Overcoming Adversity to Get There

by Rick Kopec (3/23/08)

No matter how terrific things are, you can always find the usual bunch of frowning lemon-suckers who take great pleasure in complaining and pointing their stubby fingers at those of us who seem to be enjoying ourselves. Much like the Puritans who lived their lives based on guilt and suffering, these crabapples expect the rest of us to join them in their glum and dour outlook on life because misery does, indeed, love company. Take today’s current crop of ultra-high performance cars. The horsepower wars are on, in case you haven’t noticed. Five hundred seems to be the ante required to get into the game. The Ford GT and Shelby GT500 stepped up, followed by the supercharged Corvette ZR1, the Shelby GT500KR and the new Viper SRT10 ACR. Even Cadillac is pushing a stack of chips forward with their new CTS-V. These cars are not afraid to boast top speeds over 175 mph in the face of $3+ for a gallon gasoline. Miles per gallon? Forget it. You don’t buy one of these babies expecting to get good mileage.

Milling around in this group of frowning Luddites are the solemn environmentalists who think everyone should be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with their knees under their chin, driving tiny, wheezing and straining hybrids until the next generation of electric cars appear and are forced down our throats by liberal do-gooders who hope they will have commandeered the government by then. After all, they know what is best for the great unwashed masses. Right now they are smugly enjoying the thought of any one of us pulling up to the premium pump and watching the numbers on the “amount” wheels spin so quickly they are impossible to read.

If you really want to see conflicting emotions, tell a tree-hugger that your vintage race car gets less than 5 mpg, and 112-octane unleaded race gas costs over $8 a gallon (they will smile so wide that you can see every tooth). Then tell them that your engine pumps out 500 horsepower, belching through straight exhausts that register more than 120 decibels and can be heard five miles away (and watch the smile morph into a scowl). You won’t hear any race car owners standing around the gas pumps at the track complaining about the high price of race gas because they understand that the thrill and enjoyment of racing vastly overshadows the cost. And besides, they can afford it. If they couldn’t, they wouldn’t be racing.

“If you want to play, you have to pay.” Otherwise, just stay home. This is the case with today’s cars, just as it was back in 1973 during the first “gas crisis.” And not much changed six years later during the second one. Some of our younger gearhead brothers who are under 35 have no concept of the long lines that magically materialized around gas stations when they had gas to pump. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been there. If your gas gauge was on “one-half” you joined the end of the line because you could never be sure that you’d find a place that had gas by the time it dropped to “empty.” Crude, hand-painted signs saying “NO GAS” or “PUMPS CLOSED” taunted drivers. There were TV news reports of people going ballistic when, after sitting on line for an hour, they finally got to the pump only to be told the gas station was closing or there was no more gas. Soon station employees were putting a magnetic sign that said “LAST CAR” on the trunk of last car they would sell gas to. Stations usually sold out their allocations before the end of the month and some enforced a 5- or 10-gallon per car limit. The price of a gallon of gas had doubled—to 90¢ a gallon. Don’t laugh: after enjoying 49.9¢ prices this was a real shock. But as much as the sudden increase stung, if there was gas to buy you were silently grateful.

Cars parked on Downingtown Inn lawn.Into this motorist’s 7th Ring of Hell came SAAC-4 in Downingtown, Pennsylvania—June 28- 30, 1979. When we got down to the nuts and bolts of planning our fourth convention the gas crisis was overshadowing almost everything else. As the convention neared, things weren’t looking very good. The dates fell at the end of the month, when a lot of stations’ allocations would be used up. The Pennsylvania Gas Retainers Association was threatening to close down every station in the state over the July 4th weekend (June 28th through July 5th) to protest tight supplies and high prices. There were rumors of gas riots in Philadelphia and in an effort to bring some stability to the situation Pennsylvania’s Governor implemented the odd/even rule on the first day of the convention. Cars with license plates ending in an odd number could only buy gas on odd numbered days; even number plates on even numbered days. Things could hardly look gloomier.

Initially we had planned to include drag racing in the schedule. Atco Raceway was in southern New Jersey, a little over an hour from Downingtown. A couple of months prior to the convention we loaded a few 5-gallon gas cans into an already topped-off Bronco and drove to Mickey Rooney’s Downingtown Inn (on the outskirts of Philadelphia) for a pre-convention recon. After prowling around the hotel and meeting with the general manager (no, The Mick wasn’t on the premises), we zeroed-out the Bronco’s trip odometer and headed for Atco, New Jersey. By the time we arrived we had decided to cancel the drag event. We would lose our $500 deposit but that was cheaper than paying the full amount on race day and then watching only a couple dozen cars show up. We viewed that as very likely because even if someone left Downingtown with a full tank, when they got to Atco they wouldn’t have enough gas to drag race AND make the return trip to the hotel. There was no guarantee that the local gas stations would be open on a Saturday or that they would have any gas left by the 29th of the month.

The three-day event schedule was filled with meetings, seminars and an indoor swap meet—all designed to keep everyone busy without having to leave the hotel. There was no actual car show that year because SAAC was still trying to wrestle with the logistics of putting one on. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on how it should be conducted, but there was no clear consensus. Cars were parked on a large, grass field where they could be viewed at any time during the weekend.

Borrowing a license plate to buy gas.By convention time the gas situation was no better. And Mickey Rooney no longer owned the hotel; the only evidence of his previous involvement was a large rectangle of unfaded wallpaper in the lobby where his portrait had been hanging. That was a disappointment because I was going to try to get him to attend the evening program where I would introduce him as Ken Eber’s brother from whom he was separated at birth. We arrived a day early, wondering if SAAC’s 4th National Convention would be a disaster. Cars soon began rolling in with license plates from all over, and it became obvious that SAAC members would swallow the bitter “gas shortage” pill as long as they were rewarded by a convention. The gas situation was clearly on everyone’s mind. There was plenty of license plate swapping in the parking lot as cars left to get topped off for the trip home. A clandestine call was received at SAAC Registration from a teenager working at a gas station down the road. He passed the word that they had just received a load of gas and he would provide as much as anyone wanted to Cobras, Shelbys or Boss Mustangs. Word of mouth spread quickly, cars darted out of the hotel’s parking lot, and before long the gas “crisis” disappeared—at least until it was time to head home.

One of the most memorable stories of this convention was when hotel chambermaids began reporting to the manager that they were finding five-gallon cans full of gasoline being stored inside some hotel rooms. Needless to say, images of an impending inferno sent the hotel staff into full panic mode. Gas cans were gingerly set outside of rooms as if they would explode into flames any second and staff members scurried around trying to find the guests that the cans belonged to.

Trailer containing two gas tanks.Without an open track or drag strip, we had searched for something that would allow a minimum amount of driving while, at the same time, providing some type of competition. We came up with a “Special Event” for Saturday afternoon which we kept shrouded in secrecy. As people entered the ballroom at 1 p.m. they were handed a large white enveloped carrying a warning in big red letters: “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL INSTRUCTED TO DO SO.” Inside were detailed directions for what turned out to be a scavenger hunt. One hundred items were listed, running the gamut from items impossible to find in June (a Christmas card or Halloween candy), to something embarrassing to ask for (a business card from a Corvette salesman, a sales receipt totaling $2.89, $3.02, $4.27 or $4.28, or a speeding ticket with that day’s date on it). There were also things designed to fill the car up (an unused pizza box, an large orange highway cone, a Holiday Inn towel). To provide the event with a measure of importance, the top prize was a trip to the following year’s convention (registration and 2 dinner tickets, round-trip airfare for two, a hotel room and a rental car). There were several lesser prizes. Once the green flag was dropped more than 100 teams raced from the hotel clutching their lists and eyeing the 3-hour time limit

If there was a theme at SAAC-4 it was one of shared hardship and common adversity overcome by enthusiasm. Rather than abandon their plans to attend the convention that year, SAAC members were determined to be there. An aura of excitement and adventure surrounded the event because many attendees were not sure how they would get there or back home, but they knew that once they made the trip they would have a terrific time. This proved to be true. Compared to all this, it’s difficult to muster much sympathy for someone who says they want to attend this year’s convention but the high cost of gas may keep them from leaving home.

“You only live once. And if you do it right, once is enough.” – Evel Knievel