RPW Column: The Batmobile At 40: Fans & Others Look Back At The Car That Changed It All

RPW Exclusive By: MIKE TRAVERSE / RPW – SYRACUSE, NY – Have you ever had a first impression of something that later on proved to be so totally incorrect and it made you wonder how you could have been so wrong? That’s what happened to me 40 years ago this week at the New York State Fairgrounds for the running of the Super Dirt Week events of 1980.

A good friend of mine Fred Clark, now of Austin, Texas, along with his brother Dave, my brother Patrick and myself rented a camper for that season’s SDW event. It would be be our first time camping at the track and it turned out to be some weekend. We pulled into the camping area on October 8th and got the camper set up. The first practice was just about to get underway.

We walked into the big grandstands and saw the cars lined up waiting to go out. As always, I started firing off photos with my Pentax K-1000, just shooting cars down the line. In line was this strange looking #112. I recalled that in previous SDW events that some odd looking creations, mostly from the Midwest, had shown up for the weekend and had never shown much speed. So my first impression was, “That thing looks so different that it can’t be very fast.” I took a photo of it and moved on.

Maybe if I had taken a closer look, I would have noticed how aerodynamically advanced that car was. But I was too busy taking photos to take much notice. Plus, I had zero knowledge of what makes a race car go fast, I was too wrapped up into photography to pay much attention to the mechanical aspects of racing. Even 40 years later, my knowledge of the mechanics of race cars is embarrassingly low.

Then, the 112 took to the track and I soon realized that my first impressions of the car were dreadfully incorrect. Very quickly, the 112 was turning laps in the 31 second bracket while the best that anyone else could run was in the 33’s. I still hadn’t heard the name of the driver until I heard the public address announcer say that the 112 was being driven by Gary Balough. Seeing the speed of that car along with the racing ability of Balough made me realize how the Schaefer 200 was probably going to turn out. We had been at the track for less than 1/2 an hour and barring something unexpected, the outcome of the race was already determined. It was impossible for me to think that the 112 could be beaten.

I was furious about what was going on. My friends, my brother and I went to a big expense to rent the camper and the more that I thought of the 112, the more angry I got. It already seemed like the only drama left would be who finished 2nd. I had hoped to see one of my favorites like Buzzie Reutimann or Frank Cozze grab the prestigious win. But we were already there, so I decided to make the best of the weekend. It’s never a bad thing to hang out at a race track for a few days. Now, 40 years later, I thought it would be interesting to hear what other fans who were there for that weekend thought of how the events unfolded.

“It was an amazing car to see, it looked like he was on asphalt how well he was hugging the track,” said Fred Clark. “When he made his pit stop, it was incredible to see the way he flew through the pack to the front.”

Others, like Stephen Keeler of Middletown, NY, didn’t enjoy the race a whole lot. Keeler, who along with his business, Rock Fantasy of Middletown, has sponsored races at OCFS. He had this take on the race.

“I thought the race was boring as did my Dad,” Keeler said. “It was total domination. But it was cool to see the modifications that some of the racers had made to close the gap.”

If you were a Balough fan, as Tommy Kosch of Little Falls, NJ was in 1980, you were in Heaven that weekend.

“It was my first time to Syracuse. I was 12 years old and a big Gary Balough fan. My Uncle Mick took me there. When I climbed the stairs into the grandstand, the first car that went by was Gary. I was in awe. To see That car was incredible,” said Kosch. “I was able to get Gary’s autograph that day and I still have it. He dominated that race like no one had before or since and I’m glad to have seen it.”

It seemed like a cloud of secrecy had been with the 112 prior to the weekend at Syracuse. Like myself, Steve Miller, formerly of Johnstown, NY, was kind of shocked to what he observed.

“I was there on the infield. When I first saw it on the track, I was like ‘What the hell was that?’ Not only was it fast, it was the smoothest running car I have seen, before or since,” Miller said. “Balough looked like he was on a Sunday drive to church. It looked like no real effort on his part to drive it…..almost like the car drove itself.”

As I made inquires to people to hear their thoughts about SDW 1980, many of them commented how it didn’t even look like Balough was pushing his car too hard. Racer Dale Welty was among those who observed this.

“For the actual race, I was on top of RV on the outside of turn three. When Balough would come by, he was totally gliding, completely out of the throttle and you couldn’t even hear his engine,” Welty said. “Meanwhile. everyone else was on the gas, engines screaming and he was just walking away from them.”

What if the D.I.R.T. officials had decided that some modifications were in order before the race happened? Welty had some thoughts on that as well.

“I believe even if they had made the team take the lower ply of the roof off, making it no longer an inverted airfoil, that the car had so many innovative improvements and such a good driver that it still would have dominated the race,” Welty said.

The Batmobile made a big impression on some young fans. Billy Eggers was one of those fans back in 1980.

“I was there that year, I was 13. Maynard Troyer was driving my Dad’s big block,” Eggers said. “When I was walking the pits and saw the 112, I was speechless. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.”

Andy Belmont had already been racing for a few years by 1980. He was impressed with what he saw.

“It was an awesome display of thinking outside the box,” Belmont said. “Tremendous craftmanship. Then staying out to take the lap money and coming back through the field with ease to win. It was a sight to behold.”

Longtime racing journalist John Snyder has an interesting comparison on what he saw that weekend.

“The race was telecast nationally by ESPN. I was asked to work with the announcers,” Snyder said. “It was my first television experience, but it led to more opportunities with ESPN, TNN and DIRT-TV. Video of the race really does not capture how much Balough dominated. It was as if he was driving a Supermodified against a field of Pure Stocks!”

Sometime on Friday or Saturday, (I don’t recall which day) D.I.R.T. told the other competitors that they could modify their car bodies to try to help them out against the 112’s dominate speed. Some fans were impressed with how some of the other competitors reworked their cars to get some of the ground effects advantage the 112 had.

“I was 15 years old at the time,” said Richard Lisman of Towawanda, NY. “I specifically remember Geoff Bodine and Merv Treichler making the most drastic alterations. Merv’s roof was raised and Geoff’s sides were really wide out. Definitely one of the most memorable of the Super Dirt Week’s and I’ve been to all 48 of them.”

I’m not sure how much tension there was in the pit area that weekend, but things got kind of tense in the camping area on Saturday afternoon. One of the competitors was nearby our camper and and he was finishing up the modifications to his car. We were hanging around, watching the work with a group of onlookers. A well known car owner walked by, took a look at what was going on and totally blew his top. He was screaming at the driver, “My car is a week old and it’s an expletive deleted antique already.” I thought they were going to come to blows, but cooler heads prevailed.

Sunday morning was a cloudy, gray type of day. It kind of matched my mood at that point. I had enjoyed the camping with my brother and friends. But I was not enjoying with what had been happening on the track that weekend and I was ready to head home. We went in and watched the race. The Schaefer 200 went pretty much as I thought it would. Balough walked away from the field at the start. When he made his pit stop, it took him 17 laps to march through the field from about 29th spot to retake the lead. It was really a sight to see how easily that car sliced through the field. I wouldn’t come right out and say it, but wow, it was impressive.

While being interviewed in Victory Lane by Jack Burgess, Balough was loudly booed by the crowd, myself included. Gary commented, “I’d like to thank all my fans that are up there booing.”

For myself, the best part of the on track part of the weekend was seeing two of my favorites, Buzzie and Cozze, finishing 2nd and 3rd respectively. The 60 and 44 teams had been among those who worked hard tp make the modifications and it paid off with good finishes. It took a little of the sting of the weekend for me.

As we filed out of the grandstand that day, I think many people, including myself, got to wondering what the next SDW would look like. How would the 112 affect what we would see in the future, not only at the mile, but at the short tracks? Veteran racer Gary Tomkins, a 2 time SDW runner up, was there that day and he summed it up this way.

“The performance of that car compared to the rest of the field was amazing. The car looked glued to the track! Gary drove it like he was on asphalt,” Tomkins said. “The main takeaway with that car was to make people realize how important aerodynamics were to the performance of the car, especially at Syracuse. Every car that had the body reworked became faster. It really opened the eyes of people. As far as the bodies on today’s cars, that’s the result of the builders making the bodies fit the outer edges of the rules, just like every other upper class racing series, late models, sprint cars etc. That helps the performance of the cars, even on short tracks.”

As we drove the camper home, we got to talking about the events of the weekend. We were wondering how something so radically different had been allowed to race. It was bewildering to me how that car was ever allowed to hit the track. As we read the racing papers that covered the race, we learned that a D.I.R.T. official had made a special trip to Kenny Weld’s shop to take a look at the car. The car was cleared by the official. If I recall correctly, the explanation was that the 1980 D.I.R.T. rulebook had lots of minimums, but not much about maximums. This was what Weld went to work on. He exploited as many of the loopholes as he could and the result was a car that barring something unforeseen, couldn’t be beaten at the mile in 1980. Kenny, Gary and the team had made their plan and it was executed to perfection.

My friends, my brother and I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had been witnesses to the beginning of a new era in Modified racing. Much of what we see in the appearance of the cars these days is a result of what we saw in October of 1980. Eventually as the years passed, it would become a historical race. But in a younger and more immature time, I could have cared less. After the 1980 experience, I took a more cautious approach towards Super Dirt Week. From that time on, I always checked out the qualifying results before making the trip up there for the Sunday portion of the weekend only.

As the years moved well forward, the Batmobile passed through different hands. Eventually, Chris Larsen of Halmar International and Balough planned to put the 112 back to as close to original form as possible. They assembled the restoration team and what a magnificent job they did.

The restored 112 was at the 2017 Eastern States Weekend at OCFS. Balough was also there. I had never spoken to him, but I went up to him and I said, “I’ve mellowed out over the years, but at Syracuse in 1980, I booed you and that car as loudly as anybody did that day.” Gary and I had a good laugh about that and shook hands. He’s a great person to talk to and it’s great to see how much enjoyment he seems to have at the events that the Batmobile appears at.

With the 112 in original form, the question remained. How would it compare to the Modifieds of today on a short track? It was decided that Halmar driver Stewart Friesen would be the one to give it a test run at OCFS.

In 1980, It had been originally planned for the 112 to run the Eastern States Weekend. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. For the 2019 test session, it was modified into the form that had been planned for the 1980 Eastern States 200. It was slightly different from it’s 1980 Syracuse look, but it was still unmistakably the Batmobile and I couldn’t wait to see what Friesen could do with it. Friesen took some laps with it at an open practice the week before ESW to get it ready for the hot lap session at the 200.

Just prior to the 200, Friesen hit the track with the 112. It was great to see some at speed laps with that car 39 years after it’s debut. With today’s cars, the driver’s compartment is really closed up for safety. But with the 112, it was very cool to see Friesen working the wheel through the turns. Friesen’s fast lap in the 112 was 23.2. In the 200 that followed, that was faster than the fast lap of 31 of the 44 cars that ran the race. It seemed that at 39 years old, it would be pretty competitive against the Modifieds of today.

These days, it’s a familiar sight to see Gary and the Batmobile at car shows and big races. Bob Stoll has the duties of maintaining and transporting the car and he sure enjoys what he does.

“To be able to have this car in my stable, maintain it and transport it to places to Daytona, Pensacola and to bring it to shows up and down in the Northeast is an honor,” Stoll said. “And to hang out with Gary! I have met so many people with him and one of the best things is hearing the stories, both good and bad.”

Yes, it was quite the weekend 40 years ago. I didn’t enjoy it much at the time. But as I’ve gotten older and the legend of the Batmobile continued to grow, I realize how cool it was that I got to see this car run it’s only race in it’s original form. And now, it’s a really good memory. Thank you Gary Balough, the late Kenny Weld and to all those involved with the Batmobile, both then and now. It has really been something to see.

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