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Book Reviews of The Last Open Road

Historical novels serve the dual purpose of entertainment and education. The public, while shunning a textbook on Civil War history like the plague, will eagerly push a John Jakes novel covering the same ground to the top of the best-seller list. Weaving fictional characters and dialogue into actual events gives the author a lot of latitude to spice up the story and, barring changes in the actual outcome, who's to say it didn't really happen that way?

Those who feel that the rich heritage of our own sport fairly cries out for similar treatment can now rest easy. Well-known vintage racer Burt Levy, whose wit and wisdom appear in equal parts regularly on the pages of Vintage Motorsport, has produced a full-length work centered around early post-war road racing in this country.

The Last Open Road transports the reader to the summer of '52, seen through the eyes of a 19-year-old garage mechanic from Passaic, New Jersey named Buddy Palumbo whose twin passions are racing cars and the boss' niece. A friendship with local scrap dealer Big Ed Baumstein, whose new XK120 he maintains, is blue-collar Buddy's entree to the world of sports cars. At Bridgehampton, Big Ed is temporarily deterred on learning that Jewish scrap merchants aren't exactly welcomed by the establishment, Jaguar or no Jaguar. Buddy, however, is hooked on racing and progresses from hanger-on to race mechanic as the eastern season moves along to Giant's Despair, Brynfan Tyddyn, Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen.

All the personalities you'd expect to find at these events are accurately depicted and the real ones - Phil Hill, Bill Spear, the Cunningham team and others - mesh nicely with the stereotypes and principals whose names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Burt Levy has captured the time and the feeling exactly in The Last Open Road and that is the book's strong suit. Anyone who ever headed out for a race weekend hunched against the pre-dawn cold in an open car, or awoke at the track to the sound of engines punishing the aftermath of the previous night's party, will instantly identify. Most of us are too young to have actually been there in 1952, but the author's word pictures make the events come alive in a manner that no closet full of race programs or back issues of Road & Track can match.

Read this book and you'll be able to drive the old course at Elkhart Lake from memory, even if you've never seen the place. You'll also know pretty much what happened there in 1952.

The Last Open Road is the funniest racing novel yet written. I suspect that Buddy Palumbo lives in all of us, at least those of us who remember what it's like to be 19. Burt Levy remembers better than most, and has the talent to bring it back for the rest of us. Rumor has it that a sequel is already in the works and I, for one, can't wait.

Woody Woodhouse, Book Reviewer
Vintage Motorsport magazine
, September 1994