The comfortable thing about Associate Editor Bob Ottum is that he fits somewhere into that great American average: too light to be a football player, too short to be a basketball star, too heavy to be a jockey, not tall enough to get cleanly over a high hurdle, not fast enough to be a boxer, too out of shape to be a jogger—in short, a mess of inadequacies like everybody else. Nevertheless, Bob recently journeyed to the Bonneville Salt Flats to help record-breaking Race Driver Mickey Thompson attack a whole cluster of speed and endurance marks. "Help him how?" we asked, when Ottum proposed the trip. "Oh, to drive," Ottum answered modestly. We laughed, and so will you when you read Old Marshmallow Foot, Ottum's improbable odyssey, which begins on page 52.
"Almost every man who hangs around tracks thinks that given half a chance he could be a race driver," says Ottum, who indeed may have set one land-speed record—for driving sideways, backward, in circles and out of control. "There's nothing that makes you feel so hot damn as putting on that crash helmet. Unfortunately, my image was somewhat spoiled by the coveralls I borrowed. They had oil on the seat. There weren't enough practice engines for the cars, so Mickey thought I might as well practice in a Ford station wagon. You know, get the feel of the thing. Now here's where the whole bit began to seem just like a Fellini movie, because there happened to be eight typewriters in the back of the wagon. So off I went, hitting about 100 mph, and the typewriters kept going ticky, ticky, DING; ticky, ticky, DING."
Having conquered the station wagon, typewriters and all, Ottum was introduced to the Ford Mustang Mach I, the car designed for the record tries. "Driving the Mustang was totally different," he says. "You get into one of these test cars and all you see are dials and gauges. Then you take off and pretty soon you feel yourself losing control. You forget about how neat you look in a crash helmet, and you begin to ask yourself, 'What am I doing here?' So then you go into your spin or whatever and, when it's all over, the other drivers aren't at all impressed. You disengage yourself and crawl out of the thing and you say, 'Hey there, fella, did you see me go into that spin?' And this guy, who's maybe been hitting 186 mph to your 145, looks at you blankly and says, 'Yeah, sure. Nice day for driving, isn't it?' "
Ottum kept a log. Most writers keep logs—for about one day, maybe two—and, like most logs, Bob's contains a wealth (or perhaps a plethora) of minutiae: "Had half a peach and half a banana for breakfast." And: "...back off to 5,000 rpm on curves, then you have to...." And: "Because car is turning left alla time Mickey has taken springs off left side. Doesn't help." There was nothing in Ottum's log about how "given half a chance" it ought to be easy to become a race driver.
"My advice to anyone who really has his heart set on becoming a race driver is to start young and stay with it," says a wiser Ottum now.
Otherwise, ticky, ticky, DING.
OTTUM AT WORK ON THE SALT FLATS