I’ve never really had a need for speed. I try to drive the speed limit and I rarely get a ticket. This may be due, in part, to an experience that I had when I was sixteen years old. I had just gotten my first car, a 1963 Chevy Impala. It was one of those square-looking jobs with the rows of round taillights on the back. It was the kind of car that they like to turn into a low rider nowadays. The car was over ten years old and, though the motor was in good shape, there was a problem with the steering. There was a part down near the joint on the right side called a Pitman arm that I needed. I had called around to some auto parts stores and they had told me that my best bet, if I needed it right away, would be to try to find one at a junkyard. My mom had a friend named Al James who worked with her at the factory, who was pretty good at fixing cars, so she agreed to give him a few bucks to install the Pitman arm; that was if I could find it. The problem was, my mom didn’t drive, and Al’s car was also on the fritz. He was going to use the money he made to repair his own car.
Now the greatest concentration of junkyards in the metro area back then was in a rather rough neighborhood across the river in East St. Louis. As we were discussing how to get over there, a guy named Bill showed up. Bill was, in all sense of the word, a character. He was a drifter, an alcoholic, and a friend of my brother’s, who was a biker at the time. Bill looked a little tipsy as he came unsteadily through the kitchen door and asked my mom if she had anything to eat. I remember her giving him a leftover bowl of chili from the fridge and he seemed to sober up a little. He asked what we were doing and we told him about the car. He volunteered to take us over to the east side to look for the part.
Bill drove an old Pontiac Catalina. The car was huge, but it had a big V-8 and could get up and go if you punched it. The first thing that Bill did when we got in the car was to reach under the seat for a drink. We should have gotten out of the car right then and taken the keys away from him, but this was back in the seventies. After we crossed the bridge, we found that the streets of East St. Louis were pretty well deserted. It was about 10:30 on a Sunday morning. The driving that you see in the movie The Fast and the Furious had nothing on Bill that day. We careened through the deserted streets at what seemed to be about 80 miles an hour, screeching tires and burning rubber. I crouched down in the back seat and held on for life. Al remained mysteriously quiet. We stopped at the first junkyard and Bill jumped out of the car and ran inside. We followed. He told the man at the counter that we were looking for an “armpit for a 63 Chevy.” The man looked at him like he was as crazy as he was. There were no 63’s on the lot. After several more attempts and a brief stop to shout at a couple of women crossing the street, we finally found a junkyard that had a 63 Chevy Impala like mine on it. As Al and I were busy removing the part, Bill found a new toy. There was an old ambulance, one of those flat Cadillac’s that looks like a hearse, parked up front. Unfortunately, someone had left the keys in it and Bill had decided to take it for a joyride around the junkyard. With the lights on and the siren blasting, he came around the mounds of junked cars, slinging gravel into the air. Needless to say, I was really relieved when we got back over the river and made it home in one piece.
If you like to put the petal to the metal in a slightly more controlled environment, then check out Midnight Madness at the Gateway International Raceway now through the summer. Midnight Madness is the thing for street racers who want to show up, sign up, and if everything checks out, rev up and race, without the legal hassles and dangers of doing it on the street. The last event, in June, drew about 3000 spectators and 300 racers with all types of cars from a newer Camaro to a vintage Ford Fairlane. This is motor head heaven. The parking lot is full with stock cars by 10:00 p.m. Hoods pop open like popcorn and you can hear the engines revving all the way through until the event shuts down at 3 in the morning. There is also a makeshift area cordoned off with concrete blocks for the latest motoring trend called drifting. Highlighted in the movie the Fast and the Furious, drifting can be described as sort of a high tech version of doing doughnuts on the high school parking lot. Fast burning rubber and almost out of control.
Surveys taken at the raceway show that almost all of the people attending have either raced before, or have plans to do so in the future. So if you like it loud, fast and furious, it’s the place to be on a Friday night. And it’s a whole lot safer than driving though the streets of East St. Louis on a Sunday morning.