My Short Career In Street Racing

I got my drivers license in 1976.  I keep reading that many of today’s youth are ambivalent about driving.  But that was not me.

I think I was born crazy about cars.  I could identify many of them from a very young age and would play inside of parked cars every chance I got.  When I reached the age of fifteen and was eligible for a learner’s permit, there was no holding me back.  I would have crawled across an acre of broken glass to get that permit, and the license that came thereafter.

I immediately began pestering my parents for their permission to buy a car.  I knew that they were not about to actually buy me one, and was quite happy to use the money I had been saving from my youth.  Every dollar from every birthday card or lawn mowing job that made it into the bank may as well have been labeled “car fund”.

Alas, I did not get that car for awhile.  My mother worked at a job which allowed her to take a bus to and from work, so her car was freely available much of the time.  Never was I ever so happy for her to find another job as on that day when she announced that she would have to start driving to work.  “I guess you can get that car now.”

At that point I did not have much in the way of actual nuts and bolts experience.  I went out car shopping with a close friend and we found one.  A 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible.  Not only was it a convertible, but it was clearly a high performance one as well, given that “390” badge on the fender.

I had seen a lot of Fords over the years with the “390” badge and knew that it must have been something to boast about.  I eventually learned that all Ford 390s (for the number of cubic inches) were not created equal.  My car had the low-power version that took regular gas and was tuned for economical cruising and not for performance.  And I later learned that even the performance-oriented 390s were a little on the doggish side, but I knew none of that then.  I had myself a 390-powered Ford and that was all that mattered.

My job through most of high school was at the Fort Wayne Public Library.  It was not very exciting, but the tradeoff was that I didn’t make much money.  Oh wait – that wasn’t much of a tradeoff at all.  OK, it was better than my first job at the Burger King where I spent the first three weeks of employed life.  Better pay, no grease and no goofy uniform was a definite reason to go to work shelving books.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with amateur drag racing?  Just this.  The library was downtown and my route took me several blocks on Washington Street.  Washington Street was a one-way thoroughfare with traffic lights at each block that were timed so that if you caught one at the right time and kept to the speed limit you were likely to hit the lights green after green for most of the way. But if you went too fast you would get stopped at every single one.

One particular day I was heading in a little after four p.m.  About six or seven blocks from my parking lot I decided that I needed to get into the left lane.  I looked to my left and there was a plain-looking metallic blue Gremlin there.  Most people have forgotten the Gremlin by now, but it was not a car that got much respect even then.  It was the low-end car made by the long-defunct American Motors Company.

I sized up the Gremlin stopped to my immediate left.   I knew my cars and a Gremlin would be no trouble for my 390.  But then I saw the little “304” badge on the front fender.  Hmmm, I thought.  A V8 Gremlin.  Well that’s OK, 390 is way more than 304.

The light turned green and I did what any red-blooded seventeen year old would have done – I jammed my gas pedal to the floor.  The guy in the Gremlin must have seen me eying his car because he clearly did the same thing.  As we came to the next red light we were still in our original lanes.

OK, I thought, “I must have hesitated a touch.  So all I need to do is put my cat-like seventeen-year-old reflexes to work.  Nail it at the right time and the Gremlin will be sucking my exhaust fumes.”  The light turned green and I was ready for him.  But he was ready for me too.

Over the course of five or six blocks a pattern developed.  The lighter Gremlin would leap out ahead while my much heavier Ford worked to catch up.  But then the Gremlin had to manually shift to second gear, allowing my Ford to close the gap and get a nose ahead.

And so we went, block after block.  Youthful testosterone must have been spraying from the open windows of both of those cars.  Neither of us was willing to concede to the other, like a couple of rams butting heads in a mountain meadow.  Hey, just because I worked in a library did not mean that my name was Myron Milquetoast.  I had a 390 and was not afraid to use it.

Adult me would have put getting into my lane at a higher priority than vanquishing the (other?) jerk in the Gremlin.  My method (still) is to hit the gas and see if I leap out in front.  If I do, problem solved and I zip into my desired lane.  If, however, the other driver senses a contest, all I need to do is stab the brake and slip in behind.  This works 99% of the time.  Incidentally, my modern minivan is far faster than my 390 ever was. But this was not how my mind worked at seventeen.

I finally realized that my parking lot was quickly approaching and that I was no closer to that left lane than I had been at the outset of this little sporting event.  I made the tough decision to break off from our grudge match.  The light turned green, he blasted forward and I eased into the lane behind him.  Breathing his exhaust fumes.  Which was not fun.

I learned several lessons that day.  First, a 304-powered Gremlin earned my respect.  A car that is lighter doesn’t need as much engine.  This shouldn’t have been new to me, but it kind of was.  The second was that my 390 was no race car.  It didn’t embarrass me (much) but it didn’t win that race, either.

The main lesson was that I should not let adrenaline derail what I needed to do.  I was, fortunately, not one of those guys who would let the grudge match overcome reason – even at seventeen.  So, when the time came to break off from this contest, I did so and got to work.

Finally I realized immediately that I was really lucky that day – there was nary a squad car in sight.  Had John Law been at one of those cross-streets I would have learned a very different (and much more expensive) lesson.  But the statute of limitations for my Fast & Furious offenses of 1977 expired some years ago so I can come clean.  As 1970’s-style street racing experiences go,  mine could have gone better.  But it could have gone much worse, too.

Photo Credits

Opening photo – crop from the vintage package art from Hot Wheels drag racing set offered for sale on Amazon

1967 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible – photo by the author

1967 Ford “390” badge – offered for sale on eBay

1972 AMC Gremlin – photo from cargurus.com

AMC “304” badge – wikimedia

Police car – random photo found on the internet so long ago I no longer remember where.

23 thoughts on “My Short Career In Street Racing

  1. This was fun to read. You have been able to inspire enthusiasm in others about a 304 powered Gremlin. Being familiar with the FE V8 I can also hear your 390 fighting a good fight.

    Naturally I had to live vicariously through you with this; I’ve never done such a thing. Ever. Once when I was in my ’92 Crown Vic, it having obviously started life in a law enforcement capacity, and a kid next to me was in a Ford Contour with the 24 valve V6 badge, I didn’t race him. But he kept speeding up on me and I was doing 65 on the business loop before he let me over. Heavy traffic, you know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I came to respect the 304 Gremlin that day, a respect that remains.
      My current minivan is actually quite good for those situations requiring a jump out ahead for a lane change.

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  2. When out driving one evening with a buddy, another of our friends came up beside us at a stoplight. He was in his 1970 1/2 Camaro SS with a big friggin engine that sounded oh so loud and nice. Anyway we pulled away at the stoplight in our car, and Dave held back in his Camaro, for a couple hundred feet or so. We had a slight lead, and then, Dave booted the Camaro. The expression “Blew the doors off of you!” may have been invented at that very moment. Dave was past us and gone into the night. Fun times back in the day.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, I never had the experience of having the “big dog” car that could do that. I like to think I’ve matured to the point where such a thing is no longer of interest to me. But there are times . . . 🙂

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  3. I went drag racing a few times with my 258 powered Matador. It had a great jump off the line and would do very well against the 5.0 Mustangs. For about 60 feet, at which point the inline 6 ran out of breath just as the 5.0 was winding up and they would go BLLLAAAHHHHH! past me and beat me by about 4 seconds in the quarter mile.
    It was fun though, and yeah my current Grand Caravan is way faster 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree with Jason – this was fun to read (and I’m not even a car buff). The fact you remember the down-and-dirty details of your battle with the Gremlin speaks to your love of cars. I also got my license as soon as I was of age, and my parents promptly turned over the family station wagon so I could drive myself to school. Never took issue with the image (or lack of) a station wagon gave me in high school. It was simply a way to get to school and back. As for AMC I had a short romance with the Pacer but I’m glad I never got one. That car (er, flying saucer?) was so wide I wondered how it fit in standard lanes. No surprise you don’t see Pacers (or Gremlins) anywhere on earth anymore.

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    • I had a girlfriend for a short time in the 80s who had a Pacer. It was 7-8 years old and starting to get rusty. The Navajo cloth seats were disintegrating too. I drove it exactly once. It was the only car I ever drove that I was embarrassed to be seen in. Which is saying something , given some of the things I’ve piloted.

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  5. In 2016, I bought a 1962 Mercury Monterey w/ a 390 and “Multi-Drive” automatic transmission. In “D1” you started with a very low 1st gear which enabled you to spin the tires easily. “D1” was really unnecessary–except for drag racing. I mostly drove in “D2” (starts in 2nd). This engine (which was about as smooth and quiet as a Cadillac engine of the period) also had tremendous torque. On long, steep grades I felt like I was piloting a private plane because I could climb hills with almost no effort! This car had a 4 bbl. carb., dual exhaust, burned premium fuel, and was rated at 300 HP. So this Merc was no dog, possibly because it only weighed about 3700 lbs.

    I sold the Mercury in 2018 because I wanted to buy a ’59 Chevy that was for sale. A ’59 Chevy is more “charismatic” than a ’62 Mercury, but the Chevy has a 6 cyl. The 6 is very smooth and quiet in its own way, but doesn’t have the power of a big V-8. But for the normal kind of driving I do, it does just fine. It also is much easier to work on and burns less gas.

    1962 Mercury Monterey

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  6. If you actually had the base 390 that would be 270hp, but my source seems to say that the Galaxie would have the 315 hp version, which matches my 383. However a 300 weighs almost 500 pounds more.

    I describe it as fast, but not quick.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The 270 hp 2 bbl version and the 315 hp 4 bbl versions were both available. Ford had eliminated the 352 for 1967, so the engine choices went from the 210-ish hp 289 to the 270 hp 2 bbl 390 to the 315 4 bbl version. I learned that quickly because my insurance agent’s book said it was 315 which was going to cost me extra for insurance, but I got out of that when I decoded the data plate on the door. That was the one good part about the low output version. Another reason for the modest drag-racing performance was that mine came with something like a 2:70 axle. It could hit 19-20 mpg cruising at 55 mph but was good for only 10-12 mpg around town where it struggled a bit off the line (depending on whether I was driving sanely or in beat-that-Gremlin mode).

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  7. It was a fun read, even for non-drag racers! I vaguely remember the Gremlin….it was kind of like a Pinto I think,or its competitor? I had a two-seater Fiero in my younger days but never raced it, unless I was late for work, and after a hefty ticket one day, ever after drove the speed limit. I noticed your convertible has individualized license plates? Did they have those back then or do you still have it? Re the Hot Wheels photo, I don’t know if you still have any but some of them are worth something now to collectors. I went through my brothers recently and he had some 1967 originals, but they were in bad shape paintwise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had (and still may have) some of the first Hot Wheels cars, but they aged poorly in my care.

      Indiana only used license plates for the rear. Someone gave the plate to my father but he lived across the State line in Ohio where they required front plates so he gave it to me. I kept it on a series of cars until all of the plastic chrome wore off the letters.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I like that Ford Galaxie and a convertible yet … you were living large especially when I saw your initials on the license plate! I was laughing that your mom got the new job and had to drive and knew that gave you license to buy your own car. We never forget our first cars, (mine the VW Super Beetle that should have been in the “Lemon Hall of Fame” for sure). We still have drag racing around these parts – in Detroit there is so much drag racing, that the Detroit Police Department chases ’em down after scoping them out in helicopters first.

    Liked by 1 person

      • We had only one person in the area who repaired foreign cars and VWs were his specialty – good thing as my little lemon was there all the time. It was likely since it was a Super Beetle, so not a regular stick shift with a clutch, but you just shifted into second gear when you went over 55 mph.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Re: VW Beetles/Bugs: I once had a date with a large guy who drove a Beetle. He parked it, got out, saw that one wheel was on the curb, and lifted the car and moved the wheel into the street. I didn’t like him enough for a second date, but I was impressed.

    Fast forward a few years. I was in labor with our first child. My husband drove our VW Beetle across town to the hospital, while I was doubled over in the back seat. There was a blizzard. The car ahead of us had stalled, and two guys were pushing it with both doors open—impassable. Somehow we made it to the hospital. The police officer said “Happy New Year,” and we welcomed our Baby New Year shortly after we’d arrived.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some cars have a way of working their way into our lives in special ways, and VWs seem to be well represented that way.

      My sister had the New Year Baby in her community one year. She said she could have done without the media cameras. Come to think of it, she had a VW too (but a Golf, not a Beetle).

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