My dad and I found ourselves living in a duplex together for the second time in nine years and I was now 16 years old. I had been very successful in school and basketball and despite being a loaner I had a boat load of friends. A huge life change was about to occur with me.
Yep, that’s me going retro 80’s. Bad ass car, huh? It was a fully restored vintage 1968 Pontiac Firebird with all of my tweaks to it. But, under that hood was nothing stock. We’ll come back to that another day so consider this a teaser post on that car. Here’s the story that brought me to that picture you see above. This post is far longer than I ever prefer for a straight read but I didn’t want to cheat the story by cutting it short.
I had just gained full-time employment at McDonald’s working for minimum wage and at 40 hours/week that was a net of $223 in my pocket every two weeks. Yes, I still have that number memorized to this day. Because of my excellent grades I could do this on a work program the high school had to give you credits if you could cover all of your other classes. I hated school work because it bored the shit out of me and it was too easy. Yes, I said that. I wanted to write stories, go exploring around the world and be left alone. Most of all I wanted a Golden Retriever but would not be able to get one for another 23 years.
My Dad was a highly decorated teacher in the State of California for the high school classes he taught for 30 years. He led a groundbreaking class in co-ed Home Economics where girls and boys learned to work together. How to sew, how to cook, how to balance a checkbook. He was amazing. Yet, he was not blessed with knowing how to talk with his son. Gawd, I miss him. And all of you who miss a parent know exactly what I mean.
I was a math tutor in high school. I have always been blessed with being able to “see” numbers. I can’t explain it, I just can. Ask any of my friends to this day and they will vouch for it. But, a few times over the years folks would “test” that. It was fun at first then I started to feel like a freak because I was always right with the answer. So, don’t ask me. I have phone numbers memorized from childhood. I know virtually every single phone number without looking in my cell phone contacts. My co-workers ask me daily for phone number extensions. Ask them. Anyhoo, it’s not some fun game for me anymore. It’s a blessing and that’s it.
There was this one kid, Mark. Long blond hair and in my book from the complete opposite side of the tracks from me. I was chosen to work with him specifically. I was only responsible for 30 minutes worth of tutoring yet I spent hours with him. Only to come find out he got it all along. He just wanted to be off on his own vision quest of racing cars like I wanted to be writing and traveling. Two completely opposite peas in a pod we would ironically become.
Mark was always working on his car and finally one late afternoon after our tutor session Mark said, “Do you want a ride home?”
I said, “Oh, yes please.”
We walked to his car which was a 1968 Camaro. The paint job sucked. Ok, it wasn’t even paint. It was just a horrible, two-cent primer. The hood was off of the car and the motor looked….well, it looked different. It reminded me of something I saw on the races on tv that my dad and his best friend watched on Sundays. The part in the middle of the engine (the Edelbrock high-rise manifold and carburetor I would soon learn) looked ridiculously stupid. Why would anyone drive something like this?
He said, “Do you like to go fast?” I snickered because I had always been a speed freak. But, only on my bicycle and when my dad let me drive 40 mph and I felt like I was going 300 mph. He let me start driving on country roads years before I was legally allowed to. Or blazing down a snow trail on one of my uncle’s snowmobiles. I have no idea where on Earth my need to go fast came from that has followed me all of my life. Maybe it’s my mind needing to go fast? I don’t know.
But, there was no way this hunk of junk could go anywhere. Regardless, I wanted to seem cool.
I tentatively answered his question, “Oh ya, I like to go fast…”
We hopped in, closed the doors and he fired up the motor. Whoa….ok, cancel the hunk of junk remark. The entire car rattled furiously then Mark gave it a little gas and it idled. Purrred like a kitten…a very mean, hissing kitten.
I sat in the passenger’s seat looking around. This car was pristine on the inside.
He said, smiling, “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
Me, “Yep.” The car was damn nice on the inside.
Mark said, “We gotta go down to a country road. Do you have a few minutes?”
I tried to look cool, hanging my elbow out the window, “Ya, I got time.”
My dad would absolutely freak out that I was doing this…oh, and he knew every cop in town it seemed like. I had run in’s with them on a few occasions. Ahem, another post for another day. We pulled out off onto a long paved country road lined by vineyards on each side. There are probably thousands of straight vineyard roads just like this in the Central Valley in California.
Mark said, “You need to put your seat belt on.” Gawd, I looked at him. Long blond hair and he lit up a Marlboro. So frickin’ cool. Picture Steve McQueen with longer locks. Remember we only had waist seat belts. Full harness seat belts were a ways off.
I fastened my seat belt. His car didn’t sound like my Dad’s 1968 manual speed Ford pickup truck. Not even close and very ironic on the commonality of the year. There was a growl in the motor. Mark looked over at me and that I had halfheartedly fastened the seat belt.
He said, “You need to tighten that down.” I was thinking what is his deal?
Then Mark reached down into the dash container and opened a prescription bottle. Four yellow cylindrical objects tumbled out and onto his palm.
He said, “Here…””
I absolutely freaked out, “No!! I will not do those kind of drugs!!!”
Mark and I did a double take at each other.
Mark bowing his head down, and sighing calmly, “They are ear plugs you idiot. You need to wear them.”
Ya, I knew that!!! I was just testing him…*ahem*
He tossed his smoke out the window and said in hoarse voice, “You’re gonna like this. It’s a rush.” He was always so frickin’ calm. He looked in the rear view mirror for cops and at the same time he said, “Pop that cassette tape into the player.”
I gently pushed the cassette tape with my forefinger and it popped into his Blaupunkt stereo system (very expensive).
He began to rev the motor….it roared to life. I had never felt such fear. And excitement!!
Mark shouted, the first friend in my life to ever call me this by name, “Mikey, turn up the volume….LOUD….!!”
He continued shouting over our earplugs, “Things are about to get crazy!!! Kiss your ass good-bye…!!!” This is the song that came on…
Seriously, turn on your speakers, and read on and you can live in my moment some 30 years ago…Shoot To Thrill performed by AC/DC
Great, I was going to die! Who was going to turn in my English homework? Why didn’t I have sex with Veronica? Who was going to cover my shift at McDonald’s? You think about these things at 16 years old when you’re told that you’re about to die.
I just now have tears streaming down my cheeks. Because this was one of my biggest life changing moments from the course I had been on. It completely reversed my life and sent me sling-shotting into a different direction for a couple of years. I was on the student government just a year ago. I was striving for a college basketball scholarship to a junior college. But I had a huge upheaval at home that I was just not able to overcome directly. So, I went in this direction. Because this direction made me feel good and it didn’t hurt. And it wasn’t home.
I no sooner turned the volume control up with the music consuming my soul that Mark dropped the hammer. For those of you who don’t know what that means watch the “Days Of Thunder” with Tom Cruise. It means stomping your foot on the accelerator and mashing it to the floor. Hell hath no fury.
Folks, this will knock any roller coaster ride you’ve ever had off the list. Trust me. Only there are no tracks to keep the vessel you’re riding in going straight.
The front end of the car came up violently and I never could have dreamed of a more angry dragon that could breathe and scream fire in those first couple of milliseconds. The song blared clearly over his high-end stereo.
Yet, we weren’t pointed in the right direction with the tires screaming and laying down rubber. Smoke was everywhere off of the tires and we were aimed left more for the vineyards. Imagine being almost deaf (earplugs) yet I could hear Mark. He calmly yelled at the car, “….bitch!! …come back baby…”
My eyes darted over to Mark. His eyes were glaring, focused. Intent. His glare down the road. So in control. I returned my horror back to the view ahead completely white-knuckling it. Digging my fingers into anything that I could grip.
Then the tires got traction. For anyone who has ever flown on a commercial flight. When your plane shoots down the runway on take off and you feel yourself slide back into your seat? Well, I got shoved like wholly hell back into my seat 10 fold that. It hurt. But, it was a good hurt. The motor was whining harder and louder, saying, “it’s been awhile….thank you…now here’s what I have for you…”
Mark snapped down second gear and we went sideways like no tomorrow, this time to the right. The motor shrieking at him, “Do NOT take your foot off of me…I need this!…”
He shouted, so very calmly again at this beast he was attempting to control, “Fuck you…!!! I got you…!!!” It was like he was riding a wild horse and I was a passenger holding on for dear life.
The entire car heaved up and become a linear bullet. This time I flew back into my seat even more violently and it was the most intense adrenalin rush. EVER.
Mark cussed loudly, “Piece of shit…!!!”
Then we launched off like a rocket. The vineyards became a blur as they whizzed by. The tunnel in my view ahead became smaller as the speed increased.
Mark whipped the shifter to 3rd gear, “That’s better….” I was terrified out of my skull.
The motor was purring with delight now, “Oh ya. Gawd, I love when you give me this….”
He slammed down 4th gear and before I knew it he let off the gas.
What?!?! Why did he stop??!! Why now?
Approximately 14 seconds had elapsed.
He let the car wind down a bit then pulled off to the side of road. His only concern was looking in the rear view mirror for cops. That beautiful California sun was setting in the sky. And he shut off the motor. He reached over and cut off the stereo.
He looked at me, “Fucking street tires!! I should have taken you for a ride with my slicks on.” (slicks are treadless tires that pros use)
I was trembling as he lit up another Marlboro. I asked him, “How fast was that?!”
Mark, “That was fucking retarded. Probably only 100 mph and 14 something seconds in the Q (quarter-mile).”
But, this car was actually another story with slicks on. I had just gone for a ride in a 12 second quarter-mile street racer. (He had raced and been professionally timed at the Sacramento Speedway that I was there to see myself a couple of months later)
I was breathless. I couldn’t think straight. The only thing that could spill out of my mouth was, “I want one.”
Mark said, “No you don’t. You stick with all of that school stuff you do, Mikey.”
I said, glaring with an intensity I didn’t even know I possessed,”No, I’m going to have a car just like this.”
In his gravelly voice he said, “Fine. But, you’re not going to have one like THIS. Ever. You go get yourself a ’68 Bird (1968 Firebird) because it’s Pontiac versus Chevrolet. I will help you build it for all of the help you’ve given me in school. I will build it as fast as I can for you if you think you have the money. You think you can beat me in a race?”
Me, innocently and naively said, “Damn straight.” I had no clue what I was saying, I just wanted one.
He pulled up to my house to drop me off.
Mark, “See you after school tomorrow for math.”
Me, “Ya, don’t do anything stupid please.”
I got out of the car and looked at him in eye, “Please?”
He looked at me, “Street racers never make promises but we never cheat either.”
I began to walk away and I heard THAT roar again. Then the most horrifying noise of tire rubber hitting asphalt. For 100 feet. He went thru all 4 gears on my street. That made points with all of the neighbors. Not. But, I had a grin from ear to ear….
That was the moment I became a street racer and a lot of things changed as the car I would buy became the focus and the life that could surround it. Studying, sports, college all went to the back burner. There would be some much darker trouble coming up ahead though I never did get caught. Sorry for the tease but that will be a story for another day.
I revisited that street several years later. The tire marks had been paved over. But not the memory.
Have you ever been in a street race or secretly desired to?
And we wanted to add a shout out to our friend, Arianwen, in Australia has been working and stressing to find work having moved down under from England. She finally got a new position is doing great so far! She writes about the most amazing adventures and her posts are an absolute thrill just to read! Check out her blog and the amazing adventure stories at beyondblighty here!