We caught Jim Dewberry spanking his mostly stock, survivor ’69 Camaro around the Goodguys autocross in Fort Worth, Texas. Dewberry proves you don’t need to spend a bucket of cash on blister-pack parts to have a lot of fun with your classic muscle machine. Five years ago, rougher cars like Dewberry’s would’ve been in the parking lot outside a shiny car show—now they are the show.
Those of a certain age will remember the iconic Life cereal ad where two brothers—not wanting to try something new—pushed the bowl in front of their youngest brother. Little Mikey had no preconceptions about what would taste good or bad, so he dug in, and liked it. What the commercial never showed us was whether or not the two older brothers actually ate a bowl of Life after seeing their younger sibling gobble it down. The main thing the ad agency left us with is the hope that you’d like it if you tried it.
That timeless ad tapped into a human condition that we’ve all experienced before—the failure to try something new based on a fear of the unknown. You know where I’m going with this: We’ve all chosen to be a part of a hobby that’s based on the need for more speed. Yet when it’s time to go to the dragstrip, carve up a road course, or hit the autocross, 90 percent of hot rodders slink away, tale tucked between their legs. No thanks. Might break. Might crash. Insert sound of small violin playing here.
A couple of months ago while at a Goodguys event, I was hanging out incognito, admiring a very fast-looking ’39 Ford, when the owner strode up. We talked cordially for a few minutes when I asked him if he’d ever run the autocross with it. His demeanor changed and a frown spread across his face. “I didn’t build this thing just to tear it up,” he deadpanned. I muttered something apologetic, but in my head, I was saying back to him: Actually you did build it to run, pal. Just look at the engine, suspension, driveline, brakes, and chassis. You spent bank. If all you want to do is cruise the fairgrounds, why pimp it with a built chassis, pizza-platter brakes, an IRS, gummy tires, and an 800hp V-8?
All this got me thinking about other hobbies, and the enthusiast magazines that cover them. Are there guitar magazines for people who don’t play guitar? Are there gun magazines for people who don’t shoot? Are there skateboard magazines for kids who don’t skate? Because there certainly seem to be enough hot rod magazines for people who don’t drive their hot rods. To illustrate my point, about eight years ago we had an editorial meeting where we wanted to have a big cover blurb expounding the merits of a really cool 9-second street/strip car. We were stopped in our tracks when somebody from the circ department pointed out that similar blurbs on other magazines had fallen on their face at the newsstand. The problem? According to the circ guy, nobody “got” the reference to 9 seconds because people don’t drag race anymore, and they’d think the number meant 0-to-60 (which 9 seconds would suck). Great gads, had the rank and file in the hot rod hobby really fallen to such lows? Sadly, yes, and the numbers were there to prove it.
But it wasn’t always the case that hot rods were more about style than substance. After all, hot rodding style did grow out of the need for them to actually be fast, and that’s what we’re seeing with Pro Touring once again. The alpha males and females of our hobby are leading the way, running their machines at autocrosses, track days, open road races, and pro solo events across the land. They are doing it in every kind of car from mostly stock to highly modified, and we’re bringing these hometown heroes to you in this month’s “Driven Hard!” issue.
I think if more people knew what autocrossing was really about, they would try it—and like it. It is most likely the most perfect test of man and machine ever devised. Top speeds rarely exceed 35 mph, accidents and equipment failure are exceedingly rare, and it’s about racing the clock, not other drivers. Simply put, it most closely resembles what you’d do if you could drive like a bat out of hell on the empty streets of your neighborhood and not pay the consequences.
In an autocross, you can drive as slow as you want, or as fast as you want. You can take it seriously and maximize your grip, or you can show off with drifting antics. You can push it to the limit, or you can take a Sunday drive—you are the one in charge of the loud pedal. Mess up? Big deal. You just knocked over a cone. Autocrossing can be the destination hobby, or it can be a gateway drug to faster open-track days, driving schools, pro solo, hill climbs, or open road racing. Above everything else, it has the effect—within one lap—of erasing the unfounded fear of crashing or breaking. It’s like mommy showing you that there really isn’t a boogeyman hiding in the closet. C’mon, if Mikey liked it, you can too!