TrackDrivers
  • Register

"Driving is like music.  The car is the instrument and the track is the piece of music that you’re trying to play.  And when it’s working, it all flows and everything seems to be happening almost in slow motion."

 

Burt Levy:  The World's Fastest Novelist (Part 1)

by Ziva Allen

Cheetah red RA on track440x412There are two kinds of car guys.  Those who wish they could make speed, style and sports cars their lives and those who actually figure out a way to do it.  Award-winning motorsports journalist and self-proclaimed “world’s fastest novelist” Burt Levy has done just that.  He came into this world with a lot of desire, gumption and determination and, luckily for him, a little bit of talent.  Although he never had much in the way of a budget, it turned out he could race a car pretty damn well. Better yet, he could write about it and had an uncanny ability to translate what happens inside a racecar and the world of great characters and unusual situations that make up the racing lifestyle into stories that are so entertaining that even people with no burning interest in the sport enjoy going along for the ride!  Much to his amazement, Burt has been able to blend his addiction to cars and racing with his ability to write and came up with a lifestyle most of us could only fantasize about.

We had the opportunity to spend some time discussing Burt’s racing and writing adventures during an extended phone interview while he was on his way home from a Sportscar Vintage Racing Association race at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.  “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks,” he explained enthusiastically.  “It’s got grand scale, wonderful scenery, memorable corners and elevation changes and a history that goes back to the original, through-the-streets Elkhart Lake races of 1950-52 that I wrote about in my novels.  Like all the truly great natural racetracks, it was laid out by some local guy on a bulldozer rather than being drawn up on CAD-CAM by some geek with a computer.  It drives like a real country road, and the track has a unique and enduring synergy with the surrounding community.  The only other track in North America that has that sort of thing is Watkins Glen.” Besides writing about Road America, Burt’s been racing there for almost 40 years.  “I’ve won races and held lap records there and I’ve crashed cars and blown up motors there, so it will always represent the entire spectrum of the sport to me.”

Burt has had a very full and interesting life, so we’re going to make this a two-part article.  Part 1 chronicles Burt’s adventures and misadventures in the racing and sports car worlds, including opening and running his now-defunct sports car shop, Mellow Motors, his experience as a second-string stunt driver for the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, his interview with Jay Leno conducted in Leno’s garage, and maybe we’ll throw in some of Burt’s colorful and sometimes hilarious stories of the triumphs, trials and tribulations he’s experienced along the way.  Burt seems to have found himself in the right place at the right time, time after time.  Can I call him Forest Gump?  In Part 2, we’ll talk about Burt’s journalism career writing for On Track, AutoWeek, Vintage Motorsports, Classic Motorsports and other publications along with his celebrated “The Last Open Road” series of novels (five now, soon to be six) and start out with a likeable, salt-of-the-earth, somewhat naïve and decidedly blue-collar 19-year old gas-station mechanic named Buddy Palumbo, who gets sucked into the glamorous, bucks-up, sometimes dangerous and occasionally decadent world of sports car racing during the Eisenhower fifties.  We may even throw in some more of Burt’s adventures and misadventures, such as the time he had a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow convertible taken from him at gunpoint on a test drive when he sold fancy cars for a living and the time he spent a night in jail to be bailed out by his publisher.  But before you begin Part 1, don’t forget that you’ve been warned.  Burt has somehow managed to cram many lifetimes into one, so if your need for speed conflicts with your ability to sit still long enough to finish Part 1 in one sitting, then by all means, break it up and come back for more.  It’s a long month anyway waiting for our next issue….

Green Flag on Racing

Burt has been driving competitively since his first drivers’ school in 1970.  And during that very first time on a racetrack, Burt discovered, “I just knew that this was for me.”  He started out in Midwest Council of Sports Car Clubs racing, which is a low-dollar Midwestern alternative to the SCCA.  “I started in a piece-of-shit TR3 that my father and I bought for $600.  Actually, that’s not quite true:  I bought the car and my dad co-signed the note.  That should give you some idea of the kind of budget I had to work with.  Looking back, that car was probably borderline lethal.  I was so busy trying to make it go fast enough to win races that I wound up building a whole series of Frankenstein-monster, nickel-rocket TR3s that inevitably went faster and faster for shorter and shorter periods of time.  I rarely finished a race.”

It was during this time that Burt met and fell in love with his wife of 40 years, Carol.  “She stuck by me through the whole Mellow Motors disaster—I had no business thinking I knew how to run a sports car shop—but after we sold it to another sucker, I went to work selling cars out of a fabulous downtown Chicago dealership that carried Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen and Alfa Romeos, and I wound up racing an Alfa.  “I got an Italian wife and then I got an Italian racecar,” he chuckles, “and they both turned into lifelong love affairs.”  But, as usual, it took some finagling.  A customer’s Alfa Spider had been hit by a truck and he wanted the insurance company to total it.  It looked pretty bad on the outside, but it was pretty much okay underneath, and they wound up turning that car into a showroom-stock racecar.  "By that time,” says Burt, “I guess the best way to put it is I’d learned what NOT to do and that’s really, really important.  Thanks to some reasonably decent driving and a lot of creative cheating, I wound up winning five Midwestern Council championships and we had two undefeated seasons.  It was a really good car. Naturally I got a big head and decided to go SCCA National racing in 1983, and I did eight National races, won four of them, set two lap records and went to The SCCA Runoffs at Road Atlanta, which was a really big deal back then. But I had the Week From Hell at The Runoffs, and it was on my way home from Road Atlanta that I kind of told myself, ‘You gotta find a different way to do this.  I was broke, every credit card I had was at the redline and I had a wife and a three-year-old son to think about.  I just couldn’t afford to do it any longer.”

Writing to Race

Enter Burt’s brilliant idea to bankroll his love of racing by writing about it.  “I had actually done some writing already for On Track magazine and I’d done a couple of pieces for AutoWeek, too.  On Track had approached me about covering pro races in the Midwest for them, but I told them, ‘No no no! I’m a racer, not a writer.'  Plus of course it didn’t pay very well.  But then my mechanic Eric wanted to go through driver school—with me as his instructor—but he didn’t get his car finished in time and he asked me if he could borrow mine for the school.  And of course on his first solo lap, he rolled it over.  That was that!  So I called On Track magazine back and I said, ‘Saaay, you remember that writing job you were talking about?'” 

Burt spent the summer of 1984 following the IMSA and Trans-Am pro circuits on the weekends, writing about it, meeting a lot of racing insiders and making a lot of good friends he still has to this day.  “I didn’t really know how I was ever going to go racing again,” he continues, “but then out of the blue I got a phone call from a guy I knew and had raced against.  He had a rich car owner from Dayton who wanted to enter the Firehawk and Escort Series, which were early, entry-level “pro” endurance races that eventually morphed into today’s SCCA World Challenge and IMSA’s Continental Tire series.  Seems there were three guys on the team and at the eleventh hour, there was a big falling out and one of the guys got booted out.  So P.D. Cunningham called me up and said ‘we’re going to a 24 hour car race in St. Louis.  Do you want to be one of our drivers?’  And I said, ‘Sure.  What does it pay?’  He said, ‘Nothing! But it doesn’t cost you anything either, and if we win any prize money, you get a share.’  I said, ‘I’m there!’  So I did that for two years.  But I didn’t really love the cars all that much.  We had a Toyota Supra the first season—our team owner was about ten feet tall and it was the only car he could fit it—followed by a Nissan 300ZX Turbo.  I always thought that was kind of a clumsy, lumbering fast car, and I never really enjoyed driving it.  Plus everybody was awfully damn serious when you consider that the prize money wasn’t enough to keep the team in beer and brake pads for the weekend.”

But then everything changed.  Burt discovered the world of vintage racing and never looked back.  “I went to a vintage race at Road Atlanta to do a story for AutoWeek, and I just fell in love.  I mean, here were all the racecars I grew up longing for and lusting after, and they’re out there on the racetrack running hard and making noise and racing the heck out of each other instead of wasting away in some museum.  And it’s more than that.  It’s the people and the history and the liturgy if you will—being on the inside where you know the people and the cars and the stories and all the great machines and wild characters you run into at racing.  The motorsports world is full of marvelous people.  And some really odd, strange and goofy people, too.  It’s just so much more vivid and alive than everyday life.  When you’re on a race weekend, it’s like being on a commando mission.  You know what you’re trying to accomplish, and it’s extremely focused and goal-oriented.  And then you go back to what I call “the mindless slop of everyday life” and you can’t wait to get back to the track again.”

One of Burt’s fictional characters sums up racing like this:  'It’s like music:  drag racing is like hard rock, oval-track racing is like country-western and road racing’s more like classical or maybe jazz.  And just like in music, you don’t have a lot of cross-pollination between those genres (although there’s much more now because of all the media coverage on TV and so it’s much easier to be a fan).'  There was a time—not all that many years ago—when you had to go looking for racing news.  Unless somebody got killed, of course.  Then it made front-page headlines….”

Ride Mooching

Eventually Burt found his niche as an unabashed Ride Mooch.  Once his name and reputation got around, people started offering him famous old racing cars to driveP1012653MK440x254 in return for writing columns and features about them for magazines.  “It all started with Joe Marchetti, who ran the Como Inn restaurant in Chicago, traded in older Ferraris on the side and started the big July vintage race at Road America.  He was a wonderful enthusiast, and he wanted me to write “a driver’s eye view of a lap at Road America” for his race program.  Instead of giving me money for it, he said he’d give me a car to drive.  At first he gave me a Porsche 356 racecar that was kind of neat, but there was a lot wrong with it and I couldn’t do more than a couple of laps before it would break.  So to make good on his offer, he told me to come to Road Atlanta to drive one of his cars.  And that’s where he put me in a 250GT Short-Wheelbase Berlinetta Ferrari, which is still one of my favorite Ferraris—it was the last true dual-purpose sports car from just about anybody—and I wrote a feature story about the experience for AutoWeek.  That was really the beginning of my ‘ride-mooching’ career!”

"Later on that summer we were up at Road America for Joe’s race, and he had this absolutely magnificent Ferrari 250LM—sister car to the one that won overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1965—and it was hot as blazes that weekend.  There was an enduro as part of the program late in the afternoon, and Joe’d been driving a few cars and his face was about the same color red as his Ferraris.  So I look at Joe and say: ‘you know, you look kind of tired and flushed.  You think you maybe need a co-driver for the enduro?’  And he kind of sighed and said: ‘yeah, maybe you’d better suit up….’ I swear, my sneakers left a pair of smoldering rubber streaks across the grass as I ran to get my helmet and race suit.  Now I’d never driven the car before—I’d never even sat in it!—but I got in at the pit stop and Joe explained the shift pattern and the redline and I took off.  And, as you can imagine, it was incredible.  And a little intimidating, too.  But I did all right and then I wrote a story about driving and racing this fabulous, iconic Ferrari for Vintage Motorsport magazine.  And I’ve been writing for them ever since.  And then people started offering me other cars as a way to get their stories told and gain a little notoriety (and maybe, just maybe, raise their value a little?) and I’ve never looked back.  There are a lot of very rich and enthusiastic car owners in this sport who just say: ‘here, you take it around and tell people what it’s like and what you think about it.’  So that’s how it got started, and I’ve really enjoyed it.”  But he doesn’t push someone else’s car quite like he might if it were his own.  “You really have to drive someone else’s cars one or two notches back from what you’d do if it were your own. Or that’s what I tell people, anyway….”

Besides his career as a ride mooch, Burt’s had some competitive success in vintage cars.  Starting with the 1959 Lotus 17 he co-drove with its late owner, David Whiteside.  “The 17 was a somewhat unloved car in its day—it was the last of the front-engined Lotus racing cars and it was very tiny and light and had a reputation for being a little twitchy—but it turned out to be perfectly classed for vintage racing.”  David Whiteside invited him to test drive the car at Watkins Glen as part of a feature story Burt was working on, and they wound up as team-mates.  “I did okay with the car at The Glen and so we did the enduro together and we just really hit it off:  David, me and his mechanic and sometimes co-driver, Steve Wesley.  He invited me to do the next race with him and we wound up racing the 17 together for the next four years.  I didn’t get paid but all I had to do was show up, help a little with the car (Steve didn’t want me near it with anything more solid than a shop rag!) and get in and drive when the time came.  We won the HSR’s Rolex Vintage Endurance Championship back-to-back in 1993/1994 and finished second the other two years.  We had some really great races, made a lot of wonderful friends and had a really good time.  We won the 3-Hour at Sebring.  We won a couple times at Road Atlanta and Mid Ohio. We had some fabulous races.  And some disastrous ones, too.  Like the time the hub fractured and the left-front wheel flew off at Atlanta Motor Speedway.  My only regret is that the HSR didn’t hand out Rolex watches to the season champions back then like they do now.  We wound up with baccarat crystal paper weights with the word “Enduoro” spelled wrong….”

Why does Burt love racing so much? “Without getting too smarmy or poetic about it, it’s kind of Zen.  It’s the one place in life where nothing from your regular, everyday life can get at you.  You’re completely consumed by the focus and concentration of what you’re doing.  I’m sure it’s the same for a downhill skier or anybody who’s involved in a sport or activity where there’s risk and pressure to perform and your destiny is right there in your own two hands. You’re trying to do it as well as you can, but it’s been my observation as both a driver and instructor that the better you are at it, the more you tend to see each lap as a collection of mistakes and little things you could have done better. When you do a decent job, there’s a great sense of satisfaction.  When you screw up, you will never beat yourself up worse. But I love it.  I’d have to say it’s one of only two things in my life where finally getting to do it was better than all the anticipation, worry and angst leading up to it!  I leave it to your imagination what the other one might be….”

As addicting and rewarding as it is, Burt does admit:  “I always get nervous before I get in the car—partly because I’m always driving somebody else’s car—and I sometimes get a little nervous on the plane on my way to a race or in the motel room the night before.  But once the belts are tight and the engine fires, I’m locked into the tunnel and I don’t really get scared unless I do something stupid or something stupid happens. The very worst of it is when something unexpected goes wrong with the car.  That’s a pretty horrible feeling:  you’re tooling along ‘in the zone’ and all of a sudden it’s like the rug gets yanked out from under your feet!  I’ve had that happen a couple times, and it’s a hard thing to forget.  But drivers all seem to think that they’re destined to get away with it, and certainly it’s much, much safer today than it was in the eras I write about.  No question the cars and the safety equipment and particularly the racetracks themselves are so much safer.”

 Racing's Old Days

Burt is full of entertaining stories about racing’s old days and he’s very talented at romanticizing that period and vividly bringing you there.  “In the days that I write about, guys would get killed every other weekend.  It’s just the way things were, and people in the sport accepted it.  Like my good friend Brian Redman.  He won three straight F5000 championships here in the states, and I believe he was the only guy ever to drive for the Porsche, Ferrari, Gulf Ford and Aston Martin factory teams.  Enzo Ferrari asked him to drive Formula 1 early on in his career—Ferrari always favored drivers who were brave, blazing fast and willing to take risks—but Brian turned him down because his fellow drivers were getting killed on a frighteningly regular basis.  He told Ferrari: ‘No, I’m afraid that if I drive Formula 1 for you, I won’t be alive next year.’  I think he’s the only driver Ferrari ever invited back after he had turned them down.  And the racetracks back then!  Brian tells hair-raising stories about going to Spa back in the late sixties and early seventies, when most drivers considered it the most daunting and dangerous track in the world.  It was almost 8 miles around, very fast and made up of ordinary Belgian country roads.  So there were all sorts of solid things to hit and often it would rain.  In fact, sometimes it would be clear on one side of the track and raining on the other!  There were fully 10 fatal accidents in pro-level races at Spa during the 1960s, and Brian recalls today:  ‘When I would go to Spa, I’d lay awake at night and sweat.  I couldn’t sleep because I honestly thought I might not be alive in 24 hours.’  But that was just part of the deal back then.  The deaths, danger and drama of World War II hadn’t been that long ago, and it was just kind of accepted that those were the risks you took as a racing driver.  It was like being a fighter pilot during the war.  Today, if God forbid a driver gets killed in a racing accident, there’s a huge uproar because it happens so rarely nowadays.  Thank goodness.  And that’s mostly due to the massive improvements we’ve seen in the cars, the driver’s safety equipment and particularly the track layouts and safety barriers.”

To ensure the safest experience possible while racing vintage cars, Burt explains that, “Except for the prewar cars, we run full roll bars or cages, state-of-the-art fire systems and full racing harnesses and driver gear.  Including HANS devices.  They’re pretty up-to-date as far as safety is concerned and, over time, many of the cars have become more advanced and sophisticated from the standpoint of performance. But that’s the nature of racing, isn’t it?”

Usually Burt will either do a test day with a car or will take a track session on a race weekend or possibly share an enduro to experience a car and then he’ll write a story that tries to capture not just the car’s history and significance, but also its behind-the-wheel feel and tactile essence.  He always writes as if he’s speaking to fellow racers because he knows they know and understand the sort of language and sensations that he’s talking about.  Occasionally, he’s given a car to run all weekend, which is a lot of fun but also a lot of responsibility.  But, as he says:  “without the element of risk, it’s just another video game.”

His ride-mooching career has put him behind the wheel of everything from Bugeye Sprites and Formula Vees to Ferraris, Porsches, Vipers, NASCAR stock cars, Chevrons (among his favorites), old Indianapolis roadsters, Scarabs, Chaparrals, Mustangs, MGs, Morgans, Alfa Romeos, many different Lotus models, Ford GT40s and Mk, IIs and two of the five existing Grand Sport Corvettes.  You can see some of them in the photo gallery on his website (www.lastopenroad.com) and also in the collection of “Ride with Burt” videos on YouTube.

Stunt Driving

And then there’s Burt’s experiences as a stunt driver for the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.  In an effort to sweeten the deal for Universal Studios, Mayor Jayne Bryne of Chicago offered the production company a whole fleet of supposedly “retired from duty” police cruisers at a very attractive price.  Like $200 each!  As Burt notes:  “you couldn’t even buy the Mars lights on the roof of the cars for that.”  To cut a few more corners, the production company decided they didn’t want to pay union stunt money to the guys driving all those police cruisers.  So they went to the local racing clubs and asked for experienced drivers and instructors, and then they held a try-out.  Burt explains, “The main guy was a wonderful old desert motorcycle racer and stunt coordinator named Bud Ekins.  He was a great motorcycle pal of Steve McQueen’s and I think he did the stunt double work for Steve in the famous motorcycle jump scene in The Great Escape.  He said you could make good money doing stunt work if you were good at it and careful about the sort of risks you were taking and could keep from hurting yourself, but he figured being stunt coordinator was a lot healthier deal.  Plus it paid better.  Or at least more regularly.  Anyhow, for my ‘try-out,’ we’re at this old, abandoned shopping mall in a crappy neighborhood on the southwest side (the one they pretty much destroy in the movie) and I’ve got this stunt-team guy named J.N. Roberts riding shotgun next to me in one of the old cop cars and telling me what to do.  It happens I recognized his name and also knew that he’d been a world-class motocross racer, so I was pretty much in awe of him.  But he looked mostly bored, just sitting there gnawing on a sandwich and reading the newspaper in his lap.  ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘I want you to do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it.  Don’t do anything until I tell you. Got it?’  I nod.  ‘Okay, take off full speed going that way’ and he points his finger towards the tree line at the far end of the parking lot, something like about a mile away.  So I put my foot down and we lurch off in this old, beat-to-crap/piece-of-shit cop car.  But it accelerates pretty strong, because it’s got the big, cop-car motor under the hood (although I can also tell that the wheel bearings are about shot and the shocks are gone to pudding and wheels feel like they’re pointing in four different directions) and were flitting and bouncing over this broken-up concrete that’s really, really rough and we’re doing 60, then 70, then 80 miles an hour. And he’s just sitting there looking at his paper and eating on his sandwich and now I’m up to like 80 and then 90 and the steering wheel is vibrating like crazy and the seat is shaking and now I’m seeing the tree line at the edge of the parking lot is starting to get awfully close and I’m thinking—hey, what the hell!—and then, just as I’m getting ready to puss out and go for the brakes, he looks up from his paper, gives me about one-sixteenth of an inch of a laconic smile and says:  ‘okay….you can slow down now.’  That was the entire test!  It was over in about 20 seconds.  And what an experience it turned out to be, seeing how shots are set up and how the whole process works.  I was really fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to get the chance to do it.”  During the filming of the movie, Burt approached one of the stunt coordinators to see if he could buy one of the cop cars after the movie shoot was over. “With the big motor and brakes and the heavy-duty suspension, I thought it would make one hell of a great tow car for my race car.  But the guy shook his head.  'There won’t be any left,' he assured me.  'We’re gonna crash ’em all.'"  For you younger readers who haven’t seen the movie, let’s just say that the stunt coordinator was absolutely right:  none of the cop cars made it out alive.

Jay Leno’s Garage

Burt has also had the good fortune to be interviewed by Jay Leno at his fabulous garage complex in Burbank, California.  “Jay’s a real car and motorcycle guy, and I first met him at an auction in Monterey back when I was writing for British Car magazine (which later became Classic Motorsports).  Then I met him again at Pebble Beach and he’d heard about my books and he told me that he really liked them and invited me to come on his car show.  Of course I was thrilled (you can see the interview on either Jay or Burt’s website) and he showed me around his collection, which was really cool.  I’ve been there a couple times since and I’ve become friendly with some of the guys on his restoration team.  Whenever I go out there I like to spend some time looking at the cars and to see what sort of projects they’ve got going.  In fact, I made our son and his wife a spice rack for their stove the last time I was there.  Jay’s very, very generous with his time and tries to give a little visibility to people who’ve written books or come up with interesting ideas or products for the car-restoration world.” Go Jay!

 

Giving Back

Levyviper440x293In addition to racing, Burt started coaching and instructing many years ago, first for race clubs and then for his local Lotus and Alfa Romeo club track days and Hooked on Driving.  “It’s a way to give back a little bit, and I happily discovered that when you have a really good student, it’s almost as good as doing it yourself, because you get to see them discover it all just like you did when you got started.  You see the light start to come on in their eyes as they begin to understand about line and unwinding the car and braking points and modulating you inputs.  It’s just great.  But when you get a bad student who won’t listen, it’s the worst day on planet earth!  I mean, you’re already scared shitless because they’re arrogant or clumsy or inept or they just don’t get it, and there you are trying to tell them how to go faster.  How stupid is that?”

Burt notes there’s a big difference between track-day types and wheel-to-wheel racers.  “Some track-day drivers may eventually become racers—and good racers—but most of them come at it with a different set of priorities.  My experience, at least so far, has been that most track-day people are pretty respectful of their cars, the instructors and each other.  They know they don’t know their or the car’s limits.  And sometimes you run into people who really haven’t got it.  They don’t have that feel in the seat of their pants for what the car is doing.  I always tell students that track-driving is like music.  There’s a flow and a rhythm to it.  I tell them that the car is their instrument and the track is the piece of music that they want to play.  And when it’s really working, it all flows together and everything seems like it’s happening in slow motion.  When things seem to be rushing at you and you’re frantically trying to react to them, then not only are you slow but you are probably getting scared because you don’t have any comfort level.  But when everything starts working and flowing, it moves effortlessly, like a Strauss waltz.”

Surprisingly, Burt says the best students he’s ever had have all been women.  Usually their husbands or boyfriends have brought them, and most often it all started with ‘you should really do this yourself sometime, honey.’  You know, real patronizing.  But the women come in and they start with the idea that, ‘I really don’t know anything about this and I really want to learn.’  Whereas most of the guys come in to show you what they think they already know.  Which means they’re not nearly as coachable or receptive.  As I’ve often heard said: there are two things you can’t tell a man how to do, and one of them is drive….” 

Lifelong Partners

Burt’s wife Carol has been extremely supportive of her husband’s career and he’s always quick to point out what a great sport she is.  “She’s stood by me, even sometimes when she’s mad at me because I’m making dumb-ass decisions or heading off in a wrong direction.  We’ve had some serious financial struggles because I’ve headed us off down a particular path.  And you can bet she lets me know about it, too.  But she always backs me up and says ‘this is what you were meant to do’ and she’s proud of the audience my books have found.”  Burt’s wife had her own career as a comedic actress, participated in community theater, worked for Chicago’s famous Second City group and was a player in Second City’s children’s theater.  But she gave that all up when the Levys decided that they had to publish Burt’s first novel, The Last Open Road, by themselves.  “It had been turned down by damn near every publisher in New York, and it was a really momentous decision.  As Carol said at that time:  'Look, if this falls on its butt, our son’s not going to college.'"  (More about how it did not fall on its butt in Part 2).  So Carol went back to school, earned her teaching certificate and moved up to become the Director of the Junior Citizens Center at nearby Rosary College (now Dominican University).  Eventually Carol earned her Master’s Degree and taught kindergarten for many years before retiring to a successful private tutoring practice.  “Carol really believes that what happens in those first few years is vital relative to what you become later on in life, and I’m awed and humbled when I see the job she’s done with some of these kids.  She’s absolutely great and I can’t say enough about her.  We’ve been married for 40 years now, and it’s simultaneously the best thing I ever did and probably the dumbest thing she ever did,” Burt adds with a chuckle.  “We’re so incredibly different, and that’s what makes it work.  When we met, I’d just come back from being a hippie in Colorado and Berkeley and all I wanted was to party all the time.  And she was a nice girl who’d gone to all Catholic girls’ schools, never drank, never smoked, never did drugs.  It seemed like we had nothing in common at all.  But we got fixed up on a blind date and both of us just knew, that very first night!  It didn’t take long to realize that she was a genuinely good person with an independent spirit and really amazing sense of humor.  She’s very funny. I fell in love that night and I still am."

"My son would say: ‘What a sap!’”

Public Speaking

In addition to racing and writing, Burt also gives about six or eight speeches each year.  “I’ll give a talk to a car-club banquet or at a museum or a special car eventburt SRT podium283x440 like the Northwest Classic Rallye in Oregon.  I generally talk about how I got involved in racing and wound up writing the books as well as all of the adventures we’ve had along the way.”  Burt has also been invited to speak to groups of kids at schools and libraries who think they want to write.  He usually talks about the discipline of the writing process and the difficulties of getting published or making a living at it.

Mellow Motors

In 1974, Burt and his new wife opened a sports car shop called Mellow Motors.  Suffice is to say that Burt does not rate this venture as one of his more brilliant notions.  “I mean, I always figured I was pretty smart and when we opened up the car shop, I thought to myself:  well, if I was smart and I loved cool cars and racing, that’s all I needed.  Was I ever stupid!  But I learned that, by the time you get to the end of any job, you probably know about half of what you should have known before you started.  It was tough and we went through some really difficult times together.  Yet all the stories and all those experiences from Mellow Motors fed the writing and became the source material for the novels and short stories.  The fact that we didn’t wind up getting divorced is amazing!  I mean, we were working 70-hour weeks and it was pretty awful sometimes, but a really strong marriage and partnership came out of it.  I never could have written any of my stuff without Mellow Motors; the people we met, the stories we heard, the terrible experiences we went through—that’s what I’ve had to draw on.”

In that vein, here’s an excerpt from Burt’s short story “The Lift from Hell,” which can be found in his A Potside Companion anthology:

In a masterstroke of brilliant interior design, the lift in Bruno’s garage was situated in a corner, barely three-and-a-half feet from the office wall. A constantly drizzling spigot on the wall ensured that the floor beneath our lift was always covered with a pudding-like mélange of water, spilled oil and antifreeze, the lift’s own personal excretions, several dozen pounds of used Oil-Dri, and a wide variety of tiny, irreplaceable, you-can’t-find-them-anywhere-but-a dealership (and they’re on back order!) shouldered bolts, woodruff keys, special washers and hermaphrodite fittings that were forever falling in the muck and, I believe to this day, getting sucked right through the blessed concrete to that place television preachers (at least those still out on bond) talk about incessantly on Sunday mornings.

Checkered Flag

And it was while we were talking about Mellow Motors that Burt suddenly announced:  “You’ve taken me almost all the way home.  This has been the fastest trip ever home from Elkhart Lake!”  And with that we wrapped up our meandering but illustrative conversation with Burt Levy, the self-proclaimed World’s Fastest Novelist.  Please come back next month to learn more about the racing and road-trip adventures of Burt’s hero/narrator Buddy Palumbo, a good-hearted, 19-year-old gas-station mechanic who suddenly finds himself hobnobbing with the upper-class drivers, snobby sexpot girlfriends and the black sheep heirs of wealthy families who populated the dangerous, decadent and exciting world of open-road sports car racing during the early 1950s.

Read Part II

 

Email Alerts

S5 Box

Login

Register