All my auto racing knowledge and interest would not fill a shot glass, but there I was, tight with tension, moments before the start of the 30-lap late-model feature race at Holland (N.Y.) International Speedway on July 29. Though my son Chris, 9, who counts a successful day as one in which he has seen at least one Ferrari, had been bugging my wife and me for two years to take him to a speedway, we had always declined. We cited both ignorance of and indifference to the noisy sport. We relented on this vacation, though, and visited Holland, a high-banked, three-eighths-of-a-mile paved oval in an Erie County village about 25 miles southeast of Buffalo.
Two of Holland's more successful drivers, Dick Flaig, 54, and Gary Schwab, 36, divided the rooting interests of our family for the feature, Saturday night's big event. The program was already more than three hours old, thanks mostly to an intermission that seemed as long as Les Misèrables, but we perked up when the 24 cars vroomed and fumed onto the track. For one of the few times in six weeks on the road, Chris and my other son, Jamie, 12, got together on something, in this case a rooting interest in Schwab, an eminently likable dairy farmer from the nearby hamlet of Delavan. He was driving a red-and-white Pontiac Grand Prix, the 86 car, the number having been chosen some years ago because cow 86 was producing the most milk at the time. Honest.
My wife, Donna, and I found ourselves pulling for Flaig, whose name originally rhymed with "plague" but who now favors "flag"; everyone pronounces it that way anyhow, and it goes better with "checkered." Flaig raced in Holland's first feature, 30 years ago, back when the bleachers were wood, the track dirt and his racing future seemingly limitless. But when, in 1965, Flaig was invited to drive a car on the NASCAR circuit—"my one big chance," as he puts it—he declined.
"I had a good job with the county at the time, and I didn't feel that traveling and living out of a suitcase was the life I wanted," he said on Friday morning, the day before the big race. Funny how things turn out: Flaig now works as a traveling salesman for a concrete equipment company and does quite a bit of living out of a suitcase. But he is always home on Saturday nights from early May through mid-September, to start his engine at the speedway.
Holland is a place where acned teens bump fenders with white-haired vets almost 40 years their senior before crowds that average 5,000. It's the minor leagues of auto racing, but that doesn't mean it's a minor league operation. Schwab, a.k.a. the Flying Milkman, got into racing about 10 years ago, starting in the wild and woolly figure-8 division, moving quickly through the Chargers and into the late models.
Not only is Schwab a good driver, but he is a talented self-promoter; he has more sponsorship money than any other Holland regular. Both of his $25,000 cars, the "battle wagon" for races, the "touring car" for show, are paid for with OPM (Other People's Money). He and his wife, Darla, annually sponsor a Real Milk Products Night at the Races. Darla scooped 1,300 dips of Perry's ice cream (one of Schwab's major sponsors) on this year's milk night—June 24. Schwab frequently invites elementary school classes to his dairy farm, showing them his 200 cows (most of which are named after his racing competitors), the modern milking barn that yields about 10,000 pounds daily, and the big garage in which his race cars sit in splendor.
We took the tour on July 28, and by the time he packed Jamie and Chris into his race car and sped down Pigeon Hill Road. Gary Schwab was just about this country's leading sports figure as far as my sons were concerned.
The kids never got as close to Flaig. He is a shy man, unschooled in the public relations that comes so easily to Schwab. Yet he wanted to be friendly and genuinely enjoyed the conversation. He reminded me of my father.
Hours before the Saturday night feature, Schwab and Flaig were pacing around the pits, each shadowboxing with tension in his own way. Schwab chatted amiably with his Moo Crew, the half-dozen members of a pit team that includes his 14-year-old son, Jason. Schwab's is a first-rate operation. The car is hauled to and from the track in a well-kept trailer. The Moo Crew wears spotless red uniforms with gold trim and does its work on a concrete pad which Schwab rents for $400 a season.
"Some of the drivers resent us," Schwab admitted, "but I think there are more who respect us for running a class operation." From what I saw and heard around the speedway, that seemed like an accurate assessment.
Fifteen yards away, Flaig leaned against his orange Firebird, number 33. He is ruggedly handsome, deliberate in movement and a chain-smoker. Flaig's operation is hardly high tech. He doesn't rent a concrete pad for his car, and his chief mechanic and partner, Ray Blocher, 49, wears a flannel shirt and jeans when he crawls around, tinkering with the car. They have had their differences from time to time but have been together for most of Flaig's 30 years at Holland.
"When Dick retires," said Blocher, "I retire with him."
The July 29 race was for the midseason championship in the late model division, and double points were at stake. Flaig, the season point leader, started on the pole; Schwab was in the seventh position. Flaig set the tone early when, despite being nudged in the rear fender by the 80 car, driven by John Thurber, he stubbornly refused to give up the lead. Lap after lap, he burned down the two straightaways at about 90 mph, then braked smoothly at Turns 1 and 3, controlling the race, daring Thurber to pass him on the inside and closing in on him, ever so slightly, when he tried.
Schwab, meanwhile, was running well but not spectacularly. He moved to sixth, then to fifth, then to fourth as three cars in front of him dropped out. But he couldn't catch Flaig. Nobody could. Flaig crossed the finish line with Danny Knoll gnawing at his rear tires, having protected, with the armor of 30 years' experience and a hundred pitched battles like this one, that small advantage with which he started the race.
Later, a circle of admirers surrounded Flaig in the pits. He has won about 150 features in his 30 years at Holland, but each one is still special, each checkered flag a new signal to keep grinding it out, Saturday night after Saturday night. Certainly the $700 first-place money, if not irrelevant, is not exactly important; he and Blocher will plow it back into 33, as they always do.
Flaig blew cigarette smoke in the air and smiled. "Some nights everything comes together," he said. "The car performs and you do your job." My kids stared at him in awe, having only this evening appreciated the guts and the guile it takes to drive a race car—at Daytona, at Indianapolis, or at Holland, N.Y. It was a fine moment, and we were all convinced that on this cool summer evening there was no better race car driver in the world than Richard Flaig.