LHRR pace car perusings with `Talladega Nights’

LITCHfIELD – You never know what the Litchfield Hills Road Race has in store for you.  A sit-down with LHRR co-founder Joe Concannon in his home. The Open Bud Open. Death – defying runs in the press truck. The Saturday cemetery celebration for those who seemingly gave their life for the LHRR. Bloody Marys in the Village. Big heads, long days and nights. Old friends, new friends. The Hawk’s headdress.

The list is endless, the old, new and surprising. Been through a lot of it. This time around it was time to tangle with the Pace Truck.

I was plucked or picked or offered the chance to ride in the nerve center of the LHRR (well, next to the Village Restaurant) by the head pilot of pace Rick `Talladega Nights’ Neller. Normally WZBG’s Jeff Zeiner occupies the seat of honor while broadcasting the race but he was on assignment, tired or on break after almost three decades so I was offered the spot to do nothing.

Since they retired the press truck two years ago when the occupants were down to the Register Citizen’s Peter Wallace and me, I have been lost for those 35 minutes from the start of the race to the first finisher. After years of leading all runners and winning the race since we always finished first I wasn’t used to the down time. Hanging out at the finish line wondering where the heck Linda and Loveletters are or how the heck Dave Driscoll looks pretty much the same as he did in 1n 1977 was losing steam.

So the Pace Car seemed like a worthy endeavor. Here’s the thing with `Talladega Nights’. He never told me there was a dress code. He was wearing a purple polo shirt with a military unit label along with some nifty camouflage shorts. Kind of like a cross between the Crocodile Hunter the late Steve Irwin and George Patton. Who knew? I looked like I was ready to torture the golf course with brown shorts and a blue and white golf shirt.

Understand the Pace Car is serious business. The idea is to stay ahead of the runners and not be passed out like a horse running with Secretariat. Don’t run anybody over either. Rick Neller takes all of this with the seriousness it demands. It was kind of like riding with a combination of Captain Kirk and the King of England.

He had me paged when I was 20 feet away talking to my wife. Did I say serious business.

Neller had his walkie-talkies so he could communicate with the lead car and offer up a lot of fancy lingo – ‘copy that,’ `10-4 good buddy’ and `over and out.’  Meanwhile his better half Kristen was in the back seat checking on the race leaders and telling him when to speed up, shut up or slow down.

Meanwhile there was always a necessary vigilance for a course that runs through bucolic White Memorial, circles back to run into runners coming right at you and occasional incoherent drivers who haven’t figured out the whole race thing.

“I call it 32 minutes of white knuckle driving,” Neller said.

Neller is the man for this job, he has been doing it for two plus decades. He started off droving a photo van for those who couldn’t fit into the press truck. He then moved up in rank, offering to do the pace car because of his brother Bill, co-founder of the LHRR.

“The first night they laid out the course I drove the pace car,” Neller noted.

During his illustrious tour of duty he has had cars trying to turn on to the course and one year the Litchfield Fire Co. set up a shower lane for the runners in the lane he had to drive in. Having bathed already and riding in an open top car did not make a shower lane a viable option.

You know you are in good hands with Neller. He’s the All-State of Pace Car divers.

All the while Neller is diligent in his duties to stay far enough ahead of the runners and keep the wayward drivers from becoming part of the story he also has official LHRR duties of acknowledging the crowd. A Hall of Fame waver, acknowledges at least half of the crowd with a courtly wave and jocular hey buddy. All the while his foot securely fastened to the gas pedal.  It’s kind of like riding with Mick Jagger.

While the press box careened around the course in devilish fashion and we crashed into one another with regularity, the Pace Car is a more docile animal. Neller gently feathers the Ford around the course kicking in the turbo-charger to the tune of 9-13 MPH.  The headers are not opened up and the fuel injection is off.

Meanwhile there is a big difference between bouncing around the back of a pick-up as opposed to riding in bucket seats. To watch the race you have to turn around on your knees view the proceedings. It took me half the race to get my body turned around. I pulled a glute and my back objected. I also lost my hat which I ended up sitting on.

The Pace Car also took us through the final mile starting with Gallows Lane which the press truck never did (we needed to beat the runners by a margin so we cut off to get to the finish line). Saw a lot of front yard cotillions with tea and crumpets and got to ride the final stretch past the well-endowed village green and the golden tones of Brent `Hawk’ Hawkins to the final finish.

We won again, but this was a different ride.  `Talladega’ got us home safely and promised a bigger vehicle year. He was looking for a Cadillac or maybe even a Duck Boat but he was on it.

Just another slice of the LHRR. Till next year……

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