You awaken Sunday morning; think about the concrete barriers,
Like riot police, shoulder to shoulder,
At the far end of Panther Hollow Bridge.
The Healey is traveling three times the legal limit,
Cars are trying to pass.
The Jersey barriers scribe the outer edge of the far sweeper.
Tap the brakes, weight the front end, cross the crown to good camber, tires hold.
Kiss the apex at the sidewalk to the coffee shop. Beyond,
Corner workers in white. Furled flags
Are wings of yellow, red, black, white.
Then the Westinghouse Pond, a
Porsche locks his front brakes,
Smoke pouring off, the 356 climbs the hay bales then balances in air. Flags unfurl.
Get over! Slow it, Get it over, yellow flag. Yellow!
Like the racecourse in the park named after her, Mary Elizabeth Crogan Schenley was unique. In 1883, at the age of sixteen, she eloped with an army captain twenty-six years her senior. She had been on-track to become one of the wealthiest English women of her time. Her family disowned her. The 2.3-mile course in Schenley Park has five major elevation changes, a boulevard, a bridge, hairpins and sweepers, curbs, and all roads are crowned not cambered. Serpentine Drive, with two 280-degree turns, winds downhill under a canopy of trees between stone walls built by masons during the Works Progress Administration then twists to the front straight and more Jersey barriers.
If you’re looking for run-off room, go somewhere else to race.
This course takes autocross precision and hillclimb focus. And here there is the beauty of high-summer in a park over a hundred and twenty years old. Schenley rolls across four hundred urban acres of trees and Western Pennsylvania undulations. In 1897 the first automobiles raced here—somewhere. Then a horse race track was built in 1907, and the grandstands and stables were lost to fire in the 70s. They say you could smell burnt horse-flesh in Squirrel Hill. The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix began in 1982 and today is billed as “a ten day festival of races, car shows and motorsports events.” Last year 210,000 people participated and $350,000 was raised for charity. There is, here in Pittsburgh, community and compassion.
Sunday afternoon, shade trees
and skirl of bagpipes in the pits.
Carnegie’s legacy: steel, libraries,
labor violence, a university.
Group Four to the starting grid!
Saddle up. Kevin rides down,
shakes the old man’s hand.
Grid Marshall’s hand in air. Five minutes to go.
Zip and velcro Nomex, helmet,
glasses, belts tightened, gloves.
85 degrees and like humidity.
The marshall’s two fingers in the air.
Can’t hear your engine fire-up.
Check the tach and 60 psi of oil.
Drivers’ fists in the air.
One Minute: running and ready to move out.
The haybale-Porsche gridded behind.
He’ll sneak by on lap 2.
On lap 3 at Westinghouse he locks them
Again, doesn’t get airborne.
You almost get by, then lose him,
but you catch him again.
Try to shake him braking late
into the hay-bale chicane.
He stays steady.
You back down, drop it into second gear
through the chicane
Chirp the tires.
Impress everyone but the Porsche.
Up on the golf course, your home-boys.
Later they claim they cheered.
You’d say the same thing.
You blinked when the front-end
lost it at the bend below their tent.
Did they see?
Lap 7: the temp gauge above 210. Ease off.
The plan: just make the checkered.
Around the second 280 at Serpentine
The corner worker, an angel,
is close enough inside the wall
To lean out almost and kiss your helmet
Heading toward the esses.
Then the red flag thrown like an angry sun stops you.
The picture in the Post-Gazette shows the driver of the Elva Courier in the middle of Turn 20, arms raised in the cockpit in the air as in supplication. To his right, a Healey 100 has spun to avoid him. The Healey 3000 and I are just out of the frame heading toward the confusion. Later, when they unload the crippled white Courier in the pits, there is silence. The driver, okay, ponders his next move; the diesel roll-back idles.
Monday morning commuters hustle to work through the former racecourse and there is little left of Sunday’s theatre. Concrete barriers are mostly gone before sunset Sunday and in Monday’s soft rain crushed hay bales look melted like cake in MacArthur Park. At the breakfast table, Jade is still wearing the fuscia colored crew wristband. “What’s that for?” “I want to show the girls at work.” Race day at Turn 20, she had the camera on automatic-fire and got all the action before retreating up the hill. The white Elva, way off-line, hit the outside wall. After impact, Jade said, the car flew to the middle of the track.
Walking to Pitt College in November after the first good snow has melted, the Elva’s skid marks, way off line, are still visible at Turn 20. Maybe it was just brain-fade or mechanical, like Robert Pursig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: a ten-cent part is worth the whole vehicle. Apex Zappa, Turn Six, doesn’t conjure any worries. You learn in school that the first times in a difficult bend you “brake a few feet later, a few revs more, a lighter touch on the binders time after time till you get it right.” If you over-cook Six, you’ll know quickly. Thinking about next year, the turn that takes my breath away is the blind 90-degree around (of course) a stone wall at Turn Nine beyond Westinghouse. The cut traverses the slope; cornerworkers stand above and the sweeper goes on for a quarter of a mile. There is a pronounced crown but can be very fast if you enter smoothly and straddle the crown then start a gradual turn-in for the hill at the forked, dead locust tree. With enough momentum the long-stroke six can propel the 3000 up the hill to the hoy polloi on the golf course. Squint hard enough and you can imagine all those burghers and their automobiles are at Ascot or Silverstone with you flying by.
In 1887 Robert Bigelow, later known as The Father of Pittsburgh Parks, sent an emissary to England who convinced Mary to donate 300 acres and sell 104 more to the City of Pittsburgh to create this fin de siècle jewel of an urban American park. Mary Elizabeth’s clan had kissed and made up with Mary and her Captain Schenley. There is a sculpture pool dedicated to her at the entrance near the University’s campus. Mrs. Schenley never saw the city, fountain or the park that bears her name. In the pool, Pan the god of nature is charmed by Sweet Harmony playing her lyre. Legend has it lately every third weekend in July the nymph’s lyre is stilled and the cloven-hoofed deity looks toward the sound of racecars bearing down on the bend at the far end of Panther Hollow Bridge.
Story by Walt Peterson
Photos by Bill Atterbury (unless noted)