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The San Jose race was only the third of the current United States Auto Club midget season, and the atmosphere was relaxed, almost frivolous, despite Caruthers' misadventures. Come late spring, when the circuit moves to the dirt tracks of the Midwest and there are three, maybe four races a week, things will become more tense. The cars will be dirtier and more beat-up, and there will be less of the hail-fellowship as broken machinery and the sleepless nights between racing dates take their toll.
Last summer one particularly mean stretch took the circuit from Louisville to Hinsdale, III. to Springfield, Ill. to Independence, Iowa to East Moline, Ill.—in nine days. And two years before that—in 1970 when Jimmy Caruthers won his midget title—there was one week where three races were scheduled on consecutive nights. The first and third were in Santa Fe, Ill. and Sun Prairie, Wis., which was all right, but the one in between was at Ascot Park in Gardena, Calif. Caruthers and Dave Strickland were then locked in a tight battle for the driving championship, and at Santa Fe there was a lot of tactical bluffing going on:
"You going to Gardena?"
"Naaw, I don't think so. You?"
"Well, I won't if you won't."
And so matters stood, except that at the pay window at Santa Fe, Caruthers suddenly noticed that Strickland didn't seem to be around anymore. He muttered something suitable like, "Ohmygod," picked up his helmet bag and beat Strickland to the same plane at the Chicago airport. "The trip out to California was a little embarrassing," Caruthers recalls.
For others, the midgets are a place to go when the big cars prove too much, and for the few whose reputations are secure, midget racing is just plain kicks—a respite from the tensions of the Championship Trail. Some years back those wealthy celebrities, Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt, tangled in a series of ferocious midget duels until they both decided things were getting a bit too serious and quit. Bettenhausen says, "I don't run midgets for the money now. I race them for the fun of it."
And Caruthers, shrugging his shoulders at his $62.50 share of the San Jose payday, is not likely to run for the title again. "I've already won it once," he says. "I've gotten what I can out of the midgets." (Since 1948, when midget titles were first declared, only two champs, Sam Hanks and Bill Vukovich Sr., have gone on to win the Indianapolis 500.)
"You know what it is?" Bettenhausen continued. "It's a collection of local heroes. A guy goes to some track in his backyard and makes a name for himself and pretty soon he gets to thinking he's pretty good. 'O.K.,' he says, 'now I'm ready for the USAC midgets.' So he joins the tour and pretty soon he finds out that everybody out there is a local hero. And pretty soon, too, unless he's really good, he finds out he's just one of the guys."
At the moment Jimmy Caruthers is the first among equals in the midget ranks and wherever he goes the conversation centers around him. It is a role he relishes, being naturally gregarious.