The first thing to explain is what the hell is this? Yes, it’s exactly what it appears to be: A Ford Falcon at the bottom of a swimming pool. That’s the pool ladder on the left and the drain on the right. The car is completely submerged and appears undamaged. It’s night, and the image is illuminated by the pool light. There’s obviously a story here. Tracking it down was a little harder than I expected.
But just for grins, let’s start with the title. It’s my own little in-joke. You see, all the earliest Falcons came with inline 6-cylinder engines, which I happen to know from long personal experience are good boat anchors. Okay, very little joke. But, after all these decades, this also made me realize how inappropriately Ford’s first “compact” car was named. Falcon? The falcons I see are swift, sleek, soaring birds with piercing vision that can dart quickly in any direction and dive with amazing speed to nail its prey. Ford’s new Mustang–the same car with a much better body, engine, and drivetrain–was more aptly named.
Sorry. The story, you say? It starts with two black and white 8×10 photos that have been in my files for some 30 years–the two you see here. They’ve been in a folder labeled “Miscellaneous Car Photos,” and I’ve looked at them several times, but have never had an opportunity to show them, until now.
The story I was told, or at least the way I remembered it, is that this was the pool at the Mission Inn in Riverside, CA. It was during one of the first Motor Trend 500 stock car road races held at the new Riverside Raceway, and this was an evening of dinner, drinks, and typical shenanigans among the big-name drivers and owners gathered there, starting with sponsor Robert E. Petersen, and including Carroll Shelby, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney and all the other major racers of the early ’60s. So the deal was that as the evening wore on and more drinks were drunk, somebody bet somebody else that they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) drive their rent-a-car into the hotel pool. Sounded to me like a lot of stories I had heard about early Petersen parties, as well as the type of thing I could see someone like Shelby or Foyt doing. That’s what I remembered, and more recently I kicked myself for not asking someone who might have been there, such as Gurney, to corroborate it…while they were still here.
So I needed a quick and easy topic for this week’s column, and I figured this would be a perfect place to finally show these photos and tell the crazy story. If you’re not familiar with the Mission Inn, it’s a huge, historic, and fantastic edifice (visit and take a tour if you ever get the chance). I figured I’d call their P.R. department, and someone would surely remember this highly unusual high jinks.
But first I went to my files and fairly quickly found the photos. On the back of one was written in pencil: “Augie Pabst, Riverside, Mission Inn.” They were also stamped, “Neg not filed in PPC photo lab,” plus they were marked “R&C.” That means someone showed me these photos while I was at Rod & Custom, and let me copy them. But for the life of me I can’t remember who that was, why he had them, or anything else. I also have to admit that I didn’t know anything about Augie Pabst, other than he was related to the Pabst Brewing Co.
So before calling the Mission Inn, I figured I’d better do a little internet research. So much for quick and easy. First thing I Googled was “Mission Inn car in pool.” Nada. I tried other combinations and still nothing. One thing that bothered me right off was that I grew up near the Mission Inn and had been there many times. It takes up a whole city block, and the pool is right in the middle. There was only one place you could possibly drive a car in, and I wasn’t even sure if a Falcon could fit.
Next I looked up Motor Trend 500, and found that it started in 1963. Of course Dan Gurney won the first four of these stock car road races, but the list of drivers in the first race is truly amazing, from Parnelli Jones to Richard Petty. I found Augie Pabst listed somewhere as an entrant, but for some reason not listed among competing drivers in the race. So I looked up Augie Pabst, to find that he was Augie Jr., with both his father and son being successful road racing drivers, as well. Augie Jr. drove a Reventlow Scarab, Maseratis and Jaguars for Briggs Cunningham, and even one of the original Grand Sport Corvettes for Chevrolet. But nothing about a Falcon in the Mission Inn swimming pool.
Looking more closely at my photos, using a magnifier, I could tell by the park lights that the Falcon was a ’61, and that it had yellow CA plates (black plates came out in ’63). I also wondered why Pabst would be driving a Falcon rental, rather than something bigger or classier. But this led me to think that the year was ’61, not ’63 nor the Motor Trend 500.
Meanwhile I had called the Mission Inn, asking for the PR department. After a few transfers, I got someone in catering. But she suggested I try the Mission Inn Museum, and specifically someone named Nanci Larsen. Nanci didn’t know about any Falcon in the pool, either, but she knew about racing at Riverside, said she had some “contacts,” and would email me if she could learn anything. Ah, bingo!
See, the problem was that I am a hot rod/custom car historian, and know related fields like drags, Bonneville, circle track, etc. The field I know least is Grand Prix, road racing, and sporty car stuff. Nanci’s contact did, and the email that came back quoted three different references. The first, from Don Capps, stated it succinctly: “In October 1961, Augie Pabst drove a Hertz Ford Falcon into the pool of the Mark Thomas Inn at Monterey, California. It was done on a bet by Roger Penske and Walt Hansgen.”
So this finally answers when and where. The Mark Thomas–now the Hyatt Regency Monterey–is on the Del Monte golf course, and that’s where GP teams were staying during a Laguna Seca race weekend. But of course it doesn’t answer why.
Apparently this story has become “legend” among certain road racing followers, probably because it was instigated by Roger Penske (who at the time was a star driver, not yet a team owner). I doubt you know the story. Want to hear more? I know reading is passe these days, but I am primarily a story-teller (i.e., writer). Proceed at your own will.
Since this turned into much more of a research project than I planned, I found a few slightly different versions of the story. Let’s start with Roger Penske himself. This was at some banquet where he was being given a “Lifetime Achievement” award, and to start on a light note, the M.C. asked Roger to tell the story of his “famous bet” with Augie Pabst that led to the rent-a-car in the pool. Remember, he’s telling this 50 years later.
Penske: “This was at Laguna Seca in the days before the Can-Am series. It was the race for big-bore sports cars. Augie was driving for Briggs Cunningham, and he stalled at the start and got hit in the rear and never made a lap. We came back to the Mark Thomas Inn, and they were having a big party down at the pool. I said, ‘Augie, you’ve had a really bad day. I bet you $100 that you wouldn’t drive your rental car into the swimming pool.’ Peter Ryan was there and he said he’d also give Augie $100 if he did it..”
“So, sure enough, Augie stripped down to his undershorts, got in his Mustang [sic] rental car and drove right down between the diving board and into the pool. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen!”
“Walt Hansgen [Pabst’s teammate] had his stuff in the trunk so he stripped down, dove in, got the keys out and opened the trunk, so his stuff floated to the surface. The moral to that story is that next year we came back to check in to our rooms and they had a tire in the pool with a sign that said ‘No Parking’!”
Now the first thing you have to realize is that $100 then was more like $1000 now. A second version in the email Nanci sent added this: “…Making it even better was Walt Hansgen realized either his camera or briefcase (depends on story) was in the trunk of the car and had to dive into the pool and open the trunk to get it! There is even a picture of this in a book, which really confirms it…”.
Quick and easy? Never. I had seen on the internet that there was a new, big, (expensive) book out on Augie Pabst. Plus I wanted to check any books on Roger Penske that might mention this incident–or even have photos. So it was time to jump in my hot rod and head over to AutoBooks in Burbank, something I love to do regularly anyway. Books on Penske or Laguna Seca yielded nothing. But there were three copies of Augie Pabst: Behind the Wheel by Robert Birmingham on the shelf and Bingo! again. Page 147 was devoted to three large photos, one being the same rear view of the Falcon I have, the second being a different front view, and the best being a half-page image of a No Parking sign on a pole attached to a flat board floating in the middle of the pool. All are credited to “Pabst collection,” so we don’t know who took them.
The third caption says, “The Mark Thomas…displayed a sense of humor by posting their pool as a no parking zone following the infamous stunt….” It doesn’t say whether this was the following year or shortly afterward. But apparently the hotel figured the publicity generated by the incident outweighed any damage done.
The book devotes two pages of text to the story, as told by various sources (starting with Penske, Pabst, and Hansgen) in varying forms. In fact, the author claims Pabst “closed the windows and all the vents,” so the car floated, and “Augie stepped off the window sill onto the pool deck without getting the least bit wet.” That sounds impossible to me, especially considering he’d have to roll down the window to get out. Duh. The book also goes on to say they left the Falcon at the bottom of the pool for two weeks. Why? That doesn’t make sense. But it doesn’t say anything about how they got it out and what became of it, which is what I’d like to know. Yet it does give several other “facts” about the stunt, such as Hertz refusing to rent Pabst any more cars. Tina at AutoBooks graciously photocopied the pages for me. But if you’d like to get the whole book–or any other car-related books or magazines–they’d be glad to mail-order through their website.
Of course there’s more. In another quote I found on the internet Brock Yates claims that Pabst’s “reviews were so good that he repeated the act at a Howard Johnson’s outside of Denver.” This, I would say, enters the realm where legend merges with apocrypha, as it so often does. But this is what makes for great stories–especially when there are photos as actual evidence. And now I finally know the story behind mine. If you read this far, I hope you enjoyed it.