Wednesday, January 22, 2020

North Main - Chapter One

My first real performance car that I rode in was my Cousin Mike's 1972 Chevy Camaro Z/28. If I remember correctly I was about 10 years old and didn't know squat about cars. My cousin was in the Navy, stationed in Southern California, and had just bought a bright red Z/28. It was equipped with the optional LT1 350 small block V-8 and a Muncie M-22 "rock crusher" 4-speed manual transmission. While on leave he drove it to our house and offered to take my dad for spin. When Mike asked me if I wanted to go I couldn't say "heck yeah" fast enough! I thought this was so cool. A chance to hang out with the guys and listen as they talked car stuff. I could have smelled the testosterone in the air if I even knew what that was back then. As all three of us walked out of the house and towards the car it was suddenly happening in slow motion for me, like in the movie Armageddon when the astronauts are walking to the space capsule. My first ride in a muscle car and I couldn't wait!

Before the ride began my cousin went over the finer points of his new ride which included popping the hood and showing off the engine compartment. Typical Navy guy, all technical and knowledgeable. My dad and him talked mechanical Russian, as in I didn't understand a thing, so I just stood there and pretended to understand. After what seemed like a Catholic High Mass the mechanical tour was over and we were ready to take "the drive". Dad was riding shotgun so I was regulated to the back seat. Sitting back there on the recessed seat cushion behind a high back bucket seat, I really couldn't see anything, so I scooted over and sat on the hump in the middle of the back seats. To this day I can still see the shifter vividly in my mind - a brushed aluminum Hurst T-handle on a shiny chrome lever poking out of the center console. A mesmerizing site of pure mechanical brawn for a 10 year old. When my cousin fired up the engine my ears heard the sweet sound of mechanical lifters for the first time in my young life. Of course I had no clue what was making that watch-like ticking sound, all I knew was that I liked it. Notching the manual transmission into first gear, Mike slipped out the clutch and the Camaro lurched forward eagerly. As my cousin rowed through the gears on the 4 speed, my eyes were fixated on the tach, watching the red hand sweep the face back and forth. My ears were filled with a combination of the throaty exhaust and the legendary whine of the Muncie transmission. The shifting, the tach, and the revving of the engine all combined was almost hypnotic. The faster he went, the harder I was being pulled backwards into the seat as the G-forces took over completely and held me prisoner against the black vinyl. That feeling of raw horsepower was unreal and unlike anything I had ever felt before. The whole experience ruined me forever as I was now obsessed with muscle cars!

Soon I started noticing muscle cars all over. Super Sport Chevelles, Novas, GTOs, 442s, and a few that I did not recognize but they looked awesome. On one Saturday I was walking up the street to my friend Ken's house when I spotted one of the coolest cars I had ever seen. Sitting in Ken's driveway was an orange '56 Chevy 2 door sedan with mag wheels and a perfect, sinister looking stance. On the rear quarter panels the name "sandman" was painted in gold leaf. This was my beginning of a love affair for tri-fives that I still have to this day. I found out the wicked looking 56 belonged to their gardener and after that I use to see it around town with a mower sticking out of the trunk!   

Although I was hopelessly hooked on horsepower it would be quite a few years before I owned anything even close to what I had experienced with my cousin's car. The first V-8 powered car that I actually drove was my sister's 1966 Ford Mustang. It was only a two barrel 289 with a C4 automatic transmission but it looked pretty good with it's U.S. Indy slot mags and blue paint. Equipped with Cherry Bomb glasspacks, the engine sounded faster then it actually was. It was a huge step up from an anemic 1300cc 4 cylinder Datsun pickup, which was what I happened to be driving after I got my drivers license. Remember what I said earlier about cruising being a precursor to racing? Well, one fateful Saturday night I was doing just that - cruising, in my sister's Mustang. I had just called it a night and had gotten on the freeway to head home when a couple of guys in a 71 or 72  Mustang Mach 1 pulled up in the lane next to me on the freeway and started goosing the throttle. I could hear the roar of the Mach 1's engine over my high winding 289, but it didn't intimidate me. Heck, I didn't know enough yet for it to intimidate me! Before too long the passenger was shouting out his window at me, "North Main!" Another words, if I wanted to race, meet them there. Not quite knowing what to expect, I quickly exited the freeway and headed towards North Main.

At this point in my young life I had cruised quite a bit and of course heard about all the street racing at North Main. I had even ventured down there to watch a few times in the aforementioned Datsun mini truck, but this was the very first time I was going there to actually race! I was excited beyond words and nervous as hell. As I exited the freeway and headed up the long stretch of North Main Street, I could see the parking lights of all the cars up in the distance, parked on both sides of the street. Approaching the end of the line of cars, I promptly pulled over and parked. I didn't even get to shut off the engine when the driver of the Mach 1 pulled up and signaled me to go over to the starting line which had just cleared. As I was heading towards the line I stopped before I got to it and attempted to do a huge burnout to heat up both my rear tires, or so I thought. Whereas my burnout consisted of a single skinny line of  Firestone G-70-14 rubber, the Mach 1 laid down two healthy lines of rubber as only a Ford 9 inch Detroit Locker with pos-a-traction torque twister tires can do. Suddenly there I was at the starting line with a very healthy sounding Mach 1 next to me. What the hell was I thinking? My sister's small block equipped Mustang was no match for this big block brute! When down track was clear the starter turned and gave us the signal to stage. The Mach 1 was holding his brakes and loading his torque converter big time as I could hear his engine over mine. My engine was just idling as I was waiting for the signal to go. Quick as a flash the starters hands were down and I mashed the gas pedal to the floor. The 289 revs quick and I was manually shifting the C4 trans, so as soon as the tires started to loose traction I shifted up into 2nd gear. Lacking the engine torque to continue to spin the tires through 2nd gear, my Mustang just hooked up and took off like a rocket. My competitor in the Mach 1 was not so lucky. As soon as he released the brake his tires went up in smoke. Realizing his predicament he immediately up-shifted only to be foiled by the outrageous torque of his big block Ford. As he continued to smoked his tires down the track and loose traction, I was pulling farther away. I will never forget that feeling when I crossed the finish line and realized that I had won. To say I was on a mechanical high would have been an understatement! More then a few people that evening were surprised to see I had beat that particular big block Mustang, but none more then me!