The Need for Speed
You have to have something under the hood to roll the smoke. You have to have a little gasoline in your veins.
I once had a '56 Chevy convertible-turquoise with a white top-the prettiest car I have ever owned.
I pulled out the original (small block) 265 and dropped in a later model 1959 348 with three deuces (sometimes called a six-pack), built by Rex Farley. He would never tell anyone just what he had done to it.
In the winter, I couldn't always have it in the garage, and I cut the floorboard out of it (replacing it with sheet metal and four screws), so I could take the transmission out from the inside, crawl under, drop the drive shaft, and then take it inside out of the rain and cold, where I could replace the synchronizer (blowing out an average of one a week), and in two hours I'd be ready to roll.
I took on all comers.
I worked the graveyard shift at the local factory. We would go to Rosland Road and run until 10:30 p.m. Go to work. At 7 a.m.: coffee, doughnuts. Then back to Rosland.
We put everyone on that road to bed and woke them up the next morning. Good neighbors.
Most everyone had cutouts on the manifold that circumvented exhaust, but we had caps to put on them for funerals and civilized occasions. (There was no law against cutouts, but if you were caught with them open, it meant trouble. As I realized later in the Ford when I neglected to turn off the engine while KSP trooper Bill Hughes wrote my speeding ticket. Because every time that 427 turned over, it shook the earth...and his cruiser.)
To my knowledge, it was straight out of Detroit. Tom West bought it brand new in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I bought it in 1965.
It was a 1964 red Galaxie 500, two door, hard top. Tom had put teardrop spotlights, fender skirts, twin glass packs, and 3" cut-outs on the exhaust system. In my opinion, it was some kind of bastard or progeny of Carroll Shelby, custom-built for some customer, clearly never meant for the general public or street use.
I would run anything at the drop of a beer can-and while there were no green flags, there was no shortage of beer cans.
It didn't take long before I ran out of competition locally, leaving me to exhibition rides and showing my ignorance at 120 mph, while smoke would still be rolling off the tires, courtesy of the limited slip differential.
It would take a while for the first serious-and I mean very serious-contender to come along.
Knox, Whitley, and Laurel are still legally dry counties, but I don't think there's ever been a shortage of available alcohol. In the 60s, we had legendary bootleggers, and one was just past the old ice plant, with a drive-through.
Now, I did a lot of business with Howard, but I didn't know that he had a son a few years younger than me. Everyone called him Perkie (short for Perkins).
He had money, so I never traveled in his circle. I didn't know him, but he knew my car, and he was used to knowing the best-and making a point that everyone else knew it.
Ignorance and a cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon was bliss to me.
Perkie ordered brand new Catalina 2x2, I think it was a 421 '65. Jet black. Beautiful car.
Rumor was that he spent over $3000 turning it up before he ever took delivery; the car itself probably cost maybe $4000.
Russell Dixon and I were out cruising around-more interested in our cooler and idling around the drive-in restaurants, listening to the 427 echo under those drive-in awnings.
Believe me, no matter how many times we went around, every one looked. Then in the middle of Main Street, we met the 2x2.
This was the first time I ever saw Perkie.
He wanted to know if we ever ran the Ford.
"Yeah. Any time."
He didn't know any of the places we ran.
Welton and OK Tire Store were the only safe places you could run flat out, so we went up to the OK-straight, smooth, good traction, and a 90 mph curve at the end to shut it down.
Some one dropped the can and I took off stout, but not serious.
This was just another new Detroit car to me-everytime the kids could get Daddy's car they would want to play. No big deal.
I dropped into fourth gear in front of Clyde Pease's house at 110 mph. (Clyde always said I was the only one who could roll him out of bed, and that's saying something considering Clyde was always drunk.)
I looked back and was not used to seeing headlights coming up fast and I mean strong.
I put my foot in the fire wall, lost too much traction, and he beat me by maybe 1/2 to 3/4 of a car, and I went on back to the Dairy Dell.
Perkie went back to the Wing drive-in at town, announcing he had beat the big red Ford.
Eddie Reeves, my second cousin, was there.
He called him a liar and several other names, and made him accompany him straight to the Dairy Dell.
Eddie walked over, grabbed me up by the shirt collar, and said, "Perkie said he beat the big red Ford."
I asked innocently, "Who's Perkie?"
He said, "The guy in the 2x2, dumbass."
I didn't know Eddie had a dog in this fight 'cause the Wing crowd was a higher class people than us at the Dairy Dell.
But he told me to get my ass in the car and we were going to run.
So everyone went on up to OK Tire.
Now, I wasn't no dummy.
I knew what had happened and I knew what I had done wrong. I knew exactly how much pressure the strip would take without losing too much traction- but I also knew Eddie had about .3 seconds on me the speed shift...and that he was pissed.
I didn't want to get beat and get my ass kicked too, so I told him, "you drive."
I buckled up. He took one test run (make that .5 seconds on the shift), first time in the car, but he was burning too much rubber.
First run, Eddie beat him 1/2 car length.
Second, by one car.
Third, by two cars.
Best man on the fast shift I ever saw.
We ran it one more time at Somerset drag strip with 12 inch cheater slicks. Eddie crossed the finish line, smoke rolling, locked it up, slid all the way to the end of the track and almost got stopped. Then the car picked up a sideways drift and the second he left that asphalt, the sharp edge of the slick caught in the dirt-rolling the car one time-in perfect slow motion.
But he still beat a '62 Ford that was built by Red Cornett, maybe the best motor man in Kentucky at that time.
He'd come in from Indiana Friday night and spent all day Saturday dropping exhaust from the headers and putting on slicks.
I never asked what all he'd done, but I know now that it was the baddest goat any of us ever saw run, and that includes the Bristol Spring Nationals I used to go to every year for a long time.
I spent my Saturday as usual with a cooler full of tall boys (16 oz. cans), enjoying the attention-one thing about that Big Red Ford was that it would draw a crowd-sometimes 40-50 people for a race.
Somehow, Clydie Helton was the designated driver for this one.
(Clydie started out his racing career with a jet black '54 Ford Rag Top, drag pipes, long fender skirts, spinner hubcaps, tear drop spotlights, lowered in the back with a lift kit in the front. Now he has a Grand National Champion pony car; a '57 Ford with 36 blue ribbons; a stable full of classics...and he rides a big Harley. He took early buyout from GE and retired.)
By run time at the OK Tire strait on 25E, there were over 100 people, and I was beginning to think this thing might get serious.
I buckled up, and we took the outside lane, by my choice.
Clydie lit the tires up a couple times.
I can still smell rubber and hear the 427 scream. Clydie was smooth and as much a part of that car as the steering wheel. It seemed like the engine cleared its throat and had its ears perked up. It was positively ready.
The goat came out and the team lined us up to the fraction of an inch.
We came off the line solid, like we were welded together.
At second gear, the goat's fender was at my passenger door, and when Lonnie changed gears, his front end came up and over, within six inches of my door but he kept the hammer down.
Third gear, same thing.
Now I'm thinking: I know a GTO's front end can't come off the ground at 100 mph, but I was wrong.
Fourth gear, near 120 mph, and the front of the goat was two thirds of a car-length back.
At the finish line, still at 120 mph, we were still about 2/3 ahead.
We ran three times, and I don't think we ever got a good car length in front.
But now you have to admit a Galaxie 500 is a lot longer than a GTO, even if that Ford was a bastard.
That's where the old joke comes from about finding the people in heaven who are corralled behind a big chain link fence. Saint Peter explains,"oh they're from Eastern Kentucky. We put the fence up to keep 'em from goin' home every weekend."
I remember attending Lynn Camp high school and watching all the previous graduates come driving back up that hill and their new cars and thinking when I graduated, I would be back in a new car for a visit.
I graduated. I got a job.
I did drink and drive back then, but no one in the three gangs I ran with ever wrecked, or hurt anyone while racing.
Three Williams boys later got killed on that curve past OK, but they were a generation after us, and they didn't know how to handle those cars.
No one among us ever raced drunk. Not in a serious race anyway. And the only drug of choice then was penicillin and that was for the Clap (I never took any penicillin, but I remember one epidemic when somebody up at the tire store would say "Pill Time," and five people would jump up.)
I've never even tried pot, but I don't believe they make a drug that compares to the big bore muscle cars.
When you start making babies though, drag racing is over and it's time for the station wagon (even if I did order it with a 460 cu. in. engine.)
I never went north for big bucks.
I just worked 20 hours a day and had two of the hottest cars in the history of Lynn Camp.
I don't know how many new cars or trucks I've had since then, but I know I never went back.
Afterword: Happy Fathers' Day
by Rhonda Reeves
This week's cover story is a letter from my Dad-published in honor of Fathers' Day (and because I think he's a tremendous storyteller).
Since he and I both have insomnia, it's not unusual for our catchup phone chats to occur between 2 and 4 am, which is how this story started.
I was watching a Carroll Shelby infomercial, which initiated a (not-new) discussion of my fantasy to restore a 1967 Shelby GT 500. Which-it should be pointed out-he neither understands, nor supports.
First, because he loves my SUV and has never wasted one second of ecological conscience over it, in spite of its gas guzzling, because he believes it keeps me safe (and that's what dads worry about most, even when their little girls are 36). The fact that it could be t-boned by a hippo, and I could likely walk away alive, is all he cares about.
But when the need for speed began to seep into my bloodstream in my mid30s, he said, with a sigh of resignation, "It's a hard thing to take-when it comes to your own kids- but I reckon we all gotta die sometime." That's probably not typical of most people's idea of parental authority, but that's my Dad, and I knew what he meant, which was just that he respects my choices, even when he disagrees.
My brother lives in Austin and has both a motorcycle and a Mopar, and I am certain that neither of my parents has had a good night's sleep since. (What he lacks in skill and common sense, he makes up for by going very, very fast. We all dread the middle-of-the-night phone call telling us he's dead, or if our prayers are answered, merely in jail.)
Second, my Dad feels very little romance for old cars, in and of themselves.
"Performance" and "speed" were what he cared about when he raced, and the cars that I've come to think of as "classics," were still new to them in those days.
If he could have any performance car on the market, and money were no object, he'd probably get a new Viper (a Shelby descendant).
I realize I'm nostalgically trying to buy an idea, more so than a car. And that's always an expensive proposition.
The line I remember most from our conversation that night was when he confessed sheepishly, of his infamous race with Perkie, "Hell, I'd have beat him if I hadn't been drunk."
This letter arrived a month ago, signed "Call me. Love, Dad. Wednesday, 5:35 a.m. 32º."
I've edited and published it with his permission.
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