Book Review: Runways & Racers

After a while you start to be able to predict how most motorsport books operate before you open the cover. There will be lovely vintage photography, there may be an insightful comment or two. So many authors are content to just offer a few dozen photographic spreads of “the greats” wrestling their machine through a corner, write a snappy caption, and call it a day.

Terry O’Neil is not one of those authors.

His Runways & Racers: Sports Car Races held on Military Airfields in America 1952-1954 is among the rarer breed of automotive books. One that manages to bridge the divide between heavily-researched almanac of statistics and Eye-candy filled coffee table book. The title alone hints at the level of specificity that awaits. But O’Neil’s writing here is so much more immediate and immersive than you might expect from a historical analysis.

This era of motorsport in America is fascinating. After a few high-profile accidents doomed city-street road racing, the entire sport could well have dried up if not for the fledgling SCCA’s arrangement with the Strategic Air Command. Without this bridge, we might never have seen the wellspring of road racing tracks that would ultimately become the sport’s home. It is a vitally important phase of road racing’s American history, and to see it so lovingly—and comprehensively—presented feels right.

In reading the book, I actually consider Terry O’Neil a bit of a kindred spirit. His writing style in describing the events feels so personal and conversational that I think it not inaccurate to say that Terry O’Neil live-blogged the early 50’s SCCA/SAC road races. Let me give you an example in the form of O’Neil’s account of the main event at the March 10, 1953 running at Reeves Field, Terminal Island, California:

“The first of two feature races was for the Class F, FM, and GM, which attracted a diverse array of cars to the grid for the ten-lap race. Pre-race favourites were Ken Miles, in his potent and extremely successful MG Special, George Beavis, in his Beavis-Offenhauser Special, together with the reliable modified MGs of Drake and Bird. Lots were drawn for start positions, and found Miles well down the grid among what were to become ‘also rans,’ whereas Beavis was near the front of the grid. However, when the flag was dropped, the Offy was left at the start line due to a lock-up in the starter motor. Miles set off in his familiar style, weaving through the pack to take the lead by the time they had rounded the first turn. From that point on, the race for first place was over for everyone else. Even though he slowed for the last five laps, his lead was such that nobody was going to catch him, and his domination of Class FM racing in California was maintained.”

His description of the event goes on for four pages and reads much more like a novel than a mere list of events and results. The racing journals of the time wish they had coverage of these events so descriptive and evocative. It’s this storyteller’s voice that make me think of O’Neil blogging these events from another time and ensures that I won’t merely be flipping through it for fun photos, despite being chock full of wonderful photography and reproductions of program covers, track maps, and ephemera from the events. The results tables, which must have been exhausting to research in this era of less-than-wholly-accurate record keeping, are an unexpected and appreciated bonus.

I wholeheartedly recommend Terry O’Neil’s Runways & Racers: Sports Car Races held on Military Airfields in America 1952-1954. It’s lovingly written passages, perfectly curated photography, and well researched results tables make it a brilliant read and I find myself returning to it again and again.

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