The man in the red helmet started the engine of his blue-striped, white sports car and rolled up to a middling place in the two-by-two starting pattern on the broad asphalt track. His name came over the loud speakers without emphasis: "Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kuhn, driving No. 771, an AC Bristol." Not a fan paused to give a second look; no tingle of anticipation stirred the audience.
It was the start of the third race of a four-race national Sports Car Club of America program at the Road America course, which twists for four miles through the green hills near Elkhart Lake, Wis. This was a race for production cars, which, roughly described, are machines tame enough to be driven in everyday traffic and spirited enough to be raced. Their drivers—heroes only to families and friends—were men tame enough to work office hours during the week and spirited enough to drive a car like Billy-be-damned on the weekend.
They represented the broad backbone of American sports car racing—the submerged part of the iceberg, so to speak, which keeps the glamorous, publicized tip afloat.
Of the thousands of U.S. sports car enthusiasts, the SCCA claims the lion's share of licensed racing drivers—1,400. For every Carroll Shelby or John Fitch there are hundreds of obscure Robert Kuhns. Besieged by success—new race courses are creating a multitude of new fans, an upsurge in sports car sales—the SCCA still shuns professionalism and gives the Kuhns a chance to win trophies. Races are spread out over a wide variety of car classes and driving talents. In a typical race meeting, the fan can watch just about every kind of sports car sold in the U.S.—and see the gamut of driving styles.
Amateur auto racing is one of the easiest "dangerous" sports in which to translate Walter Mitty-like dreams of derring-do into positive action, for the prospective driver can buy a contending racer from the showroom floor, have it tuned or tune it for racing himself and learn in a drivers' school the rudiments of competition.
The man in the red helmet at Elkhart had taken to cars as a youngster. Kuhn's dad opened the first garage in Canton, Ohio, and young Robert had climbed onto his lap to take the steering wheel as soon as he could arrange it. Pop built him a car of his own, at 12—a chain-driven wonder, made of motorcycle and Model T parts, that could zip along at a heady 70 mph.
A former home town barnstorming pilot and a West Point graduate, Kuhn jumped with the first U.S. paratroop regiment in training, checked out on gliders during World War II (but never managed to get into the shooting war) and later served as Air Force Project Officer for the B-47 jet bomber, which he learned to fly. Now Kuhn, at 42, is stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, as Liaison Officer between Air Force and industry in the production of jet fighters.
In 1950 Kuhn saw a sports car race at Watkins Glen, N.Y. He got the message.
"I had seen track racing for years," he said, "but this was my first taste of road racing. This is what cars were made for. Well, in 1953 I bought an MG. I drove my first race at Thompson, Conn., started seventh and finished seventh. I found out right there that there is a lot more to road racing than meets the eye. The startling thing is the extreme speed with which these cars can take off and slow down.
"More than that, I discovered that road racing is an awful lot like flying an airplane was in the old days—I mean the days when you really had to fly by the seat of your pants, before they had all the gadgets they have now. I think racing is more exacting and actually more fun than flying.