The Race Car Driver Who Wasn’t!

Ulrich Kniep

I don’t know how it started. This obsession with motor racing. But as soon I had my driver’s license in Germany it became a dream to sit in one, strapped into a small cockpit of a rocket on wheels, helmet firmly in place, and drive madly against other crazy fools in race cars. This was years ago. Oh, sure, I watched every race, travelled miles to actually stand there on the track and in awe watch the real drivers race cars like Formula One. I subscribed to journals and magazines, talked to the real drivers, but always nagging at me was the thought that I would someday own race car. I really wanted to be a race car driver.

Fast forward to America where all dreams can be realized. Even car racing. Finally, the time had come in life to pursue my dream, and at the Bill Scott Racing School in Virginia, I learned critical driving techniques completing the requirements to compete in SCCA racing. Now I had to purchase a car to compete. Scouring every ad I found an affordable Datsun 1200 to race in the GT5 class. We drove from Maryland to the tip of Florida and back in two days during the gas shortage to purchase this baby. I was young and in a dream world when I bought that car. It was exciting and my brain was already in the winner’s circle. The car was painted bright yellow like a lemon. I came to find out there was a reason for that. The yellow color fit the car perfectly because it was in fact a “lemon.” Storing the car at my father-in-law’s house with a stand-alone garage, he agreed to help me and be the mechanic. He had years of experience with all types of vehicles.


At our first test outing at Summit Point Raceway the engine blew right off the back. How could this happen?  I was told the engine had been rebuilt recently at point of purchase. Apparently not very well. So we loaded the car back on the trailer and drove back to home base. My enthusiasm was somewhat diminished, but I was convinced this was just a little setback. My father in law and I worked to re-build the engine. This took some time since we both worked and it is a labor-intensive effort.


Then off we went to another race on a beautiful sunny day, hours away in Bridgehampton, New York. Once we arrived at this gorgeous race track, the level of enthusiasm returned immediately. The weather, the race track overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. What could possibly go wrong?  Still in a dream world, I was convinced that this was going to be a good day seeing myself years down the road as a successful race car driver. As I rolled out toward the race track the engine misfired.  I was sure once the car got up to speed, it would be fine. Many laps later around this beautiful course, we decided that there was no reason to continue. It was an even longer trip back home to Maryland. And then, my father-in-law discovered it was just a bad spark plug wire. So much for technical knowledge.


The season in full swing, we entered the first race at Summit Point. I wasn’t the last car on the grid during qualifying so that was good. I looked forward to the race with my confidence a bit higher. Now I was going to really kick some ass- no question about it. Unfortunately the other drivers had the same thought. I’m speeding straight downhill on a section of the track where there is a very sharp left-hand turn. Coming into this section at considerable speed, I had a car right next to me determined to overtake and several others close behind trying to pass. They were all very close. Too close. This was not supposed to be, cars overtaking me going downhill into a corner? Oh my God, my heart was racing and yes, I hit the brakes. My confidence was shattered. I don’t recall what my finish was in that race, but my wife and father-in-law didn’t say much after the race. I suspect they knew ahead of me that my days as a successful race car driver were probably not going to happen despite the money and time continually spent on this endeavor.


Nevertheless, I kept going with my dream full-throttle, even though there always seemed to be another problem creeping up with the car. My solution? Spend more money. As I poured more and more money into the car, a good-looking car became just as important to me. An impressive-looking car meant better speed and efficiency. Right? I was still operating in a dream-like reality. I wasn’t giving up.

In the meantime, I accumulated many parts while purchasing used race car tires. How much sense did that make? I raced for several years at different tracks, but could never quite make the “jump” or win a race. The money went and so did my confidence. There was no quick fix to a frightened race car driver who called Electro Motive in California every week to buy one more fix to a now blue race car. They knew me personally after a while and that I would buy anything which had an exotic name to it. The funny thing was I never got any faster or wiser. Not for a very long time. I wonder why.