Monday, December 30, 2013

R.I.P. Mr. 500

Another icon from my youth passed away yesterday. Andy Granatelli was the CEO of the STP Corporation. He used auto racing as a vehicle to promote his “Scientifically Treated Petroleum” oil additive. He had a colorful personality that came across in print interviews, as well as later when television began to cover auto racing. Under his leadership, the spheroid STP logo became ubiquitous as a decal on race cars everywhere.

Although he had been around as a car owner earlier in the ‘60s, I first became aware of him in 1967 when he brought a turbine powered car to Indy, driven by Hall of Famer Parnelli Jones. I was fascinated with the concept of using a jet engine to power a race car. The mid-‘60s had brought a lot of changes to the venerable Brickyard—most notably the rear engine revolution, beginning with Jim Clark’s 1965 victory. The “times they were a-changing” as new technology was making the front engine roadsters obsolete. A turbine powerplant was, to use a modern phrase, “way cool” in my young mind.

My dad had been a racer, and then served as manager of a local speedway. I had grown up listening to “the greatest spectacle in racing” on the radio every Memorial Day (same day television coverage didn’t come along until the ‘70s, and live coverage only arrived in 1986). Often our Memorial Day was spent washing the car in the driveway and then waxing it under the apple tree in the side yard, with the race coverage blaring from a radio. To this day, there is only one other state song I know besides “The West Virginia Hills”—and that is “Back Home Again in Indiana.” This song is part of the pre-race ceremony and was often sung over the years by Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle). [“…When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash, then I long for my Indiana home.”]

Because of my fascination with the “Whooshmobile” (one of the various nicknames given to Parnelli’s turbine, because it sounded so different from the traditional engines), I was very excited for the 1967 broadcast. However, rain interrupted the race before half-way that year, and it was to be resumed the next day—which unfortunately was a school day for me.

Since I was a die-hard race fan, and thoroughly consumed with Mr. Granatelli’s turbine car, I snuck a transistor radio and earphone (only one earphone back then) to my elementary school that day so I could listen. I snaked the wire under my shirt and hoped the teacher wouldn’t notice.

Parnelli Jones led most of the race, and appeared to be heading to an historic victory. Incredibly, with only four laps to go, a $6 transmission bearing failed, allowing A.J. Foyt to win the race for his third time. The next year, Mr. Granatelli brought three turbine cars to the Brickyard. The new wedge-shaped turbine racers were fast—Joe Leonard qualified his on the pole and dominated the race, but another minor problem caused him to drop out while leading with only ten laps left, allowing Bobby Unser to win. In 1969, Granatelli finally made it to Victory Lane at Indy with Mario Andretti in a traditionally powered car.

In the early ‘70s, Granatelli branched out to NASCAR and entered into a long-time sponsorship with my favorite driver, Richard Petty. Lots of folks today probably don’t realize that NASCAR was not as famous as the Indy car racing back then, but Granatelli recognized the beginnings of a surge in popularity for stock car racing.

I never got to meet Andy Granatelli, but he was a larger-than-life character in my formative years. Granatelli later wrote an autobiography entitled “They Call Me Mr. 500.” Rest in peace, Mr. 500, and thanks for the great memories!

[Pictured is Parnelli's 1967 turbine with the side cover removed (to see the turbine) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum. I highly recommend this great museum that I visited years ago.]

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Canaan’s Magic Carpet

Last winter, Canaan Valley State Park opened a new snow tubing park near their ski slopes. I’m not a skier, thus I haven’t frequented Canaan Valley or any of our ski resorts during the winter, but I thought it would be fun to try snow tubing at one of our prettiest state parks. This new snow tubing park is located on a hill on the left side of the entrance road between where you turn off Route 32 and the ski lodge. They built a small lodge there, complete with a nice fireplace. You stop in there first to pay for your two hour session, and then head out where you are provided with an innertube.

Perhaps the best part of this new attraction is the “magic carpet” conveyor belt to transport you to the top of their hill. At the top, besides the beautiful view of the valley, they have about eight groomed parallel paths down the hill, about a quarter of a mile long, each with a small wall of snow to separate these lanes. You get on top of your tube and ride down the slope. Once you have come to a stop at the bottom, simply walk over to the conveyor belt for an effortless trip back to the top. The magic carpet ride makes tubing easy and convenient, and allows you to look around and enjoy the winter wonderland while being transported.

By the way, I didn’t invest in any special clothing—I just dressed in plenty of layers and then wore a waterproof rain suit on top to prevent getting wet from any melting snow. It may not look as good as those fancy snow suits or ski outfits, but it worked for me.

I fondly remember sledding down our neighbor’s steep hill during my childhood days. As I recall (perhaps exaggerated over time), their yard seemed like a 60 degree slope for the main part of the hill. Unless you bailed out, you then entered a rough former pasture field with small saplings and broom sage. If you had a really good run (as in not hitting anything), then you could make it to the forest where the deep brown leaves and lack of snow due to the tall trees would finally stop you. It was quite an exhilarating ride—followed by the long trudge back up the steep hill for the next run (there was no such thing as a “magic carpet” back in the old days!). We were probably lucky we never got injured given the speed and all the obstacles.

I had a great time snow tubing at Canaan, but I must admit it wasn’t quite the adrenaline rush I had expected (in other words, not a bit like hurtling down my neighbor’s hill). It is perfect for young families—and for keeping the state from getting sued—but I guess that even with my fifty-some-year-old body, I’d like to have a bit more of a challenge. Perhaps I need to try it again at night, since they have spotlights for tubing after dark. All in all, I still had a good time and I encourage others to give it a try.

Riding the magic carpet to the top.

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 in the rearview mirror

As each year winds to a close, I like to look back on some of the highlights (click the hotlinks to read stories I wrote about these topics). The year of 2013 started off by running barefoot through the snow in Fayette County to jump into a shallow creek on New Year’s Day (I always wanted to see what that would be like!). Speaking of snow, I also tried cross-country skiing at Canaan Valley for the first time and enjoyed it.

We like kayaking, and had some memorable trips this past summer. The Tour de Coal was a great way to help celebrate the state’s 150th birthday weekend. We also had an excellent trip from Parsons to St. George on the Cheat River, and visited Alpine Lake for the first time. Speaking of Parsons, I had a good time riding my bike on the rail trail (Appalachian Highlands Trail) from there to Elkins and back. Other outdoor adventures included ziplines at the WVU Research Forest, at Burning Rock near Sophia, and at The Wilds in Ohio. I also participated in a few 5K events and got to ride the jet-boat in the New River Gorge.

I spent a lot of time this year in Washington, DC. Much of it was for work, but I still was able to see a few sights, such as the Air & Space Museum at Dulles Airport, Great Falls National Park, and the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial. We also went to Baltimore for the WVU game at Ravens Stadium. Although the game wasn’t great, revisiting the Inner Harbor area and the Maryland Renaissance Festival was fun.

Other travels this year included a jaunt through the eastern panhandle, including my first visit to Keyser and Moorefield, as well as a long awaited second visit to Green Bank. We also made a similar road trip to Twin Falls State Park and stopped at Thurmond on the way back. We took an interesting day long excursion train from Elkins to Spruce and back, along the beautiful Cheat River (the same train that was later hit by a logging truck). I arranged a fun whirlwind tour of Fayette County for some college friends this spring. This year we finally tried out Cafe Cimino in Sutton, and loved it. Other day trips included the Albert Gallatin National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, a visit to Wheeling for a hockey game and the toy museum, and a stop in Grafton for the annual Mothers’ Day Observance.

I got to see some great entertainment this year. Before it debuted on Broadway, we caught the new show about Janis Joplin while it was in DC, as well as “The Book of Mormon” at the Kennedy Center. We took some of Anna’s relatives to Columbus to see the outdoor version of “Back to the Garden”—a recreation of the Woodstock festival put on by our friends at Shadowbox (we enjoyed several of their regular shows as well—as we do every year). We saw “Rocket Boys,” the musical version of the book by Homer Hickam. Finally, we watched live performances by comics Whoopi Goldberg and Ron White, and concerts by Kathy Mattea and the Plain White T’s (plus I got to see a fun show at Ohio University by Rain, a Beatles tribute band).

I attended a lot of events related to my alma maters, the University of Charleston and WVU, both of which I dearly love. I even got to participate in WVU’s traditional PRT Cram this year! While in Charleston for an alumni weekend last spring, I got to check out a replica of the C.S.S. Hunley submarine that had always fascinated me.

This year proved to be a memorable one for my interest in motorsports. Perhaps my biggest thrill of the year was driving a race car in the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience. I also finally made it to Mid-Ohio raceway for their vintage race weekend. But that was not my only road course this year, because our eastern panhandle trip allowed me to revisit Summit Point raceway for the first time since I lived in DC during the ‘80s. I also was able to catch big races on a dirt oval at Mineral Wells and a paved oval at Columbus, as well as old-fashioned drag races at the Waynesburg airstrip.

All these activities were fun (and there were many others that didn’t make this review), but perhaps my most significant moment this year was when my story about Nelson Rocks was selected for publication in “Wonderful West Virginia” magazine. I had grown up reading that magazine and it was great to see my name in it as an author. Hopefully it won’t be the only time I appear in that venerable publication. I must note, however, that I think this essay on West Virginia history was the best one I wrote this year. It was indeed a very good year!

This story looks back on 2013, just like when I was looking out the back of the excursion train along the beautiful Shavers Fork of the Cheat River earlier this year.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Tour de Coal and the 150th

With winter upon us, I’m thinking back to this past summer. One of my favorite weekends was in June during the 150th birthday celebration for West Virginia. Besides the special activities in Charleston for the sesquicentennial, we were able to participate in the annual “Tour de Coal,” an 11 mile kayak trip from Tornado to St. Albans on the Coal River held each year in June.
This is the shirt that is given to participants.

We arrived on Friday in time for the free concert at the Levee. The headliner was Nitro’s own Kathy Mattea, who gave a heartfelt concert for the 150th! Then we headed to the Capitol grounds for the amazing fireworks show, complete with holographic displays on the front of the Capitol. It was indescribable!

On Saturday morning, we drove to the Kanawha County Park and Recreation Commission’s Meadowood Park in Tornado, WV. After parking and registering, we joined hundreds of other kayakers and canoeists who funneled from the field into the path leading to the put-in spot along the river. Thanks to the volunteers who helped, the wait was not bad—soon we were on the river, looking briefly upstream at the waterfall that requires this float trip to start just below it.

The Tour de Coal may have started as a race, but now it is more of a social event. With over six hundred participants in more than four hundred watercraft, it ends up being just a fun-filled day on a small river with lots of fellow paddlers. There are a couple of nice small rapids along the way, but the organizers have plenty of support there to assist anyone who gets into trouble.

Before long, we started to see more signs of civilization. Many folks along the way were watching the spectacle of hundreds of different colored watercraft paddling down the river. Finally, we arrived at the finish—just upstream from the Route 60 Bridge in St. Albans. More volunteers helped carry our kayaks up to the parking lot, where most participants had parked their vehicles that morning before taking the free shuttle busses to Meadowood Park. However, I had a long-time friend with a pick-up truck who lived nearby, who met us there to shuttle us back to our vehicle at Tornado.

We were so impressed with the previous night’s fireworks that we decided to watch them again on Saturday night, but from a different vantage point. We went to the University of Charleston (my alma mater) on the opposite riverbank from the Capitol, and enjoyed that view as well.

Kayaking the lower Coal River was a nice way to celebrate the sesquicentennial, but you don’t have to wait until the annual Tour de Coal to check it out. The non-profit Coal River Group has worked hard to develop much of the Coal River watershed into a “water trail” for kayakers and canoeists at any time. Check out their website at for information about this great resource.

I don’t know that I will still be around when West Virginia celebrates its bicentennial, but if I am, I’ll do my best to enjoy the celebration! If I can’t make it, I hope some of you will cover for me, and honor our state’s 200th year of independence.