The Great American Racer

A story about a 1941 Mercury that almost took the checkered flag.
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Upon its arrival at Bauman’s Auto Wrecking, the Merc was pretty clean and in original condition. For about a month or so, it was driven by its next-up owner, Ronnie Bauman. Then it was retired to a storage lot where it spent the following 13 years out of sight, out of mind, but not completely out of doors. It was parked beneath an open-air lean-to with a leaky tin roof.

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Eventually, one evening in the early part of 1983, Ronnie turned a page of Old Cars Weekly and came upon a promotional ad for a brand-new timed rally competition: the “Great American Race.” Sponsored by Interstate Batteries and sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) for pre-World War II motor vehicles, the event would begin at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., and end at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sure enough, big prize money attracted serious competitors. While other entrants were purchasing cars and, in some cases, crew members, Ronnie knew he already had two of the three main ingredients. He had the makings of the right car, and he had a friend in Dieter Lange. Dieter is a real-deal mechanic. His son, Larry, runs the body shop at Lange’s Auto Repair, the family business. With the exception of interior trim, the Merc’s restoration took place there. As a front-burner team effort, the job was completed in only three months.

The 1941 Mercury as it arrived at the wrecking yard in 1970, and as pictured in early ’83. The car was cherry, but not exactly Great American Race-ready. Here it’s about to be scattered for restoration.

The 1941 Mercury as it arrived at the wrecking yard in 1970, and as pictured in early ’83. The car was cherry, but not exactly Great American Race-ready. Here it’s about to be scattered for restoration.

In timed rally competitions such as the Great American Race, precision teamwork is required, but the most invaluable player is hands-down the navigator. In possession of both driving and mechanical abilities, the Bauman ’n’ Lange rally team had those bases covered, but for their very first rally, new tricks were needed. A telephone call to the SCCA led the team to Ty Holmquist, a very successful navigator who eagerly became involved. The initial idea was to learn navigation. The drivers were indeed catching on, but along the way, trainer and trainees became the core of the team.

For the long road ahead, the old Merc’s trunk was loaded with luggage. In the passenger compartment rode mechanic/driver Dieter Lange, navigator Ty Holmquist and backseat drivers/navigators Ronnie and Barbie Bauman. On the outside, the crew numbered higher as assistance was received from other friends and family during the course of the competition.

While Dieter Lange was tending to mechanicals, Larry Lange and yours truly were tending to cosmetics. Here, fresh lacquer primer is being applied over bare steel.

While Dieter Lange was tending to mechanicals, Larry Lange and yours truly were tending to cosmetics. Here, fresh lacquer primer is being applied over bare steel.

If you’ve been there, you know. If you haven’t, you can still imagine: “experience of a lifetime” doesn’t adequately describe the Great American Race. The team (Merc included) performed very well, and they’d have likely won first place were it not for one police officer at the final off ramp in Indianapolis. There in a construction zone, that officer stopped traffic, costing precious seconds that we believe would’ve made the difference. The Merc ‘n’ crew took second place, which was still a great victory.

By the way, Ronnie Bauman — he’s my dad.

New topcoats are catalyzed acrylic enamel, cut and buffed to resemble nitrocellulose lacquer. This’ll last. In fact, it already has.

New topcoats are catalyzed acrylic enamel, cut and buffed to resemble nitrocellulose lacquer. This’ll last. In fact, it already has.

Ronnie Bauman and Dieter Lange. Here, the freshly refinished Merc is lacking a few bits of brightwork. This would be an early test-drive.

Ronnie Bauman and Dieter Lange. Here, the freshly refinished Merc is lacking a few bits of brightwork. This would be an early test-drive.

Late in the race, it’s apparent that the rear spring is sagging. Extended crew members sourced another. It was swapped in overnight.

Late in the race, it’s apparent that the rear spring is sagging. Extended crew members sourced another. It was swapped in overnight.

The Lange-rebuilt 239-cid flathead V-8 runs amazingly smooth, and quiet.

The Lange-rebuilt 239-cid flathead V-8 runs amazingly smooth, and quiet.

Event signs and adhesive-backed numbers have long since been deleted, but here on the package tray remain two souvenirs.

Event signs and adhesive-backed numbers have long since been deleted, but here on the package tray remain two souvenirs.

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