In order to get involved in the sport of road racing you have to get past certain things, like parental admonishments about not playing in the streets, or not standing up in the back of moving vehicles. While those seem like fine cautions, playing in the streets is essentially the definition of road racing, while standing up in the back of a moving vehicle is how one reports on it. Besides, most of what parents admonished us not to do is exactly what they ended up doing for fun once we were sent off to bed or shipped off to camp.
This is not to suggest that the entirety of Mom and Pop’s dictates were off base. As a rule one should not play in the streets nor stand in the back of vehicles unless there are a lot of people in short pants pinning on race numbers in the vicinity – or you see bulls trampling through the streets of Pamplona, Spain. Even then, I have a sense that if running weren’t the politically connected sport that it is, it would be laughed out of every parade permit hearing in the land. In fact, if the authorities took even a passing look at the situation, or more specifically the insurance industry understood what was going on, there wouldn’t be press trucks.
Having stood in more than my fair share of press trucks over the years, I can tell you that early on in road racing these contraptions were among the most dangerous modes of conveyance yet devised. We might just as well have taken turns standing up in the back of a Radio Flyer little red wagon as drunken Uncle Vinny jerked the thing to a start. You want to avoid that unless you feel like practicing half gainers onto the cement to the point of your occipital bone.
The only feature which kept the press truck practice alive and unattended was the cargo. I have always felt that if these trucks carried any other group besides the press – even the Japanese whaling industry executives – the public would be up in arms to have the thing shut down to protect the life on board.
Besides, who, exactly, certifies that some third cousin of the race director’s wife can drive an extended flat bed in the first place while gazing into his rear view mirror as his primary guide? Much less do so while two-dozen or so unrestrained members of the fourth estate facing in the opposite direction keep screaming, “You’re going too fast. Slow down, damnit, we can’t see a thing,” or “Move, you moron! Go, go! The runners are right on our ass!”? There was more planning and execution during the fall of Saigon than there is during the best of press truck rides.
The examples of press truck near-road-kill are legend. Back in the late `70s, the New York Road Runners commandeered and reconverted an ancient garbage scow (some say the smell didn’t start until the press got in) as their press truck. The setup was engineered so that the photographers were located closest to the runners in the very back of the vehicle on the lowest level. Behind and tiered, came the print and broadcast media. This configuration was meant to give everyone a clear sight line to the action. However, more often than not the action took place on the highest tier of the truck as it passed beneath the strong bows and springy limbs of the overhanging trees in Central Park (which, given the state of city services at the time grew as untamed as most of the population).
After one too many “Whaps!” followed by long strings of guttural cursing distracted attention from the racing, the Road Runners stationed a permanent limb guard on the truck so that there would be a “Heads up!” warning sounded at the appropriate time.
Then in 1980 as Grete Waitz was flying toward the finish line and another course record in the Mini Marathon 10K, the press truck pulled off the course too soon in front of the Tavern on the Green Restaurant. No, the press wasn’t abused, but the truck managed to snare one of the guide wires holding the finish line structure in place. So here’s Grete about twenty seconds away from her win when all of a sudden the overhead clocks, scaffolding and bunting begin to collapse as the truck drags the whole structure toward Central Park West. Only the quick thinking and sure handedness of Allan Steinfeld and David Katz kept the whole rig from crashing to the ground. As it was Grete had to duck to make it across the line.
Another common difficulty is speed. Most of the time press trucks idle along at the speed of the lead runners, say 12-13 mph. But when the entourage has to go from dead stop to “off we go”, well, this is where the fun begins. Who on hand could forget the Lilac Bloomsday 12K in 1988 in Spokane, Washington? One of the gems on the road circuit, Bloomsday featured 55,000 runners including a world-class gathering in front. Ergo, a full contingent of the local and national press was on hand to witness the spectacle. The truck they used in 1988 had a drop gate in back which did a fine job of loading and unloading pianos and sleeper sofas, and sufficed in containing the press while at a constant speed or at a dead stop. It’s just that as the gun went off to begin the race, the driver slapped leather to the petal and…too much leather it seems.
The “Big Daddy” Don Garlits-like start hurled the mass of reporters backward against the drop gate, dislodging it, and pouring about a dozen or so photogs and reporters onto the pavement, tumbling lens over notebook like a bowl of flopping goldfish. Panic stricken media types toppled over one another scrambling to get to their feet, fumbling to gather their equipment while trying to avoid the oncoming horde. Again everyone (but the media) seemed to get a real kick out of the whole thing.
And it’s no bargain to be a member of the lead pack, either, when press trucks go wrong. At the 1980 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Buffalo (the boycotted games), the small bicycle wheel attached to the back of the pace pickup truck which connected to the timing clock (ancient technology) came loose as it came through the U.S.- Canada border crossing. Thus, as the huge pack made its way through the open lanes, this wheel began bouncing back toward them, causing a very nice parting not seen since the glory days of Moses and the Red Sea. A variation on this theme happened one year at the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod when one of the actual wheels on the brontosauras-sized press trailer broke off and began bounding back toward the leaders as they approached Falmouth Harbor. Think fast!
My suggestion, watch the race on TV from the media tent. (Oh, do they even televise races much anymore?)