"Well, that problem was patched up, but then there were others. They sent John an engine to try out and by mistake they sent him a bill. That didn't make him too happy. And soon he got disgusted and cut the whole thing off."
Not every red-blooded American lad can take on the Ford Motor Co. (assets: $6.35 billion), but Little John is having a go at it. Not only is he chasing Ford on the racetracks, but he is building a powerboat for the sole purpose of ending Ford's dominance in the Miami-Nassau Race. "All this is competition for Ford," Little John says, "and they ought to like it. The more competition we give Ford, the more they'll work. Look what happened to General Motors. Heck, they had some fine racing material and Ford came out with a little better racing material and General Motors held back waiting for the Fords to fall apart. Well, they didn't fall apart, so all of a sudden GM had to get to work in racing. Now I think they've caught up."
Having returned the engagement rings of two of the Big Three in the automobile industry, Mecom currently is holding hands with the third. He has built a flashy new sports car named the Hussein (after the King of Jordan, where the Mecoms have oil interests), and powered it with a 500-hp Chrysler " Hemi" engine, by far the most powerful engine on the sports car circuit. He is dickering with Chrysler for free engines (worth about $68,000 a year to the team) and already has taken delivery on one.
The radically designed blue Hussein, driven for Mecom by A. J. Foyt, has yet to win in three starts, but it has had all of racing's entrepreneurs standing on tippy-toe watching. "We're not discouraged in the slightest," says Little John. "It always takes a half dozen races to sort a car out, and the Hussein is coming along fine. "The first predictions about the car were that it would disintegrate when Foyt applied 500 hp to 1,600 pounds of car. Says Team Manager John Kalb: "People said all sorts of things when we wheeled it out for the first races: that we wouldn't be able to stop it, that it would become airborne, that the gearbox would be ripped apart by the torque, that there was too much weight in the back and it would hang out on a corner and keep right on going, and the car just generally wouldn't handle. Well, the car has handled fine so far, it's little things like carburetion problems that have been bothering us. When the car's been on the course, it's passed everybody. Jimmy Clark said he'd never been passed so fast in his life as he was by the Hussein. And it leaves such a turbulence behind it that nobody can tailgate on it. We figure the car'll do 220 flat out, but that's more speed than we'd ever need and probably more than anybody could handle, even A. J."
Little John's ambition of the moment is to take the bugs out of the Hussein and clobber Ford-and Chevy-powered cars on the sports car circuit, and then put the Hussein into limited production: "Six or eight a year at $15,000 to $18,000 each," he says. That would move the Mecom Racing Team into the black and enable young Mecom to turn his attention to another of his vendettas, and a more benevolent one: the preservation and improvement of the vanishing species of world game. Little John's interest in wildlife goes back to childhood, when he raised, among other animals, cheetahs, ocelots, a jaguar and a sea lion, and not without incident. One New Year's Eve his ocelot got loose and strolled into a house where a party was in full swing. The man of the house grabbed a shotgun and fired five shots at the friendly animal, missing every time but creating some interesting avant-garde patterns in the woodwork.
A few years ago Little John installed a sea lion in the family's backyard swimming pool, to the consternation of the richly conservative River Oaks section of Houston. The Mecom Jr. home abuts on a country club, and one morning the manager was driving to work when he spotted the sea lion slurping across the sidewalk. Says John: "The poor guy, he calls the police and he says, 'There's a seal lost here!' And the police said, 'Yes, sir, now you go and have a cup of coffee and call us back and tell us about it.' " After a few such jolly confusions, Little John exiled the sea lion to the family ranch on the Rio Grande. The animal was content for three weeks, but then he slipped away from the pool and headed across Highway 83 toward the river. "There was a Greyhound bus coming and the driver stopped and everybody got out and looked at this interesting specimen of south Texas wildlife," Little John recalls with glee. "Then Napoleon—that was his name—he went across the road and he was last seen swimming upstream in the river. I imagine he's confused a couple of wetbacks since then, and maybe a few border patrolmen, too."
On one of his five safaris to Africa, Little John met Major Evelyn Temple-Boreham, the famous game warden of Kenya, and listened sympathetically to Temple-Boreham's description of the slaughter of tens of thousands of African animals by poachers. "So I got the idea of capturing specimens of all the game there and bringing them to the United States and breeding them," he recalls. "That was three years ago, and we went right to work, but we ran smack into the old, antiquated laws and the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior. We even hired lawyers to fight the case, and we're still fighting."
What Mecom ran into was the quarantine laws, aimed at keeping American species pure and uncontaminated. Under these laws, some of them predating the 1900s, animals brought in from Africa must be kept in quarantine for at least 60 days in Africa, then another 30 days in Government pens in Clifton, N.J., at a largely prohibitive cost. "And even if we complied with all that," Mecom says, "the animals would have to be kept in closely confined shelters. They wouldn't be allowed to run free on our ranch."
To get around the problem, young Mecom took advantage of a loophole in the law: that an animal born in the U.S. is a sort of "native-born American" and may go anywhere, so long as he has the fare. Now Little John buys animals in foreign countries, puts them through the quarantine period, gives them to zoos and, in return, collects their American-born offspring. These are released on a 5,000-acre refuge on the family's Laredo ranch to the eternal puzzlement of their American brothers-under-the-fur: bobcats, whitetail deer, red wolves, jackrabbits, cottontails and coyotes, who are not used to mixing with zebras, oryxes, llamas and impalas. One venerable joker at the ranch swears he heard a coyote tell a friend of his: "Five'll get you 10 there's a horse over there in striped pajamas."
Beautiful friendships have sprung up among the exotic animals, the most touching of which is between a lesser kudu and a wildebeest that are inseparable; the kudu runs like a kudu when other kudus approach, and the wildebeest is scared to death of the other wildebeests. "I think I've got it doped out," says Little John. "The two of them were shipped here together, and they've never seen a mirror; so I'm sure that the kudu thinks he's a wildebeest and vice versa. Anyway, they're great pals, and you can't pry them apart."