BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — My family has spent a lifetime in racing, starting with my father driving in the 1950s and progressing through fabricator, mechanic and crew chief to my more than 40 years writing about the sport.
And while I still love the technology associated with race cars and thoroughly check out the innovations each new season brings, I’ve come to see that personalities are the main attraction of auto racing.
Of the thousands of racers I’ve written about over the years, perhaps the most intriguing was Vermont’s Gene Munger.
A farm equipment mechanic by trade, Munger was as interesting off the track as on, where he was a superb “wet track” racer who loved to run Mike Richards’ Riverdale Farms No. 75 modified flat out and sideways from green to checkers at Devil’s Bowl Speedway.
“He went like hell when it was tacky. When it dried out, he was still sideways and would use up his share of the track and yours, too,” recalled fellow Champlain Valley Racing Ass’n competitor Ronnie Proctor with a smile.
Another Munger interest was moose hunting, which took him to Maine every fall and was “even more fun than racing,” according to Munger. And by the time moose season ended, it was time to see if the ice on Lake Champlain was firmed up.
“It was a contest every year to see who could be the first to get their pickup across the ice to a bar in New York,” recalled Munger. “A few guys lost their trucks through the ice, but if you went flat out you’d usually clear the soft spots.”
Other Munger interests included women and snowmobiles, which he raced in the summer at events where the driver got going as fast as possible and then tried to skip across a pond.
But ice was the cause of his first near-death experience, precipitated by an attempted rescue of his mother’s dog, which had fallen through the ice into Lake Champlain.
“I pushed a canoe out as far as I dared but the ice was thin,” recalled Munger. “Finally, I got into the canoe but there was no paddle to push with so I sent my sister for one. She slid it out to me on the ice but it stopped about three feet away. I put one hand on the ice and leaned over to grab the paddle, but the ice broke and in I went.
“It had been 20 degrees below zero that morning and I spent 45 minutes in the water before my dad and a bunch of guys finally got me out. They figured I was on the verge of heart shock and had about five minutes left. I went home and spent about 12 hours in the shower trying to thaw out. I had frostbite in my feet so bad that I still don’t have any feeling in my toes, so it was hard to feel the gas pedal, but otherwise I was OK.”
By spring, Munger was ready to move from the hobby stocks to the modifieds and by all measures had a successful season. It was the post-season that nearly ended his racing career.
“They’d just announced that I’d won rookie of the year, which would have been the fall of 1983,” recalled Munger. “My wife at the time was involved with a guy who ended up shooting me twice. The first shot missed my heart by a sixteenth of an inch, then the second one went through my lower back and came out my belly button. It blew a hole in me about the size of a fist and that one hurt bad.
“I got in my car and drove home, which was about a mile, and my father called the rescue squad. I laid there on the couch for an hour, sucking on ice cubes before the rescue guys in Fair Haven found a crew to come and get me.”
By the 1990s, Munger had matured as a racer and was a winner at New York’s Albany-Saratoga Speedway as well as “the Bowl.” But 1992 brought another life-threatening incident.
“I guess I’d been asking for it for a long time,” admitted Munger. “I’d always been crazy on motorcycles and never could ride just 55 mph. We’d been working on the race car and I was going down to the Wheel Inn for a beer, running about 80 on my cycle. I came over a rise, with the bike pulling a wheelie, and there stood this big old deer. My front tire went right over its back and the motorcycle and I started doing cartwheels.
“My helmet turned out to be one of those counterfeit Simpsons and when I hit the deer, the strap broke and flew off. I landed face first on the pavement and it took an inch-and-a-half-by-four-inch gash out of my head, though I didn’t know it at the time because I was pretty dazed.
“I got the bike out of the ditch about 100 feet from where I’d landed and started it up. I had a broken foot and a broken hand, but I rode it to a neighbor’s house and asked for a towel to wipe my face off.
“He told me that half the side of my head was missing and at the hospital I got 40-some stitches,” he continued. “And what a road rash I had. From my neck to my waist, I didn’t have any skin at all, because all I’d been wearing was a racing T-shirt. It took them about three hours to scrub all the gravel out and that was worse than getting shot.”
Two weeks later, Munger was back in Richards’ car and after that, the worst thing that happened to him was breaking a foot in a crash while racing at the fairgrounds in Canaan, N.H.
Munger was apparently right when he told us that racing was the safest thing he did.