Roger and the Beast

Vintage race team, man and car, take on Climb to the Clouds

Framingham 75-year-old Roger Dowd has stayed close to the Beast, a 1951 Jaguar XK120 Special he’ll be driving up Mount Washington today. Framingham 75-year-old Roger Dowd has stayed close to the Beast, a 1951 Jaguar XK120 Special he’ll be driving up Mount Washington today. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Brion O’Connor
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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It might be easy to think of Roger Dowd, a 75-year-old lawyer and sports car buff from Framingham, as a vintage racer. But the real vintage racer is Dowd’s prized sports car, a 1951 Jaguar XK120 Special known far and wide simply as the Beast.

Dowd and his dark-green Beast will be competing today in the Climb to the Clouds race on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. The legendary event, which returns after a 10-year hiatus, will feature a field of 75 competitors in nine classes.

A handful of those are hoping to eclipse not only the official record of 6 minutes, 41.99 seconds, but also an unofficial mark, 6 minutes, 20.47 seconds, set last fall.

But to many sports car buffs, it’s the dozen or so race cars in the event’s vintage category, limited to vehicles built before 1961, that form the real attraction.

“Just remember, it’s not about the drivers, it’s about the cars,’’ said Dowd, a native of Weston. “I think all the drivers will tell you that.’’

The vintage category includes a number of former Climb to the Cloud victors, such as a 1934 Reuter Special nicknamed the Old Gray Mare, and a 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Zagato.

Add the Beast, which Sherwood Johnston piloted up Mount Washington’s 7.6- mile Auto Road in a record-breaking run of 10 minutes, 47.6 seconds in 1953, to the list.

Johnston, who was originally from Winchester, bought the Jaguar right off the assembly line in 1950, and promptly began modifying it for racing, said Dowd.

“There were a bunch of Jaguar Specials running in those days,’’ said Dowd. “But the Beast was built with the specific purpose of running the Mount Washington hill climb.’’

It was modified by Lindy Hansen of Hansen-McPhee Engineering in Lexington. Hansen’s team produced the first Jaguar featuring a three-carburetor manifold and custom Mickey Thompson cams. “They put together a car that produced about 265 horsepower and only weighed about 1,890 pounds,’’ said Dowd. “It was a very potent car.’’

Asked whether the Jaguar’s impressive power-to-weight ratio led to its nickname, Dowd replied: “Yes, it is, because it’s a beast to drive.’’

Dowd was only 15 when he watched Johnston race the Jaguar at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1951. The following year, Dowd was competing behind the wheel as well.

Racing, he says, is in his blood. “I started out when I was 16, in 1952,’’ Dowd said. “I drove my first race in Thompson, Connecticut, in an MG TD.’’

In those early days, Dowd encountered a world of car racing that was equal parts adrenaline, pluck, and pure guts. “It was a much different sport in those days,’’ he said. “It was much more dangerous.

“We used a two-point seatbelt, we drove in T-shirts and chinos and loafers or work boots,’’ said Dowd. “There was no flameproof coveralls, no five- or six-point seatbelts, no roll cages. The Beast didn’t even have a roll bar until 1958, the first year I got it.

“Just as an example, in 1955, 33 guys started the Indianapolis 500. And out of those 33 guys, 18 of them died in racing accidents over the years. So it was completely different. Thank God it’s not like that anymore.’’

The venues were different as well, with many races held on public thoroughfares.

“I tell people who ask about those days, just drive down the road — any road — and take a look and try to figure out in a one-mile stretch how many things you can run into that will kill you if you hit them at high speed,’’ he said. “Mailboxes, telephone poles, stone walls, light posts, trees, there’s about 200 per mile, I figure. And in those days, that’s what we ran on, public roads.’’

Johnston soon replaced the Beast with another Jaguar, and Dowd graduated from his MG TD to a Bandini 1500. But after he wrecked the Bandini, Dowd got an offer from Hansen that he couldn’t refuse.

“I was up there one day and Lindy says ‘I’ve got a car for you.’ And I told Lindy, ‘I’ve got no money,’ ’’ said Dowd.

“So we go around back and there’s the Beast, covered in snow. I said ‘That’s Sherwood’s car.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I got it back. I want to sell it, but I’ll only sell it to someone who will race it.’ I said ‘You know damn well I’ll race it if I get it.’ So I bought the car, and Lindy says, ‘Just pay me when you can.’ ’’

Dowd kept his word, on both counts. He repaid Hansen, and he raced the Beast, from 1958 to 1964. The next year, he married his wife, Lisa, and started a family. The Beast, and the sport of car racing, were simply too risky for a young husband and new father.

“I just parked the car, and it just sat and sat and sat,’’ Dowd said. “I kept saying I’ve got to do something with that car. But I knew I had something special, and I didn’t get rid of it.’’

Then vintage racing came along, so he decided in the late 1980s that he’d restore the Beast. (Dowd continues to race modern-day Mazda Miatas in Sports Car Club of America and Eastern Motor Racing Association events.)

“It was in disrepair by that time, pretty well worn out. I figured it would take me about six months. It took me two years, or more, but we finally got it all put together.’’

Dowd started racing “the revived Beast,’’ with its trademark No. 106, in the early 1990s, and its reputation flourished.

“It’s like having a national monument in your backyard,’’ Dowd said, laughing.

Likewise, the Climb to the Clouds race at Mount Washington is coming out of its 10-year hibernation, in conjunction with the Auto Road’s summerlong 150th anniversary celebration. Dowd, who has raced the Beast to the summit more than a half-dozen times, said he was thrilled with the news that this classic rally event — first run in 1904 — was returning.

“Mount Washington is a real throwback to the old days,’’ he said. “There’s no guardrails. The road is more paved now than when we ran it, but not completely. And there is very little to help you out if you get in trouble there. It can be a pretty severe drop in a couple of places. So we treat it with a great deal of respect.’’

However, Dowd added that he’s returning to Mount Washington with a heavy heart.

“It’s a little bittersweet,’’ he said. “My wife died in April. She always went to all the events with me. Mount Washington, I have to admit, always spooked her a little bit. So it will be a little bit strange going up there without her.’’

But the venue itself, said Dowd, has always been a terrific challenge. The Auto Road, which first opened in 1861, features more than 70 corners as it rises more than 4,600 feet to the mountain’s 6,288-foot summit, for an average grade of almost 12 percent. But the twists and turns and steepness are only half the story. Mother Nature typically has a say as well.

“The weather is so unpredictable,’’ said Dowd. “I can remember one day when I went off flying and it was 80 degrees and sunny at the bottom, and by the time I got to the top, it was 29 degrees and freezing rain with 70 mile-an-hour winds.’’

Dowd’s best time up Mount Washington aboard the Beast? A sizzling 8 minutes, 27 seconds. Somewhere, Sherwood Johnston and Lindy Hansen are smiling.

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