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The car was ready to drive by mid-season, and so Dad registered it #48 for the year of his birth, 1948. First season’s performance was pretty miserable, as everyone’s first season is. You’re still getting used to the idea of driving as fast as you possibly can while turning to the left. The car’s still not set up quite optimally—there’s suspension to be tweaked, carburetor jetting to play with, and different sizes and compounds of racing slicks to experiment with. Your first season is a learning experience, both as concerns driving, and as concerns setting up and maintaining your car.

Dad had his first wreck in that half season. John’s red 1973 Ford Pinto lost a radiator hose in that very same corner that it had shat out a connecting rod two years earlier, and dad happened to be the driver tailing John the most closely. He hit the puddle of steaming coolant and started sliiiiiiiiiiiding to the outside of the track, where he broadsided the retaining wall. Luckily, the car’s rollcage was built of schedule 40 black iron pipe, with a gridwork of door-bars, plus an external bump-rail to protect the car from dirty driving. Apart from a crunched right front fender, a popped tire and bent rim, and some dramatic scrapes in the paintwork, the damage was minimal. Mom on the other hand, understandably was freaked out. She might have started sprouting grey hair that very day. She was never really very enthusiastic about the whole idea of my dad building, maintaining, and driving a race car, and that first wreck did absolutely nothing to win her over to the excitement of the sport. It was only a stroke of exceedingly good luck that she declined to go to the races the night that I wrecked the car. I think she’d have had her heart attack a good five years earlier if she’d been there for that one.

The second and third years, Dad got more comfortable with the car, and got it set up sensibly. After the second year, however, Dad’s buddies started running out of time to race. Doug got a girlfriend after several lonesome years of being a divorc. Don’s teenaged kids started requiring a lot more adult guidance, and his wife beckoned him home. The previous winter, however, Dad had acquired a protog in a teenaged boy named Eli who wanted to learn how to build Volkswagen engines. He had a 1973 Superbeetle which needed a lot of work, which he wanted to turn into his Shop project for the coming semester. Once a week, Dad would go to Eli’s shop class and supervise him as he worked on his project car, and most weekends would find Eli hanging around the garage, working on stuff for his car, or doing small chores for my dad. I was always around the garage myself; since I earned my pocket money by doing chores in the garage, and besides, there was now a nice boy hanging around who wore really good smelling cologne. My mom always made massive dinners for my dad’s friends who had worked on the car. Vat of chili and a sheet of cornbread. Vat of veggie-beef stew. Famous Dunlap Inn hamburgers with the usual condiments. Eli, like any of the others who passed through the garage, was welcome to the table, and his teenaged appetite did the good food justice. What with the free car parts for doing light chore work in the garage, the weekly hot dinner, and the exiting prospect of racing looming in the background, Eli tacitly became part of the Dunlap Racing Team. Dad paid his pit-pass, and Eli got to hang out in the pits, pouring gasoline, changing tires, and introducing a new system for checking suspension set up and optimal tire choices. He was really into the racing that summer; he came to the first race of the season directly after his high-school graduation ceremony! He’d gotten a couple of books about racing suspension, and we copied the charts out of it and started taking pyrometer readings on the tires after hot-laps or each race, which helped determine whether the tire was under or over inflated, or too hard or soft for the track conditions. It also helped to track whether or not camber adjustments needed to be made. This subtle approach to set up actually made a pretty big difference in the car’s performance and handling, and I carried on with this method in the last year we raced, after Eli had gone away to college.

During the first part of the racing season of 1994, I couldn’t get into the pits, because I wasn’t 17 yet (weird insurance clause), but after the first week of June, I was back there, too, taking pyrometer readings, or sitting in the roof-rack of the Scoot, timing my Dad’s hot laps and sassing anyone who’d give me the opportunity.

Eli and I got to be good friends. We both liked Volkswagens, we both liked the same kinds of music, and we both liked racing and driving fast. I’d ride down to the racetrack with my family, then ride back to my folks’ house with Eli. He’d typically borrow his dad’s hot little 1990 Celica, and we’d tear up the back roads, blasting Meat Puppets songs and shooting the bull. Good times, good times! We never dated or fooled around or anything, we were just friends. I don’t think he was interested, and while I was interested, I was too shy to make any sudden moves, so there you go.

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