Today is Veteran’s Day, the day to make sure you give a hearty “Thank You” to all the veterans of the military service in your life. While you’re at it, let’s give a shout out to these veterans, who brought sports cars to the United States after World War II.
During World War II, Cameron Argetsinger served as a lieutenant in the United States Army. Sports car racing was huge in America during the Teens and Twenties, but it had fallen strongly out of favor as the automobile became more of a household appliance than a toy for the well-heeled. Argetsinger dreamed of bringing automotive racing back in a big way. He was born in Youngstown, Ohio, but his family maintained its ancestral homestead outside Watkins Glen. He dreamed of turning that sleepy village into a racing Mecca, attracting Grand Prix racers to central New York. He orchestrated the very first race at Watkins Glen on October 2, 1948 for just 23 cars. By 1950, the event was drawing 100,000 spectators. In 1956, the event moved from the streets of Watkins Glen to a permanent course, in 1961, Argetsinger somehow managed to convince Formula One to race a real Grand Prix there.
General Curtis LeMay
Curtis LeMay effective orchestrated systematic strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific Theater in World War II. After the war, he organized the Strategic Air Command (SAC) into “an effective instrument of nuclear war.” He was also a sports car enthusiast — owning an Allard J2 as well as an early Corvette — and provided much of the real estate that developed into some of the most recognized endurance racing in America. LeMay had his public relations officer contact the Sports Car Club of America to offer the massive airfields the SAC had all over America as facilities for racing. The scheme probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere had it not been for an accident while racing was still running on public streets at Cameron Argetsinger’s Watkins Glen. In September of 1952, a car lost control and plowed into a number of spectators, injuring 12 and killing a seven-year-old boy. The SCCA jumped at LeMay’s offer and for three years, the sanctioning body ran events at airfields in Washington, Nevada, California, Nebraska, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Georgia and Florida.
Carroll Shelby is synonymous with sports car racing in America, having won LeMans in 1959 as the co-driver of an Aston-Martin DBR1, and then the builder of some of the most dominant racing cars in American history. Shelby was enrolled at Georgia Tech in the Aeronautical Engineering program, but since he was scheduled to start in 1941, he ended up enlisting in the United States Army Air Corps — the predecessor to the United States Air Force. Shelby began training at San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center — later, Lackland Air Force Base — near San Antonio, Texas. he never left the United States during World War II, instead acting as a flight instructor and a test pilot until his service ended in 1945.
Henry “Smokey” Yunick is one of America’s great characters. Two times in the 1950s, he was NASCAR’s Mechanic of the Year, and his teams included 50 of the sports most famous drivers, winning a combined 57 NASCAR races, and two championships in 1951 and 1953. But the first few chapters of his 2001 autobiography, Sex, Lies and Superspeedways are about his early career a pilot in the US Army Air Corps with the 97th Bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force, flying an unstoppable B-17 Flying Fortress named “Smokey and his Firemen” on 50 missions over Europe. Following VE Day, Yunick transferred to the Pacific Theater before leaving the Air Corps in 1946.
You may never have heard of Rollie Free but you probably recognize his picture: stripped down to a Speedo, a shower cap and a pair of borrowed sneakers, Free stretched out and hauled ass across the Bonneville Salt Flats at a world land speed record for a production motorcycle of 150.313 miles per hour on a seatless Vincent. Before he stripped off his leathers and made his record run, Rollie Free worked as an aircraft maintenance officer in the Army Air Corps at Hill Field in Utah during World War II. It was during his service in Utah where the Chicago-born Free first saw the Bonneville Salt Flats, returning there on September 14, 1948 to tick off his record run.
Thanks to all veterans for your selfless service to our country, and thanks to these veterans for bringing the spirit of competition to the United States following the Second World War.