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One Night at the Danbury Stock Car Races

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[Yearbook] George Clifford

 

By George (Cliff) Clifford… I’ve been stalling about writing this up for half a century. Why would I want to share this story with anyone at this late date? I dunno. I’m guessing it’s no more complicated than the fact that—as reckless and irresponsible as it was—it was my idea and it was me behind the wheel. Irish guilt? Who the hell knows. It happened…

If ever I needed to dissuade a teenager from drinking and driving (or from becoming a teenager…), this might do the trick. The insanity of this performance rivals even that of a certain classmate who, on a dare, chug-a-lugged a fifth of Scotch at a Bob Walton house party one night back in 12th grade.1

Fast forward to another night on which testosterone-charged teenage hormones replaced Reason—a night on which I and my comrades and assorted civilians might also have died or been badly injured.

1940 CadillacIn 1954 my dad bought a used 1940 Caddy (identical to the photo, above, except all black). Definite eyebrow-raiser to us four Clifford kids; we had always been a Chevy-Ford-Plymouth family.

[Yearbook] John Ottinger[Yearbook] Christopher Carson[Yearbook] Brook GutmanOk, now imagine one 17-year-old teenager with questionable judgment and maturity behind the wheel of this super-charged tank looking at the opportunity to take three of his closest companions to a Saturday night at the Danbury stock car races…! My buddies were John Ottinger, Kit Carson and either John Cummings or Brook Gutman (I’m leaning toward the former). This beast of an automobile (considered quite classic looking in 1940 with its side-mounted spare tire and all), weighed in probably at 48 tons. Despite its iron-bound hulk, it was still pretty nimble in 1954. Lotsa V-8 juice left.

Well, you might also imagine what came next—after the races and after the obligatory case of beer between the four of us? The mentally impaired idiot who drove began wondering aloud:

Why should the evening’s racing entertainment end now…!? Why not continue on Route 7 going home…?

Now Google Maps says the distance between the intersection of Route 7 and Route 33 (Wilton Road) is just about 15 miles (always seemed a lot longer to me). Back in high school there was a kind of unofficial teenage (suicide) driving record: how many vehicles can you pass on that section of Route 7…? The consensus among the four of us was 36. That is, overtaking and passing 36 vehicles (of any description) on that section of road.

Road conditions that night were less than ideal: rainy and foggy. Nevertheless when teenage hormones are on the loose, Reason, Prudence, Practicality—these things don’t stand a chance.

On that night we passed 56 vehicles going home.

When we reminisced about this last, John remembered clearly and—were he alive today—would be happy to confirm it. He also reminded me about the non-black paint we apparently scraped off an oncoming vehicle (on the left front fender…!) I confess, I do not understand how it would be possible to do so; the combined kinetic energy would surely cause a full-on side swipe, at the very least. I think I can still just vaguely recall clipping something, but not at all sure. John’s recollection about the paint was more definite: he said it was a moving violation. Didn’t happen in the parking lot while the car was unattended.

We were lucky. Lucky to avoid an accident. Lucky not to panic some northbound driver seeing us coming at him head on at 70mph in his lane…! Lucky not to force some southbound vehicle into a ditch. Or a tree. Lucky not to aggravate some other cowboy coming home from the races. Lucky, too, not to have been chased from the fair grounds by a Danbury or Wilton cruiser! I’d still be doing time…

When we reached Route 33 at last, John asked me to pull over so he could puke his guts up. I do recall that. He was in the right rear seat with Kit on his left. Kit said he needed to get out to walk off his shaking. As did I, no doubt.

And with that little breather by the side of the road, it was over. I’m sure we crept back to our various households at 20 mph. Don’t even think we stopped at the Westnor for coffee. We’d all had enough.

Did my folks ever learn of this insanity? You better believe: No!

I wish John were still here to confirm it. Or, if Brooksie-Baby were along, he could also attest to the episode. If he’s still amongst the living, that is.

In any event it all happened exactly as I’ve told it. I’ve never taken pride for setting any such “record”. Just glad we made it home in one piece without consequence…

Notes


1Btw, without forcing caffeine into this guy and walking him around continually until the doctor arrived, I can’t help wondering if we didn’t prevent cardiac arrest or brain damage or both…

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