Gasoline fumes fill my nostrils as I pull my four-point harness tight. Pinned to the back of my seat, I can’t reach the shift lever, but it doesn’t matter—my crew chief is ready to pop it into gear while I sit idling at the start. My view of the “road course” is good. I can see where the track narrows to a single lane at the first chicane. My heart is pounding. My mouth goes dry as the adrenaline begins to surge. I grip the wheel tightly just before the chief pops me into gear and leaps down to pull the chock from the rear tire. Just ten more seconds before I start of the wildest ride I have ever had.
HARD FOUGHT CONTEST
When the starter’s flag dropped, three vintage M135 deuce-and-a-half trucks roared over the line to begin the first of 5 laps around a “road” coarse outlined with markers in a hay field. Each truck, stripped of their boxes, mounted extra bumpers on the front and back. This was a good thing because none of the trucks had any brakes! Not knowing what that meant, I hesitated as we approached the first chicane. Lifting my foot from the throttle, I allowed the other two trucks to form a single file. Though I gave up position, I now knew the weight of the truck and the gearing would act sufficiently for any braking I required on the nearly quarter-mile course.
Successfully negotiating the first chicane, we drove uphill into a long sweeping left. I pushed the throttle as hard as I could to the floor as I gained momentum. Still behind the other two trucks, I came close enough to use my twin front bumpers to let the number two driver know I was behind him. With a nudge, he flinched, lost his line and I slid under him as we entered a second chicane.
Situated in rolling, northern Wisconsin, the racetrack had its share of hills. This second chicane, in fact, bordered what appeared to be a drop-off, but that is probably just from the perspective of the driver’s seat. In reality, it was just a gentle roll. Bouncing over furrows, trying desperately to control the steering wheel as a now determined third-place driver returned the rear-end bump I had given him just a second or two ago, that drop-off looked steep to me!
Emerging from the second chicane, it was foot-back-to-the-floor as we raced for position before making a long sweeping left down the will toward the starting line. We gained speed going into that turn. In fact, when I saw the back end break loose of the truck in front of me, I knew this was a “drifting” situation. With the throttle pegged, I threw that deuce into a left turn. When I felt the weight of the truck shift into the turn, I whipped the steering wheel hard right and hung on! In classic rally-fashion that any Subaru WRX-driver would have envied, the two deuces drifted through the left and accelerated to the start line.
We repeated the performance for four more laps, swapping positions many times. I am sorry to say, when the checkered flag dropped, I was not the first truck across the line. Or the second. When I rolled across the line, I killed the engine and coasted to a stop. Unleashing my harness, I hopped down and ran around the truck looking for evidence of my hard-fought battle for third place. The step to the passenger door was seriously creased. Someone had given me a hard nudge! My bumpers, both front and rear, showed a lot of bright metal, evidence of several “gentle nudges.” The engine was hot, but everything looked good. I reluctantly walked off the track, as three new drivers approached our trucks.
WHAT THE DEUCE?
You might be asking yourself, “Racing deuce-and-a-halfs? What next?” Each year, Tom Zat, owner of Alfa Heaven near Aniwa, Wisc., hosts a fall party that culminates in these races. For years, Tom has purchased, restored and sold hundreds of surplus military vehicles. He isn’t just a military vehicle guy, though. His passions run the gamut of motor sports—and it is clear from his Motorama Museum on the site.
Tom had been an Alfa Romeo-sponsored race team owner years ago. He has driven all of the major road courses in the U.S. and Europe. He even designed and successfully campaigned his own GT-2 car before retiring from the sport. His museum chronicles much of the Alfa Romeo racing history in the U.S.
He also likes the odd and unusual—what many of us would consider “orphan cars” (or in worse case, “clown cars!”). The aisles of the museum are filled with DAFs, Borgwards, Simcas, Fiats and Lloyds. But what catches many eyes, are the rows of Dodge and Chevy CUCVs, M211s and military trailers outside of the museum buildings.
Tom explains, “We are all in this together—it isn’t a ‘vintage racing hobby,’ ‘old car hobby’ or a ‘military vehicle hobby.’ We are all in the ‘motorsport hobby’.” In fact, Tom has led the way in Wisconsin to formulate legislation that entitles a hobbyist to license any motor vehicle if it had originally been intended for road use. “There is no need to differentiate between a ’67 GTO or a ’45 GPW,” Tom explains. “There are vintage vehicles, and we should be allowed to license them for use today.”
Even with this noble outlook, Tom isn’t without his detractors. In fact, at the races, I overheard someone ask him, “How can you DO that to such nice vintage M135s?” Tom smiled and replied, “I had to—I ran out of CCKWs! (a reference to the classic WWII GMC 2-1/2-ton trucks)”
What? Was he kidding? He probably was (though with Tom, it takes a mighty big filter to sort through his joking), though his point was, as he explained, “It doesn’t matter how I use the trucks—they are mine, and if I want to race them, then I will.” His racing isn’t careless, though. Tom has assembled many first-class restorations and continues to support many hobbyists with parts and expertise. “I have a friend who is doing an off-frame restoration of an M211. He has already spent more than $25,000 on the project. He will never recover that investment, but that isn’t important to him. His passion is that truck," Tom explained. “We should all follow our automotive passion even if it doesn’t always make financial sense.”
THE DANCING BEAR
Too often, we pit ourselves against our allies in our hobby pursuits. Classic car clubs don’t want olive drab trucks showing up. Military shows reject firearms dealers. Coin collectors frown when they see medal collectors. Reenactors pounce on each other’s “authenticity” like rabid hyenas. I suppose there is some sort of instinctual clan activities that drives these reactions. But if we take a step back, we will recognize familiar territory rather than boundaries that separate enthusiasts.
There used to be a day when a person declared, “I am sword collector,” or “I collect WWII relics,” and that self-definition would hold for many years, perhaps, even for lifetimes. Now, however, we are living in an era characterized by rapid economic and personal interest growth. People will come into our hobby as fast as their interests takes them somewhere else. There are a lot of reasons for this, but economists and business have realized that they need to maximize the experience for each customer, because, chances are, they will move onto a new interest in relatively short order.
So what does this have to do with racing Korean War vintage military trucks? Capturing the interest. There are many ways of doing it. In the museum world, we used to call this, “using the dancing bear.” The “dancing bear” is anything that gets the attention of a passer-by. Once you have their attention, inundate them with the product to keep them interested.
Tom’s motorpool of military vehicles and Motorama Museum are the one-two punch behind his "deuce racing-dancing bear." It was a fascinating exercise in drawing people into the hobby. I saw families from as far as Mississippi really listen during the museum tour, exploring the possibility of what they could do with an “old army truck.” These were people, I am sure, never considered owning a historic military vehicle before they came out for the day of “deuce racing.” Who knows, maybe they will join our hobby, or maybe, they will just tell a story of wild, bumper-to-bumper deuce action. In either case, they became advocates for our hobby.
As proponents of our hobby, we can’t just put on shows with the hope that someone new will attend. It is a fast and furious era in which we live. If we want to keep people interested in historic military vehicles and our military heritage, we need to figure out methods to get their attention.
What is your “dancing bear?”
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader