The Liberty Gazette
May 5, 2009
May 5, 2009
The View From Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street Ely
Linda: Hope you caught our tales about racing legend Bob Harkey last week. We stayed past closing at the Outback Steakhouse, listening to stories of adventures in racing and flying – and rental cars. Years ago, Harkey and other Indy racers were in Phoenix for a race, and needing a rental car to get around town, he and fellow racer Richie Ginther went to one of the national rental car chains to rent a ride.
“They had all these beautiful Thunderbirds on the lot, but they wouldn’t rent us one. All they’d give us was a Falcon,” he laughs. “So there we were, sitting around at the hotel, complaining about having to drive a Falcon, when Richie says, ‘I wonder if that car will float.’ Ginther decided he’d find out. He started the car, pointed it toward the hotel swimming pool, and put it in drive. It didn’t float long. The next year we came back to Phoenix there was a ‘NO PARKING’ sign at the bottom of that pool. But that’s okay, they quit renting cars to Bobby Unser a long time ago.”
We laughed at the crazy stories of his youth, but I knew I’d want more aviation material for this column, so I asked, “How many different airplanes have you flown?” Bob responded, “Oh, I don’t know, lots. I had a T-6 ‘Texan’ (WWII advanced trainer) I flew at air shows in Tora! Tora! Tora! demonstrations.” When I said, “Oh, how fun,” Bob shook his head, “I kept getting shot down in that one.” And we all laughed more.
My dad flew airplanes long before I was born, and while I often credit the Wings Over Houston air show for getting me enthused about flying, when I was a youngster it was Bob Harkey who asked me many times to go flying with him in his Stearman, and who kept telling me I should learn to fly. I never took him up on it. But when I called him a few months ago, reconnecting after many years, I said, “Bob, I wanted to let you know I’m flying now.” His reply: “That’s great! (chuckle) What took you so long?”
Mike: Actually several race car drivers are also pilots. Bobby Allison set the stage when he discovered that by flying his own personal airplane to races he would save enough time that he could spend an extra day home with his family each week during race season. This was the start of what was known as the “NASCAR Air Force.”
These days you’ll find Bob Harkey helping other racers and working on various projects, including the ‘34 Auburn Dovetail he showed up to dinner in. He still owns a Stearman and loves doing loops and rolls but wants to sell it so he can build a Fokker DR-7 airplane with a Ranger inline-six engine and at least two more cars: a midget racer and a 1949 pick-up truck to haul it in. He gave Linda a photo of his present Stearman, saying as he handed it to her, “When you win the Powerball you can buy it.” I think she’s thinking of playing now; either that, or going down to Arcola to fly Joy Bowden’s Stearman.
Mike and Linda can be reached at Texasavi8r@aol.com.