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An Appreciation of Walter Cronkite

On Saturday, July 11th, they wheeled a flat bed truck across the start/finish line of Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.  Prior to the National Anthem, Scott Atherton, the head of the American Le Mans Series, asked for a moment of silence.  It was for an American icon, a respected, even beloved figure of not only for the members of “The Greatest Generation,” but for “Baby Boomers” and “Gen-X’ers” as well.

He was called ‘the most trusted man in America” and one single 30 second commentary on the war in Vietnam in February 1968 on “The CBS Evening News” brought a President to the realization that if he’d lost Cronkite on the legitimacy of that war, he’d lost Middle America. Lyndon Baines Johnson would not run for re-election, nor for any public office again.

Walter Cronkite was a figure who transcended generations at a time when very few people could cross over any generational lines. His was the face and voice, not only of knowledge and authority, but of wisdom as well.  For many years, in addition to his evening news duties he had hosted a show called “The 20th Century,” a fitting title for a man who had guided us through so many of the seminal moments of that century; from the D-Day landings, to the Kennedy assassination, to the first grainy vision of a man on the moon.
Why the moment of silence Lime Rock? Few people realize that Cronkite was an unrepentant car guy and racer and Lime Rock, fittingly, was his home track. In fact, he had been there, along with 6,600 other spectators at the gorgeous little track in the Berkshires’ very first event.

He was racer at a time when Steve McQueen’s admonishment in the movie “Le Mans” that racing was a “blood sport”, was even more true than it was when he uttered those words on film in 1969, some 40 years ago.  Racing in the 50’s, when Cronkite first took it up, was extremely dangerous, not just for the professionals, but for the amateurs as well.

Cronkite had begun racing when growing up in his hometown of Houston, Texas, where there were no driving restrictions at the time, which meant that he and his friends started driving and racing at an early age.  “We secretly used to sneak off and clandestinely race at an old dilapidated wood track. It was great fun,” he said in an interview done for “40Years: The Story of Volvo’s First 40 Years in America.”

After World War II, there was a great boom in interest in automobiles. And could racing be far behind?  With his success and the pressures that it brought, Cronkite took up racing once again, this time it was the legal kind, through the auspices of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).
It started off as a needed diversion for Cronkite, “something I could focus on instead for work.” But his interest in racing, especially to those who were blissfully unaware of his adolescent adventures, like his mother, took everyone by surprise.

Cronkite had said that his racing had “led to considerable awe among my non-racing friends and it led to my mother’s oft-repeated statement that ‘up to now, for thirty-six years, he never gave me cause to worry’.”  His wife wasn’t keen on the idea either; “my wife and mother of our three children took my racing with such apparent equanimity that I decided I must be drastically over insured,” he said. “It was only later, after I had quit, that she revealed she had thrown up a lot.”

As his “second career” progressed, Cronkite, despite his position and responsibilities, raced well by all accounts. Rene Dreyfus, in his autobiography written with Beverly Rae Kimes, “ My Two Lives,” testified to Cronkite’s potential. “Walter was a first-class driver, incidentally, and could very well have become a pro had he not chosen to pursue his other profession instead.”

And while Cronkite himself described his efforts as being those of a “dilettante,” he did have some notable successes.  Aside from his SCCA accomplishments, Cronkite scored a class win at the 1959 “Little Le Mans” race at Lime Rock along with co-driver John Christy in a Volvo PV444. This lead to other rides, driving cars as diverse as a number of “big” Austin Healys and even a Lotus 11 as part of the factory team.

His racing involvement was taking him farther and farther afield. He said that his racing had brought him many wonderful experiences “at Lime Rock (“…a very tight, technical, beautiful little course.”), Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton, Elkhart Lake, Daytona and Sebring, and to some wonderful friendships…” as well. But as he moved to more and more competitive racing, the drivers got better, the speeds increased, sometimes dramatically. And with all this, Cronkite started to feel the tension ratcheting up during the course of the week. “Early in the week before a race I would look in the mirror and ask ‘why in the world are you doing this?’”

“As race day approached I viewed my commitment to drive with greater and greater trepidation. Sleep became more and more difficult and I began to contemplate the possibility of a little household accident, perhaps a broken arm, that would excuse my having to drive.”

The fear Cronkite felt would build until he climbed into the cockpit of the car and head out to the starting grid. Then it would disappear.  “The engine seemed to be geared to my adrenaline pump,” he said.  Then from the drop of the flag “… to the (checker), the thrill of the chase  (as it almost always was in my case) and the split-second decisions required, consumed my being.”
In the end, the week of angst that had built to a crescendo on the starting grid was worth it. “At the finish there was an emotional high,” he said. “I am certain, over having overcome my own fears. There was great satisfaction in that.”

By the time the 1961 season came to a close, after 10 years of racing Walter Cronkite decided to hang up his goggles. Between his family responsibilities and the rigors of his then new position as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.”  He decided to turn to sailing, on the theory that it would provide more quality time with his young family.

About a year later, while sailing with the family, Cronkite’s oldest daughter turned to him and asked “Daddy, why don’t we go racing anymore?”
I think we can safely say that he probably thought to himself wryly, “well that’s the way it is.”

And that’s the way it was. Walter Cronkite, “The most trusted man in America,” car guy and racer passed away on July 17th at the age of 92.

God speed.


Ian Fredericks, August 2009

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