Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
MAIN MAN AT PORSCHE
The year was 1990. Just as dusk was falling at Daytona, we were standing in the outer room of the Benny Kahn Media Center. Bob Wollek had won the pole for the 24-hour late that afternoon and had emerged from the press conference along with Bob Carlson, Porsche's PR representative.
Having been out on the pit road interviewing other drivers about their session, I was too late for the press conference. But luckily, or so I thought at the time, I was able to catch up with Wollek just as he and Carlson came out the door of the media center.
"Congratulations," I said to Wollek, and then asked a standard post-qualifying question. The unrelated answer, delivered with a great deal of heat by Wollek, was not exactly traditional. "I'm not going to answer your question!" he practically hollered as his brief tirade ended.
It seems the Frenchman had taken exception to one of my stories. As the always mercurial driver stormed out, I calmly suggested to him that it was nothing personal. Then I turned to Carlson to ask him what he thought might have wound up the Frenchman? I was a little surprised to see my longtime friend holding back laughter as he merely shrugged.
Carlson was like that. You could always count on him to keep things in perspective.
There are some guys who are good guys -- or good blokes as the Brits say. There are some who are "a piece of work," and then there are those, such as Carlson, who transcend into another category.
Carlson, who died after a valiant fight with cancer just before Christmas, was an unabashed fan. But he wasn't the rah-rah guy who wore all his colors on his sleeve, rather one who had an informed, intelligent opinion and was happy to share it. Either before or afterward, he would inquire about your point of view. In motor racing, where there are so many axe grinders and cut ups, he was a rare event -- an engaging conversationalist.
The subjects he and I discussed most passionately were sports car racing, motor racing in general and the Atlanta Braves. These enthusiams were maintained throughout his illness whenever we talked by phone. But he was always excited in his enthused, low-key manner about college football, the NHL, the Civil War and other military history as well.
I first met Bob when Porsche officially launched a North American branch for motorsports under the direction of Al Holbert some 24 years ago. I later discovered something quite unique about Bob. He had attended the race at the ill-fated Marchbanks Speedway in Hanford, Calif., the 1.4-mile banked oval that opened in 1960 and then abruptly turned into a white elephant.
He was a kid at the time he went to Hanford and I don't know if that's where the motor racing hook got sunk. Being close to Sears Point and Laguna Seca while growing up in San Jose, Calif. probably had a lot to do with his enthusiasm as well.
A former journalist, when Bob showed up with Porsche as the PR guy, it was obvious he was loaded for bear when it came to knowledge about the sport.
Bob underwent a trial by fire. He dealt with criticism of favortism by Porsche toward Holbert, the blunderbuss of an IndyCar built in Weissach and then Holbert's death in a private plane crash, where it was never clear why the five-time IMSA Camel GT champion came to such an untimely end.
Promoted into the upper reaches of Porsche Cars North America's operations in Reno, I eventually began to see Bob more often in the letters section of Car and Driver, passionately pointing out salient details about the performance of Porsche's street models that might have escaped a writer when comparing the cars to other makes. Here again, the enthusiasm was real and infectious, not a matter of brow beating or points tallying. Bob believed and he knew his stuff.
By a stroke of my good fortune, Bob and wife Debbie moved to Atlanta in 1998 when PCNA switched its headquarters from Nevada. They re-introduced me and my wife to college football by sharing Georgia Tech tickets and got us started on a fabulous racing board game called Formula De, named after mathematical genius Rene Descartes. Yes, Bob was good at it and thoroughly enjoyed winning -- as some professional Porsche drivers can also attest.
One of the odd things about our relationship was how often it involved unexpected tragedy. German driver Louis Krages, the amiable Le Mans and Daytona winner aboard Porsches who drove under the nomme de guerre of John Winter, committed suicide at his home in Atlanta due to financial duress and depression in 2001.
A scant two months later another tragedy occurred when Wollek was killed while training on his bike the day before the Sebring 12-hour. That same night, in a virtually empty media center, Bob reminded me of the time the volatile and unpredictable Frenchman had exploded some eleven years earlier in Daytona. We laughed and laughed, because we both had a lot of respect for Wollek and it was better than anything else at the moment.
Bob's ability to keep things in perspective through a sense of humor was always present. He told Debbie, for instance, that if necessary he preferred a grave site "with a good view." But he told his doctors, up until his final days, "I think I can beat this thing."
Bob was a reminder that nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm. He invented some classic events for automotive and racing writers, such as Rennsport I, II and III and the n'er to be forgotten drive up Pikes Peak in Cayenne Turbos. But for me, he's best remembered as a guy who broadened what is usually a narrow line between friendship and professionalism with admirable care and confidence.
That's because he believed in Porsche, in motor racing, in journalism and in himself.
Having participated regularly in his Caring Bridge web site over the past 18 months, ably maintained by Debbie, it was not surprising to see that Bob had many friends all over the world.
Yeah buddy. He believed.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.