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‘Poison Lil’ Is Still Looking Seductive At 82

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 14 2018

The 1936 Maserati V8RI that competed in the first post-war race at Watkins Glen had a homecoming last week. (RacinToday photos by Martha Fairris)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Auto racing historians Bill Green and Jim Scaptura welcomed a lifetime friend back to downtown Watkins Glen last week, when “Poison Lil” gently rolled off a trailer and into the International Motor Racing Research Center.

Looking resplendent and forever-racy in its red-and-black livery, this is the 1936 Maserati V8RI open-wheel/single-seater in which George B. Weaver led the first lap of the Watkins Glen Junior Prix on Oct. 2, 1948. The four-lap event run on a 6.6-mile circuit through the streets was the first post-World War II road race conducted in the United States, followed later that day by the inaugural Watkins Glen Grand Prix.

With the 70-year anniversary of that event looming, the IMRRC and Watkins Glen Grand Prix Historical Committee arranged to secure the No. 31 Maserati on-loan from the Saratoga (N.Y.) Automobile Museum through the end of October.

“This is the first time it’s been here since 1998. It should be here permanently,” said Scaptura, who was 12-years-old on that first race day.

“Only George could make it go, and when it went it went,” said Green, a wide-eyed 8-year-old on that first race day. “You’d see that little puff of smoke with that Castor oil mixed in there…smelled so nice. Jim and I got drunk on that smell right away.”

With the Maserati sitting in the middle of the center’s main floor, Green and

A large wooden steering wheel dominates the cockpit of the ’36 Maserati ‘Poison Lil’.

Scaptura resumed a conversation that began decades ago. “Telling stories,” Green said with a wink.

“You had the intermingling of that (burning oil) smell along with sausage and peppers. Friday night around Franklin Street,” Scaptura said…

“You could walk better than you could drive,” said Green, completing his buddy’s sentence.

“The things that were going on…the people that you would see…the exotic cars lined up on the street, you wouldn’t believe it,” Scaptura said. “I mean, a 540K (Mercedes), a Delahaye or a Delage…they were all there. Of course, for us after a while it became ordinary.”

“Yeah,” Green added, “but we had to wait all year for one weekend.”

Scaptura, now 82, and Green, 78, are co-chairmen of the five-member Watkins Glen Grand Prix Historical Committee that includes retired judge J.C. Argetsinger, eldest son of race-founder Cameron Argetsinger, and Kevin and Rick Hughey.

All are well-versed on the events of Oct. 2, 1948 _ “The Day They Stopped the Trains” in Watkins Glen.  This was the culmination of a dream for Cameron Argetsinger, who purchased a sports car in 1948 and thereby gained membership into the Sports Car Club of America. Envisioning a European-style road race for his summertime residence on Seneca Lake, Argetsinger laid-out a 6.6-mile circuit and presented it to the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce. Armed with the blessing of that tourist-minded group, the SCCA helped assemble a field of drivers and cars while the New York Central Railroad agreed to “stop the trains” for the race that Green described as “a happening.”

With a crowd of 10,000 reportedly looking on, Frank Griswold drove his Alfa Romeo 2900B to victory over Briggs Cunningham and his BuMerc _ the odd combination of a Buick engine/chassis with a modified Mercedes-Benz SSK body _in both races.

Among the entries was Argetsinger, a resident of Youngstown, Ohio, who discovered Watkins Glen and the Finger Lakes Region as a law student attending Cornell University in nearby Ithaca. Writing in the foreward of The Glen; 50 Years of Road Racing Excellence, Argetsinger recalled that at 1 p.m. on that first race day he sat in his red TC MG among the 23-car grid in front of the Schuyler County Court House, awaiting the drop of the green flag for the rebirth of road-racing in the United States.

“My wife was convinced that I was going to win and that it wouldn’t be fair to the other drivers and they would all go home mad,” Argetsinger is quoted in a book co-authored by Green and J.J. O’Malley.

Once the green flag fell, the spectators turned their attention to whom would be leading the opening lap at the northern end of Franklin Street. That moment was recounted by author Phillippe Defecheruh in his book Watkins Glen 1948-1952; The Definitive Illustrated History:

“First to appear back into Franklin Street was a red monoposto with the menacing black snout: Weaver’s Maserati. It crossed the start/finish line 6 minutes and 17.4

LIfetime friends Jim Scaptura, left, and Bill Green, continue to swap stories as co-chairmen of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Historical Committee.

seconds after the start, averaging an impressive 63 mph on this first historic lap. Chasing him for the lead was another Italian car, Griswold’s blue Alfa Romeo, then the first “American special,” Cunningham’s BuMerc.

“It was little wonder that the Maserati V8RI was in the lead. Not only was Weaver an experienced driver, but his car, nicknamed “Poison Lil,” was clearly the most potent entry in the race. Built in 1936 for the European Grand Prix races by the Maserati works, it was powered by a 4.8-liter supercharged V8 racing engine capable of delivering 320 hp at 5300 RPM. In a flat straight, “Poison Lil” was capable of reaching over 140 mph! Weaver’s number was chassis 4504 _ one of four such models built. It was first acquired by Weaver in 1947 to compete in road races after it failed to finish in the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup (Mauri Rose at the wheel), then the 1938, 1939 and 1940 Indy 500s.

“Griswold’s Alfa Romeo Berlinetta was also a strong contender. Built in the Milanese factory in 1938 on a 8C-35 Grand Prix racer chassis, it featured four-wheel independent suspension and was powered by a supercharged 2.9-liter straight-eight engine delivering up to 180 hp. Its top speed was over 130 mph and its handling was superb. A similar car had won the first post-war Mille Miglia in 1947. The long-hooded body, made by Italian coachbuilder Touring, was also aerodynamically efficient for the times, important in the dive down Big Bend.

“In fact, before the second lap was even over, Griswold and his Alfa Romeo was in the lead. Weaver’s Maserati, suffering from the only-too-frequent Maserati disease of unreliability, experienced brake failure and the Bostonian had to drop out. That put Cunningham and his BuMerc in the second spot, pursued by Haig Ksayian of Trenton, New Jersey, in a supercharged MG TC lent to him by the man driving the blue car just ahead. Argetsinger, driving a normally-aspirated MG, was enjoying the drive of his life in the middle of the field, just as he had intended when he came up with the whole scheme.”

Green noted that while the Junior Prix featured a 23-car field, only 15 started the Grand Prix later that day. “That’s because Charlie Adams said, after four laps driving this big Mercedes touring car, ‘I’m tired-out. I can’t do eight (laps).’^”

As noted by Defecheruh in his book, Weaver’s Maserati was Chassis No. 4504 _ the last of four designed by Ernesto Maserati and built in the factory in Modena, Italy.

“George at one time also owned No. 4501,” Green said. “These cars were designed hopefully to beat Auto Union and Mercedes and never could. Nos. 4501 and 4502 were built in 1935 and 4503 and 4504 were built in 1936. This being the last one, it became more famous in the United States because they ran it in the George Vanderbilt Cup in 1936 and 1937. This car doesn’t run because it has a scorched cylinder. But the one thing I can say about these cars _ all four exist.”

Scaptura said at one point, Barbara Weaver, George’s widow, very much wanted Chassis No. 4504 to be returned to the factory in Italy to have its 4788 cubic-centimeter engine expertly rebuilt.

“As I remember our conversation, Frank Griswold’s son, Steve, was to oversee the operation.  It never occurred,” Scaptura said. “I cannot say positively that it was Mrs. Weaver’s illness and death that prevented it. I do remember her telling me that when it was repaired only one person would be allowed to drive it, and that was Steve Griswold.”

Despite that early exit in the Junior Prix, Weaver and the Maserati rebounded to

‘Poison Lil’ will sit in the showroom at the International Motor Racing Research Center until the end of October.

win the 1949 and ’51 Seneca Cup races at Watkins Glen. “He (Scaptura) and his buddies, when we ran through town, always bet each other that George would lead the first lap of the Seneca Cup with the RI,” Green said.

Green characterized Weaver, who lived in Boston and Thompson, Conn., as a mechanic and “regular guy,” as opposed to the wealthy socialites who gravitated toward sports car racing for an afternoon’s rush. Weaver went on to compete at The Glen through the early 1960s.

“I’ll tell you a story about this car in 1955,” Green said. “Weaver always garaged it at the Atlantic gas station that’s gone now. In ’55, they were backing the car out of the bay and one of the wheels ran over his foot and broke it. They ‘teched’ the car and everything, and on the hill, your pit spots were determined by lap times. But you had a mandatory five laps you had to practice, which he did. Took the green flag for the Seneca Cup, drove up over the hill for the green flag, turned at the first corner and pulled off.”

Weaver’s explanation was the engine had lost oil pressure. “He had oil pressure but his foot hurt _ that’s what it was,” Green said. “He put up with it for the five practice laps.”

The Maserati now is owned by Weaver’s daughter, Valerie Clark, of Thompson, Conn., who like her mother, is inclined to house the car in Saratoga, approximately 215 miles from The Glen.

“They brought it down for the 50th anniversary (in 1998) and I tried to talk her (Barbara Weaver) into leaving it here on a more permanent basis in the Research Center but she was not favorable to that idea,” Scaptura said. “She came to the Festival several times and was present for George’s induction into the Walk of Fame.  His marker is on Franklin Street in front of Bleacher’s Restaurant.  There is a famous photo of George and the Maserati in the pits and what was then Paradiso’s Restaurant.”

All of which begs the question…why the nickname “Poison Lil?”

Weaver was at the 1947 Indy 500,” Scaptura said, “and Bill is quite sure that he borrowed the name from Al Gordon’s 1934 Indy car which he also called ‘Poison Lil.’ The Maserati was unreliable _ engine, brakes and all _ leading Weaver to christen his car ‘Poison Lil,’ probably remembering the name given to Gordon’s earlier Indy car.  It would be nice if there was someone around who had first-hand knowledge of how all that came about. I checked another resource but didn’t find anything. All very interesting.”

Weaver’s Maserati is expected to draw plenty of attention to the IMRRC during the Hilliard U.S. Vintage Grand Prix at The Glen, scheduled for Sept. 7-9. The weekend will feature historic SportsCar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) vehicles from nearly every era, including the Trans-Am Series.

In addition, visitors to the IMRRC will be able to check out the shared/encased car collection of lifetime buddies Green and Scaptura, just a few steps from Weaver’s Maserati.

“Bill always gets the top shelf,” Scaptura lamented, taking another shot at his pal. “He makes me put mine on the bottom.”

The International Motor Racing Research Center‘s mission is “Preserving and Sharing the History of Motorsports,” encompassing all series and racetracks worldwide. The IMRRC operates as a library, with every item in its collections available for public inspection and use, though limited to on-site.

The IMRRC adheres to professional archival standards in caring for the hundreds of thousands of items in its collections. Whether a piece of fine art or an autographed book, a press kit or a home movie, a prize-winning photograph or a ticket stub from a race last season, each item is cataloged and located in a secure, climate-controlled environment.

The staff is committed to digitizing images, and many complete collections have been scanned. A project to convert 8 mm, 16 mm and VHS film to DVD format also is underway.

To support its ongoing work, the IMRRC is conducting its annual fundraising raffle featuring a 2003 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S. This 996/430 model, sold with an original price tag topping $90,000, was donated to the Center by a collector with a significant stable of classic and historically important automobiles.

The blue two-door, all-wheel-drive Porsche is equipped with a 3.6-liter, flat 6/DOHC 24-valve 315-hp engine and six-speed manual transmission. The mileage is listed at 17,000. The car’s original upgrades include a sunroof, natural brown leather interior, rear center console, aluminum instrumentation dials and a three-spoke steering wheel along with dark wood and leather cockpit trim. The car’s listed value is $37,000.

Raffle tickets cost $60 or $100 for two. Only 3,000 tickets will be sold. The drawing will be held on Oct. 6 at the IMRRC’s “RacetoberFest” celebration in Watkins Glen. Need not be present to win; must be 18-years-old to enter. 

To learn more about the car and see photos, go to 
http://www.racingarchives.org/support-the-imrrc/annual-car-raffle
 
To purchase tickets, call the Center at 607-535-9044 or download the online entry form at http://www.racingarchives.org/assets/2018CAR_RAFFLE-1.pdf

Second prize is a set of four tickets to any 2019 SVRA event in the United States and a $500 Visa gift card ($1,000 value). Third prize is a 50-inch Samsung Flatscreen television ($600 value).

All proceeds from the raffle go to support the IMRRC, a 501c3 organization.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 14 2018
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