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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Tony Vickio Lap 21

Originally uploaded by
Sally Ann.

Experiences of "The World Famous"
by: Tony Vickio

Painting at the Famous Race Tracks

Lap 21: Pace Car Rides

I don't really know how it started, but I have been driving the Pace Car at Watkins Glen International for over 20 years. It must have been because of my racing background and some say my personality and being able to get along with people turned into a factor. Along with pacing races, the "job" turned into giving VIP rides around the circuit on Race Weekends. I would have never guessed, in a million years, the people I would meet; presidents of large companies, CEO's and business owners. These rides are reserved for the sponsors of races, team owners and "famous" people who serve as Grand Marshal for the races. I wish I would have kept tract of all the people I have had in a pace car.

One of the most memorable was this small, gray haired woman, about 70 years old. Two other women got into the back seat and she strains and with some help from a man standing by, "plops" into the front seat. What caught my attention was the glass in her left hand. As she sat down I could hear a "tingle, tingle". It was ice sloshing around in pure Scotch! Knowing only VIP's are riding, I wonder, who is this? We have different Pace Cars every year. This year was a brand new Ford Thunderbird Supercoupe with a 5 speed manual transmission. This was fast and, man, did it handle. These rides aren't just a cruise around the track; they are fast and "exciting"! As we are going around the 3.47 mile road course I explain the "racing line" and the reason for the Brake Marker locations (brake markers are usually 2' x 4' signs along side the track leading up to a corner). The first one you come to is 600, and then they go down from there; 500, 400, 300, 200, 100. This tells you how far, in feet, it is to the corner. When cars are in front of you, it is hard to see the corner, so the markers give you a braking point.

As we are going down the back straight, the older woman next to me breaks her silence. She says, "sir could I please ask you something"? I say, "Sure". She says in a shaky voice, "Sir, how long have you been doing this"? I glance over to her, and in a very serious tone I say, "Actually, today is my first time on the track!" She stiffens straight up, grabs the dash with her right hand and at the same time spills the Scotch on the floor and screams, "Oh my god!" The two women in the back start laughing as they must know I was joking. When we drove into the pits and stopped, one of the marketing people opened her door and helped her get out. She motions me to come around the car. I get a big hug as she says, "that was the most fun I have had in years! Fabulous! Thank you!" I went on with the rest of the rides and when we were done I parked the car and went into the Press Tower to watch the start of the race. One of the marketing people came up to me and said, "Hey, Mrs. Wick wants you come down to their suite". I say, "What are you talking about?" He says, "The older lady you gave a ride to, she spilled her drink, remember? She wants you at their suite. You better go, she owns Zippo Lighters. I got a golf cart, I'll take you down". I get in the cart and on the way down, I'm wondering, "what does she want"?

I really don't want to go in there. I don't know a soul and these are people who, I must say, are way out of my league, if you know what I mean. I open the door and walk in. Of course everyone turns to see who is coming in. I immediately hear, "Tony". I look over at a table, near the bar and there is the lady who requested me. I walk over and she stands up and says, in a loud voice, so all could hear, "this is Tony, the Pace Car driver". I sit down and from that day on, Harriet Wick and I were friends. Zippo sponsored the Vintage race at the Glen and every year, when the marketing people went to Bradford, PA to renew the contract, they would come back and tell me that their first request was to "have Tony in our suite".

Over the years, I have become friends with most of the "Zippo people". They are all awesome! Mike Schuler, the ex Zippo president, and his wife Diane. Mike Martin, my golfing buddy! Ron meister, always talking cars.

At a Vintage race at the Glen, Mike (Zippo President) called me on Saturday and said he wanted to sponsor a certain car for a three hour endurance race on Sunday. "The race starts at 10 am so be here at 9 and we can put Zippo on the fenders", he said. I am walking down the pit lane and see Mike running towards me, waving his arms as if to say "come here, come here!" Just then I hear the cars fire up! I run towards him and as I get closer, he hollers, "I made a mistake, they start at 9!" We stand there as the cars leave the grid and go onto the track. "S***, I wanted Zippo on that car", he says. We walk back to the Press Tower, me holding the roll of large decals that would have gone on the rear fenders. Mike stops in his tracks! He looks at me, eyes wide, and says, "Hey, it's a three race and they have to change drivers twice. When they stop, we can put one decal on and do the other one at the next stop. What do you think?" I look at him like he's nuts and say, "that sounds good, let’s do it!" After some "excited" talk with the Pit Marshal, he gave the OK. At the first pit stop, while the driver change was going on, we lettered one fender. The track announcer and the crowd were going wild! The next stop, the same thing. How does this race end? You wouldn't believe it! He WON! In victory lane Mike said, "This is our new strategy, we wait to see who's leading, then we letter the car!" That was the first, and the last, time I have lettered a car while the race was going on!

Then there is George Duke. He is now the owner of Zippo. George and I have been friends for 15 years. He is one of the most unselfish people I ever met. I remember when Mike Schuler and George were at the track for three days doing the Skip Barber Competition School. If you are not familiar with it, the Skip Barber School is one of the most famous racing schools in the world. They run open wheeled, rear engine cars that reach 130 mph at Watkins. The school is 80% track time, 20% classes and last three days. Some graduates are Michael Andretti and Jeff Gordon. It was Sunday afternoon around 4:30 as I pulled into the area behind pit wall. I walk over to where Mike and George are standing. They still have the fire suites on and are sitting on pit wall as I walk up. I say, "How was it?" After finishing the three day course, they both could not contain their excitement. All I heard was, "unreal, fabulous, I learned more than I can tell you" and George says, "with you're racing background, I can tell you are dying to get out there. You gotta do it!" I can't tell you how bad I wanted to get out there, but also I realized that it took money. About $3,000.00! I look at George and say, "are you nuts? I would love it George, but it's not free. I don't have that kind of money. Besides, I'm here for the beer. Where is the cooler?!" George and Mike always have a full cooler! Their school is over and I am sitting on pit wall having a cold Coors Light while George and Mike are changing. It's been ten minutes! Where the hell are they? Finally, on my second beer, here they come. We sit there and I listen, envious of their tales from then three day school. After about a half hour, we get up as they have to head back to Bradford. George suddenly says, "What are you doing tomorrow?" I look at him with a "what?" look and say "what?" "I’m working, what do you think I'm doing?" George walks off to the right and says, "Come here. Be up here at 7:00 am tomorrow. I signed you up for the school. I know how bad you want to do it". I say, "No George, I could never pay you back! I can't do it". I'll never forget what George said next. George put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Tony, Blaze (his cousin) and I were born very fortunate people. We don't mind sharing. I know how you feel about racing and I know you are dying to get out there". George, I can't, it's too much money", I say again. With that he says, "There is a way to repay me. You have my home phone number. Wednesday when you are done, call me and tell me how much fun you had". With that, he writes something on a piece of paper. I look at it.....numbers. "What’s this?" I say. "It's my Credit Card Number. If you get in trouble, give them this". If you crash or damage a car, you have to pay for it! It can range from a few bucks to "major" money. I take it and put it in my pocket. I shake George’s hand and as he and Mike pulled away in his white Porche convertible, I honestly had to hold back tears!

That night I had a hard time falling asleep. I was turning laps in my head, imagining what it would be like in a rear engine race car, haulin' ass down that back straight at 130mph. I was soon going to find out!

Thanks George!

Lap: 22: Back to School


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