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The Flamethrowers 2

May 20, 2013 Leave a comment
Art Arfons and his Green Monster

Art Arfons and his Green Monster

I went to a great lecture earlier this month. Richard Tapia, a renowned mathematician at Rice University, spoke on “Math at top speed: exploring and breaking myths in the drag racing folklore.” The abstract:

In this talk the speaker will identify elementary mathematical frameworks for the study of old and new drag racing beliefs. In this manner some myths are validated, while others are destroyed. The first part of the talk will be a historical account of the development of drag racing and will include several lively videos and pictures depicting the speaker’s involvement in the early days of the sport.

It turns out that Tapia and his brother Bobby were drag racing pioneers half a century ago. Bobby would beat the great Art Arfons in a match race in 1959, set records in the 1960s, and be inducted into the National Hot Rod Association Hall of Fame in 2002. Richard would focus on math and receive honors of his own, including the 2010 National Medal of Science and election to the National Academy of Engineering (the first Hispanic so elected). He is a national leader in preparing women and underrepresented minorities for PhDs in science, math, and engineering. And, at heart, still a drag racer.

I didn’t grow up following drag racing, but I did follow the quest for the land speed record, which received lots of coverage in the 1960s. Arfons and Craig Breedlove were regularly in the news, with their latest efforts at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I wrote a few days ago about having started Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers. I’m now just past the halfway point, and was pleasantly surprised to find that in Kushner’s tale, the narrator arrives at the salt flats to participate in some speed racing herself.

It’s the 1970s. The narrator has graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, and moved to New York, where she has met an older artist who is a member of the Italian Valera family, maker of motorcycles and tires. I don’t want to describe too much of the plot. Suffice to say that there is a marvelous scene in which she has arrived in Utah in time to watch the Valera team prepare for its latest assault on the land speed record, with famed driver Didi Bombonato at the wheel.

With that as background, I can give an example of Kushner’s fabulous prose, a single paragraph in which our narrator describes Didi:

Each morning, I watched Didi out the window of the trailer as he put on his driving gloves and stretched his fingers, open and fisted, open and fisted, as if he were communicating some kind of cryptic message in units of ten. After his hand stretches, a crew member brought him a little thimble of espresso, which he took between deerskin-gloved finger and thumb, tilted his head back, and drank. He had pocked, sunken cheeks, thin bluish lips, and eyes like raisins, which made him seem angry and also a little dimwitted. Not everyone can be a great beauty, and I’m not exactly a conventional beauty myself. But there was a special tragedy to Didi’s looks: his hair, which was lustrous and full, feathered into elaborate croissant layers. Somehow the glamorous hair brought his homeliness into relief, like those dogs with hair like a woman’s. There was that advertisement on television where you saw a man and a woman from behind, racing along in an open car. The driver and his companion, her blond hair flying on the wind, the American freedom of a big convertible on the open highway, and so forth. The camera moves up alongside. The passenger, it turns out, is not a woman. It’s one of those dogs with long feathery hair, whatever breed that is. Didi’s breed. After drinking his espresso, Didi would flip his hair forward and then resettle it with his fingers, never mind that he was about to mash it under a helmet. It would have been better to skip the vanity and primping and instead use his face as a kind of dare, or weapon: I’m ugly and famous and I drive a rocket-fueled cycle. I’m Didi Bombonato.

She can write. And the salt flats scene ends with a wonderful surprise, which I leave for you to discover when you read the novel.

Categories: Books, Math

Ken Venturi

May 20, 2013 1 comment
Ken Venturi making his final putt to win the 1964 US Open

Ken Venturi making his final putt to win the 1964 US Open

Ken Venturi died Friday. He was one of my favorite people in sports. I wasn’t yet following golf much when he had his greatest moment, winning the 1964 US Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda under oppressive weather conditions. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame a week and a half before his death, but was too ill to attend.

From the NYT obituary, by Richard Goldstein:

He first gained notice in 1956 as an amateur when he led the Masters by four shots entering the final round, only to shoot an 80, losing to Jack Burke Jr. by a stroke. He was the runner-up at the Masters again in 1960, a shot behind Arnold Palmer, who birdied the final two holes.

But Venturi’s signature moment came at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., on a Saturday in June 1964. Temperatures were approaching 100 degrees, and the humidity seemed unconquerable as the players struggled to play 36 holes, the last time the Open staged its final two rounds on a single day.

Venturi had not won since the 1960 Milwaukee Open, had considering quitting and had been required to participate in two qualifying events before being allowed into the Open. He almost collapsed from the heat on the 17th green of his morning round but carded a remarkable 66.

Going into the final 18 holes, Venturi was two shots behind the leader, Tommy Jacobs. After a 45-minute break, Venturi virtually staggered through the final round, trailed by Dr. John Everett, who was monitoring the players and who had warned him against continuing out of fear he would die from heat prostration.

Everett gave Venturi ice cubes, iced tea and salt pills as he played on, instinct triumphing over the pressure and the exhaustion. Venturi overtook Jacobs and sank a 10-foot putt on the final hole to close out a 70, besting Jacobs by four shots.

“I dropped my putter and I raised my arms up to the sky,” Venturi told The A.P. in 1997. “I said, ‘My God, I’ve won the Open.’ The applause was deafening. It was like thunder coming out there.”

Venturi was so weak that he could not reach into the hole to get his ball, so Raymond Floyd, his playing partner, did it for him.

“I felt this hand on me, and it was Raymond Floyd handing me the ball,” Venturi remembered. “I looked at him, and he had tears streaming down his face.”

As Floyd later told The A.P.: “He was running on fumes. If you had asked him his name, he could not have told you. It is one of the most heroic things I have ever seen.”

Venturi was helped off the green by the United States Golf Association official Joe Dye and was so woozy that he could not read his scorecard. Dye assured him that it was correct and that he could sign it.

A few years later, I bought a book consisting of selected articles from Sports Illustrated, including Alfred Wright’s coverage of the tournament. The article, by far my favorite in the book, was an eye-opener, giving me my first appreciation of the human drama inherent in competitive golf. Now I follow golf more closely than any other sport, and build my Father’s Day weekend around the US Open. SI has made all past articles available in the SI Vault, so you can read Wright’s article here.

Venturi would go on to greater fame as the decades-long analyst for CBS’s golf coverage, paired for years with Pat Summerall, who himself died just last month. Before his career in sports broadcasting, Summerall was another of my heroes, as the place-kicker for my favorite childhood football team, the New York Giants. (Goldstein again wrote the NYT obituary.) Whenever I watch CBS golf coverage, I miss them both.

Categories: Golf, Obituary, Television