The Proverbial Driver’s 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.

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