Have you ever been in those situations as an adventurous kid or bold young teenager where your friends enthusiastically encourage you to do something you are not quite sure you want to do or should do?
This is what happened to yours truly one day with two boyhood friends testing our new streamlined modification on our self-built go-cart. The amount of time the three of us spent on R&D (research and development) for this brilliant enhancement had to have been at least 4-5 minutes! What could possibly go wrong?
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The racing era? 1974 – 75. I and my race-buddies were 11 to 12 years of age. The BM-501 (Bat Mobile 500 v1) was a two-axle chassis with an old wooden toy-trunk nailed down to the wooden chassis. The toy trunk was 2-ft (H) x 5-ft (L) x 2-ft (W), and kept us Speed-Racers tucked fairly tight inside. It had 10-inch rear wheels (from common toy wagons) and 5-inch front wheels, typically found on lawn-mowers of the day. The front steering was cleverly accomplished by a rope attached near both front wheels with a 75-80 degree turning-range, centering hinge that held the front axle to the chassis. Pull the rope’s right-side, turn to the right. Pull the left-side, turn left. The engineering alone that went into this marvel of motion was the talk of the neighborhood, yes by parents, but most importantly the girls! We were heroes to be… in our own eyes!
Yes, we were truly becoming sexy Demons on Wheels.
My childhood home was in a hilly neighborhood. Ideal for Demons on Wheels. My house was a two-story split level home where the driveway went from our street, down the side of the house, turning rightward to a larger driveway for two cars, garages underneath the first floor, and a grass lawn the remainder of the rear property (see image below).
After about 40-50 runs starting at the crest of our driveway (see red arrow), my racing teammates, Keith and Greg, and myself wanted a bigger challenge and more speed. We weren’t going to make legends for ourselves or to the girls unless we impressed. We pondered our choices and opportunities.
Keith had always been the bolder of us three. He had a gallant disregard to normal, whatever was convention he’d push it. There was one race on the lower BM-501/BMX track we thought he’d never recover or regain his courage, if it’s really courage. Some girls argued it was idiocy, but we couldn’t abandon our daring friend over some silly girls opinions. What do they know about soap box engineering and racing? Besides, doing things with Keith usually made Greg and me look and sound cool too. More on this later. Suddenly Keith had an ah-hah moment.
“What if we start in the Lowery’s driveway,” he pointed, “cross our street, then onto our driveway and down?” Greg and I considered the path, the dual hills offering more speed, and likely much further in the grass through our rear lawn. Further than any man had gone before! Unanimously we yelled YES! It was an exceptional idea and we patted Keith on the shoulder and high-fives all around.
After only about 10-15 runs between the three of us, hitting the street from the Lowery’s driveway, hopping the crest of our driveway, then making that sharp right turn to eventually slow in the grass to a stop, surprisingly the walls of our wooden toy trunk in which we sat began coming apart. The constant repeating G’s we wheeling demons were pulling in that right-hand turn was just too much force for that wooden box frame. A serious dilemma confronted our youthful, brilliant engineering and racing skills: A) Can the box be repaired? If not, B) do we find another lesser hill to ride affording driver safety, but sacrificing the roar of the crowds and girls wooing? Or C) do we just remove the four crumbling walls and sit on the flat bottom so that our fans could see every inch of our beautiful, skilled bodies? How were the new Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, and Mario Andretti of soap box racing going to handle this challenge?
It was determined by our consortium of advanced brains that the wooden trunk-walls were irreparable. We did not have the same carpentry skills, glue or nails to repair it to its original specifications. “A” is out of the question. What about “B”? It was soon deduced that if we moved to some other hill in some other neighborhood we would lose our fan-base—which were our giggling nearby girls and sisters. Also, we’d have to involve the Racing Commission and Safety Board, i.e. our parents. “B” was most certainly out of the question. It would have ruined our racing careers!
“C” it was! We went about refitting—rather dismantling—our fine machine of motion and in less than 20-minutes BM-502 was ready to roll into the annals of history.
Once the three of us topped the Lowery’s driveway, looked down to the street, down my driveway, and the back pavement off in the distance, a flashback took us all by the necks! “HOLD ON GUYS!” Greg mumbled with timidity. The three of us remembered when we once rode our dirt-bicycles with knobby-tires down my driveway, over different sized jumping ramps for Cool-points, and then skid our rear tires to screeching halts. Only the last time the three of us did that was when Keith didn’t stop with a screeching rear tire. Instead his chain came off his rear sprocket when he landed his jump.
Keith kept going and going, jumped our grass embankment Dad and I had built at that corner of the back pavement to deter eroding of our manicured grass and topsoil by rainstorms and runoff. Keith later told us, with some vehemence, he was not trying for double Cool-points as we accused, he was scared shitless. He jumped off his bike to save himself from almost certain death or a face-plant into our old, massively huge Oak Tree… just before our aluminum fence (see image below). Or if you avoided our Oak Tree, six to eight feet further was a very, VERY busy 6-lane Dallas Boulevard called Westmoreland Blvd. Make it that far into traffic and you have a serious mess moms and dads won’t be happy about. I would think the drivers of those cars too after glimpsing a flying kid go by, with bicycle (and parts?) or no bicycle, just before impact.
Keith then had another ah-hah moment! “This is different guys” he consoled, “I had 2-wheels and no chain.” He pointed down to the untried BM-502, “We have four wheels and no chance of a missing chain!” he said with confidence. Our three engineering brains acknowledged his well-made point. “Who’s going first?” Greg asked breaking the silent pause. More silence and looks at each other. Then Keith said “I came up with the idea of the faster better track. It’s you two’s turn.”
My sense of duty and honor began to gnaw at me inside. After all, it was my driveway, my street, my fast go-cart, and I knew this faster track like the back of my hand. I knew what had to be done. “I’ll go” I said with some sort of unknown cranial sharpness and courageous spirit.
I mounted BM-502 for its maiden voyage. Keith went down to the street to monitor any traffic coming either way. Greg went all the way to the back of my house to witness racing history being made. I waited for Keith to give the all clear. In my head I imagined the transition from the Lowery’s drive into the street and that slight verge to the left much like Olympic bob-sledders do just before the starting gun or beeps go off. Up the crest of our drive and small lift off the ground, now the speed goes higher—must make that right-hand turn sooner and firmly at these speeds, I said to myself—and Keith yelled “CLEAR!” I moved my hips to get comfortable, lifted my feet onto the front axle with the steering rope in both hands and she began to roll immediately. Two seconds later and there was no turning back.
Before I knew it I was across the street and up the driveway crest with all four wheels off the ground! Keith let out a big roaring “YEAH!” as I came down. The girls gasped in awe. It seemed like slow-motion, but then I was at the next decline at the right-side bushes. No time to think of the past, girls, and what was behind me. My speed picked up quickly. It felt like 100-mph if not 45. I was at the large back pavement, time to turn right. It HAD to be quick and firm or else the oak of death or Westmoreland splat awaited me. I pulled the rope from the right, hard! That’s when everything went into a blur.
I no longer had my feet on the front axle. I no longer had the BM-502 under me. I did still have the rope tightly grasped in my right hand, pulling still I’m sure, hell… nothing else was as it should be or as I had just imagined it. The girls began screaming. About that time came the unbending, unforgiving, hard concrete on my left arm, then shoulder, then hip and butt. As if that wasn’t enough, then came the left rear wheel up my back, over my head and past me as I continued skidding, rolling across that aforementioned pavement. When my raggedy-Ann body finally came to a halt I wondered what have I lost, broken, and which time-space dimension had I entered. But suddenly that didn’t matter. The pain from all over my body started reaching my still foggy, oozy brain. I let out a few big screams of my agony and defeat.
I do remember up ahead of me the BM-502 had come to a rest upside down and wheels still spinning. The scene was sheer carnage I’m sure. The girls didn’t know what to do or what to say. They weren’t about to touch anything!
Greg ran into the house to get my Mom. Keith ran down from the top of the driveway to see what remained of this once great race driver. At least that’s what he told me later. When Mom hurriedly arrived she yelled “What on Earth happened!?” Greg and Keith very carefully and cautiously considered their answers as I laid there in pain and a trail of skin behind me. Mom checked my arms, elbows, butt thighs, knees, all the typical areas that get torn-up on concrete pavement crashes. “I need to get you into a baking soda bath and cleaned up. Come on.” she concluded. “What happened?”
Keith and Greg finally answered with their excellent, well-thought out account of events. “Dwain didn’t stay on the go-cart.” Even the NTSB would have been astonished by that crash-site assessment. Mom pressed them for a more… precise picture as she helped me to the bathroom for the tub and bandages. The two geniuses rethought their first answer, considered more and explained again. “Well Mrs. Miller, we didn’t consider what might happen when we removed the four walls of the toy-trunk and started up higher at the Lowery’s.” I think Mom responded with “Forget it. I’ll just ask the girls.”
Oh my god, that was the WORST possible thing she could do! Our reputations would go down the toilet, a worse fate than death-by-oak or the Westmoreland splat. How were we going to regain our former glory?
After the Day of Wipe-out the BM-502 lost its appeal along with more damaged parts. Nor did we dazzling mechanics have much motivation for a BM-503 GTE we had also dreamt. We learned in the end, it wasn’t the Oak Tree of death or launching into Westmoreland Blvd. traffic that was to be feared. It was our ignorance and inflated egos—and sketchy physics—that were to be most feared.
Like many a man before us our lofty self-perceptions for legendary racing status, below-average engineering skills, less than sufficient forethought and testing, and hordes of female race fans blinded us. We were no match against natural laws of velocity, gravity, distance, acceleration, deceleration or impact, and pain. The famous words of Captain Sully come to mind: Brace for impact.
Thus ended the three almost famous soap box racing careers of mini-Niki Lauda, mini-Jackie Stewart, and mini-Mario Andretti before they even got off the ground. Well… I guess in some cases into the air (what goes up) and into the ground (must come down) in a sundry of pieces and parts. An elusive concept for boys it seems. 😉
Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always
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