SHOP TALK: How Did You Get Hooked On Cars?
Most of us can remember who or what got us addicted to cars, but for some of us, we never really had a choice – we were born into it. For as long as I can remember, I've always been into all sorts of motorsports. My Dad was an incredible mechanic and master craftsman. He was as old school as it gets when it came to cars and raising his children. We never had a new car, or more importantly, never needed one. Dad rebuilt and painted our family car numerous times. When it came time to buy my Mom a station wagon so she could chauffer us to and from our various activities, Dad found a used Ford Country Squire Wagon and made it as new as he could. He was always fixing or building something, and he had a rule that I had to watch and help him EVERY time. In fact, I was not allowed to play with my friends until all of the chores were done and everything on his list to fix was complete. To be honest, I was not a big fan of this rule at the time. Looking back now, though, I am grateful for the priceless education I received, and the ability I have to fix or build anything.
I can recall sitting in my Dad’s 1964 Oldsmobile F-85 numerous times as a child, pushing the clutch in and out for him when he was putting in a new one or changing the transmission. I can even recall the day he had me put a new clutch in it while he sat in the car and pushed it in. That car eventually became my first racecar, and I learned a lot from it.
Let’s rewind a minute, as I need to mention my older brother Mike. He is ten years my senior and epitomized what a big brother should be. He was such an amazing brother, and I idolized him while growing up. He too was a victim of Dad’s rules and upbringing and became quite the motorhead himself. Mike got me into building model cars and taught me all about paying attention to the details. He also got me into drag racing, and I loved watching him race his 1959 Ford Fairlane and his 1967 Mustang. I learned a lot about painting from watching him custom paint all of his cars in our driveway. It was Mike who bought me a Snake and Mongoose Hot Wheels race set for Christmas, helped me install a Hurst floor shifter, so I could eliminate the 3 speed on the column, and painted my car in typical 80s three-color "pro street" style, making me the envy of all of my friends.
We grew up less than a mile from the world famous Englishtown Raceway Park. Every Wednesday night and every weekend, I would listen to the cars roar down the track and dreamed of the day I could be the fortunate one who made those sounds. It was at Englishtown that I got the pleasure meeting my favorite racer, Don Prudohmme. I also met Shirley Muldowney, Don Garlits, Bruce Larson, Kenny Bernstein, and a host of other greats from the 70s and 80s. I was so hooked on drag racing that I actually got a job at Englishtown picking up garbage, just so I could hang out at the track.
I’ll never forget the first time I took my F-85 to Raceway Park. I was paired against a Chevrolet Corvair that was all tricked out. I got my first slip and win that day. I also got my first class winner decal and somehow managed to save it for the past 32 years. It was in that car I replaced a few transmissions, and even a drive shaft, in a few different parking lots around my town. It was in that car I got to know my high school girlfriend a little better. It was that car I slowly beat to death but didn’t have the money to repair all of the abuse I put it through. It was that car I sold for $2,000 when my parents needed my help moving to upstate New York. I lived in Maryland at the time with my cousin and worked at a Cadillac dealership with him. My car would have NEVER survived the 600-mile journey to my parent’s new home. At the time, I was happy to help them and didn’t give it a second thought. As the years have passed, though, the priceless memories I have of that car have haunted me, and I now regret selling her every day.
The fact is I never really had a say in becoming a gearhead, but I do remember all of the people who inspired me along the way. I also remember every car and the long list of stories that accompanies each of them. For the vast majority of the world, a car is simply a means of transportation. For me, it always defined who I was at the time. It was my escape from the world. It was freedom. Sure my dirt bikes, go-karts and other fast toys were fun, but it was the car that I became obsessed with. I may not remember many details from the past 32 years but give me a year anytime between 1984 and 2016, and I will tell you what car I shared my life with.
It’s funny how life works. My daughter is ten years old now, and just like her Dad, remembers all of the cars we’ve owned during her lifetime. She also associates many fond memories with each of the cars we owned at the time. I guess by now you’ve guessed my daughter is also a victim of my Dad’s old rule. She helps me fix all of our cars, motorcycles, 4 wheelers, tractors, generators, weedwackers, and leaf blowers. I'm proud to say that her favorite machine to work on is our racecar. She has quickly become quite the little gearhead and is by far my best buddy. I wonder if this passion for cars is a genetic trait that we pass on to our children, or is it an addiction? Whatever the answer may be, I pray that you can look back on your early days as a gearhead and remember not only how you got started, but recall the timeless lessons and memories that went along with your passion for the combustible engine.