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EXCERPT: The Put-in-Bay Road Races

978-0-7864-7930-6Imagine an island in Lake Erie with a crescent bay and another island inside that bay. At the waterfront is a collection of Lyman runabouts with brightly varnished decks, a variety of offshore sailboats, the majestic ­R-Boats, Chris Craft Sedan Cruisers and Thistle class sloops. The Miller’s Ferry docks are there too.

There’s a little park with a bandstand and several cannons dating to the War of 1812 and Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry’s defeat of the British fleet in Lake Erie there—Perry’s Monument is just on the outskirts of town. Children’s swings and benches ornament the square. Then there’s a neat row of stores. There are bars, ice cream stores and places to buy picture postcards.

The front straight and the ­start-finish line are just ahead of those stores. As eager spectators leaned precipitously against the ­snow-fence there, Manny Holder’s Porsche 550 RS was doing ninety miles an hour, two or three feet away.

For a week or two before—and after—the race, the winding country roads south and east of Cleveland would be busy with racers and ­would-be racers sharpening up their driving techniques—you would go after dark so you could see the headlights of approaching cars and get back into your own lane. The forest would ring with the sound of sports car exhausts. They would depart Linsay’s Tavern, a sports car hangout in Shaker Heights, and head for Chagrin River Road, Eagle, Merkle or Rte. 615, all of which were, and are, terrific driving roads—no doubt the reason so many members of NE Ohio SCCA have done so well in national racing….

…MG-TD owner John Comey went to every one of them—as a competitor in the first two and as course marshal in the rest. “In 1952,” he says, “it was run in the fall—September I believe. I had the distinction of being the 1st car into the 1st corner in the 1st race. I was in the front row and got a good start. Then, on Airport Straight, I was passed by some cars that were going 7 or 8 miles an hour faster. We were all supposed to be stock, so the lesson here is that some cars were more stock than others. It started raining and I was getting wet so I stopped at a farm house and put up the top. I ran the car again the next year and, going into the gas station chicane, a number of cars came together. I had a tough time avoiding them but I did not avoid the telephone pole. That meant the end of my racing, since the MG was the car I drove to work. Then I became the course marshal. I would go up two days ahead of time, sweep the gravel off the corners and get farmers to bring in hay bales.” Comey was also known for his Bugatti pace cars, a Type 55 that King Leopold had owned and a Type 57 convertible.

Competitors would arrive on the ferry boats Friday morning in order to perform technical inspections and practice. In fact, some, such as Chuck Stoddard, would come up very early Saturday morning. “The whole island was shut down and there was nothing to do,” he recalls, “so I would just get up early and drive the Siata from Willoughby to get there at 9 ­o’clock. I would race my car, put it back on the ferry and be back home the same night.”

Since there was no time for qualifying, the grid was formed by drawing numbers from a hat. Most of the cars were new, so inspection didn’t reveal much. Brake tests and the rest of the tech inspections were held at Joe Parker’s garage on Catawba Avenue. As race worker Mickey Mishne recalls, “Joe Kovatch was the technical inspector. One of his main concerns was that a car braked in a straight line. The driver would speed up slightly upon entering Parker’s Garage, step on the brakes and raise both hands. The result was that many drivers learned how to keep their steering wheel straight, with their knees.”

At the time, it was also common to test handbrakes. Only one car ever went through the back of the garage, as spectator and motorcycle ­road-racer Bob Karol relates: “Accelerating the length of the garage during the ­hand-brake test, ­Frazer-Nash driver Bo Miske disappeared, speed unchecked, out the back door. Returning from his trip around the building, he explained, ‘I knew I forgot to connect something.’”

John Comey recalls, “There was a lot of racing the night before the race and a friend of mine went in the lake off the South Dock. It was Mike Caparon, in an MG. He claimed that mayflies made the dock slick!”

Excerpted from The Put-in-Bay Road Races, 1952–1963 by  Carl Goodwin,  Transportation Catalog p. 3.  Click here to order the book and click here to view the transportation catalog.  Through August 1, 2015, get 30% off your order of two or more transportation books. Use coupon code TRANSPORTATION on the McFarland website, or call toll-free 800-253-2187 (Mon-Fri 8:00 am to 4:30 pm Eastern Time) to order and ask your customer service representative for your discount.