Both my brothers loved car racing when they were in their teens and early twenties. Our grandfather owned a professional race car and I guess that’s why so many in our family love the sport. But my brothers Bill and Terry not only were early spectators, they eventually got into the game. And God help anyone or anything that tried to come in between their beloved auto racing.
Drag racing is a sport for those without millions of dollars to pour into stock car racing. Our grandfather’s stock car racing hobby cost him a few dimes, but you can be a part of drag racing for almost nothing. All you need is a car and the willingness to see it crash into a million pieces. Bill and Terry had no money, so drag racing was where they started their hobby.
I don’t remember when drag racing “season” was when I was growing up, but I do know it was warm weather, so it must have been spring and summer. Almost every Sunday my brothers drove their piece of crap Pontiac to one of the tracks in and around Louisville, and about once a month they would drive an hour and a half, all the way to Lexington. The cars were better, there, and the winnings were higher.
After the Pontiac blew an engine, they pooled their money and bought another hot rod. I don’t remember what that car was, but it didn’t last too long, either. I think the transmission fell out of the car onto the race track. They went through several cars this way, until Bill set his sights on his dream car: a ’65 Ford Fairlane. Ahh, what a car. At nine years old I knew almost nothing about cars (and wasn’t really interested, truth be known), but I could tell the way Bill treated that car that it was something special…especially to Bill.
That car was in mint condition. It was cherry red, with white sidewall tires, which were all the rage, then. Bill parked it in our back yard, neatly tucked up against the back of our house, covered with a tarp. That car was not for the street. Oh, no. The ’65 cherry red Ford Fairlane had a 289 bored over 30, 4-speed on the floor, and a chrome gear-shift knob. Even 9-year-old little brothers knew it was exceptional (well, at least the gear-shift knob).
Bill owned this car outright. Terry would still go with him to race it, and with this car they more often than not drove to the racetrack near Lexington. I loved it when I was able to tag along with my brothers on Sundays because Mom always gave us the money to stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken to get a bucket of chicken to take to the track. It was her little bribe to Bill and Terry to take me along, and it was her little bribe to me to agree to go along.
Little kids were very popular at the drag races. Young guys who had their own pesky little brothers at home suddenly matured by about 10 years when they were at the track and treated us like we were cool.
“Hey, man (“man” was “dude”, then), you gonna’ race today?” Then they’d laugh at their own joke.
I was pretty backwards, socially, and only stared at them, chomping on a fried chicken leg.
The first five times Bill raced the cherry red Fairlane, it won. The car could do no wrong, no matter who drove. At first Bill was so nervous with the car that he let Terry race. When he won three times in a row, Bill got behind the wheel and continued the streak. My unathletic, short, stout brother Bill, who had always suffered from asthma and was a very bookish kid, seemed in his element with that car. Everyone envied him that car, and he was elevated from being Terry’s brother (my brother Terry was a local football hero), to being pretty cool in his own right. For a time he even dated an Italian bombshell who lived down our street. And he owed it all to that car, so he treated it better than I’ve seen him treat anything since.
The problem with having something everyone envies is that someone else is going to want it, too. Bill knew this. Even though we lived in an upper-middle-class, safe neighborhood, he was very cautious with the car. That’s why he always parked it in the back yard against the house covered with a tarp.
Except one night.
Returning home Sunday evening after another successful day at the races, Bill decided to park the car in front of our house…on the street. Now who could have guessed that that same night one of those people who envied Bill his car would try to make it his own?
At about 6:00 AM the next morning all hell broke loose in our house. Mom was running to the back of the house to Bill and Terry’s room, screaming, “They’re stealing your car, they’re stealing your car!!!”
Terry, already in his pajamas, was out the back door in a heartbeat, down the steps, and running towards the car to stop the theft . Brother Bill was a little slower.
Clad only in white boxer shorts, Bill jumped out of bed and reached under his bed for the nightstick he kept at the ready for just this occasion. He then ran for the bedroom door just as Terry was out the door and throwing it closed behind him. Bill hit the door with his face, fell back, then quickly shook it off. Someone was stealing his dream car and he was not about to let anything stop him from making sure they weren’t successful.
Bill ran through the house toward our front door. Mom was standing there with the door open. Bill leaped across the threshold, turned right for the stairs, dove down the stairs, landed about halfway down, lost his footing, and tumbled down the rest of the way, smacking his head and breaking his right ankle. Not realizing he was hurt and still focused on his car, he jumped up, and with his first step knew something was amiss due to the bolt of pain that shot down his leg and foot. He began hopping on one foot, in his white boxers, nose swelling and red, a trickle of blood running down his face, and with the night stick raised high in the air ready to smash down on the thief.
By the time he reached the car, which had only moved a few feet, Terry had grabbed the guy out of the car and had him pinned over the left front fender. Bill managed to get in a couple of hits with the nightstick before Terry said, “I got him.”
When the police arrived to take the guy away, Bill was still standing in his underwear next to his cherry red Fairlane. He looked like he could have been the inspiration for “The Walking Dead”. We didn’t have smartphones with cameras back then, and that’s a real pity because all we have left of this incident is family lore.
But maybe that’s even better.