Senior Writer Bob Ottum, who lives on a hilltop overlooking Salt Lake City, reckons the balcony of his house is about 5,400 feet above sea level. That would put his garage at about 5,390, a steep climb from town, which is at about 4,200, and Ottum says he often has to talk his Audi 4000 up the hill—"C'mon, old girl, you can make it." And as a reward for doing so, the car gets a gentle pat on a rear fender from Ottum.
It's such intimacies between Ottum and automobiles that we're concerned with here. "I've always had a crush on fine cars," he says. "I never wanted to tinker with them, never wanted to race them. I just sort of admire them as functional pieces of art." So we present, beginning on page 34, Ottum's inside account of vintage-auto racing in England. We haven't pressed him too hard to name his sources, but what seems to prevail in the piece are the sentiments of a Talbot-Lago or a Maserati 250-F.
Ottum's rapport with automobiles bloomed 19 years ago, when, in his second month at SI, he was sent to Indianapolis to cover the 500. "I leaped on the place," he says, "and went straight to Dan Gurney for my first interview because he had a reputation for being a nice man. Dan took me by the shoulder and said, 'This is a car. This is the front end. This is the back end. This is the engine, which is what makes it go.' "
Ottum went on to cover racing for the next five years—including a number of assignments at the Bonneville Salt Flats to watch the speed runs of cars like the Mormon Meteor (left)—and edited it for seven more. Along the way, he and another writer, Bill Neely, with whom Ottum had drunk many a vodka Gibson on the beat, wrote a hilarious, freewheeling novel entitled Stand On It, the gripping life story of Stroker Ace, your definitive race-driving rogue. Stand On It, the movie, has just been completed, starring Burt Reynolds (who else?) as Stroker and Loni Anderson as Pembrook Feeney.
Ottum was a natural for our vintage-auto racing assignment. Like the collectors about whom he reports, he, too, pines for the heady days when drivers were fat and tires were skinny. When he arrived at England's Silverstone circuit in September, his heart leaped as it hadn't since he was thrown green upon the Indy 500. "Here was a band of people who think the way I do!" he exclaims. "There's a great feeling of correctness about this type of racing that's forever gone from grand prix driving. Imagine, guys wearing cracked leather helmets and split-lens goggles, thumbing their noses at technology as they thrashed their classic, wonderful-smelling old racecars around. It restored my sense of the Tightness of things. I wanted to get that feeling into print before I reached the fuddy-duddy stage."
Which is not to say that Ottum only travels by car. He's an avid jogger, who last week was doing his thing between banks of snow cleared from the roads high above Salt Lake City. And he's planning to pedal his 15-speed mountain bike up into the Wasatch Range next summer. Clearly, he accomplished the vintage-car assignment with plenty of time to spare, fuddy-duddywise.