For 50 weeks of the year Vandalia, Ohio is a sleepy mid-western town tucked beneath the wing of nearby Dayton. Its population is 6,342, its major industry is selling gas to motorists going elsewhere and its mood is lazy. But at the end of each summer, for nine days in August, Vandalia undergoes a startling change. From every corner of the U.S. and Canada—from big towns, small towns, cities and hamlets, by car, plane, train and trailer—more than 10,000 men, women and children pour into Vandalia. They disrupt traffic, clean out the shelves of grocery stores, jam the streets and fill the normally quiet air with a steady rumble of noise. The peaceful citizens of Vandalia love every minute of it.
Since 1924 Vandalia has been the home of the Grand American, the biggest, most important, most prestigious event in the sport of trapshooting. Permanent highway posters at the boundaries of the city announce this fact; the week of the roaring Grand, bunting and flags along the main street boast of it; and the townspeople themselves wear their pride in the sport like a bright badge. Vandalia schoolchildren follow trapshooting the way other youngsters follow football or baseball. The heroes they worship and whose autographs they collect are not Jim Taylor or Stan Musial but Roy Foxworthy, Steve Barringer and Milton Youngs—men who have won the highest prize in trapshooting, the Grand American Handicap.
This championship, the climactic contest of the nine-day Vandalia program, is the ultimate prize for every shotgunner. Because there is so much prestige attached to it, the Grand American Handicap draws more participants for its single day of shooting than any other sporting event in North America. This year an unprecedented 2,527 shooters—the 10th year in a row that the number of entries exceeded 2,000—took part.
There were doctors, mechanics, schoolteachers, corporation executives, housewives, salesmen, clerks and cattle ranchers. Some of the competitors were from the wealthiest families in the country; others have never had any reason to file their income tax on the long form. Predominantly, the shooters were men, but women—with and without children—were strongly represented. Dressed in everything from figure-hugging stretch pants to maternity blouses, they kept up a fast pace on the firing line.
Many, like Mrs. Punk in Flock of Miami, who broke 192 clay birds out of 200 to take the Class A Ladies' Championship for the second year in a row, were as efficient at rustling up hamburgers on makeshift portable grills as they were at shattering targets. This ability to carry out the double role of gunner-camper was particularly valuable to those who stayed right on the Grand American grounds. In a vast compound behind the east traps more than 500 gaily colored tents sprang up in assorted shapes and sizes. And as the week wore on, it was not unusual to find a woman cleaning the barrel of her shotgun one moment and rinsing her lingerie the next.
Along the firing line itself parents hastily exchanged baby-sitting chores as a father's squad stepped down and a mother's was called up. Many a toddler dozed peacefully under the stands, and one young mother arrived at the line pushing before her one baby, two shotguns and four boxes of shells, all carefully stacked side by side in a stroller.
Not all the youngsters were content to sit by and watch. Many of the teenagers, and a few who were even younger, got into the act, too. More than one adult shooter would have been just as happy if the competing kids had stayed at home. With their quick reflexes and relaxed attitude on the firing line, the teen-agers tend to put heavy pressure on their adult rivals. This pressure increases sharply when an old and experienced gunner finds himself in a head-to-head shoot-off with a cocky adolescent who not only expects to win but often does. The frustration of such defeat has been known to lead otherwise peaceful men to express themselves in words not always fit for the ears of children (Keep That Damned Kid Away From Me, SI, Aug. 14, 1961).
The youngest competitor at this year's Grand American was 11-year-old Frank R. (Bobby) Fincel of Dubuque, Iowa, who stood all of 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighed a hearty 74 pounds. But size is no more a drawback than youth, as Bobby proved when he won the Iowa State Handicap a few weeks ago. At the Grand American, Bobby was not so successful: he only came in seventh out of the field of 2,527.
The Grand American Handicap has been won twice by 14-year-olds: the first time in 1930, by Rufus King of Wichita Falls, Tex.; the second, in 1954, by Nick Egan of New York City. This year's doubles championship was won by a 16-year-old, James De Filippi Jr. of Oglesby, Ill.; and a 15-year-old New Madison, Ohio girl named Laura Louise Mote won the Ladies' Clay Target Championship of America on the third day of the program by breaking 197 targets out of 200. Asked how she became such a remarkable shot, Laura Louise looked faintly surprised. "I've been hunting for years," she said (lay translation: "since 1958"). The apparently easy victory made her a formidable contender for the Grand American Handicap.
No woman has ever won the handicap, nor has it ever been won twice by the same shooter. But the fact is that anyone (a number of entries even fired from wheelchairs) who shoots trap with some skill and is in good practice has a chance of winning the most important prize in the sport. This circumstance, as much as the prestige and sizable cash purse that accompanies it, is responsible for the tremendous popularity of the handicap.