyists pass. Oblivious of their surroundings, aware of nothing but the translation of words into course changes and alternations of speed, they impose an overlay of calculations on the countryside and thus remove it from sight. They could be anywhere on earth as long as a left turn appears in 4.7 miles. They are engaged in a ritual of precision, in harmony with nature only when they are not lost and are on time. They have no desire to distill, from the landscape that races by, images of a country Sunday afternoon.
A few get lost. One destroys his transmission and scatters clutch parts over half an acre of potatoes. Several navigators become ill, but eventually they all rendezvous at a restaurant, a replica of a Bavarian beer garden complete with statued lawns, a duck-filled pond and a banquet hall for the Porsche Club dinner, an event that concludes each of the club's rallies. The official scorer is nowhere to be found so, true to form, Jerry Meyer sits down and goes to work. "If I don't do it, the guy will show up and have to read score sheets instead of having dinner," he says, without rancor, happy to be among friends, sipping vodka gimlets and discussing the pitfalls of the rally course. He and Helga have finished fifth overall, but he doesn't care. During the meal he shuttles among a couple that shares another of his new interests, CB radios, a woman who, like him, will exhibit at next week's crafts show and a man who wants some help with an engine rebuild. Plans must be made. Since Thursday night he has attended a concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, organized and overseen a party for Du Pont employees and run this rally, but he shows no signs of slowing down.
At 1:00 a.m. Monday, when most Sunday rallyists are fast asleep dreaming of checkpoints and mileage readings, Jerry Meyer stands in front of the workbench in his garage, welding goggles pushed up on his grimy forehead, an acetylene torch in his hand, examining the metal figures he has just brazed. They are hockey players made from discarded railroad spikes and pieces of brass; Meyer plans to include them in his exhibit at the crafts fair. On the floor, a surrealistic plant with stems of copper tubing, leaves of hammered brass and a base fashioned from chunks of some rocklike substance Meyer retrieved from a blast furnace at the Du Pont plant sits beside a Porsche engine that needs rebuilding. Helga pokes her head in from the den and says she is going to sleep. Meyer flips a switch, shutting off the stereo speakers in the house but allowing the sound system he has wired into the garage to continue playing. And as Janis Joplin begins to sing the blues he fires up the torch and goes back to work. After all, it's Monday already, the stuff-box in the den is empty and there are still eight hours before he has to be at work.