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When a Volkswagen Bug triumphed over Corvettes

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Posted: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 12:00 am

A Volkswagen beats a Corvette? Impossible, you say? Well, in my case, it’s true!

I’m not referring to winning a drag race, but a sports car rally. They were quite popular on the East Coast during the 1960s, especially in the Maryland/Virginia outlying areas of Washington, D.C.

A time and distance rally is a contest requiring two-person car teams to locate various points along a route. The idea is to follow a course with a set of vague directions, travel at a specific speed and cross an undisclosed checkpoint an exact predetermined time. The car that achieves the closest match to the “rally master’s” plan is the winner.

Directions might read something such as: “Turn right after the second red barn. Turn left at the word, ‘tobacco.’ Speed: 36 mph.”

Some people took this competition quite seriously. My father was one of them. He had the latest Swedish and German-made rally computers in his Porsche. Dad became so good that if I remember correctly, in 1966, he became the top scorer in rallies sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America — Northeast Division

On several occasions, I drove for him. But one day, he announced that I needed to separate and establish my own record. Dad recommended a University of Maryland mathematician, who did not have a sports car, but was looking for a teammate.

After Pop cut me loose, all I had was this “Mr. Peepers,” look-alike navigator and a four-year-old Volkswagen Bug. But together, the professor and I made a pact to do our best and compete against these sports car elites.

The first step was to alter my Volkswagen and make it somewhat competitive with the European and American rally machines. I modified the suspension, making the car much more difficult to “roll over” (a common problem with early Bugs) and installed standard Porsche “Continental” tires.

For power, I made some changes to the engine. A flow-through exhaust system, a heavy-duty clutch and a tachometer were also put in place. These modifications did not make the car a “neck-snapper,” but at least they improved acceleration from its stock performance of 0-60 in 25 seconds!

A “Halda Tripmaster” was added that read mileage down to two decimal points. A Heuer stopwatch was bolted to the dash.

The following Sunday, “Peepers” grabbed his Curta mechanical calculator, a clipboard and several No. 2 pencils, and we were “off to the races.”

Our first rally was sponsored by the Corvette club. I still remember the snickers and laughs as we drove into a Virginia shopping center and placed the little Bug next to the C-1 convertibles and new Sting Rays. Yet, these guys were a cordial bunch and just figured we were a couple of oddballs who would finish last. We put our circled numbers on the doors (looking like “Herbie,” the Disney car) and took off from our assigned starting position.

Not long after, we missed a cue. It was my fault. There were two roads right next to each other. “Peeps” had made the right call, but I took the other. Now we had to make up for lost time.

Rallies are designed to operate within speed limits, but if one goes off course, speeding is the only option to make up lost time — and yes, everybody does it.

“Faster, faster!” the professor yelled, as he made his calculations.

“I’m doing the best I can!” I said, as the VW bounced into the air on a hilly country road.

Just then, I looked in the rearview mirror. It was a Maryland state trooper with his lights ablaze.

“What do you guys think you’re doing?” he enquired.

I explained the situation the best way I could and asked for mercy. The trooper stated it took a while to catch me and hypothesized he must have entered a parallel universe. Volkswagens couldn’t possibly accelerate that quickly. Perhaps said with some sarcasm, but Smokey still let us go with just a warning.

That night, the hotel banquet room was abuzz with several dozen rally participants, event organizers and their spouses or significant others. After a tasty steak dinner, trophies were awarded.

The middle-aged club president made the announcement: “And in second place, and of all things — in a Volkswagen! — goes to Steve Hansen and Dick Moran!”

The room gasped and then broke into applause.

Peeps and I looked at each other glowingly. We had pulled it off! I whispered to him that we would have had first place if it hadn’t been for that (expletive deleted) cop!

So, the next time someone tells you a VW Bug can’t beat a Corvette, just smile — knowing full well what can happen when a nerdy professor and a smart-alecky college kid decide to get together and go for the glory.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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