Back in 1999, right after our son Langston was born, something amazing happened. No, it wasn’t us realizing that being parents was the most important task of our lives. Or that children are outstanding learners, even when they’re babies. Nope, it was much more interesting than that.
My wife and I were astonished to find out that every single woman in our family, be they a sister, aunt, grandmother, or great grandmother, had suddenly transformed into a pediatrician, the minute after our child was born, and were ready to give us all the unsolicited advice we could take.
Yet strangely, none had gone to medical school. But it was the very act of having a baby, which the brothers, uncles, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers couldn’t do, by the way, automatically endowed them with knowledge about raising children unmatched by even Dr. Spock.
Self-proclaimed experts in the field of child raising, each woman made it their life purpose to give us a lot of well meaning bad advice, based on their own slightly flawed attempts at raising kids.
“You should feed that baby some solid food.”
“But he’s only a month old, and he doesn’t have teeth yet.”
“And if you need him to go to sleep through the night, mix a little whiskey with his breast milk. That will do the trick.”
“That doesn’t seem safe. Let me ask our doctor first.”
“Doctors don’t know everything! I raised your eight cousins by giving them a little bit of Jim Beam each night. Didn’t hurt them a bit.”
“Are you sure about that? I mean, one is doing a ten-year bid as an involuntary guest of the state of California.”
“Boy, just do what I say.”
You get the idea. Parenting is about choices, and the people who count the most in making those choices are the parents responsible for the kid, not anyone else. Everyone else can have opinions, but at the end of the day, you’re the one making the final decision. You make the right choices for your kid because you’re the most invested in your kid, no matter how much experience other people may have with their own kids. In other words, take their advice with a big grain of salt. Naturally, all this talk about kids brings us to…
Paint and body choices.
When I first started Project Mongoose—my attempt to fix up a 1966 Corvair Corsa and invent its fictional racing history as I went along—I spent hours scouring the Internet looking for the perfect Corvair to emulate in terms of looks. (You can read part one here and part two here.)
But like a parent dressing their kid, each car owner had their own idea of how their Corvair should look to the world, and almost none of their visions fit my vision. Except for this car. This was my inspiration.
I’d have to say that about 75 percent of the Corvairs I saw in the world skewed more toward restoration than modification, although there are a lot of modified Corvairs (no need to shoot me pics of them, I’ve seen them already). I’m just saying that in the world of Corvairs, there seem to be a lot of owners who grew up with Corvairs, and so they want to make sure every piece of chrome is where it supposed to be, the seats are original, and this or that is like it came from the factory.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, except it’s not for me. As I noted earlier, I come from the world of old school VWs, lowered and with the chrome stripped off, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do with Project Mongoose.
And yet, I already know that when my Corvair is done, just like the women in my family, there will be a billion men coming up to my car and pointing out what they would have done to my car, and why my choices were wrong.
“You can’t have a 5/8th thing-a-ma-jig next to the engine shroud because when Chevrolet built the ’66 model, they changed the thing-a-ma-jig to millimeters that are black!” the fools will say. “Throw the whole car away.”
“Where is the chrome trim around the (pick your favorite car body part)?”
“You ruined your Corvair by painting it (pick a color)?”
Again, you get the idea.
To hell with them. My car, my money, my decisions.
When I first started this project, I had a very specific look I was going for, and it was not an original restoration. I wanted the car to look like something I would race. And the first thing that had to go? Chrome.
I come from the Cali look VW community, and that means stripping most of the chrome off your car, and that was my first task. Chrome around the fender wells? Gone. Chrome on the rocker panels? See ya! Chrome on the drip rails? Bye! Even the front of the car, which had chrome decorative piece surrounding the trunk lock, was cut out and trashed.
I like my cars to look clean and without unnecessary doo-dads. But I did keep a bit of chrome around the back cove. That will set off the black. And speaking of black...
My color scheme was Eastwood’s Electric Yellow with Glossy Black on the hood and back end. My initial choice was to go with a flat black, but Ricardo, my paint and body man, objected.
“Flat black fades over time, and the line doesn’t look good when you mesh it with the yellow,” he said. The difference between Ricardo and anyone else is that Ricardo is the car version of a real pediatrician, so when he speaks, you’d best be advised to listen to his expert advice. And he was right.
The gloss black came out great. Problem? I’d also bought some flat black, so we decided to use it on the interior. Problem solved.
But even before they started spraying the paint, they first sprayed a black coating throughout the interior, the engine department, the trunk, and under the fender wells.
When you first start a restoration, you tell yourself that you don’t care about those little tidbits. “We’re not building a show car, we’re building a race car!”, you’ll say, and then you find yourself in a deep rabbit hole of “Well, we can’t just let it look like that.”
So that happened.
Next was taking off all of the stainless steel window trim. It’s funny, but window trim was a blind spot for me, in that I forgot to account for it in my budget. I mean, paint man!
But yeah, you can’t do the paint and have beat up trim. So off it went to a local shop, King of Trim, and I’ll talk more about them later in the series. Let me just say that repairing chrome and stainless steel is a master craft.
We still have a lot to do, including adding all of the fuel lines, work on the brakes, finding out that every nut and bolt under the car is seized, the interior, and going back to the paint, wet sanding.
But first, the continuation of our fake race history.
“Back in ’66, it took me a good two months to get the Corvair into Yenko spec,” The Man said, reclining in his chair. We were in his man cave, or maybe I should have called it The Man Cave. Full of racing trophies, a few beat up Buco helmets from his motorcycle racing days, and the odd picture with him and a celebrity—“Keep putting the pedal to the metal…Your Friend, Jack.”
“Wait, that’s John F. Kennedy?”
“No, Sammy Davis, Jr., “ The Man replied scornfully. “Who the hell did you think it was?”
And that was the mindset of The Man. That extraordinary things should be ordinary. Like getting an ordinary Corvair and turning it into a race car is just something you do in your spare time.
“SCCA had all of these damn rules, and I had to make sure I had knocked them all out. But after a few bitch and moan sessions, I was good. Plus, Don Yenko had already done the hard part of homologizing the Corvair, so I like to think of my car as 101 of Yenko’s one hundred cars. I called it the Mongoose, and even created a sticker for it.”
“So what was the first race?”
“Getting to that,” The Man said, pulling out a cigar. “But first, have you ever seen a movie called Sand Pebbles?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t worry, me either. Anyway, my friend Steve McQueen was in that flick, something to do with the Navy and something or the other. Anyway, that’s not important.”
He continued, “The important thing is that McQueen was in Japan filming it, and he was desperate to get back to the states to race me at Riverside Speedway. I’d bet him and Jimmy Garnerthat my Corvair could beat their Triumphs. We were running in the SCCA D Production class, and I was outgunned, but I was damn sure that I could get ‘em on the corners.
“So we get there, and McQueen has a beautiful honey on his arm, and his arrogance in his front pocket.”
“Do you wanna change the bet to how many times I lap you?” he asked, looking skeptically at Corvair. “What did you do to the engine?”
“A little this, a little that,” I told him cryptically. “You’ve gotta remember that up until this time, the Corvair had been looked at as a sporty looking car and not a sports car. Playboy had even added it to its lineup of cool cars.
But McQueen knew his cars, and if a Mini could go out there and win, he wasn’t gonna take any chances.”
“How was it driving against James Garner?”
“The nicest guy ever. Took racing seriously, and when I told him that I wanted to take the Corvair to LeMans, the next year he formed the American Independent Racing team, and ended up taking his cars to LeMans and Sebring. Just the salt of the earth. Would give you the shirt off his back, but on the race track, only wanted you to see the back of his shirt. We were serious back then.”
At that point, The Man stood up, and pointed to a poster that I’d somehow missed. It was a poster of the old Riverside International Raceway, complete with the racetrack itself.
Eventually, the race track was demolished about thirty years ago to make sure that the good people of Moreno Valley could buy Hot Dogs on a Stick at the Moreno Valley Shopping Mall, but that’s for another discussion.
“The most dangerous track I know. Ken Miles got killed here, and AJ Foyt damn near died after flipping end over end. A couple of years before I got there, Joe Weatherly died, and he was a NASCAR champ. Riverside would eat you up if you didn’t respect it. And I respected the hell out of it.
The Man turned back to the poster. “My plan was simple. I couldn’t outrun them from Turn 8 to Turn 9, because that was a straight mile, and they could kill me on that. But where I could get ‘em was on Turn 9, because I knew that that shit was so diabolical on brakes that it would eventually make them go slower.”
“Bet the Corvair was fantastic on turns like this. Engine in the back meant that you weren’t diving into those turns, but rolling with them,” I noted.
“Exactly. And in a two hundred lap race, it’s fast and steady that wins, and not fast, slow, then fast. Plus, I had a secret weapon.”
“I’d swapped out the front drum brakes and put in Girling front-disc brakes, just like the Jags.”
“Steve had missed all of that when he was mocking the car. And so, by the time we hit Lap 50, I’m on McQueen’s ass,” The Man said, using his hands to represent the cars on the track. “All I wanted to do was draft him, keep constant pressure on his back end, and when his brakes started to go, boom, blow by his ass like he was standing still. But that sumabitch was damn good. I could see that he was getting more and more loose, but he could block like no other racer. I swear that he could have given up acting for racing and ate well.
“So were on Lap 100 and I finally pass him around this part,” The Man said, his hands at the apex of Turn 6. “And do you know what that son of a bitch did? He tapped me, damn near made me spin out.”
“Garner had retired because of a broken clutch, so it was just me and him, so I knew that if he was gonna do whatever he could to win. So I had to match him. I let him by, and then as we came back into Turn 9, we got parallel, door to door, and I smashed as hard as I could into his passenger side door. Fucked me up for a second, but he skidded off the road. As I kept racing, I could see that he’d gotten out and was pissed off. By the time I made it passed the start finish line, I was being black flagged. I had to come into the pits.
“By the time I get there, McQueen is standing there with is helmet in his left hand, a Newport in the corner of his mouth, and his fury in his right hand. I jump out, ready to fight, because I know how these things go down. McQueen comes over to me, eyes blazing. His blonde girlfriend is standing just off to the side with a look of panic in her eyes. I didn’t care. I jumped out ready for whatever. And that whatever was a right hand from McQueen that grazed my cheek. I then clocked him with a great right hand of my own that stumbled him. Everyone in the pits was stunned and frozen in place. Do you know what happened next?”
“No, what happened?”
“We both started laughing.”
“I’m only mad that I was gonna run you off the road and you beat me to it,” McQueen said. And then he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. “You won, fair and square, in that fucking Corvair. First round on you.”
“Holeup. Wayment,” I thought to myself.
“You did all of that for a dollar bet?” I asked incredulously. “That’s it?”
The Man turned to me, genuinely surprised that I was surprised. “We were rich. What the hell did we need to race for more than a dollar? To make money? Don’t be silly.”
And with that, I learned why The Man was The Man, and I was just the man next to The Man.