A story about a chilhood obsession and how it culminates into a dream realized.
| Since I was a very young boy, I’ve always loved cars. Not just loved, but ate, breathed, and slept cars. I’m not talking about just any cars, though. I mean the ground-shaking American muscle that cruised the streets on those hot, summer nights in the small, southern town where I grew up.
By the age of eight or nine, I knew every make and model that would thunder by. I also knew, when I would hear a pair of them hammer down in the distance, that I would own one of those fire-breathing beauties one day. Until then, I built model cars by the dozens (mixing parts to create the most formidable hot rods imaginable) and drug my father and grandfather to every car show in the valley.
When I was 15, most of my buddies already had cars. Those kinds of cars. They would pick me up and take me cruising on Friday and Saturday nights. We would lope along the main drag, windows down, exhaust so loud the stereo could barely keep up. Every night was the same; four lanes were bumper-to-bumper for almost five miles through the middle of town. Our eyes and ears were always searching the crowd for anyone we might want to challenge. “Hey look at that one! It’s blown!”(supercharged), or, “She’s bumpin’ solid,” (has a solid-lifter camshaft for racing that has a very distinct sound). We’d pick out the really “built” engines and cars from the pretenders that only had loud mufflers, were running on seven cylinders (removed a plug wire to make it idle like an engine with a race cam), and rolling on fat tires that still had tread on them.
Two months before I was able to get my driver’s license, my grandfather put a down-payment on a 1972 Chevy Nova Super Sport for me. It was cherry, inside and out, with 350 cubic inches of trouble under the hood. I would drive back and forth in the driveway after school, revving the engine like a mad man.
As soon as I got my license, I was cruising the main drag, feeling like a god. I can still remember that wonderful smell of Armor-All and two months of wax build-up, with oldies from the 50’s and 60’s blaring from the tape deck. I’d go by every muscle car I saw and gun my engine, taunting the other guys. I ended up biting off more than I could chew, losing a street race to Mike Hunt’s white ’71 Nova, aptly named “Raunchy.” I worked every day after school at a burger joint just to scrounge enough money for gas on the weekends.
I didn’t know much about how to build or tune engines, but that didn’t stop me from beating the daylights out of that classic. One day, I was racing a friend’s Camaro. I pushed my ride too hard and blew the engine. That was that. I sold the Nova to some middle-aged guy with greasy fingernails and a grimy shirt with his name on the pocket. It was Bill, or Bob, or maybe Billy Bob. In any case, that caused a few things to take place. I bought a regular car, enrolled in the auto mechanics class at the vocational school, and got a job at the local garage. I vowed that I would never lose another car to ignorance.
In the years to come, I was unable to find another beast. I still worked in garages, but my parents sent me to college to be a respectable member of society. I spent those years trying to find that excitement: racing mountain bikes for local Schwinn shops, trying to soup-up the little four-banger cars my parents kept me in, and driving as fast as I could everywhere I went. Some of it was fun, but none of it compared to the barely controllable power of that classic American muscle, full throttle, head-pinned-to-the-seat acceleration.
On a parts delivery run, in 1992, I saw her. I whipped a U-turn and floored the work van. I pulled into the lot of a Buy-Here-Pay-Here used car dealer and jumped out. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning! It was a 1976 Chevy Monza. No big deal, right? A small 70’s car with a four-cylinder and tiny wheels and tires. NOT!! I saw the grille badge from the highway at 60 mph. This one was special. She came from the factory with a wimpy 265 cubic inch V-8. So, what? All Chevy small-block V-8’s, whether 265 c.i. or 406 c.i., are the same physical size! You can’t tell the difference, unless you can decipher the codes stamped on the block. On top of that, the tiny Monza is about 1000 pounds lighter than any Camaro or Nova. That’s free horsepower, Baby! I bought that car, then and there, for $1100.00. Pocket change, compared to what the more traditional muscle cars were selling for.
Since that day, I have put four different engines in her, customized the transmission and shifter, installed racing gauges, fuel system, rear-end, and a roll cage. I worked on it night and day, by myself, with girlfriends and best friends, off and on, for seven years. I was pushing, sometimes obsessively, to get her ready to eventually race on an actual drag strip.
I felt the car and I were ready in the spring of 1999. My biggest problem was my fear of breaking my pride and joy. I had lost relationships and endangered my marriage over this car. I bought parts with rent money. I worked into the wee hours of the night for weeks, not seeing my son for more than a few minutes a day. I had invested too much to take a chance on damaging this now perfect beast. My good friend, Larry Snyder, would berate me for this behavior, over and over again.
He and I would go for test-drives during lunches. Larry, a racing guru, forced me to mash the gas while he managed the shifting. He’d hold it in each gear way longer than I was comfortable with. I was tense, to say the least, but I trusted Larry. Some things broke: a bracket here, a belt there, but nothing major. It pointed out little bugs that needed to be changed before going to a track. Things I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Plus, I gained confidence in my car and my craftsmanship.
The day before I was moving to Trinidad, CO, 1800 miles away from my friends and helpers, I convinced Larry to go to the local drag strip and see what this car would actually do. I towed it there with a moving van, full of furniture and family belongings, I had rented for my impending journey. What can I say, I’m a die-hard car nut.
Unfortunately, as soon as we got there, the sky opened up and poured on us for over an hour. When it finally stopped raining, the announcer asked for all racers to drive their cars up and down the two-lane track in an effort to dry it out. After an hour and a half of trying, we had to call it quits. It was useless. I was so frustrated, I wanted to break something. That was my first and last chance to see what my hard work had produced for who knew how long.
We moved to small-town Colorado. It was a southern Gear head’s nightmare. Not another real hot rod in sight, the altitude robbed 20 percent of my car’s horsepower (that translates into a lot of dollars lost), and worst of all, there were no jobs paying enough to support a race car. My labor of love sat in the carport, collecting dust for over a year. I was waiting for the money to fall from the sky when I remembered something Larry had once said. He told me, “If you wait ‘til you have the money, you’ll never do it.” He was right.
While working construction with a couple of car nuts from Seattle, I formed a plan. We would take the company truck and trailer and haul my car to the track in Pueblo, close to 100 miles to the north. I would use my entire paycheck if need be. As I would find out, it would take more than that.
The track in Pueblo, PMI, was an NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) sanctioned track. They’re the big boys. In other words, they had rules and lots of them (unlike my little back-woods, southern, redneck track in North Carolina). So I spent a paycheck or two getting my car ready to pass NHRA safety inspection. In early September of the year 2000, my car and I were ready yet again.
That Sunday morning, I was up before the sun. I was double-checking the assorted tools I might need, preparing the car for the trip, and preparing myself for what I knew I had to do: push this car and my nerve to the limit. Eight years and over $15,000.00 in parts were about to be tested.
My pit crew for the day, Ken and Franco, showed up at around 7:00 a.m. with the truck and trailer. I pushed the car to the end of the driveway before starting it. I was trying not to wake the kids, if at all possible. It was cool and crisp, the sun still on the horizon as the neighborhood slept; then I turned the key. There was that immediate thunderstorm that gives my heart that irresistible feeling, like the first time you ever fell in love. I drove her up onto the trailer, strapped her down tight and we pulled out for glory.
The ride north felt like an eternity but was more like an hour and a half. We rolled up to the gate at PMI, paid the sixty bucks to get in, and found a comfortable spot in the pit area to unload. We were a little early, but that gave me time to try to ease my nerves.
As more racers arrived, I jumped into the car and pulled in line at the inspection shack. I didn’t know if weeks of pouring over the rulebook and late nights under the car had caught every item they might check. A no-go would put me back on the trailer toward Trinidad. I smiled at the inspector like an old friend as this stranger walked up and put his hands on my baby. After a split-second glance under the hood, he commented on the weather and signed my entry form. That was it?! After all of the effort of the past two weeks, I wanted him to crawl under that damned car and pull out a microscope, for crying out loud! I smiled again and hopped in my sled, like I was bored by the idea of racing. No one else had to know I was having serious doubts about my bladder control.
When I pulled back into the pits, Ken and Franco were leaning against the truck, checking out all of the incredible cars loping by. I crawled through the roll bars, thinking what did he mean? Weather? Oh, yeah, it was a perfect day. An early morning drizzle gave way to clear skies and a slight breeze. Best of all was that Drag Racer’s Aromatherapy, the smell of burning rubber and high-octane fumes coming from the first few cars in the burnout box. That smell mixed with the sounds of open headers, high compression, and huge camshafts was like a drug, an addictive drug that costs a whole lot of money. The side effects can be anything from euphoria to divorce and death.
Prior to actually racing, you get three trial runs to “dial-in” your car. Then you run elimination rounds until someone is the last man (or woman) standing. The objective of the race goes like this: You make three runs, trying to be as consistent as possible each time; from those three ¼-mile times, you factor in all possible variables (temperature, humidity, wind direction, your reaction times to the start light, etc., etc.), and come up with a dial-in time; write that time on your windshield and right side window in large numbers; then the start lights for each lane are calibrated by those times, and you must not go faster than the time you picked while still beating the other car to the finish line. Nuts, huh?
During my trial runs, my car was objecting to all sorts of things, mostly due to high altitude. It was over-heating, killing the battery, and stalling out. I was frantic. I had to get a reliable dial-in to be competitive. My times were so far apart on every run that any choice would be nothing more than a guess. The only good thing was that my reaction times were awesome. That’s the time between the green light coming on and your front tire crossing the light beam that starts your timer. It’s so important in drag racing that most races are won or lost on the starting line! Well, as long as your car holds together and no one crashes.
After using the highly scientific method of eeny-meeny-miny-moe, I picked a dial-in time of 13.95 seconds; keeping in mind that a factory stock Mustang GT of the day would be in the 16.60 to 17.00 second range at that altitude. All of the seasoned racers were playing politics and strategizing on whom they wanted to race in the first round. I said,” Screw it,” and drove right up to the first spot. I was just praying that the car would start when they called for me to pull up to the burnout box. Then the gut-wrenching wait for the tower to call for the first pair of cars. I was so nervous I couldn’t stand still. I talked to the other racers, letting them know I had never done this before, in hopes of relieving myself of any expectations.
The woman in-charge of the staging lanes spun her raised finger in the air, letting us know to start the thunder one more time. I closed my eyes and thought happy thoughts as I turned the key. Yeah, Baby! She jumped to life like she couldn’t wait to prove something to somebody. I was being directed into the box, while I hurriedly worked the strap on my helmet with one hand and maneuvered the car with the other. This is it, probably my first and last race of the day. I had to make everything count. I pulled into the burnout box, rolled through the water, and stopped as directed. When the other car lined up next to me, the attendant spun both hands in the air, index finger out. That means light ‘em up. With one foot on the brake, one hand on the wheel, one on the shifter, and my left foot on the go-pedal, I slowly pushed the gas. The car lifts the left front wheel from the torque; the rear brakes give in and let the rear tires start to spin. I watch the tach: 3000, 4000, 5000, the slicks are rolling plumes of white smoke, the engine is deafening, 6000 RPM! As I let off of the front brakes, the car shoots forward like a bull out of a rodeo gate, pinning my head to the seat.
My heart beating at least 1000 times a minute, I pull up to the staging lights. I’ve got to calm down, take control of this steam train, and get the job done. I talk myself through the checks: oil pressure o.k., temp. o.k., fan on, roll into the pre-stage beam slowly, o.k. I put her in neutral and rev the engine one long, smooth time to clean out the fuel bowls in the carb and let it settle from the burnout. I see Rick’s purple and white ’54 Ford, from Corradino’s Body Shop in Trinidad, line up and turn on his staging lights. He’s waiting on me. Head games, anyone?
I lock the shifter into manual mode and first gear, and then I slowly inch forward into the second beam of light. That triggers the yellow lights on the starting tree. They come on, one after the other, from the top down. Everything is silent. The lights seem to be in sync with my heartbeats, but in super slow motion. I could feel them, BOOM, BOOM. The next to last one comes on. With the brake pedal to the floor, I raise the engine RPM as high as I can without spinning the rear tires, almost 3000 RPM and holding. The last light comes on solid, BOOM. I release the brakes and jam the gas pedal against the floor, the engine shatters the silence in my head with as satanic roar, and I’m sucked deep into the seat from the G-force. The hot rubber on the drag slicks is stuck to the track, keeping them from spinning, but launching me like a catapult.
Rick’s car got a head start, due to his slower dial-in time. I’m on his rear bumper by mid-track. I’m passing him at a snail’s pace as we rocket past the world. I’m watching him, I’m watching the track, and I’m watching the tach, 6800 RPM! I slam the shifter forward hard. We’re side-by-side. I glance at the gauges. They’re fine. I can smell burning oil in the exhaust. That’s normal at that RPM. I check everything and reassure myself constantly. 6800! I slam the shifter again as I pull ahead. I look over my shoulder and can’t see the purple Ford anymore. I see the finish line 20 yards ahead and let off of the gas. I coast across the line a car-length in front of Rick and .04 seconds slower than my dial-in. I yelled in victory, pounding my hands on the steering wheel and talking to my car! After eight years, this self-taught, car-building hillbilly from Appalachia just beat a seasoned racer on his first try. I wouldn’t have been happier if I had just won the lottery.
The second round opponent is dictated by the power in the tower. It’s another seasoned racer named Bob. He’s got a fully race prepped ’69 Camaro with a slightly faster dial-in than mine. I wasn’t ready at the tree, and my reaction time hurt me. So I was behind in the numbers from the start. Trying to stay ahead of Bob, I pushed the engine to 7200 RPM. When I hit the shifter, second gear slipped for an instant, and he pulled ahead by half a car. Damn! I push it well past 7000 RPM again! Oil and anti-freeze splatter on the windshield and I see smoke from somewhere. I slam the shifter forward. The finish line is coming fast! I’ve got to get past him! I keep the gas pedal pinned to the floor. I’ve completely forgotten about any dial-in time at this point. When we cross the line, the front edge of my front bumper is even with the back edge of his front bumper. He beat me to the line! We went by the sign so fast I couldn’t see what times we ran. I didn’t care. That was the race of a lifetime. As we coasted toward the time-slip booth, we gave each other a whole-hearted thumbs-up. That’s what racing is all about. The rush was incredible!
As it turned out, I went 0.13 seconds too fast (that’s measured with a calendar in drag racing) in addition to not getting to the end first. I also hurt my engine. It was missing and popping as I cruised to the pits. The possible causes raced through my head: a lost cam lobe, bent push rod, a hole in a piston? Then I realized all that I had invested might have been ruined in 13.82 seconds. I didn’t care. All I could do was grin.
If you work hard towards a dream, any dream, sacrificing at every corner to get there, and then hold back at the crucial moment, then what’s the use in dreaming at all? I don’t know if I’ll get to fix the car and return to the staging lanes this season or not. Even if I don’t, I lived the dream of a little boy in a small, southern town for one day, one glorious day.