Life a Quarter Mile at a Time
By Alexander Arnell
The black Trans Am sped away at over 100 miles per hour with Jeff in hot pursuit. Jeff beat on the steering wheel and screamed, “Haagh! You can’t get away from me!”
Jeff shifted his primer gray 1962 Chevy II into fourth gear to bury speedometer’s needle past the listed numbers as the car roared down the two lane Illinois gravel black top.
With the telephone polls looking like a picket fence Jeff realized the Trans Am was pulling away from him. His realization made him push the gas peddle to the floor with an intensity that made his right leg hurt. Jeff yelled again, “You might get me on the top end but you can’t get away!”
Suddenly, Jeff’s inner voice screamed Rail Road tracks! Before he could react, Jeff saw that the black 1975 Trans Am, without displaying a break light, hit the raised Rail Road track crossing to launch in the air like a Boeing 707 in a giant shower of sparks, rubber and plastic body parts.
Now horrified, Jeff slammed on his car‘s breaks to keep him from the same fate. Even with both feet holding down the break peddle, time, physics and a bad left brake cylinder made Jeff’s ride spin wildly out of control.
Not being able to stop in time the car spinning like a top contacted the raised Rail Road track crossing at a ninety-degree angle. Momentum against a solid object left the Chevy II no choice but to roll immediately over and over on its death roll.
Jeff during the first roll fell out the car but only landed in the grass in a sitting position with no serious injury. Later, Jeff would ponder how his car literally laid him aside like a babe in a cradle before she tore herself into oblivion.
Once he hit the Rail Road Tracks, time began to slow down for Jeff. He unsuccessfully tried to turn the steering wheel to stop the brake-induced skid of his car. During the first revolution of his out of control car, Jeff saw the Trans Am fly through the air to land nose first at a forty-five degree angle to the road. The Trans Am bent at its middle in the shape of a V before the rear of the auto slammed onto the road to bounce the car end over end with a last roll over into the grader ditch in a shower of window glass.
Jeff vividly saw steel train rails slam into passenger door window throwing window glass at him like bullets. During the wild roll the driver’s side door flew open as Jeff vainly tried to hold on to the steering wheel.
In slow motion the open door space was filled with grass covered earth that Jeff was deposited on as the remainder of the Chevy II continued on it path of destruction.
Jeff sat stunned as he watched his beloved car roll endlessly over and over slinging doors and other body parts twenty feet in the air. The car looked like it would have rolled forever if it had not run into the sedentary Trans Am.
After a long blinking stare at the wreckage of the mangled autos Jeff said, “Holy Shit!”
Slowly, Jeff began to stand up looking and feeling for smashed, slashed, or broken body parts. To Jeff’s amazement other than a few scraps and bruises, his was okay.
Jeff said aloud , “Man, those poor kids they must be dead.” With much dread and apprehension, Jeff slowly made his way over to check on the four occupants that had been riding inside the speeding Trans Am.
Reaching the Chevy’s grill, Jeff could see that the rear of his car now lay on top of the upside down Trans Am.
Walking around his car Jeff got on his knees to look into the Trans Am and saw four sets of eyes staring at him. With excitement in his voice Jeff yelled, “You guys all right?” The driver shook himself back to reality and said, “I think I’m all right. How about you guys, you all right?” The remaining passengers while still held upside down by their seat belts all responded in the positive.
Jeff said, “I don’t want to bug you guys or any thing but that dripping sound you hear is your gas tank leaking. You might want to get out of this wreck before it blows up.”
The four occupants of the Trans looked at each other briefly before they climbed out of the windows of the car like rats from a sinking ship.
All five young men walked together as they stumbled and used each other for support. The five flopped down to sit at the edge of the grader ditch with their feet restingin moist grader ditch.
First Jeff, then one by one, each of the five noticed a small flame in the engine compartment of the upside down Trans Am. Slowly the flame spread to rear of the auto before it erupted in to flames. Within seconds, both cars were engulfed in one large fireball that roared 20 feet into the cloudless frozen January night sky.
Transfixed, the five watched the two cars burn uncontrollably into a single cinder. Jeff said, “At least we won’t freeze to death.” Maybe through the shared experience or maybe the joy of being alive the group all thought the bad attempt at humor was very funny.
The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
Jeff looked at the driver of the Trans Am, held out his hand and said, “Well, I guess since we are both screwed by our ignorance we should get to know each other. My name is Jeff Boggs.” The driver’s mouth fell open before he shook his head in disbelief then took Jeff’s offered hand into his own.
The driver laughed through his teeth then said, “Unbelievable, I’m an idiot. I guess you’re right. My name is Rick Renault.”
Finished with their handshake Jeff’s and Rick looked at Rick’s three friends as they stood watching the flames subside on the wrecked cars. All three stood hunched over with their hands in their pockets shivering in cool spring air waiting for Rick to tell them what to do next. Rick shook his head then turned to Jeff to and said, “I’m working alone here.” Still shaking his head Rick surveyed the lifeless industrial park area that surrounded the accident site. To his three friends Rick yelled, “Stamp out the grass fire you idiots.”
Jeff said, “So, much for everyone running out to help us.” Rick replied, “I guess you got that right. Good thing we’re not laid out knocked senseless, or something. I guess we would have just laid out here and died from neglect.”
"It looks like we are our own," Jeff said, "I guess we need to walk to the nearest phone and call someone? What do you think?" Thinking, Rick scratched the back of his head then started rubbing on his bruised arm as Jeff stood up. Rick said, "It's pretty desolate here in the Pioneer Park area this time the morning. I would guess the Dragon would be the only place open with a phone." Jeff stood on his tiptoes to look towards the Dragon and replied, "Yeah, that's what I was thinking. I think the easiest way to get there would be to cut across that big truck park over there, then climb that fence over past the creek.”
Rick looked Jeff up and down and said, "I'm sad to say it Jungle Jeff but I believe you're right." Rick stood up with a voiced groan before and during a big stretch to in an attempt to relieve his sore back. Rick looked over to his three riding buddies and said, "Unless you guys want to stay here all night and freeze to death you better follow Jeff and me over to the Dragon." Craig said, "The Dragon? All right! Are you buying Rick?" With despair Rick replied, "Craig, I don't care what your mother says, you really are an idiot."
The Phone Call
A tattered torn and dirty group of five arrived at the after-hours bar, the Dragon.
Rick looked at his three former cruising buddies then punched Craig on the arm to gain there full attention. Rick said, "Craig, Derek and Dennis listen to me?" The three nodded in reply to Rick. Rick continued, "We just got kicked out of here a half an hour ago so when we go back in the three of you got play it cool, you follow? Again, the three nodded in reply. No jack-assing around, do you hear me? Jeff and I are going to need to do some fast-talking in the next few minutes. If we don't play this right we can all wind up in jail. You don't want that, do you?" This time Craig, Derek and Dennis shook their heads no.
With Jeff and Rick in the lead, the group of five casually walked through the red padded double doors of the Dragon. Bill the bartender looked toward the group with squinted eyes. Bill said, "What the hell? Now you're all friends?" Jeff said, "Oh yeah, we're best buds now.” In a gravelly bass voice Bill said, "You better be if you know what's good for you. I had better not get any trouble out of you knuckleheads. What happened to you? You guys look like hammered dog shit.”
Jeff said, “Hey, Rick send your friends off to a booth or something.” Rick turned around and Craig said, “We can hear. Who made him the boss of us?” Rick said, “What did I tell you? Remember the jail part?” Craig said, “Alright, jeese,” as he stomped off to an empty booth.
Bill said, “Well?” Jeff said, “We kinda of went over a rail road crossing a little too fast and totaled our cars.” “What,” Bill said, “you wrecked your cars after you left here and then came back? Tell me you didn’t call the cops?” Jeff afraid said, “No, we came here to call the cops.” Bill said, “No you don’t want to do that.” Jeff replied, “We don’t?” Bill continued, “No you don’t. Where there any witnesses?” Jeff said, “No not a sole.” Bill let out a long sigh and said, “That’s good.”
Bill asked, “How much money can the five of you put together?” Jeff said, “Let me find out?” Bill exclaimed, “Hurry up about it will you.” Jeff and Rick went to the booth to talk quietly to the group.
Jeff and Rick returned to address Bill. Jeff said, “We have $50 and change. Bill said, “Good, I got you covered. There is a friend of mine named Brant Ward that for $50 will make our problem go a way.” Jeff asked, “Our problem?” Bill grunted back, “Damn right our problem. Some random cop shows up to find out you been drinking in my little bar they would shut me down for sure. Then I would have to kill the both of you.” Jeff said, “You’re right, it’s our problem.”
Now get a hold of yourself before I tell you this next bit of news, Bill said. Brant’s a state cop. Now I know what you’re thinking but like I said he’s a friend of ours. For $50 he will make our problem not a problem anymore. Have a round on the house and let old Bill make this all go away.
Jeff and Rick walked to their friends with a pitcher and 5 glasses. Rick said, “Look’s like we have this under control. At least I hope we do. Rick looked a Craig as he leaned to one side to pass gas loudly. Rick said, “What have I told you about shitting you pants in public. There are women in this bar.” Craig just laughed. Rick continued, “You need to call someone for a ride home.” Craig replied, “I already have. Derek called his brother. He’s coming to get us. Or, we hope he does. Derek had to wake him up so we are hoping that he will not just go back to sleep.” Rick said, “Okay, but I thought I told you to do nothing until I told you…never mind, that’s good. Here have a beer. I have to talk to Jeff.”
Rick walked over the table where Jeff sat in wait of Tooper Ward. Rick sat down and said, “Some times I really hate those guys, cause they’re such dumbasses. But, deep down they make me feel superior, so that makes it alright.” Jeff said, “Okay?”
Jeff asked, “What did you have in that motor in your Trans Am?” Rick replied, “I have or should I say had the Pontiac 455 taken out and replaced with a L88 454 with aluminum heads.” Surprised Jeff gasped, “Really?” Rick continued, “You might think I’m lying to you but I’m not. You have to understand my dad owns Reliable Pontiac, Chrysler, Dodge and Graves’ Chevrolet.” Impressed Jeff said, “No shit?” Rick smiled and said, “I shit you not.”
Rick said, “I can even go one better. My uncles own The Yellow Tea Pot Speed and Performance Shop. Jeff exclaimed, “No way!” Rick said, “Yes way!” Jeff responded, “I’m impressed. I go to the Yellow Tea Pot all the time. Why did they name the shop the Yellow Tea Pot?”
“If you remember,” Rick said, “my last name is Renault. My uncles thought that if they named the shop the Renault Speed shop everyone would think is was for foreign cars.” Why’s that?” “You know, Renault is a French car maker.” “Oh yea,” said Jeff. Rick continued, “It is the same reason my dad kept the Reliable and Graves names for his two dealerships when he bought them. If he had changed the name to Renault Pontiac, Chrysler, Dodge and Renault Chevrolet people would come in to buy a Renault, which they don’t sell.
Jeff pondered the conversation for a moment then said, “That makes since, but why Yellow Tea Pot?” Jeff laughed then said, “Not many people from America get the joke. You see, Renault built a car to race Formula one in Europe. It was not a very good racecar. It was prone to breaking down. Therefore, everyone on the circuit gave the car the derogatory nickname of the Yellow Tea Pot.”
“I get it,” Jeff said, “Yellow Tea Pot instead of Renault.” Rick said, “Now you’re catching on. Also, Yellow Tea Pot is a weird name that makes people think and it’s easy to remember because it is so weird. As you know weird sells”
“So they just gave you your Trans Am?” Jeff asked? Jeff smiled as he understood the hidden part of the question. Jeff said, “Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong I had that car because of my family but my family never gives anything away. I have been working at my dad’s dealerships since I was a little kid. Now I work evenings and weekends at my uncles’ shop.
The TA was a mechanics’ lean car at Reliable. The original owner bought it with cash brand new. He raced it for a year on the hill climb rally circuit before he blew the motor and wrecked it one weekend. He had it towed in to the dealership thinking we would fix it for free. Since he had been racing it he had voided the warranty. When he found out how much it was going to cost to fix he said “just keep it” and bought a new TA.” Jeff said, “That guy must be rich?” Rick said, “Oh he defiantly is, that’s for sure. He lives on Grand View Drive. You know the house it’s the one everyone calls the castle. I believe his parents own the brewery in the Heights.” Jeff said, “Nice”
“It was, “Rick said. “Yea, the TA was really an inside deal. The service manager put a mechanics’ lean on the car for the storage fee that I paid for the title.” Jeff said, “Sweet!” Rick replied, “Not completely. I had a car with a blown engine, cracked transmission and tore up front fender.” Jeff said, “But still.” Rick said, “You’re right, but still.”
Jeff asked, “Tell me about the motor?” Jeff cleared his voice before he said, “The motor is not mine. My uncles told me they could not have a nephew of there’s out there running a sub par motor. They loaned me the motor with the stipulation that they could use it for shop promotion. During the week, I have to park it in front of the speed shop so they can use it for an example of their good work when they are trying to sell a job to a prospective client. I drive it to car shows and restaurant openings and such.” Jeff said, ‘That sound like a great deal.” Rick replied, “It is but I have to put in a lot of time dragging the car around. Also I can’t drive it to school because I have to leave it at the shop all week.”
“That must be a bummer,” Jeff said. “What do you drive?” “Rick said, “It’s no big deal. I just drive one of my dad’s demos. He owns two car dealerships if you remember.
What about your car?” “My Chevy II?” “No the other Chevy II. Did you build it yourself? And, if you did how did you learn to build such a fast car?”
Jeff said, “You want the long or the short story?” Rick replied, “Looks like we have plenty of time to kill. Anyway, keep talking I’m kinda of nervous waiting for that State Police guy to show. Tell the long version it’ll take the edge off.”
“You’re nervous,” Jeff said, “I’m about to loose my mind. So, the long version it will be.”
Jeff and Rick froze as a couple of guys came in from just finishing working a night shift. Jeff said, “Shit!” Jeff said, “Could waiting for the hangman be any worse?” Jeff said, “Maybe, anyway you were saying?”
“My parents are business owners like yours,” Jeff said. However, they only own a furniture store. Maybe you have heard of it, Boggs Furniture?” Rick said, “Yea, isn’t it Morton?”
Jeff said, “That’s it. I live in Morton. It used to be Benson Furniture but 10 years ago, when we bought the store we changed the name. My dad didn’t want to at first because he was too cheep to buy a new sign but my mom would not have any of that. I run shipping and receiving, the warehouse and make all the deliveries. I like you have worked at the store in one capacity or another, my whole life.
When I was twelve my sister started dating this guy named Terry Fleming.” Rick commented, “I know him, doesn’t he have a candy apple red Chevy II?” Jeff replied, “That’s him. They got married after dating a few years. Since you know him, you know he is a big drag racer. He plans to quit working at Caterpillar soon and paint custom cars full time. Anyway, he used to come over in his hot rod and that is when I decided I liked cars.
My parents at first didn’t want Pam hanging around Terry all the time so to get out of the house she would tell them she was taking me places. But, in reality she was hanging out at Terry’s apartment. His apartment was cool. He had a two-stall garage attached to his apartment. He would work on his car and of course his friends all the time. I hung out in that garage for hours. When my parents gave up keeping Terry off of Pam I still went the Terry’s garage because it was a Mecca for all the local gear heads.
Terry was always the type of guy that before you knew it you were working for him. Before I was fourteen, I was polishing heads and lapping valves. Finally, it progressed to where I was doing most of the grunt work of building motors and putting Terry’s car back together after he tore it up street racing or at the strip.”
Rick commented, “Yea, Terry is a good customer at the Tea Pot.” Jeff laughed, “Ain’t that the truth. He also buys a bunch at your dad’s car dealership. I guess you could say that Terry is my mentor. He has taught me most of what I know about cars. My only bitch is that he will not let me go to the track with him when he races.” Rick asked, “Why?” “I really don’t know,” Jeff replied, “All I can guess is that he has this mental block that I’m still twelve years old and he doesn’t want me bothering him.”
Rick asked, “Did you build you own motor?” Jeff proudly said, “Yes I did. First over the period of a year, I gathered parts from friends, swap meets or salvage yards. Since I’m on a shoestring budget I didn’t buy one part new. My dad’s 72 pickup’s motor puked .He gave the motor to me. The motor was toast but the block was still good. Luckily, it had four bolt mains. A friend of Terry’s wanted more compression for his motor when he switched from gas to Alcohol. I bought his 12 to 1 Behr pistons. Another friend of Terry’s decided to go big block and I bought up his spare 4340 steel crank shaft and a set of 5.7 connecting rods. I went to a swap in Indiana and bought some Molly piston rings and a Clevite 77 high performance rod and main bearing set.
I got real lucky on the heads. Terry changed out a guys heads that were 2.02 camel pump heads with 64 cc chambers with accessory holes for an aluminum set. I bought his cast off heads for a song.
I traded a set of Craigers for a Tunnel ram intake and toped it off with one of Terry’s spare 750 Holly double pumper carburetor. He was not using it since he switched over to twin 500 Hollies on his car. If I ruined his carb in the wreck I bet he’ll make me pay for it.”
At another swap meet in Moline I bought, an Ansen NHRA approved scatter shield. I put a 2800 pound pressure plate and a Power Train performance clutch in side the scatter shield.
The drive train is a four speed Muncie and a 12 bolt rear end with a 4.10 rear gear with posi traction. The tires were Mickey Thompson drag radials that I dug out of the trash at the Goodyear store.”
“Holy crap ,” cried Rick. You got all those parts and put them together yourself?” Jeff said, “I can truthfully say I did all the work. But Terry did help me with some of the problem solving and thinking.”
Rich said, “That far out man. Your car really was a rocked. How fast did you run the quarter?” Jeff sheepishly said, “I’ve never been to a drag strip so I don’t know. But, as you know I have rarely been beat on the street.”
Craig walked up to Jeff and Rick’s table. Craig said, “Derek’s brother is here. We’re leaving.” Jeff said, “That was quick.” Craig said, “Yea, Derek doesn’t live far. Rick will you call us tomorrow?” “Well,” Rick said, “I guess I won’t be racing tomorrow but we may be able to catch a ride with my uncles.” Craig looked at Derek and Dennis and shouted, “Yea, Baby we’re going. Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! At the beautiful Wailing US 30 Drag Strip. Where the great ones RUN… Run… run…!”
Craig, Derek, Dennis and Derek’s brother lumbered out of the bar. Jeff asked, “What was that all about?” Rick replied, “We had planned to go to US 30 drag strip to run the TA but after tonight that plan went out the window with a puff of smoke.”
Jeff said, “I’m sorry dude.” Rick interrupted, “You don’t have to be, I’m as much or more to blame that you are. Besides, other than parts where I was shot at, got my ass kicked and almost killed when I totaled my car, I have had the time of my life.” Jeff said, I don’t know what to think about you. And, you forgot you almost got killed during our race when you ran that red light.” Rick laugh and said, “Least I forget that.”
Rick said, “But really dude I have to say I’m sorry as well. If I hadn’t been such a sore looser and had to rattle your chain at Hardee’s we wouldn’t be in such a problem like we are now.” A smile crossed Jeff’s face. Jeff said, “Like you said, “Tonight was a time of our lives but it won’t be The time of our lives. Don’t worry about it, easy come easy go. I’ll build a new and better car. I had already outgrown that car anyway. On the other hand, maybe we could build a car together? Rick thought for a moment then said, “To quote Humphrey Bogart, Jeff, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.”