|Helping Hands by Richard Parks|
The events of September 11, 2001, has brought to our attention how perfect strangers can bond together in an emergency to help one another. Examples abound in the automotive racing world of people helping others, even when they are competitors. We have heard about the times when equipment failures have knocked a racing team out of the race only to have someone volunteer their parts and help, and therefore enable that team to reenter the event and win. My story begins in August of 1996, when my brother and I were leaving Wendover, Nevada, on our way home from Speedweek at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The trip takes us through mountainous passes, down long narrow valleys and drops into rugged and hot deserts on our 700 mile trek home. As my brother, David, and I were nearing Ely, Nevada, we saw a truck and trailer, carrying a Bonneville land speed car, stranded on the side of the road. Ron Benham and his son, “Stormin’ Norman”, needed a new water pump and they were miles from any auto parts store, on a late Saturday afternoon, in a sparsely populated part of Eastern Nevada. At best, they were prepared to spend two nights sleeping on hard ground until they could hitchhike into Ely, some fifteen miles away. David unhitched his trailer and we took Norm with us into town. We found the auto parts store and entered just as the clerk was about to lock up for the weekend. We swapped stories and joked about the good times and bad on our way back to the Benham’s truck, the way racers do to alleviate the tensions when things go awry. Amid teasing and a bit of strong language, we managed to get the new water pump back into place. We talked for quite a while, accepted their thanks and drove on our lonely way home, sometimes remarking how fortunate we were to help someone else. Of course, this wasn’t the first time that we have stopped to help others or have received help from kind strangers, and the Benham’s have a long and storied history or helping so many people. Ron is a Dry Lakes Hall of Famer, who built cars and crewed on so many other teams, that few land speed racers can say that their lives have not been touched by him. “Stormin’ Norman”, or Normie as we like to call him, is an innovator as a car builder like his father, a fast racer and a friendly “character”, which means that there are a lot of stories following him. My brother and I were about ready to see why someone coined the phrase, “what goes around, comes around.”
September 29, 2001, was the date for the Gas-Up party and Dry Lakes Hall of Fame at Jack Mendenhall’s Gas Pump Museum in Buellton, California. David and I trailered his Chevy Camaro up to the event to display. As we were driving home, some ten miles north of Goleta on Highway 101, we heard a thump, wondered what it was, and continued on our way on the belief that if it’s still moving, it must be okay. After another few miles my brother decided to pull over and see if it was tire tread separation. What we found was smoke coming off the rearend. We were miles from nowhere on a Saturday night and it looked like we were going to spend the night in the truck, if need be, as had so many other stranded motorists before us. David crawled under the truck to investigate and see if he could make repairs. Time slowly passed by, as well as quite a few cars, but we were alone and we knew that the breakage was serious. Then I heard a voice and I knew who it was before I even turned around to look. It was “Stormin’ Norman” Benham and he had seen us from the freeway and had circled back to help us. With him was Tanis Hammond, one of the world’s fastest woman’s land speed drivers, with a best of 299.7 mph in her Bonneville streamliner, and a kind and caring person. She called her husband, Seth, who was just leaving the Gas-Up party in his truck. Seth brought us some gear oil and David filled the rear end with oil. The Hammonds towed our trailer to their storage yard in Goleta, and promised to look after the race car and trailer until we could return for it. We nursed the truck along for another fifteen miles but it was obvious that we weren’t going to make it home and so we called Don Edwards in Santa Barbara, and he said to drop by and spend the night at his place. Don is a four-time drag boat champion from the 1960’s, and the first person to attempt to put a turbine engine into a boat, back in 1969. The next day, Don drove us back to Jack Mendenhall’s Gas Pump Museum in Buellton, where Jack kindly loaned us his truck for as long as we needed it.
Our act of friendship and help in 1996 was repaid to us in 2001. But it is an ongoing act of caring, one racer to another, wherever and whenever one of us is in trouble. I would hope that this kind of fellowship would extend over our entire nation to include everyone, and to show the world, that disasters, big and small, will only bring out the good in all Americans.