My Gray Craftsman Toolbox

My old gray Craftsman tool box. Photo by HTF Motorsports

My old gray Craftsman tool box. Still in use today. Photo by HTF Motorsports

Thoughts About This Disorder I Acquired

In 1971 I was a freshman in college, the University of Maine at Orono, when I decided to make a radical decision. The radical decision was whether to purchase my very own tools and a toolbox. I am very frugal and debated with myself; do I or do I not make the buy?

My Dad and Grandfather had tools made by Craftsman that dated back until the early 1900’s. I made the decision to go with the same tools which also carried a lifetime guarantee and I could purchase in nearby Presque Isle.

The toolbox and tools were on sale for something like $29.95 which included a few open end wrenches, screwdrivers, 3/8 and 1/2 drive sockets with ratchets, and of course the gray tool box.

I was so proud of my purchase and had thoughts of becoming a race car mechanic like the ones I had read about or seen in Hot Rod Magazine. The tools made me feel like I could fix anything.

Of course I read about these highly skilled craftsmen and figured if I viewed the photos I could do the same things as them. What I lacked, however, was experience, training, and the innate talent that most people in the industry possess.

I had always tinkered on mechanical devices on our farm as I was growing up and did have some idea about how things came apart and once in a while how things went back together.

While in middle school or early high school I thought I could build an IndyCar and use my Dad’s old flat-head Ford to power the racer. Mind you I had zero money and no experience welding but I had that dream.

If you had told me then that I would someday be covering not the Indy 500, but something called a stock car race at Indy (the Brickyard 400 for six years) for Maine’s second largest newspaper I would have thought you were clueless.

I brought my little gray toolbox with me to UMO and did some basic tune-ups on fraternity brothers cars as well work on an “Ice Racer/Autocross” Saab 96 owned by Bruce Libby and me. The ice racer story is typical of my exploits.

Bruce was “in love” and actually studied while at school. I wedged studying in-between ice racer prep and fraternity intramurals. I took a course in welding taught by Ag Engineering professor Hayden Soule and Ag Engineering Department shop assistant Ben Dresser, who both became my favorite teachers as a result of this class (and other reasons also).

I worked on the ice racer as I did all cars, outside in the fraternity parking lot. As I prepped the Saab for its racing debut in the winter of 1973-74 I read that you could weld the spider gears and thus end up with a locked front end which would be advantageous on ice. So out came the engine and trans-axle, which thankfully were relatively lightweight.

I brought the trans-axle to the Ag Engineering shop where I did my work-study. I figured out how to access the differential and with the spider gears exposed I welded a gob of molten metal to “lock” the front wheels together.

I put the engine/trans-axle back into the race car and loaded it on my Dad’s 1949 Ford potato truck. That’s right, I think I was the only student at UMO with a potato truck.

Several of my fellow fraternity brother’s were excited to see me make my ice racing debut at Pushaw Pond only a few miles from campus. I drove my potato truck to the pond and found a place to back up to and off loaded my precious cargo.

The race I was to enter had just started so I jumped into the car, put it in reverse, and threw the column mounted four speed into first and gunned it. I think I went four feet when the trans-axle locked up. I guess I welded those spider gears in the wrong place thus ending my career as an ice racer before it began.

Programs from the 1974 and 1977 Formula One races at Watkins Glen. I was too cheap to spend the $2 in 1973. If you look closely at the inside cover of my toolbox you will see decals from both the 73 and 74 Formula One races. Photo by HTF Motorsports

Programs from the 1974 and 1977 Formula One races at Watkins Glen. I was too cheap to spend the $2 in 1973. If you look closely at the inside cover of my toolbox you will see decals from both the ’73 and ’74 Formula One races. Photo by HTF Motorsports

Watkins Glen Makes Lasting Impression

In the early fall 1973, fraternity brother Bruce Libby from Hampden, Massachusetts asked me if I would be interested in driving to Watkins Glen in early October to watch the US Grand Prix Formula One race. I said sure why not I had never experienced that before and never had been that far west.

We agreed to split expenses and loaded our camping stuff into his 1964 Falcon nicknamed “Flash” which some of you may recognize from an earlier episode.

In those days you could freely wander the paddock. I have slides of Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx, and the UOP Shadow Formula One car.For a few dollars you could go into the Formula One garage and take pictures and actually talk to mechanics, drivers, and media.

With my Instamatic in hand I took a couple rolls of film and was able to get some shots of Mark Donohue’s F1 car in 1974 along with the UOP Shadow Can Am cars.

Man I was hooked! After dragging my wife there in October 1977 for the rainy cold US Grand Prix I have never had the opportunity to return to the Glen. Maybe someday.

I tell you all this to let you know that the gray Craftsman toolbox represented more to me than just a container for assorted tools. It represented a pathway into some mechanical forays that were not always so good yet helped mold me into what I am today in motorsports.

M.D. Van Steenwyk owner of Van Craft Enterprises on Gasoline Alley in Indianapolis , Indiana. Photo by HTF Motorsports

M.D. Van Steenwyk owner of Van Craft Enterprises on Gasoline Alley in Indianapolis , Indiana. He was showing my students how to use hydrogen to gas weld aluminum. Photo by HTF Motorsports

I greatly admire those people who can work magic in combination with their tools. I never have and more than likely never will be that clever.  In October 2005 on a “Gearhead Tour” I set up for my FFA members who competed in the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, we were driving Van Crafts shop on Gasoline Alley when I noticed the overhead door was open.

I am not known to be shy, so I walked into his shop and asked if he had time to give a tour to some of my FFA members. He said sure, which began a relationship which lasted until 2011 when I noticed that someone else was occupying the space at 50B Gasoline Alley. The current renters said that Van Craft had died and all his vintage race car materials had been sold.

During one of those earlier “Gearhead Tours” Mr. Van Steenwyk showed us dozens of photos of race cars he had worked on including the Carroll Shelby Cobra’s and GT 40s which won LeMans for Ford in 1966. He worked alongside another legend, Phil Remington who would go on to work for Dan Gurney at All American Racers in Santa Ana, California until he passed away in 2013.

I wondered what ever became of his scrapbooks and full-scale drawings used to build the famous Kurtis Kraft racers in the 1950’s.

It is stories like Van Craft, Phil Remington, Jim Hall of Chaparral fame, and many, many others that intrigue me. I could read about them and their skills of fabrication for hours. I like Norm Abrams star of The New Yankee Workshop in a similar fashion. I know I could not do anything near the type and quality work in wood that he can do but I am fascinated how he takes raw materials and makes it into masterpieces.

As Rush Limbaugh often says, “Talent on loan from God”. Maybe I will sprinkle some of their stories as well as locals into future episodes. Feel free to email me at thale@reagan.com if you like that idea.

Some Racing Updates and Thoughts

By now you know Fort Kent’s Austin Theriault finished 12th in the American Ethanol 200 at Iowa Speedway on Friday. The finish may seem disappointing unless one realizes that Theriault caught a bad break when he made a green flag pit stop late in the race.

All drivers dread the caution thrown as you are in the pits or just going into the pits. This stop put Austin back two laps, which he made up, eventually getting on the lead lap at the finish.

Unfortunately he is not scheduled to get in a Truck until Chicagoland Speedway September 18th. Will someone please put him in a car for the Oxford 250 and maybe an appearance at Spud Speedway as well?

My friend Kody Swanson the 2014 USAC Silver Crown Champion, did not have great luck at Iowa Speedway where he lost his right rear wheel as he came into pit lane thus putting him out of the race. I have not spoken to him yet about details. He has now won 7 of his last 14 USAC Silver crown races.

Caribou's Marcel Bosse in the HTF Motorsports #10 Senior Champ kart which he raced to second place behind race winner and Bosse's grandson Damian Theriault last Sunday at Spud Speedway while I attended Caribou High School Graduation. Thanks Marcel. Photo by HTF Motorsports

Caribou’s Marcel Bossie in the HTF Motorsports #10 Senior Champ kart which he raced to second place behind race winner and Bosse’s grandson Damian Theriault last Sunday at Spud Speedway while I attended Caribou High School Graduation. Thanks Marcel. Photo by HTF Motorsports

Finally I get to make my 2015 racing debut in the #10 Aroostook Limousines/Stag Brands Alpha Vegetable Senior Champ kart at Spud Speedway at 1:30 pm. I was given incorrect information last Sunday and stated in Episode 59 that there would be racing today (Sunday) at Spud Speedway. I do hope to see you next Sunday. Make sure you say hello!

Let’s Go Racing

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing.