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Some people might think less of me on account of this, but I’ve got a shameful confession to make: I’m a racing fan. Not the big-bucks NASCAR circuit, nor the big-bucks F1 racing, nor the big-bucks NHRA drag-racing type. No, I’ve a major sentimental spot for low-budget, DIY stock-car racing, as enacted every Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, throughout the summer, in many a rural area. It might be a ½ mile dirt track, it might be a ¼ mile paved oval, but in small towns throughout America, where there are bored grease-monkeys, there are liable to be amateur racecar drivers. I was once among their numbers.

Back about 1988 or ’89, one of my Dad’s goofy friends, Jay, got the hot idea that he was going to build a stock car out of this old, wrecked Volkswagen that was sitting in his back yard. Fair enough. There was a Mini Stock class at both the Alliance Speedway and the Oregon Trails Speedway, catering to the 4-banger crowd. Populated mostly by Pintos, Vegas, and VW Beetles, it was surprisingly one of the most competitive and exciting classes. While the little cars didn’t have the rip-snorting V-8 action of the Street, Hobby, and Super-Stock classes, they had the advantage of maneuverability, which made for more continuous, competitive races with fewer stomach-clenching crashes and tedious interruptions. Jay wanted Dad to sponsor his car, and so my dad did. Built him a sweet-running 1776cc, and helped him maintain it, and in return Jay painted Dad’s business name and phone number on the decklid of his car.

Of course with my dad having a stake in the success of a racing car, we went to the races pretty frequently, to cheer for Jay, to boo his rivals, and to hoot encouragement at any other family friends who might have cars in other classes. My parents had, prior to my sister’s birth, run a gas-station/burger-shack/bar, and thus knew practically every soul in about a three-county area, plus my dad, gregarious and laid back, had plenty of wiseass buddies from work who either ran cars or who were racing fans, too. We were spoiled for choice for favorites for any given race. The Miller Brothers had a big fan base among all of the children in the stands because their cars featured 2′ tall painted tin cutouts of beloved Peanuts characters Snoopy and Woodstock. Luckily these two were good drivers and good mechanics, and so the youngsters in the stands had plenty of opportunities to see Snoopy or Woodstock win. Sometimes, my sister and I would decide to cheer for a driver because we liked the slogans on the car. Sometimes we’d cheer for a driver whose car had whatever we decided was a “lucky number.” We always cheered for any woman driver out there. There weren’t many, but there were a couple, and they were always heroes to us. One in particular, Shelly, started out with the shittiest car ever—a hand-me-down from her crazy-go-lucky brother, but after a couple of years of practice and the acquisition of a decent pit crew, became a high points contender. Sometimes we cheered for Alvie, a wild, risk-taking driver who pulled some automotive stunts that would have done the Duke boys proud. We loved watching his desperate runs, but he didn’t win too many races, on account of wrecking his car too much. As I moved into teenagerdom, I cheered for any driver I knew to be cute. There were a few.

After a couple of years, Jay pulled out of racing. A good driver, but a poor planner, he built incredibly dangerous cars, then got into wrecks with them which, had the cars been built more sensibly, would not have been a big deal, but due to his techniques, usually resulted in a ruined hulk, nothing of which was salvageable except for the seat and the engine. On one occasion, he’d mounted the fuel cell in the very front of what had originally been the VW’s trunk, in the front loop of the rollcage. My dad noticed the tank there when he was replacing the shift rail, and moved it further up in the old trunk compartment, away from the car’s crumple zone. That very next weekend, during the Trophy Dash (first event of the evening) the car ahead of Jay shot a rod straight through the block, sending a gush of motor oil, antifreeze, and metal shards onto the track. Jay’s car hit the slick, spun twice, and slammed into the retaining wall in the third corner. Had Dad not moved that fuel cell, the wreck would have been a blazing inferno. Instead, all it netted was a bunch of bent sheet metal, two broken tie-rods, two popped tires, and bruises on Jay’s shoulders from his five-point harness.

At this juncture, my dad decided to step up and go from being a sponsor to being a driver, and started planning his own race-car. Obviously, as a Volkswagen mechanic, he had a lot of spare junk lying around. There were plenty of race-worthy wrecks down in his junkyard, but a friend of his, who was also a VW lover, happened to have an old, wrecked, rusted out Karmann Ghia that he thought could use a second life as a stock-car, so we went out to Hay Springs to check this old hunka-junk out. The car turned out to be stored in a barn, situated on a farm about 10 miles out of town. We pulled up in Dad’s 1979 International Scout, trailer in tow, and all four of us piled out of the Scoot, as we called it. Mom, Dad, my sister, then age 12, me, age 14. I was just fizzing with excitement, ’cause going to look at old junk cars was one of my favorite types of errands, and I would accompany my dad on every possible acquisition run. I was not disappointed. The barn was being used for storage only, and it was a treasure-trove. There was a fat-fendered 1947 Chevy 1-ton pickup, a Batmobile-ish 1964 T-bird, one of the sleek, sharky-looking late 1970s Firebirds, two Beetles of early 1960s vintage, and the Ghia. Everything was packed in there tight, and obviously hadn’t moved in at least a decade. The ‘Ghia was nose-to-tail between the T-bird and a white 1964 Beetle. We sat there looking at the car for a bit, wondering how in the hell we were going to get it out of the barn. The T-bird and the Beetle were nosed up against opposing walls, with the Ghia slotted tidily in between them, about 1.5’ of space between any given bumper.

Dad’s friend joined us in the barn, and my dad asked incredulously, “How did you get this sonnovabitch in here?” Dave grinned, “Same way we’re gonna get ‘er back out.” He turned on one heel and wheeled out of the barn and tramped down to his pickup, from which he retrieved a portable compressed-air tank. He aired up each flat, crackled tire to an insane PSI, then instructed all able hands to grab onto a bumper. “We’re gonna hop this car out of here, okay?” It seemed we were to shove down on the bumpers and pull them upwards rhythmically, until the car was actually bouncing, like a dancing lowrider, then, when the car was clearing the ground, we were to kind of pull it out away from the wall, so that on each bounce, it hopped in the direction we wanted it to go. I don’t know if you want to believe this, but it actually worked, and worked well—the car was out in the open in under five minutes, then it was merely a matter of all able hands reporting to the back end of the car and shoving (except for me, as I got the dubious honor of sitting inside and steering, since I was a skinny-butt kid) and thus we rolled the old beast up onto the trailer. Turns out the brakes were gone, but I had the presence of mind to rip up the parking brake before the nose of the car hit the front rail of the trailer. We had us the beginnings of a racecar!

The car had sat in the barn for some 15 years, and was literally covered in an inch-thick crust of pigeon crap. We, too, were covered in an effluvium of pigeon poop, dust, and cobwebs, but we stopped in town for lunch anyway. As we ate our tacos, we discussed the possible paint schemes for the car. I opined that it should be painted green, like a pickle, and when it got more dents in it, it would look like the bumps and wrinkles that pickles usually have. Audrey thought it should be painted yellow, like a banana. Mom suggested an orange-and-purple sunset theme. In its first season, the ‘Ghia was painted with white appliance enamel, with Pepto-Bismol pink wheels, and royal blue lettering, rollcage, and bumpers. Frankly, it was pretty damn ugly.

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