Cars We Remember column: Growing up in the fabulous 1950s, some writing tips and my life with cars
Q: Greg, I was born in the late 1940s and am very interested in how you came to become the person you are today when it comes to cars, racing and getting cars to test drive? I have a grandchild who loves cars and would like to become a writer and test driver, too. Could you tell us about growing up and how cars influenced you and how things came about? Thanks and I enjoy your stories every week.
- Arlene S., Daytona Beach, Florida
A: Arlene, I’d be happy to oblige but first I need to emphasize cars, racing and newspapers have been my life from a very young age, and my involvement as a writer in magazines and newspapers about cars has always been an avocation, not a full-time job.
My full-time job was and always has been newspapers, where I climbed the ladder from a proof reader in 1973 to a car advertising salesman to eventually a publisher position, which I retired from in 2015. So, until syndication arrived first with Thomson News Service, I was a freelancer who worked very hard to get where I did. I was immersed in cars and racing culminating in building my own race cars, driving them and winning. Along the way, I also invented a drag racing table top dice game in 1975, which was a success and allowed me to buy my first real race car back in 1979. That “Vallco Professional Drag Racing Game” opened a lot of doors.
To try and give some tips for your grandchild, remember that knowledge is power, and that many times you make your own opportunities. From when I started in motorsports in 1974 as a writer covering the local dirt tracks in central Pennsylvania to in-person interviews for a racing business magazine called Performance Racing Industry, I used what I learned along the way and always felt confident doing interviews with the biggest names in racing. Trust me, when you interview top professionals they know in 2 minutes if you know what you are talking about, so always do your homework. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and worked public relations for numerous race tracks along my way as news release writer, marketing and public address announcer.
So, tip one is try and get published in a small daily or weekly newspaper. Next, start your own social media channel or website. It’s easier to do now than ever, but unlike small newspapers that are dwindling in number, social media sites are so overcrowded these days it’s more difficult to make your mark. I have a personal webpage at gregzyla.com, where my work for Gannett and More Content Now are featured along with much more info. When you couple the internet with your printed word, it’s an advantage.
Next, try to get published in a magazine. My magazine writing was slow to take off as I had many rejections when trying to break in with the huge Petersen Publishing Company in Los Angeles. I was even told one time to stop sending submissions by its founding editor, C.J. Baker.
I didn’t listen and submitted an article with photos on an area sprint car racing team that ended up winning the biggest sprint car race in the country called the Knoxville Nationals. Called “Mr. Beef,” it detailed a car owner who raised cattle named Bob Weikert, his car and his new driver, Doug Wolfgang. Circle Track had the inside scoop, and I received a four-page color spread and my first monetary check of any real meaning. Better yet, Circle Track then used me for regular assignments.
I was born in 1949 in a small Pennsylvania coal mining patch town called “Brady,” although it was listed officially as Ranshaw. It was right outside of Shamokin, which was a fairly active and major coal mining city from the 1920s through the 1950s. Back in its day, Shamokin had many coal barons, a beer brewery, three movie theaters, a crowded business district and many great places to eat.
As for cars, that’s pretty much all I ever thought about as a youngster. I would stand out on our porch at 247 Main St. in Brady, which was one story up over garages and watch all the cars that went by. Friday nights found all of the teens and younger adults hanging out at Burns’ Pool Hall and Café across the street from our porch. I got to see all the souped up Fords, Olds Rocket 88s and ’55 Chevys of the era while taking in the wonderful aroma of the hundreds of hamburgers with onions they would sell that night.
My grandfather Martin Sulewski owned a grocery store at 251 Main St., right next door to our house at 247 Main St. Shoppers would stop and load groceries in their cars and it gave me a chance to “help,” as I could then actually get in the cars to check out the interiors. My grandfather was a Buick man, and he had a beautiful 1948 Special in the garage that I played in all the time dreaming of the day I would be able to drive. All of these memories have been written about in my weekly columns.
I also remember the coal miners coming home from work around 4:30 p.m. every day. I especially recall a 1936 Chevy Sedan with five miners inside and I would see these miners get out of the car completely covered with coal soot, carrying empty lunch pails and looking beat.
I knew then I didn’t want to be a coal miner but never dreamed that come the year 2020, I would have test driven over 1,350 cars (a new car every week since 1994 from the manufacturer) and have written over 600 magazine articles that included a 32-year run as Contributing and then Senior Editor of Performance Racing Industry (PRI) magazine. And, it was the same Petersen’s Circle Track editor Baker who recommended me to PRI when the first issue came out in 1986 and they needed qualified, deadline savvy writers. Had I sulked and quit submitting to Circle Track, none of this would have happened.
I thank the good Lord everyday for these blessings and my friend, the late Mark D’Angelo from Alexander Pontiac-Buick-GMC in Sunbury, for arranging my very first corporate test drive in a 1994 GMC Jimmy 4x4. That’s how it happened, from someone I knew who knew the person that handled media the test drives.
Tell your grandchild to follow his or her dreams, learn to first speak properly before trying to write and expect rejections. I also feel good writers can’t be taught as writing words is similar to writing good music. Writers can surely improve, but just like an artist with their paint and canvas, writers are creators, too. I also recommend studying about good writing as there are many articles and “tips” available online.
Finally, look for opportunities to work for car related organizations, even in part-time or freelance positions. These are tough times, but many successful online “magazines” are looking for help while on YouTube there is an overabundance of car reviews and car posts.
Few, however, do weekly written car reviews.
It doesn’t matter if you’re from a little coal patch in Pennsylvania or a borough in NYC. A writer’s passion is revealed in their words and the readers feel that passion and are the beneficiaries.
Good luck and thanks for your letter.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and Gannett Co. Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.