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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Tony Vickio-Lap 6


Mountains
Originally uploaded by
Sally Ann.

Experiences of "The World Famous"
by: Tony Vickio

Painting at the Famous Race Tracks

Lap 6: My new job, Watkins Glen International


I am anxious to get home. When I got to Chattanooga, Tennessee I saw something that made me pull the car over. It was the beauty of the Great Smokey Mountains! Unbelievable! I pull over in a Viewing area, get out of the car, stretch, groan, twist left and right to crack my back, twist my neck left and right and heard the sound of my vertebrae snapping back into alignment.

What a sight. The sun was shining bright, but in the valleys on the mountains, whispers of fog were slowly drifting east and way up on top of the mountains were a couple of buildings. "Wow", I thought. "I have to see what they are." I look in the car for my binoculars. I always take binoculars when I travel, "scenery" you know! Race tracks have lots of "scenery"! Like I have always said, "racing isn't all exhaust fumes"! Where did I put the damn things! This is taking time. I could be five miles up the road. Did you notice I said "up" the road instead of "down" the road? I always figured that whenever you were going north you are going uphill, you use more gas and it always seems to take longer to get home than it does going "down"!

I can't find the binoculars and back my rear end out of the passenger side of the car, turn and look at the mountains one more time. I shake my head back and forth, up and down, like Chevy Chase did in that vacation movie while looking at the Grand Canyon, get back in the car, fire the "mother" up and head north, tires smokin' ! I glance at the tach, 5,500rpm, slam it into second. Tires let out a little chirp.......AAaaaaahhhhhhh! They had a saying in the Skip Barber Competition Driving School....." a happy tire is a squealing tire"! Out of the corner of my eye, I see a gauge that does not look normal. Between shifts, I glance back at the dash. It's the gas gauge.........it's on empty! S@#*, I was in such a hurry I didn't check it when I left. I pull into the first gas station I see. I talk to the attendant while I'm filling it up. Driving the Pace car attracts talk whenever you stop someplace. I tell the guy, "Maybe I'll see you next year"! I really didn't think I would. I get in the car, buckle up and I'm all set for some serious driving and its "pedal to the metal" headed north!

I can't wait to see my wife, son and daughter! My wife said my dog had been moping around for a week! There is something else waiting for me. A new job! You see, just before I went to Alabama, I started work at Watkins Glen International Raceway (The Glen) as their Graphics Manager. I kept my sign shop open so I could do signs "on the side". Keeping my shop open was a good move as you will see later. As the miles went by, I thought not only of what I had just done, but what was ahead for me when I returned home.

Tuesday morning I was back in my office at Watkins Glen International. I spent most of the day talking with everyone about the adventure. It was time to look ahead and start work here. My new boss was Matt Matusicky. We called him "Mattman". I still call him that to this day. He was the General Manager. Mattman worked his way up from his first job at the Glen, painting guard rails, to General Manager. He was about 6 foot tall, 160lbs, had a Go"T". What a personality! He can talk about "nothing" with a temporary worker who is carrying around a weed eater, turn right around and talk business with Bill France ( was President of NASCAR). We had more fun! We became best of friends! He comes into the "tales" a little later while doing a grass painting at The Glen. What happens is so funny, I still laugh when I think about it! After the "funny" part, it almost turned deadly! You will have to wait for that "tale". You won't believe it!

At the time I worked there, the track was owned by Corning Enterprises, a division of Corning Glass. The CEO was Claude Sullivan. He also oversaw the operation of the Glen. Claude is a wonderful person. His son, Monte, flies the corporate jet for Corning, Inc. He also flies a competition Glider (a later story). Mattman and I were picked to work on a "secret" five year development plan. I was fairly good with computer graphics programs, but drawing maps and detailed layouts would require a sophisticated program. I wanted to learn AutoCad, the best Computer Aided Design program available at the time. Claude would stop by the track from time to time and see how things were going. He saw my efforts and asked me if I was interested in going to Night School at Corning College for AutoCad. I said "sure"! He told me to call his secretary and she would set it up. The first night, I get there early and pick a seat. I sit about in the middle of the room and wait. I look around, the blackboard, the chair I'm sitting in, the flat surface your right arm lays on and runs up to your work area. Even the smell. It all brings back memories. After writing seven of these "laps" I wish I would have taken typing! Finally some other people came in. Then the Teacher. I was older than everyone! Including the teacher. There were only eight people in the class and they were all up front, prompting the teacher to say, 'why don't you come up and join us"? I looked around, yeah, he was talking to me. I moved.

The class was really hard for me, since I have been out of school for so long. The guys in the class would help me with any problems I had. I think they felt sorry for me because I was so old! As the weeks went by I got better and I'll be damned.....I passed the course! Claude liked people who wanted to better themselves and he used his "power" to help you. The AutoCad program is a "licensed" program. It costs about $3,000.00. Through Corning Glass, Claude supplied us with the latest AutoCad program. Later, after I left The Glen, knowing AutoCad got me out of a real mess in Talladega!

Now, back at The Glen, I'm painting bigger signs. All I have done until now was 4'x8' signs except for the grass! I am doing 12' x 36' aluminum billboards. Why 12' x 36' you ask? I don't really know. This is the standard size billboard used at the track since the '70's, when Formula 1 was at the track. Someone built these billboards using a 4'x8' sheet of aluminum and a 4'x4' sheet. They made a wood frame out of 2"x2" wood and screwed the aluminum panels to the wood. This made one 4' x 12' panel (it takes 9 panels to make one billboard). Believe it or not, some of these panels are still in use! How do you paint these you ask? At The Glen there is a "Service Garage", a 70' x 300' building. It is the garage for all the different series of cars, including NASCAR, that race at the Glen. It is one, big open space.....huge! At the south end, on the end wall, I had the maintenance guys build a "rack" that would hold a 12' x 36' billboard. I would put the panels on this rack, one by one, until the whole 12' x 36' billboard was on the rack. When finished, they would come down, one by one and "Rudy" would take them and put them up in their locations. Rudy has worked at the track forever. He started doing fence work, believe me, there is lots of fence. He is the "sign installer". Rudy has put up countless signs and he is the best at installing these things. They always line up!

To paint 12' x 36' billboard, I use an overhead projector. One day I was in Ithaca, NY, looking at a sign job at this furniture shop. The owner also did these wood carvings of animals. They were awesome! We got talking and he said he used a projector for his layouts. I thought, "I need one of these"! He said he got three of them at a school auction and would part with one for $125.00. I didn't have the money right then, but he was a very nice person and told me to take it and pay him when I could. This really helped me do these boards more than anything. I just now turned my head to my left, while typing this, and looked at that projector. It's sitting over by the wall waiting for the next adventure. Looking back now, I was real lucky to find such a tool. You see, this projector was a transparency projector, not an opaque projector where you put a piece of paper under the light and it projects the image. On this one, the image you want to project is on a piece of clear film. The light is under the film, projecting up and into the lens which turns the image ninety degrees and "shoots" the image out the sign. The projected image is very detailed! It has a 1,000 watt bulb! Newer projectors have 500 watt bulbs. I can project a 12' x 36' billboard in one shot. I found one serious drawback!

I would usually work at night when I did billboards at the track. There were good reasons. One, no one was here to bother me with stupid questions or comments, like, "I knew a guy that would shake like hell until the brush touched sign, then he would stop shaking and paint a straight line". Sometimes I would have to work around race cars that were in the garage for the weekend. All I could see was spilling a quart of paint on one! Two, working at night, projecting the layout on the board was easier to see. I would have the lights on in the section of garage I was working in while setting up, then I would turn them off to project the image. One night, about 9:00, I'm at the track in this huge building, all alone, projecting the layout onto the billboard. I'm on a 10 foot step ladder about half way up. All the lights are off. Remember, the logo you are projecting is printed on a piece of clear plastic, the light shows through and the image shows perfectly on the billboard. That night it was warm, so I had a couple of the garage type doors open. I'm on the ladder, tracing the projected image to the panels and singing along with a song playing on my radio.

AH, my old radio. I still have it! It's held together with masking tape that is so brittle from age the edges that stick up, turn to dust when you touch them. No use looking at the dial, every color of paint I have ever used is on it. The handle is gone. Knobs? Had two knobs, the other two were gone, leaving the bare shafts, with little knurls sticking out. The antenna............the best available. A brass colored coat hanger, bent in all directions. It is bent and twisted around the "thing" that attached the original antenna to the radio. The "thing" was also broken, so it would not stay in one position and hold the antenna upright. So, where ever you sat the radio down, you had to find something to lay the coat hanger against. It worked great!

Here I am, working on the sign humming along with a song on the radio, and the next instant, I let out a scream, no it was more like an "AHHHaaaaaagghhhh!!" A mass of goose bumps formed on my ass, traveled up my back and out my arms in about a nano-second, I"m off of the ladder. Hunching over in pure terror, I whip around and look at the billboard. It's gone! I whip around the other way, looking down the building into darkness. I stand up straight and turn towards the board. Nothing on the board......where is it! I say right out loud, "what the %*** was that"? I look around towards the projector, in the light there is a moth flying around. I start to laugh. All alone I laugh! "Holy sh*t," I say out loud. The light from the projector drew these bugs in. A damn bug landed on the projector screen! It was a small bug, but when it was projected on the billboard, it was three feet across! The rest of the night I was scared! I kept looking around at the 300 foot long building, where my lights just faded to "jet black", and kept thinking, "what's down there in the dark?" Things were watching me! Even after all these years, I still jump when a bug lands on the projector!

I thought these 12'x36' billboards were big, but the signs are getting bigger! Bigger means they are putting them in different places. I have a bad flaw! I am petrified of heights! Not scared of heights......Petrified! I mean, I am so scared of heights that I can't even look up at high things! I'm not kidding! In later "tales" a Water Tank becomes an adventure. Today Mattman comes out and says, "The GT Center sign needs to changed to Camel GT". That's good, except the sign is on the roof of the GT Center. The GT Center is two buildings, attached together. It measures about 120' x 120'. Right down the middle, on the roof, is the sign! The roof has a real low pitch, almost flat. The sign is on an angle iron frame about 4 feet above the roof. It is 5'-6" high x 120 feet long. There are cables attached to the top of the sign at twenty intervals to the roof as the wind never stops blowing up there! Climbing up and down the ladder was the hard part. Once on the roof, it was so big, you didn't know you were in the air. I'm up there one day painting along, in my own little world, and all of a sudden I hear metal on metal sliding sound. The wind blew my ladder over! I can't get down. Once again, this shows the importance of having a radio 2-way radio on you at all times. Radio To The Rescue. As you will see, a two-way radio is a part of me when at race tracks. Ask Larry Orr (later "Tales" at Chicagoland Speedway)


On a sign like the Camel sign, I used a "pounce pattern". I will tell you about pounce patterns, because you will hear of these later on. The "pounce pattern" was invented by Michaelangelo. It is a paper pattern with the layout drawn on by hand or by computer. Once you have the layout drawn on the paper you punch small holes over your layout lines. I use an electric machine that burns the holes. It has a transformer in this machine, a long cord with a highly insulated handle the size of Sharpie Felt Pen. A small metal rod sticks out of the end. You have to use it on a metal table. You ground the machine on the table and run the metal tip across the lines on your paper. This causes an arc to form and it burns a line of small holes in the paper as you move it along. One thing you learn, DO NOT TOUCH the tip! When I first got it, I was showing a friend how it worked. I was leaning on the table with my elbow. I told him, "You never want to touch that tip"! (it has 2,400 volts!) as I pointed to it with my index finger. My finger was about an inch away and without warning..... snap! In a mill-second, a blueish white arc came off the damn tip and proceeded to jump in mid air and impale itself on the tip of my index finger! As I watched in horror, smoke came off my finger tip! Just then, my nervous system kicked in and I jumped, twisted and turned in mid air at the same time I screamed," %***in' S*#*! I'm standing there in disbelief, finger smoking as my friend turned and walked out the door, laughing so hard, he didn't even say goodby! My finger hurt like hell! This is why some people use a pencil like object with a wheel attached (the wheel looks like a star) and roll it along the lines to make the holes. You then place the paper pattern on the "thing" you want to paint. (These patterns are great if you are doing multiple signs. You only have to do the layout once and you can use it over and over). Then take a "pounce bag" (a piece of porous cloth filled with charcoal dust) and pound this bag against the paper pattern. The dust goes through the holes and when the paper is removed, you have a nice outline, in charcoal dust, of your layout. In future "tales", you will meet the "Pounce Man".....I wish I had a picture for you but I don't. I will paint one in your head!

Painting the "big stuff" is fun! It tends to set you apart from other sign men. It is not that they couldn't do it, I don't think some have the courage to try. I basically, will try most anything. Until someone says, "If you try this and fail, I will shoot you in the head", I will try anything!

When you work on a corporate logo, it has to be perfect. You can not alter it in any way. You work to the specs they send you. When I first did a Budweiser billboard at Watkins Glen, before it could be installed, Budweiser sent a woman up from St. Louis to approve it. She checked colors and the lettering and she was on a plane headed back to St. Louis. Once I was approved, she never came back again. She said that there were so many different shops all over the country doing signs for them it is hard to make sure they all conform to their specs.

This actually happened to me before I went to work for The Glen, but shows just how important it is to get the sign right! A sign company from North Carolina came to The Glen and installed some Camel Cigarette signs. They were contracted through Camel to do all of the tracks the series raced at. It was Saturday and I was in my sign shop, which at the time was in Ithaca, NY, about 25 miles from the track. The phone rings. On the other end there is pure panic! "You gotta help us out, we are in a real mess! Can you cut some vinyl letters on your machine, in a hurry"? "How much of a hurry, I can bring them home with me tonight". They need a Surgeon General's Warning on two of the Camel signs. No big deal, I thought..........No.......a Big Deal!! "We are sending a helicopter for you, we need them now"! Seems the IROC race (International Race of Champions) was to start soon. It was on LIVE TV! These two signs were about twenty feet in the air. Because of Live TV , cigarette and alcohol restrictions, and because the signs could be seen on Live TV when a certain camera swung to follow the cars, Federal Officials were there and were not going to let the race start until the signs were fixed! I cut the letters. It didn't take much time. They called me and said there was no landing zone near me so they are sending a State Police Car instead of the helicopter. We made it to Watkins in record time. If you saw the race, they ran four extra pace laps while a guy put the lettering on the sign. You can see a man in the Bucket Truck applying the letters as the cars go by. (Not me, remember, I'm scared of heights). As soon as the last letter was on, they started the race!

I was nearly burned out working full time at the Glen and for myself. It was a hard decision. One night I was laying in a bed at a Motel in Alexandria Bay, my wife and I were on a short vacation, and I made my decision. I was going back to my own business. I went back and told Mattman, he looked like he was going to cry. I gave my two weeks notice and ended up staying six weeks. They needed me for the next race and I couldn't leave them hanging. We parted the best of friends! They even had a party for me, gifts and all! It would be hard to find a better bunch of people to work with. If I had stayed employed there, most of these "tales" would not exist. I continue to sign work for the Glen out of my shop.
I left my job at the Glen on a Friday. I had raced late model dirt cars for about 10 years, so on that Friday night I went to Rolling Wheels Raceway in Auburn, NY for a race. I didn't win that night, but I did well, 5th. I wasn't thinking much about that race, it was Saturday night. I was thinking of two weeks earlier, a man I know, asked me to drive his NASCAR Modified. I had never driven an asphalt car, but I jumped at the chance. At that time a modified had a tubular chassis (Troyer built), a quick change rear end, 21" wide tires and a Chevy 427 engine (650 hp). These were fast! The first time out I blew a tire in the heat, so I had to start about 22nd. I finished 9th. What does this have to do with sign painting you ask? I'm about to tell you. Friday was my last day at my job. Saturday we were racing at Shan-gra-la Speedway, a half mile asphalt oval, located in Owego, NY. On the way to the track, in the car hauler, out of the blue, had a premonition! I wasn't coming back! It was unreal! I never passed up a good race, so I strapped in and the green flag was flying. About half way through the race, a car gets sideways on the back straight, right in front of me. At this part of the track the speed is about 120 mph. I didn't want to hit his door so I turned left. I knew a car was inside of me but I figured it was better hit him (it was Brett Bodine) than T-Bone the other car. My right front tire just clipped the spinning car's front bumper. It tore my right front tire, spindle, rotor and caliper off and stuffed it right into my passenger side window. I didn't know it was in there until I stopped. Now-120mph, no steering, no brakes, turn three wall coming! I had two full seconds to think about that premonition! I suddenly felt calm, like I was accepting the "end". Then "BANG"...........and it was all quiet. Real quit. On a race car, that is not a good sign! I had cleared the wall and I was a good twenty feet in the air, headed out of the track to the woods. The silence was broken by a huge "bang". The car landed nose first and did some spectacular en-dos. It stops...upside down. I look around, upside down. No one is there yet, I am so far from the track. I decide to get out. I can't get the window net down, I'm disoriented, so I look over to go out the passenger window, the front tire is in there with me, so I crawl out the back window and lay on the ground and wait for help. I just quit my job, first night on my own and I break my collar bone, three ribs and my right elbow (right handed). Jimmy Spencer had a good view of the wreck, in a photo, as I'm "leaving" the track he is the car behind me. What a way to start your first day on your own.

I had to work, so I struggled with one hand to do signs. One day I'm taking out my garbage pail at my shop and I trip on the curb. Not to hurt my right elbow again, I catch myself with my left hand. I heard this "snap".......I fractured my left elbow! This was a bad time! My elbows still bother me once in a while. They would have healed okay if I hadn't cut the casts off early to race in a 100 lapper back at Shan-gra-la . I never went back to the doctor.

I'm finally healed and I have moved my shop from Ithaca, NY to my house on Rt.329 in Watkins Glen. The grass" paintings became more popular, which means more people started doing them. Other companies are bidding on grass jobs. It was a "jungle" out there! At this time in the "tales," a company from Michigan, Britten Banners, won the bid to do the grass in Talladega. "Oh well", I thought. I had fun over the years. I can't complain. I'm in my shop on a snowy January day working on a small sign when the phone rings.............it's Britten Banners! I




Lap 7: Back to Talladega, but not alone!

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be interested in seeing the rest of this article on Tony Vickio. This seems to be a piece from the middle? Can you post the rest of it?

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Sallyann said...

Tony has written "6 Lap Tales" altogether and if you scroll through the archives on the blog you will find all six tales. They are titled-Tony Vickio Lap 1, 2, 3 etc. Start with Lap 1...I post Tony's Lap tales every Saturday.

3:23 PM  

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