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Adventure In Old Aspen

These days there is traffic everywhere in America, even in freewheeling Aspen. Our tree-lined Main Street is full of patrol cars and flashing lights and speed traps; you do not need to drive more than 25 miles per hour to get pulled over. And yes, officially, we agree: safety good, speed bad. But for high-spirited car aficionados, it is harder and harder to get that driving buzz, especially on a beautiful summer day, when you want to crank up the tunes and put the pedal to the metal. “A Need for Speed” was originally published in summer 2005. Carolyn Hines looked at how the racing scene had moved to the private Aspen Motorsports Park in Woody Creek, and, in this excerpt, looks back to the good old times when cars used to tear down Main Street in amateur races, an idea that just floors us today.

John Johantgen in his Jaguar XK120

Johantgen is in it to win it. 

The stretch before the first turn in front of Hotel Jerome

Excerpted from Summer 2005. At first, it seems unlikely: Aspen and car racing—what’s the connection? “It’s the speed, the competition,” said Andy Antipas, who raced Formula Fords. “It’s physically demanding, like ski racing.” Aspen’s interest in design also contributes. “If you find a fine bicycle or watch attractive, a fine race car has that same attraction,” he explained.

In fact, while there is the private Aspen Motorsports Park, our town’s love affair with auto racing goes back to the days when Highway 82 was the only pavement. For some golden years in the 1950s, Aspen was home to real, rip-roaring road races. And Main Street, believe it or not, was a notorious two-lane straightaway, wide open and race ready. Drivers came from all around the West to lay some rubber down on this prime pavement. Think about that next time you are stuck in traffic.

The late Robert “Bugsy” Barnard, a doctor and former mayor of Aspen from 1966 to 1970, was the mastermind. Mad about sports cars, he envisioned turning the town into a racing capital, a Monte Carlo in the mountains. As usual, part of the challenge was getting approvals. Organizers pleaded to city fathers, explaining “sports-car competitions are fully as sporting as ski races and have the advantage of greater appeal to spectators,” according to The Aspen Times.

Also as usual in Aspen, not everyone agreed. In the days before the first competition, The Aspen Times reported complaints about “using city streets for a practice racetrack… The worst part is that the driver doing the practice chooses the period from midnight to 1:30 in the morning.” The superintendent of schools objected to the newspaper, too, complaining that they “find it difficult to secure much enthusiasm from our youngsters in abiding with the laws of the community concerning safe driving when they see such flagrant disregard for such laws being glorified by their elders.”

But despite all objections, on the third weekend of September 1951, Aspen’s first race day arrived. The cars stood at the ready in front of Hotel Jerome. The drivers lined up on the north side, and then at the gunshot they sprinted across the street to jump in and start their engines. This Le Mans-style start was a spectators delight.

“It was really hairy, there was a lot of sliding around,” said Neil Keyzers. His uncle, John Johantgen, won the 1951 contest in his Jaguar XK120, which was barely 3 months old at the time. “The cars were more power than suspension, and they were rear-end happy. They did a lot of four-wheel power drifts, which is not something you see today.”

The Aspen Times advised residents to “tie up their dogs” and invited them to use garden hoses to keep the dust down. Some used the opportunity to spray the drivers themselves, but still, there was more dust than glory. Rick Jones, a local tax attorney and grandson of former Aspen Highlands owner and founder Whip Jones, remembered his grandfather talking about “having to look up at the trees to navigate because it was so dusty you couldn’t see what was ahead.”

A fleet of MGs battled with Johantgen for the lead, but innkeeper Otis Gaylord showed the true anything-goes Aspen spirit. He drove a 1950 Willys Jeepster, spun out five times, and finished in fourth place. The drivers of sophisticated imports did not seem to mind competition against a utility vehicle, but the elite racing magazine Road & Track frowned. While it applauded the “hardy, enthusiastic group of Coloradans,” it warned against “the precariousness of racing on dirt roads in cars which are built to run on asphalt… and the carrying of women passengers,” a reference to the antics of “decorative ballast” Alice Bartreau, who leaned out of an MG to hold up a loose fender. Women participants? Shocking! But then Aspen always was a little ahead of its time.

With the success of 1951, the races grew each year until 1955 when then Colorado Governor Edwin C. Johnson banned racing on any public road. Some 3,000 spectators watched 26 cars race in 1952, and the “leaders hit 100 miles per hour on the straight away,” according to The Aspen Times. This could be journalistic exaggeration, but it had to have been a thrill for a town that still had as many horses as cars.