Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Wally Dallenbach's racing wisdom

by Gordon Kirby
Wally Dallenbach is a remarkable man. A self-made racer from New Jersey, Dallenbach raced dragsters, stock cars, midgets and sprint cars before making his name as the winner of five Indy car races with Pat Patrick's team in the mid seventies, including the 1973 California 500. During this time Dallenbach moved west to Colorado and started the Colorado 500 motorcycle ride before retiring in 1980 to become CART's chief steward.

Over the following twenty years Dallenbach built a rare reputation as a cool-headed, even-handed steward who became a tremendous proponent of improving all aspects of safety in motor racing. With the help of Doctors Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell and safety directors Steve Edwards and Lon Bromley he developed the sport's most progressive, state-of-the-art safety and medical team.

And by working closely with the teams and car builders Dallenbach and his group also influenced many improvements in car and cockpit construction, embracing better ways to absorb energy on impact. Recently, Wally reflected on the way his job and CART's safety and medical team evolved through the eighties and nineties.

© Barry Hathaway/Dallenbach collection
"A lot of us didn't like the lack of ambition, so to speak, that we saw in USAC," he began. "As we broke away we were considered outcasts by USAC, but we wanted to make the sport better. It started with Dan Gurney's 'White Paper'. I think the general feeling and attitude over the years was if we don't hang together we're going to hang separately. So we became a team, not only to support each other but we weren't afraid to say let's share what we know. It was a back and forth between the technical people, the drivers and the officials.

"Kirk Russell was a dynamite guy in the technical director's capacity. He knew and respected me and when he got up in race control we had two sets of eyes looking at everything. But it wasn't just there. It was everywhere. We were beginning our own safety team which didn't exist with USAC.

"We started creating a safety team. Carl Horton was a big contributor to that era of improving safety and we were so comfortable having Doctors Olvey and Trammell ready to go at all times. Those guys contributed a tremendous amount to the sport and we created a safety team that was second to none. Steve Edwards led the team and he was a dynamite guy too."

In 1976 Dallenbach had started a rescue team at home in Basalt, Colorado. He began by conscripting twenty friends to take an EMT course, then buying an ambulance.

"I didn't know anything about first aid or safety so I rounded up about twenty people because it took twenty of us to make an EMT course," Wally recalls. "The wife of a forest ranger agreed to put us through the training and Lon Bromley was my ranch manager at the time. He was very reluctant but I said, 'You work for me and you don't have a choice.'

"So we went through the training course over the winter and we officially graduated in May, 1976. At Indianapolis that year I talked to the ambulance company about buying an ambulance. We took a loan out for $20,000. They wired me $15,000 and I bought the ambulance and after the 500 I drove it home non-stop to Colorado.

"Since then it's grown and grown, but that was the beginning of Basalt Rescue. Lon Bromley became the guy who ran it and it grew and grew from there to the point where he became a paramedic. In the meantime CART had grown. Steve Edwards did a great job building CART's safety team but at the same time I was watching Lon grow at his job as a paramedic. He impressed me that he was the kind of guy we needed to have. So we went through a friendly change.

"I hired Lon and he came on and became the director of safety. We continued to grow together collectively and Lon did some great things. The innovations we did in safety put us above everybody in racing for a while. I'm proud to say we saved lives and made racing safer through working with the tracks.

© IMS/Dallenbach collection
"One of the problems was a lot of the promoters didn't want to spend the money on safety. At Elkhart Lake for example, they ended up spending a million dollars on track improvements that should have been done years ago. Some things we learned the hard way after guys got hurt. We didn't turn our backs on it. We looked at it square in the eye and tried to make it better. No matter how safe you make it, racing is dangerous.

"Some of the tracks had their own safety teams but ours was better and part of the requirement was when we came to town it was with our safety team. In some places that didn't go down well. That was a tough battle we had to work through.

"But every experience was a good one. I use Milwaukee as an example. That was a tough one. We were in on some of these guys' territory and they didn't like it. But over time they realized what we were trying to do. We brought all our own stuff, including a hospital which I helped build.

"Lon was just one example of people growing into something better. Doctors Olvey and Trammell were other examples. At every race those guys would get together in a room and call me in and say this is what we're going to do. We had our key extricator guys in there who knew what do if a guy was upside-down and it became a team effort. Like all sports, when you throw the ball you've got to have somebody to catch the ball and we had that mentality. There were no egos.

"When I reflect on what's happened over the years it's hard to believe we pulled all this off, especially the hospital. It was state-of-the-art. We had input from the doctors and nurses. It turned out to be a double expandable. Greg Passauer drove the ambulance to the racetracks and during the event he sat in one of the safety trucks doing double duty. And of course, radio technology got better and we overcame the problems of dead spots on street circuits."

Looking back over the 110-year history of American championship and Indy car racing Dallenbach emerges in a class of his own as the most respected chief steward the sport has ever seen. Wally commented quietly on the reasons for his success.

"I tried to do what was right, not for the driver, but for the sport," he remarked. "There are people who will never agree with my call and I'm okay with that. Over those twenty years most of the guys would listen to me. Some of them would never admit it, but it was for the safety of their own butt as well as the guy they were trying to take out. I think it came down to the fact that the relationship I had with those guys was unique.

© Paul Webb/Racemaker
"I lasted twenty years and I never thought I would last that long. I did because I treated everyone like they were my sons, and I had sons who were in racing. Along the way you had to split it down the middle, but it was always safety first. Sometimes there was a bad experience and you had to red flag it and go home. I wouldn't say I was perfect by any means. I just tried to play it above seventy percent to make the right calls.

"I think the bottom line of CART's success over those twenty years was we were a family that cared for each other from beginning to end. Whether it was a corner worker or a number one driver, we all had the same feeling. We would do anything for each other to make the sport better. That was the secret.

"A lot of guys worked for nothing, or next to nothing, and at the end of the day we could look at each other and say we had done the best job possible. That was the key to our success. It was a family-like group of individuals who are still family when they see each other.

"Pepe and I went to the CART reunion last year and we hadn't seen many of those people in many years. They were the working grunts who made things happen. Some of them were corner workers and they couldn't stop talking about how great those days were and how well they were treated by everybody. That's something you can't buy. We remembered when we were a family of racers who put on a show.

"I had one of the most amazing and interesting jobs a human being could have because I worked with Roger Penske, Pat Patrick, Chip Ganassi, Carl Haas and Paul Newman all the way down to the corner workers. It was such an experience. Sometimes some of those people wouldn't be talking to each other but I was the common denominator. I could take that pool of information and make it work. And Pepe was always there, helping take care of the people."

Dallenbach looks back with great pride on an era when Indy car racing was at his global height with F1 world champions in the field in the shape of Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell.

"The Fittipaldis and Mansells all came through that twenty year window," Wally reflected. "It was incredible and you couldn't duplicate it if you tried. It just happened on its own. It was good timing. In between was the glue that was CART. It wasn't a story book thing at the beginning. We were living it. Then it came and went and you say, holy cow!

"Sometimes you don't stop and look at the roses. It's incredible now to look back and think about it and talk about it. It's a huge chunk of the history of racing. Sure, there were the dirt cars and the roadsters but the twenty years of CART took Indy car racing to the top of the ladder.

© Steve Swope / Mears collection
"If you look at the whole spectrum of CART, that was an era in auto racing that deserves to be celebrated for how great it was. It was challenging Formula 1 on the world stage and NASCAR nationally in the United States. It's like when our guys came back from Vietnam many people wouldn't even sit next to them on the subway and a similar thing happened when CART dissolved. People didn't want to talk about it.

"All the guys who were the CART heroes of the day paid the price. When you stop and think about it, 2,000 people made it happen from the Roger Penskes all the way down to the corner workers. All they wanted was a shirt.

"Since those days we've seen the sport fumble around trying to recreate itself, whether it's Indy car racing, sports car racing or NASCAR. We can only hope that Indy car racing will come back over time and reclaim the place it deserves in the sport. Otherwise, it's going to be all about NASCAR.

"If you read the history of CART and the history of USAC and co-relate that with what was going on in the world at that time, it's all there. To me, the biggest missed opportunity in racing was CART. You can talk about the board tracks in the twenties or any other era in Indy car racing, but they were nothing compared to CART because it was a true worldwide formula with a worldwide audience. The big stars like Mears, Mario, the Unsers, Fittipaldi and Mansell were gods. They made a huge impact on our sport.

"Every once in a while I get flashbacks to how I punished people like Fittipaldi and Mansell. At the Detroit race one year they were on the front row and I said, 'Emmo, don't jump the start.' I said, 'The leader has to be on the pole at the start when you cross the line.' Well, I think Nigel dragged his feet and Emerson was ahead of him, so I black-flagged Emerson. After the race I had both Roger Penske and Emerson beating on me.

"The big thing that I'm especially proud of is I had my part in improving safety. Back in those days NASCAR had their head in the sand like an ostrich and we were moving ahead. We were the innovators and eventually, after they lost some people, they learned from us."

Dallenbach believes Indy car racing today suffers from a lack of strong, individualized power.

© Steve Swope
"They've gone from individuals to committees," he said. "It's pretty hard to have a group of stewards and say, wait a minute, time out like football. You've got to shoot from the hip. I've told people a thousand times there's no time out in this game. You've got to know what you're doing or at least have a good feel for the unknown. The minute you've got to have a committee look at each other I think you're in trouble. That's the way I look at it.

"It's almost like racing as whole. In the old days you worked out of your garage with just a handful of guys. Today you have a huge team of mechanics and engineers. Really, it's a committee."

Wally will celebrate his 80th birthday in December and remains as active as ever in and around Basalt and his ranch in Frying Pan Valley.

"I was brought up in the days where, as a driver, the guy next to you could be gone in the next minute and I've been blessed with a very busy and good life," he reflects. "I've got a lot of good memories. I've been messing around with cars since I was a kid and I still am today."

In closing, Chip Ganassi's IndyCar and IMSA general manager Mike Hull offers some warm perspective on Dallenbach's achievements.

"The CART organization comprised all these husbands and wives who passionately devoted everything they had to come each weekend and help make CART the success that it became," Hull observed. "Wally and Pepe led that group of people. It was because of them and how tirelessly they worked. Four or five o'clock didn't exist in their vocabulary. They came and worked unselfishly on the race weekends at every race.

"Wally and Pepe led those people and it included Kirk Russell and his wife Barbara. They represented a special time the way motor sports in America was administrated that will probably never be repeated."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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