Augie Pabst, Behind the Wheel
By Robert Birmingham
Dalton Watson Fine Books, March 2016
280mm by 230mm
Hardbound with dust jacket
500 color and B&W photos
$79.00 USD, plus shipping
$99 signed by Pabst
Book Review by Pete Vack
Robert Birmingham’s book begins very softly, gently leading us into the life of Augie Pabst. A very brief look at his childhood and education; sparse race reports, a photo or two of Pabst Motors in 1956, racing an AC Bristol, and an affair with a Ferrari (sn 0612).
Then August Uihlein (the Uihlein family was behind the Schlitz beer company; his father was Pabst, his mother a Uinlein heir) Pabst himself begins to add to the text, commenting and recalling events, people and places that bring depth and color to what might otherwise be merely a blow by blow narrative of a lot of race car events. Birmingham also gathers the comments of friends and race drivers such as Bill Wuestfhoff and Harry Heuer.
The book quickly blossoms into one of the most satisfying racing biographies this reviewer has ever read. It is a remarkable compilation of newspaper and magazine reports, first-hand accounts, outstanding photography from the Pabst collection (and others) and the seemingly enthusiastic help of Pabst himself.
In addition Tom Schultz was instrumental with editing, proofreading, and providing additional photos and material. The large, high quality Dalton Watson format allows the best presentation of the 500 photos which fully cover Pabst’s racing career. The narrative and images don’t stop when Pabst retired from racing in 1966; the book tracks his later career as a vintage race driver and collector, as well as a comeback as a race driver in the less stressful Sports 2000 series in the mid-1980s.
Also from the Pabst scrapbook are the dozens of newspaper and magazine clippings which are reproduced in a sharp, easily readable size and add depth to the biography. Almost buried in the clippings are two hilarious and telling chronicles by Augie’s then-wife Marcia who traveled with him to the Bahamas and Le Mans. They are behind-the-scenes commentaries which highlighted how difficult it was to travel, the hurdles they faced and the camaraderie that was prevalent among the race drivers and team members.
Birmingham is well placed to have created this particular book. He worked for Pabst Motors for ten years, raced himself, and witnessed a great many Pabst victories. He later retired as a Vice President of Firstar Bank.
The book almost didn’t happen. Initially, Birmingham, Augie’s wife Joan and son August III (who today runs Pabst Racing) kept the book a secret from Pabst, who they feared might put a stop to the entire effort. Writes Birmingham, “…once on board his vast recollection of people, cars and events were invaluable.”
The author brings us Augie in almost full measure but note the title; Augie Pabst Behind the Wheel. While the racing efforts are related in detail, little is mentioned of his personal life or business life; just enough to provide a background. Born in 1933, Pabst was the grandson of Frederick Pabst, son of the Great Lakes steamship captain who started putting the family name on beer in 1889. After the early death of his father, Augie was raised by his grandparents.
Although Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sales reached a peak of 15.6 million barrels in 1978, not generally known was the fact that in the mid-1950s the company was going through some tough times. The Pabst family had lost control and financial problems nearly ruined the business. This lack of direct family involvement in the business allowed Augie to go into the imported car business (at a very opportune time) and racing naturally followed.
In a very short career, Pabst won 24 features, fifteen in major events and had significant placings at Sebring and Le Mans. He drove sports cars, formula cars, vintage cars, and even stock cars and was perhaps one of the most underrated drivers of the era.
It wasn’t until 1966, after several serious accidents and a couple miserable seasons that Augie considered retiring from racing. At the same time Jim Windham, who was now making Pabst profitable again, offered Augie a position at the Pabst Brewery. The conditions were tough; Windham told Augie he’d have to not only quit racing but sell his dealership. Pabst did both. “I wasn’t going to waste my time on him and let him get broke-up again,” said Windham.
But it had been wild ten years Behind the Wheel.
Read More: Augie Pabst Connections