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The Proverbial DriverХs Seat

It was the summer of 1983. I had just graduated from college, and the employment outlook was actually worse than it is today. It’s true; you can check the record books. When people talk about the current recession and jobless rate, they always say, “It hasn’t been this bad since 1983.” I was young, inexperienced and struggling to find direction. My peer group was a misfit set of old high school buddies and their roommates from the local college; occasionally, an acquaintance from our softball team or the pool room or one of our fathers or uncles would join us out on the porch on hot summer nights as we analyzed life in the small-town wanderlust of Berea, Ohio. The next opportunity just didn’t seem to be presenting itself. We were all working low-paying manual jobs to make ends meet, but boredom and the incredible fear of moving into the adult world on a permanent basis loomed. We were a little leery about “The American Dream” after finding a four-year degree to be less of a ticket to high wages than promised.

I recall one Saturday when Uncle Joe was cutting hair at the barber shop he co-owned with my grandfather, and a few of us were hanging around drinking coffee and telling lies, when out of nowhere, a suggestion popped out of my uncle’s mouth. “What you guys ought to do is find an old wreck, tune it up, and run it in Spectator Stock at Cloverleaf Speedway. Make some memories.”

Cloverleaf was a quarter-mile oval track nestled in the Ohio Valley near Cleveland. It had been the home of some highly competitive and professional races, but more exciting than those were the races in which the fans participated. They were invited to find themselves a junk car, rip out the entire interior except the driver’s seat and the front window, plop down behind the wheel, and race every Sunday night in the “Spectator Stock” competition. Requirements were a helmet, seat belt and $30 racing fee.

A Perfect Candidate

Well, no sooner did we leave the barbershop than we passed a giant Plymouth VIP on someone’s front yard with a “for sale” sign on the front window. An elderly gentleman sat on the porch. “S’cuse me sir,” I yelled from the car window, “What do you want for that car?” He stood up and said, “What do you got?” Inside the car we emptied our pockets. “Is $25 good enough?” I yelled over my shoulder. “Heck, no,” he snapped, waving us off and sitting down. We went through the ashtray and came up with two more dollars in change. “How about $27?” “Twenty-seven’s your second offer?” he said, laughing.

“All we got,” I said. “Well, come and get your dang car off my lawn,” he finished. What a cool old dude. We scrambled out of the car and popped the hood. Looking down the throat of that pretty dual-carb with eight monster cylinders lined up all around her, we all started to smile. We fired her up, and that big, throaty muffler could be heard all over the neighborhood. We explained our intentions to the gentleman, who became quite excited by our plans. We promised him a ticket and a ride to the race, which he refused, but with the smiles and laughs we provided him that day, I truly believe he felt he got the better of the deal.

We drove the new purchase to my uncle’s house and secured a sledgehammer. Laughing like idiots, we smashed all the windows except the front windshield. We stripped the interior and cut the front bench seat in half with a chain saw. The exterior was a bland sky-blue color, so we gathered all of the paint my parents had left over from painting the barn the previous summer and changed the color to red. Four big paint brushes the size of whisk brooms did the trick.

“How about a number?” Brett asked. There could be only one number, and that was what we paid … 27. So there she sat. Bigger than some yachts, redder than an embarrassed flamingo, one working brake on the left front wheel, and a firewall made from an old refrigerator door, riveted in over the now-departed back seat. It was time to race.

A Heap Of Qualifications

The next problem presented itself as we left for the first night of competition. The vehicle was no longer street-legal and had no license tag, so it could not be driven. It had to be towed. We had no truck, no hitch, no trailer--so, using some rope, we tied the car to the back of my 1966 Plymouth Barracuda and pulled the race car all the way there--about 20 miles. The stoplights were really exciting. The ’Cuda would stop at a red light, and then about two seconds later the VIP would smack into the back of my car … about 50 times. Brett finally sat on the floor of the VIP so the police wouldn’t see him, and he worked the brakes by hand. Necessity is truly the mother of invention. However, Brett was so car-sick from riding that way he could barely stand when we arrived at the raceway.

Once we pulled into the “Qualifier Lot,” a pre-pubescent “inspector,” looking like he combed his hair with STP, approached with a clipboard. “Got a helmet?” We smiled and showed him the helmet. This was going to be easy. As he looked into the car, I decided to use the Star Wars Jedi mind-trick on him. “The car looks fine,” I whispered. “This car looks fine,” he said. “It’s ready to race,” I said. “You guys are ready to race,” he said. “There will be no racer’s fees for you guys,” I whispered. “That will be thirty bucks,” he said with his hand out. Dang, so close! We shelled out the cash.

On the track, Number 27 had the pole position for heat 1. Mom’s barn paint looked terrific on the old VIP. Mikey, his jaw locked like the no-nonsense Racer X on the Speed Racer cartoons, appeared tough in his bright white helmet and goggles. The starting flag went up then down, and he was quickly into the first turn. As Mikey applied the one left brake, the VIP spun around like a flag on a pole, and the broadside of the car came right at us as we leaned on the fence, watching ignoramus history being made. Mikey’s eyes were the size of tires as he saw us. When the car hit the fence, it was the hardest I ever laughed in my life. Mikey righted the car and went on to take fourth place.

Take Two

Into the pits the mighty VIP rumbled. It was running rough, so Brett quickly popped the hood and leaned in. He poured some gas down the cavernous carburetor, and a giant orange flame shot up about three feet. A black line of exhaust had put a stripe right down the middle of his face and his eyebrows were gone. I fell to the ground, laughing so hard my jaw hurt. It was the second-funniest thing I had ever seen, and both occurred in the same night! I hugged my uncle tightly for suggesting this idea. Yeah, OK, so we’d nearly encountered death about five times that night, but, man, this stuff was funny!

We lined up for the second heat. The car was in pain and idling rough, but we figured we would work that out over the next week. The flag ripped through the night air. Engines screamed. We were looking good. Mikey was in second position. As he went to pass the leader, and out of standard American driving-school instinct, he put his turn signal on, which we had neglected to take off the steering column when stripping the car. The audience collectively roared with laughter as did our whole pit crew. Mike zoomed into first place with his turn signal still cutting its flashing yellow rhythm through the gaggle of vehicular humanity. Alas, he held first place for two laps but then was passed one by one by the rest of the field. As he rumbled into the pits, we were all disappointed. “I wonder what happened,” Brett said. Item by item we discussed what could have caused the car to die. Finally, I asked, “We did put gas in it, right?” The silence was deafening. “I thought you did,” each of us sputtered.. Victory had been snatched because of our own stupidity. We had simply run out of gas.

Accidental Adventures

Over the next three years we found new cars, fixed them up and competed. We actually became fairly good and took home a few trophies. They all sat proudly in the barbershop with some photos we’d taken from race days. Those photos made for great stories and unforgettable memories over the years.

Cloverleaf Raceway has been closed for many years now. It was the type of operation always coming under scrutiny for potential dangers, and likely the safety issues eventually became too big to continue. Like so many other things today, we build so much “careful” into them that we whittle away all the adventure. Believe me, I wouldn’t want my kids to take those kinds of chances, but I can’t pretend that I don’t miss the days when life had a little less predictability and a little more chance.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com

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