Places and Things and Time
I like stuff. You know things. All the great advice for being happy though tells you not to put value into things, but rather put your value into experiences. For me though, “things” tie me to those experiences.
Sure, it’s fun to get new stuff. I enjoy it as much as the next person. But I really like old stuff. Things that have a story. Things that bring back memories. It’s not about the monetary value of the stuff. When I’m gone, and no one cares about the stories anymore, all of my old stuff will just be junk. And by the same line of thought, I don’t expect anyone else beside me to consider my stuff anything other than junk. But let me tell you, I really enjoyed some old junk this past weekend.
Early summer in 1999 I quit my job at the IGA. I worked all through the school year every year, and when summer came, I’d quit and soak up the long days with my friends Bob, Bef, Biebs, Chris and my girlfriend at the time, Andrea. Ingalls, KS was far from the cure for teenage boredom. So our cars and trucks gave us the freedom to break free of the predictable monotony of Ingalls and escape to things that at least by comparison were more interesting. We would spend nights and evenings fishing out at Dwyre’s sandpit, or Norb’s pond. We’d drive to Garden to see a movie, or head to battle hill for an all night paintball battle.
Our good times were very much manufactured on the fly. I remember one afternoon Bef in his 68 GMC and me in the 79 Caprice headed out to the Ingalls Airport and decided we were going to drag race each other there on the runway. We rolled down the windows, lined up even with each other, and hit the gas! The reluctant roar of both engines were followed by slow lurches forward, but all that mattered was who was going least slowest. I don’t remember who won that race. But I do remember one of the guys who worked at the airport running towards us out of the hangar shaking his fist and screaming something that I couldn’t quite make out over the roar of $30 worth of cherry bomb mufflers.
17 years later, the City of Ingalls and the Lions Club are organizing drag races on the runway at the Ingalls Airport. And I still have that same Caprice. They always say “you can never go back”, but damn… this is about as close as it’s ever going to get. My stepmom, Carrie, asked if I was interested in going. I played a cool “sounds like fun” attitude, but inside I was as excited as a 7 year old is for Christmas in November. The day couldn’t get here soon enough.
Between then and now, plenty of life happened. All of the work stuff and Luke’s school stuff, that I had expected, but Andrea’s mom’s health was starting to take a turn for the worse. We decided that if she was willing, she could come stay at the house with us here. We both knew it would bring a huge change to our daily life and what we’d grown to call “normal”. As each week passed, she simply wasn’t getting better. After a few scares and close calls, Jesus called her home. Our life that had been less than normal, and for Andrea more challenging than ever, all of a sudden to a big punch straight to the face.
Working on the car had been an afterthought for weeks. Instead I’d been building wheelchair ramps, juggling schedules to help with Luke so Andrea could go with her mom to appointments. And taking evenings after work to get everybody out of the house so everybody wasn’t confined to the house until we all went crazy. Suddenly, none of that mattered any more, but if life was now anything, it was less “normal” than ever.
A few days after her mom’s passing, Andrea said to me she felt like she just needed to get away and go spend some time with her aunt. I told her to sleep on it, and if she still felt the same way in the morning, that she should go. That next day she booked a flight to North Carolina to spend the week.
Luke went to stay with Andrea’s sister. And I was a bachelor with one week to go before the race. I had a pile of parts to put on the car, but nothing had gotten started. At the time it just didn’t feel important.
The first night coming home to an empty house I mostly just sat and thought about everything that had transpired over the last 8 weeks or so. 8 weeks doesn’t seem like a long time when you think about life. But it’s shocking how quickly 8 weeks can change your life.
Eventually my thoughts turned to the weekend coming up. For a while with everything going on I did think about cancelling. But I knew people were looking forward to it and even for Andrea it was going to be a pleasant distraction. So I started tearing parts off getting ready for the new.
Ever since we got the car when I was 14 years old, it’s always driven like a yacht on choppy seas. It started out I was just going to do an alignment, because the steering wheel was crooked and the wheels weren’t quite parallel just by looking at them. But after I got the wheels up in the air I started checking out other parts. The steering coupler in the shaft was worn out causing a big deadzone in the steering wheel. The idler arm was toast, and so was the center link. The tie rods weren’t terrible (must have replaced those at some point) but since they were less than $10 each… might as well replace them while everything’s apart. Then I checked out the ball joints… after 37 years the original ball joints were still riveted in place! So with the determination that the whole front steering needed replaced, I ordered up a pile of parts from RockAuto.com.
First thing I tackled was the wheel bearings. Never done this job before. Removing the bearing races was more of a challenge than I expected. I remember the guy at Autozone asking if I wanted to rent a slide hammer to get the old ones out. “Nah, I have a shop press.” I answered puffing up my chest. “Oh. Ok.” He said. What I found out is that the press is SUPER for installing the new bearing races. But doesn’t really help you get the old ones out. I remember thinking. Boy. A slide hammer would sure come in handy… Nevertheless, I got it done by using the handle of one of my other tools and a rather large hammer.
With safety in mind I knew it needed a new gas tank. One time when the drive shaft busted Dad pulled the car over on to the shoulder which angled down pretty good. I noticed at that time that gas was dripping down onto the hot exhaust. We played it pretty cool, but deep down I was ready to run. Before we went out to the race, I knew I had to get that replaced. Actually found a replacement gas tank at Autozone to my surprise. And from experience I’ll tell you changing the tank on a 79 Caprice is quite a bit easier than it is on a 94 Blazer.
Next was the part that I dreaded the most. Ball joints. They just aren’t fun. Grinding the rivets off takes forever. And punching the rivets out is even more of a pain in the ass. I end up using a combination of a screwdriver to pry up on the old ones and punching down on the rivets to get them out. It just sucks. Getting the lower ones out wasn’t difficult at all. But pressing the new ones in was a nightmare. They make the new ball joints bigger than the originals on purpose. Thinking that after all this time a car has probably had it’s ball joints changed a few times and the hole it fits in has gotten a bit stretched out. Well… since this old beast had NEVER had its ball joints changed, these new ball joints were a SUPER tight fit. I kid you not, it took two whole nights just to get 4 ball joints changed. You couldn’t pay me enough to be a mechanic every day.
After that I figured I was pretty home free. Except that then I couldn’t get the tie rods to separate from the center link. No problem. I’ll just take the center link out with the tie rods still attached. Except I couldn’t get the center link separated from the pitman arm that connects to the steering box. I hammered away for probably 45 minutes. Until finally I switched to a different sized fork, the one that I thought would be too big. A couple solid smacks it came right apart. All about having the right too I guess.
So after some cleaning, it was finally time to start putting things back together. First the idler arm, the center link. The spindles back onto the new ball joints. The tie rods to the center link then to the spindles. Before cinching everything down, one last look over everything. Cranked down all the nuts and greased up the new joints and packed the new bearings. The last part of putting it all back together was finally fun.
The Friday morning that I was supposed to leave, I still had to put in the new heater core. I had gotten all the prep for that done at 4am, got a couple hours of sleep, and the new one went in with only a few problems. I couldn’t use the original retaining bracket since the new heater core was slightly different than the original. Nothing a few zip ties couldn’t fix. No one will ever see them since it’s covered up by the heater box top. Hehe.
With everything finally put back together it was time to do the alignment. I bought some neon orange twine and lined it up to be exactly parallel to the rear wheels. I then set the alignment for the front wheels and some how, some way got each wheel set with just 1/8th of an in inch toe in. I felt pretty good about it, and the car drives insanely better! Now I just need new shocks….
With the work done and a quick road test from Andrea, it was time to hit the trail. The car made it clear out to Cimarron with little fuss. Dad got to take it for a spin around town. I was happy for him to do so since he built the thing into it’s present form. Except that every time I’m in the car with Dad… something breaks. As we’re heading back to the house and Dad is gunning it around corners raising all hell across the town, I notice a CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK coming from the rear end. We get home and I look under the car and can’t seem to see anything out of place. Oh well. If the car breaks on the track, we’ll figure something out. Too late to do anything at this point.
I was up at 6am on Saturday morning. Got my self cleaned up for the day and went to grab a cup of coffee. The night before we’d fuel up the Black Car and the RV. So pretty much all we needed to do was hop in and go. We set out for the track around 8am. When we got there there weren’t but maybe a dozen cars there. Already though, they were cars all over the map. From fairly stock cars to full blown track-only drag racers. None of the workers really knew what was going on. I thought this would be a pretty interesting day.
Around 10am things started to get a little more organized. We had a meeting with all the drivers who were there so far. They made sure everybody knew this was just for fun, and to be safe so they’d have the opportunity to do it again. Perfect. This was going to be just my speed. And by my speed, I apparently mean slow.
I will say, I have never driven anything faster or with more power than the Black Car. But man compared to a lot of other cars there, sometimes it felt like I was just putting along! Don’t get me wrong, it was still a blast! I won I would guess 3 out of 20 races. But I had fun every single time I went down the track.
It was such a cool feeling to pull into the box, light up the tires and smoke them. Then back up to the line just like you see the big cars do. Then everything after that happened real fast for me. I’m sure after you’ve been at the line a hundred times, it all slows down in your mind. But man from the moment they stage you to the moment the light comes on feels like a blur to me. But then you hit the gas and go.
There’s definitely a skill to drag racing, and one I never mastered that day. I spent most of the day trying to figure out how to get a good launch off the line. I would spin my tires every time and the other cars would just drive away from me. Maybe it was my tires, maybe it was my car, but I have a feeling it was the driver. I saw cars with smaller tires than me get a lot better start! So I do have a new respect for these drivers, as it’s more than just mash the gas and go.
I just enjoyed being there and being in the middle of it. We love going to the drag races here in Great Bend. But here I was really a part of it, even if not the star of the show. I like to think there were people out there in the crowd rooting for me as the underdog. It was fun to put the Black Car out on the track and see what it could really do. It helps me decide the direction I want to take it in the future. And it was just a great day to spend with the family.
Plus… I got to drag race on the Ingalls Airport runway again.