Because they tend to have so much in common, the parents of the contestants get along remarkably well. Some of them come in RVs, some stay downtown at the Holiday Inn or the Hilton (converted from the old Quaker Oats mill), but a lot of the families bunk at local college dorms. Fred Mohler always stays in one. "That's where the action is," Frettin' Freddy says. Mohler has attended 32 Ail-Americans and has a subscription to the Beacon Journal mailed to him in Muncie. He has sent Derby mementos to both Dinah Shore and President Reagan.
"I'll tell you how popular Derby winners are," Mohler says. "The President wrote me back on his personal stationery—it had stamps on the envelope. He was in the Oil Can in '51, you know, and he wrote me how fondly he still remembers that day."
Mohler is always very visible at Topside or out at Y-Noah. He favors an outfit of gold and maroon and carries a large bag of All-American memorabilia. He was especially thrilled last August when so many of the other winners returned and he got to meet them for the first time. "Maybe we can have a club," he proposed.
Also in evidence everywhere was Linda Sengpiel, a stunning yo-yo artist who did numerous feats of string prestidigitation despite wearing large rings on six of her fingers. Linda arrayed herself in ritzier attire each time she brought out the Duncans. I thought it was appropriate that a yo-yo champion decorated the All-American, because I'm sure that kids who can build cars are also the type who can walk the dog and go 'round-the-world and stuff like that. I never could. I couldn't even wind yo-yos back up very well after I screwed up. So I counted Linda a welcome addition.
But, above all, it is the families at the All-American. They bring picnics and folding aluminum chairs and video cameras, and they all wear buttons: MY GRANDSON IS A CHAMP...MY BROTHER IS A CHAMP. A few have those buttons where, if you tilt them this way or that you can see a photograph—of the champ, of course.
Since the champs are happily segregated out at Camp Y-Noah most of the time, the parents are left to inspect the racers, Topside. The cars show impressive craftsmanship. If most of the younger kids start off slapping together kit cars, they become much more original and creative as they grow older. All-American children may be led to the race by their fathers, but they obviously stay in it for love. Maybe you can make a kid who doesn't like baseball stand out in leftfield every Saturday morning, but you can't make him build a gorgeous car if he doesn't want to.
Still, only a handful of the 166 champs—including Big Al—expressed any interest in being race car drivers when they grew up. Instead they dream of being architects and scientists, teachers, lawyers (?!), astronauts and athletes in other sports. One wanted to be a dolphin trainer. Almost all of them listed math and science as their favorite school subjects, and considered things with words, like English and social studies, to be drudgery.
The cars these builder-children make are eye-catching, and with the pinstriping and the fine lettering that proclaims the name of the driver and the sponsor—everything from banks, bars, newspapers and malls to grandpa—and other product stickers, they look like miniature Indy cars.
Unfortunately, the cars are most appealing in repose. The All-American itself—the race—is a bore. Oh well, nobody ever said Mom's apple pie was good. They just said it was Mom's, clean your plate. Watching three little cars rolling down a hill, one heat after another after another, is like watching weeds grow.
The good people of the Rubber City are only too aware of this truth, so that the spectator ranks are formed almost entirely of family, vanquished champs and drum-and-bugle corpsmen. Chevrolet got around this little fly in the ointment by, uh, gilding the lily. Eighty thousand! One hundred thousand! Largest crowd ever!