The One Armed Bandit
In 1964 I was attending Napa JC, dumber than box of rocks, broke, and looking for some direction in my life. Fortunately I stumbled across Vallejo Speedway in the mid-sixties. Bingo - just what the doctored ordered. I attended as many races as I could and they would later have a major influence on what I was to do in life. That is ---- go fast, wear a cool helmet, drink with the girls and cheat death (everyday). Thank God it all came true after I got drafted in 1969. Guys like Leroy, Phillip, Julian and Gene were definitely inspirational figures in my life. Before I transgress too much further I’d like to share one of my favorite memories of Vallejo Speedway though.
One Arm - No Flag
I believe it was either in 1964 or 65. It was early in the evening and the trophy dash was about to begin. During the line-up for the dash, and as was to be expected, the cars would come barreling out of the pits with their “go-for-the-throat “attitudes and park right in front of the grandstands. On this particular evening all cars were very loud en route to their starting positions on the grid -- except one car. The slowest of the four previous heat winners was, and as I recall, a not so cool, late 1930s or early 40s something, coupe. I don’t recall the make or year but what I do recall was that it was butt-ugly, six cylinder and driven by a driver by the name of the “One- Arm-Bandit.” Yes, I believe he really only had one arm (although I can’t confirm this). I believe he drove with a suicide knob on the steering wheel (again I can’t confirm this either but it seemed to be the consensus at the time). This car definitely had the aspirations to be competitive but unfortunately was lacking in power to stay up with the big, loud, nasty eight cylinder titans of the track. This car not only looked bad -- it sounded even worse (you know that “flat-six-cylinder-sound” after watching the “oh-so-cool-eights” go around the track). My buddies and I knew from the start this was going to be a real calamity against the likes of (I don’t really remember the other 3 drivers in the dash) but let’s say they were Leroy, Chet and Theodore (either Gratrix of Finkenbinder). As all four drivers sat in front of the grandstand, engines turned off, names and numbers being called out while Joe Valente made his way through the pack banging his starting flag on each competitor’s car (tink-tink), the crowd knew this would probably only be a three car race (three of the top eights versus this lowly six).
As Joe climbed back up on his perch, and the drivers fired up their jalopies to do battle, the cars began to inch their way around quarter mile -- oh so slowly. Since the slowest cars were normally positioned in front, this meant that the faster cars would have to effectively maneuver, in less than four laps, to get around the slower cars in front. The reverse starts made for more dicing, interest and excitement for the audience (we all loved it!). With the big-butt, six cylinder jalopy riding on the pole meant the other three cars would all have to get around this slower obstruction before they could actually start racing.
As they slowly approached the final turn before the stands -- “Jumpin’” Joe Valente finally threw the green flag and the race was on. Turn one was uneventful but turn two instantly turned into a three car disaster. All three of the fastest cars in back got tangled up together (a definite yellow flag was in order, REPEAT a definite yellow flag was in order!); however, Joe looked the other way as the crowd went wild watching the Bandit running away like a scalded ape. By the time “fasties” got untangled, and all heading in the right direction, the “One-Arm-Bandit” was now approaching turn four all by himself. The six cylinder, ill-sounding, low-budgeted jalopy was flat out -- and hauling. As the big boys all came alive and started racing for turn three in unison, it now started to play out like a greyhound chasing a rabbit around the track. The rabbit had a bit of a lead but not much. Every person in the stand was on their feet screaming for the six cylinder “TO GO!” Every lap was a heart- stopper. The big boys were inching ever closer to the “Bandit.” After four laps, and no flags, the big-boys finally caught up with “The Bandit” approaching the final turn four -- but the “One-Arm-Bandit,” somehow, made it over the finish line first and into the winner circle for the first time.
My thanks goes out to Joe Valente for not throwing the yellow flag – because the entire audience walked away with a memory they’d live with forever. And yes, Joe knew exactly what he was doing!