My Word: Being 16 at Le Mans

June 26, 2014 Comments (1)

… and elsewhere.

by Denise McCluggage

A useful capability for those who write for “publication” on the internet is the ease of correcting errors, typos or the God’s-truth you just now discovered was really not true. Try to do that with a newspaper or magazine. Even then the internet’s first incorrect version floats its way through cyberspace in parallel inaccuracy to the corrected piece. Bother.

Alas, too often no one bothers to make the changes anyway. And because many Google-it, researchers on a hasty harvest of facts choose the first source they come to, they seed their new columns and articles with old errors. Thus do the weeds of inaccuracies proliferate and are blown farther afield.

(I’ll be getting to Le Mans soon.)

I think of my mountain-side house in Vermont where I lived with my heavy typewriter and a lighter cat and mailed (mailed!) stuff I wrote to editors in New York and elsewhere. I had to drive at least 30 miles to a library of any serious use where I fingered through card catalogs; lugged bound magazines to those things called “carrels”, or fiddled with microfiche in search of Facts.

Now in Santa Fe I stay at home office-chaired before a computer, which is quicker and grabbier than a host of human searchers, and dumps before me indiscriminate information with facts, factoids, suppositions, misapprehensions, simple blunders and purposeful lies. Some of these are recognizable to me for what they are. Some require more tracking and sourcing. Throughout I wonder if truth and accuracy are really better served than when I wheeled a Land Rover, yellow like a school bus, over snowed-on New England roads to Dartmouth or the University of Vermont campuses to a library where I could check things. Were facts a truer blue then for my efforts?

In any era, GIGO.

I was brought to this rumination by an article on the internet by a colleague of mine at AutoWeek—Anthony Peacock—whose name and writing I like. It was about a 16-year-old yclept Matt McMurray who this year, 2014, became the youngest driver ever to compete in the 24-hours race at Le Mans (aha!). I read it for several reasons: For one, to me 16 is an age larded with meaning. The difference between going to bed a child and waking up with the door swinging open to adulthood. Or, more limited to my gender but of significance as you shall see—the difference between wearing high heels or flat shoes.

Anyway it was I who at 16 one late summer day boarded a Union Pacific train in Topeka KS and click-clacked across half a nation to Oakland CA. There I disembarked more or less ready to begin my first of four years at Mills College, a highly regarded women’s college for which I had landed a scholarship. I had never been to California. I was all by myself. Alone. There was a war on, as we were constantly reminded, and common knowledge had it that the Japanese were certain to bomb the West Coast any time. People thought my parents were totally bonkers to turn me over to the Union Pacific.

The train rollicked about in its mostly forward intentions, but I walked the passageways secure in 16-year-old balance and my flat shoes. However before leaving the train at the Oakland station I changed into my high heels. Nothing extreme—just workaday high heels, for those who worked days and wore high heels. I think I could count on one hand the times I had worn such shoes, but I was being met at the train by someone from College. Childhood was over.

The image I have of my disembarkation was of my portable Zenith radio, at the time the smallest version of such devices was the approximate size and weight of a Buick battery, flying halfway across the platform. I had flung it thus when I caught one of the unfamiliar heels in the top step, ripping it off the shoe, scattering everything in hand and upsetting any hope of a near-adult’s smooth arrival. Luckily for me I was dumped into the arms of a handy and helpful Pullman porter on the platform.

He then helped me find the heel, collect my belongings and dig the sensible-for-a 16-year-old flat-soled shoes from my bag. Down a peg but no bones broken I proceeded to meet those from college—now without a capital letter—who were to meet me.

Thus 16 has been an age I pay attention to.

Almost fifteen years after that I was at Le Mans, camera in hand but also hoping to be allowed to race there the car I had been offered by Luigi Chinetti. There, too, was a pair of teen-aged brothers from Mexico who had the motor racing world agog with their good looks, keen spirit and uncommon talent. Ricardo at 16 was two years younger than his brother, adorable and spoke little English. Pedro, only a tad less dashing, had been to school in the United States and his English was fluent.

Ricardo Rodriguez Pedro Rodriguez

Ricardo (left) | Pedro and his little brother

I knew them both, raced at Nassau with them … was even photographed for Sports Illustrated with Ricardo. The title of the piece was “Look Who’s Racing” which meant a girl and a child. (Oy. What are we coming to?) Ricardo was also hoping to be allowed to race at Le Mans that year. Officials had dithered over his age despite his extraordinary experience.

When I spotted the brothers on the pit wall the day before practice was to start I had just come from the inspection site where I had watched Luigi plead my case to M. Acat, head of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, forever the race organizers. Luigi had some clout at Le Mans having won the race at that time more than any other driver (three). I watched him across the way, shoulders shrugging, his mouth shaping French words for this imperious little man before him who had a profound power over my life for the next few days. Camera or car. Then Luigi came to where I, unbreathing, awaited. He shrugged another shrug. “Monsieur Acat says, ‘This is an invitational race and we do not cho-o-se to invite women.” With Luigi’s accent it came out “sh-o-oes”.

Simple. No. You cannot race at Le Mans. Stock up on film.

I asked Pedro if he had a ride. Yes, he did. And you? No. Ah-h. He was sympathetic. And Ricardo? Head shake. Too young. So, said I: no women or children allowed. He laughed and translated for Ricardo, who smiled his so-sweet smile. After that all the weekend whenever he saw me he would smile it again and pipe in English: “No ladies or babies!”

The next year—1959—Ricardo was a year older and was readily accepted at Le Mans. I was still a woman and remained uninvited. The Rodriguez boys shared a 750 OSCA. A car like the one I was to drive in 1958. Through the years of my racing my being “uninvited” at Le Mans kept me out of a Briggs Cunningham Corvette and a Porsche factory drive there. Wouldn’t that have been cool?

Oh, dear. This piece seems to have become about me. Probably because I am writing it. But it was meant to be about a 16-year-old driving at Le Mans and Anthony Peacock writing about that. In Peacock’s article he said that Matt McMurray had supplanted, as the youngest ever to drive Le Mans, one Pedro Rodriguez who had previously been the youngest at 17 in 1959.

That was very un-Peacock. I’d always found his accuracy admirable. If he had just checked the Le Mans line-up for that year—available with a few clicks on Google—he would have seen that Pedro was driving with Ricardo. And quick click to the 1958 entries and Pedro was there with someone else’s brother: Jean Behra’s sibling Jose. No Ricardo as a starter in any car. Even if he had not known it was clear who was the elder.

I tried to email the author so he could use the internet’s post-publication ability to allow corrections, but when I searched for the story again I found another Peacock article about the youngest driver neatly correct to the right Rodriguez hermano—Ricardo—and his age now to the day (17 years and 126 days) compared to Matt’s (16 years and 202 days.) My colleague hadn’t disappointed me after all. (Check out his Mark Webber story and others on AutoWeek.)

I noticed two things. For one, the earlier Peacock story about the 16-year-old was still floating about with its error intact despite the new correct piece. And for another thing, according to my calculations, if the “no ladies or babies” rule had been overridden in 1958 by M. Acat—or the babies part at least—and Ricardo had been okayed to drive he would still hold the youngest-driver-at-Le Mans title. By 76 days.

But what if I’m wrong? (I don’t get along well with numbers.) Then I can chase all this down later with the “real fact” and have antithetical stories dancing together in the clouds. Facts may be facts but you can believe what you choose. Most everyone else does these days.

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Comments (1)

  1. Joe Thaler:
    Jun 27, 2014 at 02:30 PM

    Denise,

    You get better with age. You have been a favorite writer of of mine for many years.
    As with a classic car, long May you run.

    All the best,

    Joe Thaler


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