In honor of last weeks GP at the Hungaroring, it’s time for a buzzard tale dating back 17 years to the ‘96 Hungarian GP. On this trip I had the great pleasure to be traveling with Tommy Fogarty and John Niven while we were all in the prime of our collective buzzardly powers. Niven and I still had the bug from our post college Euro trip two years prior and it didn’t take a whole lot of wrangling to get Tommy on board. In fact I believe it was Tommy’s brilliant idea to choose Budapest over more logical choices such as the British, Belgian or Italian GP’s.
Our trip actually got started before we even made it out of county lines. Fueled with the excitement of embarking on an F1 journey, the beers started flowing as soon as we gathered at The Dutch Goose, an infamous little burger/watering hole in West Menlo Park.
After hours of merriment with the usual suspects, we managed to stumble back to the residence owned by Michele Floriani and occupied by Tommy, Michele, Tim B., Picasso the Rottweiler and a live Bobcat called Alesi. This was as ragtag a group as there ever was and it didn’t take long to get the party rolling again. At some point we made it through all the beer and switched to the lone bottle of wine that was sitting peacefully atop the refrigerator (more on this later).
I believe sometime in the middle of a dolphin dive gone awry by Chip Congdon getting down to The Greyboy All Stars or Tim B. demonstrating a friends latest creation for augmenting the magnitude of one’s manhood, we came to the realization that we were just 4 hours from departure to lovely Vienna, Austria and desperately tried to grab a quick nap.
The next three days were spent in a jet lagged, hungover daze. On the buzzard front we did manage to have a Max Papis sighting in the Delta Lounge at JFK International. And of course there was the little issue with the wine bottle back home. Somewhere at 32,000 feet over the Atlantic in the middle of a hilarious recap of our pre flight festivities, I mentioned that we drank the bottle of red on top of the fridge. Tommy suddenly broke out of his playfulness and froze. You could see the wheels spinning and panic setting in. He had the look of a man that would have jumped on the spot if the door was open and a parachute was available. As he began to regain composure he informed us that we had erroneously consumed a 1982 estate bottle of Fogarty Cabernet that was supposed to fetch top dollar at a private charity auction event the following day. Ouch! Oh and it was the last bottle in existence! I felt terrible for this gaffe but couldn’t really blame myself due to the fact that at the time of corking I was rolling with 2.5 gallons of Budweiser in my belly and had a lot of thirsty friends to look after. It took a few days but we managed to regain our bearings and set off in a hydrofoil down the scenic Danube for Budapest.
It didn’t take more than five minutes of standing on Hungarian soil to have our “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. As we have since we were children, Niven and I were engaged in a mock fight in the customs line and two machine gun wielding guards didn’t seem to approve. With guns pointed in our direction we immediately assumed the Marines position of attention and sweat out the next few minutes in line.
Once we had our official welcome stamps on our passports, we were quickly swarmed by fast talking cabbies who looked like Olympic Greco Roman wrestlers. One alpha gentleman seemed to win out for our business and stuffed us in his backseat. We gave him our directions for our lodgings and set off.
When we were in the planning stages of this trip, an old college buddy of mine, Little Ed, got wind that we were traveling to Budapest and informed us that his father, a Hungarian immigrant, was a travel agent among many other ventures. Little Ed Pomgratz Sr did all of our travel arrangements over the phone and we were flying blind with his word and an address on a piece of paper.
Within 15 minutes we pulled up to what can only be described as a Soviet era drab concrete housing project on the outskirts of town. Our cabbie assured us this was the correct address and unloaded our bags with reckless abandon. He then demanded 15,000 Forint for his services. I think we were too confused to protest and paid the man the equivalent of $70.00 for the short ride.
We were shocked to silence as we entered this multi level dreary tenement and wandered about trying to find our unit while under the watchful eyes of elderly ladies hanging laundry and kids playing at their doorsteps. On the second or third timid knock a little old granny opened the door and welcomed us, or maybe she instantly started scolding us because after a quick visual inspection she was speaking rapidly and uttering “No Pomgratz!!” over and over. Our windowless 8’x10’ room consisted of a small double bed and a cot and we were explicitly told “No Noise” after 10:00pm. It felt like a jail cell and I dropped my bags and tried to settle my 6’5” frame onto the cot fit for a jockey. As I sat gazing at the ceiling in silence, I was resigned to the fact that our trip was a complete failure!
Gratefully Tommy announced “Fuck Pomgratz! We’re out of here!” to pull me out of my funk. I’m always a gigantic chicken in situations like this and reluctantly agreed. No more than 10 minutes after we arrived, we were trouncing back through this granny’s apartment with our bags slung over our shoulders and she could still be heard ranting “No Pomgratz!” after we had closed the door and were attempting to find our way out of that institutional maze.
Once on the street we decided to take matters into our own hands and started walking single file down the side of a crowded highway at rush hour towards what looked like the city center. After 30 minutes of sucking diesel exhaust, crossing a congested freeway, negotiating some tricky train tracks, tossing the bags over a fence or two and passing through a dilapidated building, we found ourselves on some nice cobblestone in a quaint little quarter of Budapest.
It didn’t take long to realize that we were in the midst of an odd phenomenon. Every direction I looked I spotted multiple beautiful women of all varieties going about their afternoon business in rather provocative clothing. This wasn’t like Paris, Milan or San Francisco. It was more like a beer ad where three bums suddenly find themselves on a deserted island with the Swedish Bikini team. I started an inner dialogue where I tried to convince myself that I was just hallucinating from travel trauma until our point man Tommy asked, “Are you guys seeing this?” Niven and I instantly concurred and we quickly found a sidewalk cafe to sit and further examine this pleasant development.
Budapest in 1996 was still in the process of undergoing sweeping socio-economic changes with the fall of Communist rule only 7 years prior. You could immediately sense the massive shift taking place with an influx of multinational corporations moving in and the local merchants attempting to adapt at a frenetic pace. It was a new capitalist frontier where people of all nationalities were present to gain a stronghold in legitimate and illegitimate ventures. There was still a smattering of elderly folk in plain garb who had likely stared down the barrel of a Soviet tank during the Revolution of ‘56, but the vast majority of the inner city dwellers were youthful people flaunting their new found freedoms. I still remember speaking to a young slick German mortgage banker decked out in a tailored suit who gave us the lay of the land and made a point of saying that everything in the country was for sale. Right on cue a gorgeous woman was walking by and we immediately tested his theory by asking, “Everything”? He nodded and slowly repeated, E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, with a wry grin and an aire of German nobility.
Totally swept up in the wave of capitalism that the locals were experiencing, we decided to pump some money into the local economy by checking ourselves into a 5 star hotel. Just a few short hours after being homeless on the side of the highway, we were now draped in towels enjoying a nice steam and hot tub. With our trip now on track we celebrated our good fortune with a wonderful traditional meal consisting of assorted meats, cheeses, goulash, foie gras, and royal tokaji wines.
The next day (Thur) we were longing for some buzzardry so we rented a trusty Renault 19 from a guy named Lazlo and made our way 30 miles out of town to the Hungaroring listening to “The Macarena” and The Fugees, “Killing Me Softly” over and over on the local radio. I was the wheel man and as we arrived at the track gates, Tommy felt emboldened and explained to the guard that we were part of the international press corps there to retrieve our credentials. We got the reluctant wave through and while driving into the paddock we spotted an opening onto the pit lane and before I could even comprehend what was happening, I was accelerating out of the pits on the run down to turn 1 on the same piece of track that Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell used to do battle on! What an incredible feeling. We did two semi hot laps (by Renault 19 standards) and spent the rest of our afternoon observing the F1 circus transform the empty paddock into a small functional town.
Back in the Pest side of Budapest and fired up from our day at the track, we took the advice of our guide book and sought out a restaurant called the Okay Italia. The book described excellent Italian food being served by excellent looking servers so there wasn’t much of a debate. What the book didn’t tell us was the patio was a popular hangout for Russian mobsters who had set up shop in town. It really made for a fascinating meal. Our waitress was a lovely girl decked out in the equivalent of a Hooters outfit who spoke enough English to answer our onslaught of questions and the presence of the mobsters just heightened the cool factor. These guys looked like a crew of rogue mercenaries right out of a casting call for “Red Dawn”. They were so blatant with their operation that a different Mercedes would drive up every thirty minutes to make a large envelope drop and they would casually make the exchange in public. Don’t tell me these guys were there to build a children’s hospital? Like our German friend had explained, there had to be some sort of “arrangement” with the local law. My only concern was trying not to stare to the point of arousing suspicion.
When Friday morning rolled around, we were in the parking lot ready to go before the first free practice. Tommy had put some serious thought into this very moment and entered the track gates wearing an American flag Speedo (yes just the Speedo), casual collar shirt, large photography vest, shades and a bandanna over the head. It was a flat out incredible look and filled me with national pride.
Barrichello was the first car to hit the track and it sounded amazing but the dirty surface and twisty nature of the circuit didn’t really make you want to jump out of your seat. But that was fine because just 30 yards behind the grandstand was a man roasting an entire cow with the head still attached and hoards of Finnish Mika Hakkinen Buzzards draped in their national flags hovering around like crazed Vikings. These fans, numbering in the thousands, had all made the non-stop 900 mile trek in old 1970’s buses and they explained to us that they drank the entire time. Judging by the amount of beer cans that were strewn about their feet at 10:00am, they had no intention of slowing down.
Stepping onto the sidewalk for a big Friday night in Budapest, we were now completely in the groove. We had rented an old apartment from a lady at the train station for a great price on the Pest side of the river and were playing a hilarious game of phone tag with our travel agent Pomgratz back home. After leaving a brief message that his arrangements were unsuitable for our travel needs, he appeared to be tracking us as if we were endangered missing persons.
First stop was a few pitchers with our waitress and mob buddies at the Okay Italia and then we were off to The Portside. This was a little fishing boat themed pub where excellent food was served by beautiful English speaking Hungarian women who loved classic rock. In other words, the best little place on earth. After consuming enough beverages to lose all inhibitions, we even found our way into a discotheque to dance the night away in an electro sweaty haze.
On Sat am we were back at the dusty Hungaroring ready to get down to the serious business of F1 qualifying. I would never consider ‘96 to be a vintage year by any stretch because the Williams-Renault team had a massive advantage over the field. Two time World Champion Michael Schumacher was still trying to sort the Ferrari out in his first season with the Scuderia, Berger and Alesi were struggling trying to adapt to the Benetton and the McLaren’s of Hakkinen and Coulthard were just plain uncompetitive.
However due to the H-Ring’s street circuit like layout, the aero advantages of the Newey designed FW18 were somewhat negated by the slow corners. This gave Schumacher a glimmer of hope and he uncorked what had to be one of the better pole laps of his illustrious career. Not only did he beat both the FW18’s of Hill and Villeneuve by a tenth, he beat his teammate and 4th qualifier Eddie Irvine by 1.488 seconds and 5th on the grid Jean Alesi by 1.625 seconds!
Feeling celebratory, a mob of Germans turned to a crew of ten or so Austrian Berger buzzards in our grandstand and launched into song based on the old “Camptown Races” tune:
The camptown ladies sing this song
The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long,
Oh, de doo-da day.
Only they subbed in Berger’s name to create their own version that went something like Gerhard Berger blank blank blank, Doo-da, Doo-da, etc. I was impressed but when the Austrians replied with their own song I was buckled over with laughter. Facing the entire grandstand as if they were The Vienna Men’s Choir, the Austrians launched into a rousing version of:
Schumi ist ein Homosexueller
Schumi ist ein Homosexueller
The Austrians then parted with a very feminine “Auf Wiedersehen” and stumbled off while the Germans were all whistling their disapproval. It was a brilliant way to end day two at the track!
For our Saturday night we attempted to do it all. We were dancing, concert going, falling in love with the locals and even managed to talk our way into a black tie gala where every patron looked straight out of a James Bond movie. I think we may have hinted that we were co producers of Beverly Hills 90210 and flashed our California drivers licenses as proof that we were legit. One of our side games was to see who could find a Hungarian wife and I remember late in the evening telling a Victoria’s Secret model look alike with ten words of English in her vocabulary that I was the driver of the Gold Jordan F1 car. Yes, I was desperate and publicly lying that I was Rubens Barrichello!
On our way back to the track for Sunday the cars were lined up at a standstill for over an hour on the motorway. The previous two days we had zipped right into the track without hitting the brakes but on raceday it was different matter altogether. The reason being that the Germans had arrived in force! Our little Renault 19 was starting to act up and when we finally made it to our grandstand, German Schumi buzzards had overrun the security man and occupied every seat. We tried to grapple for three seats but finally caved and decided to watch the race from the branches of a tree next our grandstand.
The start was exciting because Hill dropped to fourth on the dirty side of the grid and was stuck behind Alesi as Schumacher and Villeneuve vanished into the distance. After finally getting around Alesi, Hill was driving like a man possessed and set off after Villeneuve, who had passed Schumacher in the pits. Once ahead, Villeneuve was cruising and even though he let Hill close to within .8 of a second at the flag, he was never threatened by his more senior teammate. Schumacher retired late and Alesi inherited 3rd, albeit 1:24 seconds behind the leaders. Hakkinen was 4th a full lap down!
Beat up, tired and dehydrated, we cued up to get back to town for one final evening. Just a quarter mile out of the track gates on public roads, I was accelerating with traffic when our gearbox seized and locked up the wheels. We came to a rather abrupt stop and managed to trigger a three car/one bus accident behind us. Needless to say, our friend Lazlo at the rental car place wasn’t very impressed when we arrived at his office in a cab shrugging our shoulders and explaining that his car could be found on the side of the road 29 miles up the freeway.
For our final night in town we had a quiet meal with a Mika Salo sighting and retired to bed early filled with a lifetime of memories created in just 5 amazing days. All things considered, a buzzardly weekend indeed!