Renegade




It was not hard to be renegade in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of West Covina during the 1960s.


Emerging from the conservative ‘50s, all you had to be was a disagreeable teenager, especially in this Anglo-Saxonite community where most of the local power brokers attended Rotary Club pancake breakfasts with an alarming regularity. Come to think of it, regularity was also a big deal during this era.

My home town was very much like the place portrayed in the movie, “American Graffiti.” It was a teenage car culture, and after I turned 16, I had a driver’s license. Not long after, I had a car. My parents were upper middle class, so I did not have to actually earn the money to buy a car. And my mother was eager to be free of having to take me places, and then, pick me up and bring me home. Her life was busy enough, what with Women's Club luncheons to plan, bridge parties, country club appearances and the ongoing burden of supervising housekeepers and gardeners — all this along with a husband who actually expected her to make dinner on a regular basis. Yes, regularity was a pretty big deal during this era.

Nowadays there are lots of restrictions on young drivers, but when I got my license, I was free, turned loose on the streets without any restrictions or guidelines. Just a few hours of driver’s ed. But I was a pretty good driver. I’d had experience, what with all those times I took my parents’ cars out on the road when they were away for a weekend trip. Yes, I remember learning how every intersection was not necessarily a four-way stop as I propelled my mother’s lumbering, razor-finned Cadillac straight toward a passing car who, much to my surprise, had no stop sign. I hit the brake pedal just in time.

Then there was that lesson about road rage, what we used to call, “mad” or “angry.” I thought driving was a competition, and that the object was to beat the other drivers. After all, I wasn’t actually going anywhere. So I jammed down the gas pedal and managed to pull the great white whale in front of this other guy in an old, compact car who had tried his best not to let me into his lane. While I was waiting behind another car at a stop sign, he got out and walked up to my car, signaled for me to roll down my window, which I did, then punched me in the face.

By the time I had my own car, a dark green 1965 Ford Mustang — the fastback model — I was seasoned. I’d make my car too fast to catch, and I certainly would never roll down my window again for anybody.

In those days it seemed like most of my friends and rivals were working on their cars, customizing old Chevys, putting in big carburetors, high performance shifters, custom exhaust systems, giant racing slicks – even whole new engines. This was long before the state-mandated smog check. Nobody checked the condition of our cars when we renewed their registrations, so all modifications went undetected. I was not one of the more talented kid mechanics around, although I could gap a spark plug. I was a musician, a guitar player, and I did not like getting my fingers stained with grease. So I took the money I saved from teaching guitar lessons and working in a local pizza parlor and went to a speed shop in a neighboring city to let the experts juice up my horsepower. The first thing they did was rip out all the smog prevention equipment.

“You don’t need all this stuff,” I remember the mechanic saying. Years later, when I tried to trade the car in on a new model, the local Ford dealer would disagree. “You’ve got no smog equipment! We’re going to have to replace it all just to put the car on the lot.”

Oops!

Except for a little cash for dating and guitar strings, I’d put all my money into my car — a nice racket for the speed shop — and after a while I began racing my car on Saturdays at the nearby Irwindale Speedway along with all the other high school amateurs. But as a renegade teenager, the real thrill was street racing. It was like being a gunslinger in the Old West, just prowling around town, looking to challenge somebody to a shootout.

Yes, I had my share of speeding tickets, but I was never caught racing. Most of us weren’t. There were not that many police officers cruising around town in those days.

There was always the occasional race during the day, when I’d just happen to pull up next to another kid in a hot car after school. Who was faster? We just had to find out! But weekend nights were the real prime racing time. It was like jousting, trying to prove our nascent manhood to our girlfriends, or to somebody else’s girlfriend.

Sometimes the races were organized.

Some guy with greasy hair had a new Camaro 280z and swore he could take me. Bets were made and the next Saturday night my friends blocked off both ends of a sleepy suburban street about a half-mile long while we lined up our cars. About twenty high school kids gathered at the finish line. Camaro boy couldn’t catch me, even though his car may have been faster. I was always incredibly quick off the starting line.

That’s what won me the race set up by the speed shop at Irwindale Raceway. There was another kid, a rich kid whose father owned stores, who was already out of high school, who came to the speed shop with a Mustang pretty much like mine. The speed shop mechanics figured this guy would be good competition for me. After they’d done their best to expand his horsepower, we set a date.

The early part of the afternoons at Irwindale were spent doing practice runs, called “qualifying.” You had to turn a good enough time in your particular class to compete in the early evening, before the actual professionals did their stuff for the audience who sat in bleachers on either side of the quarter-mile track.

Steve – my well-financed opponent – and I both qualified at the top of our class and were set to compete. I had the advantage of nearly a year of experience, while this was Steve’s first time at a professional raceway. He was a little nervous, especially since we had an audience of friends, girlfriends and the speed shop mechanics. It had just turned dark as we pulled up to the starting line, facing the “Christmas Tree,” a series of lights mounted on each side of a central bracket that indicate when the cars are in the right starting position. Then, once the cars are positioned, the yellow lights count down to green. If a driver started too early, a red light would signal disqualification.

We both edged our cars into starting position, our engines almost window-shatteringly loud because we’d opened up our “headers” (high performance exhaust systems) to bypass the mufflers. From experience, I knew the slight lag time of my car – from the time I hit the gas pedal to the car’s forward surge – allowed me to start a half second before the green light flashed.

We waited, then the first yellow light flashed on, moving down toward the green light. The moment Steve’s brain told him the light was green, I’d already jumped out from the starting line. He was momentarily stunned, and even though he turned a faster time, he never caught me. It wasn’t really about how fast you went, it was about who got there first. Mind over horsepower. I made it to the finish line first, won the trophy and renewed admiration from my girlfriend.

Yes, it was a moment.

Of course now as a responsible adult I am appalled at my behavior, risking accident and injury on the streets of my sleepy suburban town. Perhaps that’s why it made so much sense for all of us to go just outside of town to the Chicken Ranch.

There was a long, straight road inside the Chicken Ranch property, made for trucks to pick up eggs and chickens, I suppose. Nobody stayed with the chickens at night, especially not on Saturday nights. This particular night had not been the first time high school hot rods had raced there, but it was my first time.

There were dozens of competitors from area high schools and junior colleges, and dozens more who just came to watch. It is a solemn testament to the short-range saturation of the teenage brain that none of us had entertained a single thought about potential consequences. Rubber burned and smoked and engines spit and roared as pair after pair of racers hurtled down the improvised racetrack. After I made my run, the growing chaos of beer-swilling youth amazingly enough triggered some fledgling sense of adult apprehension in me, and so I left. As I exited the entrance to the Chicken Ranch, I was passed by a long line of police cars.

That was the last race ever held at the Chicken Ranch. It was my senior year, and before long, I’d own a more practical car, have a more practical girlfriend, and grow a little less renegade as the wild anarchy of my teenage years passed. After all, I had to prepare for the wild anarchy of my twenties.



























~ by Russ Allison Loar
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