I’ll see you later…..

It’s Sunday evening. For nearly every Sunday evening for I don’t remember how many years, I’d be sitting beside my dad, visiting, watching TV, discussing life in general. Mom told me how much he enjoyed those visits and I enjoyed them too. Last Sunday, we watched the Pittsburgh Pirates lose their last game of the season. Dad had been sick, so when I left, I told him to get some rest and take it easy. It was very early the next morning when I saw him next. Already resting comfortably in the arms of Jesus. The last week was full of many details to be taken care of but I spent a lot of time reflecting on our life together. We were typical guys, neither of us were the type to say “I love you” that much, but that was one of the life lessons I learned from my dad. Don’t just say you care about someone, show it. I never doubted his love for me or my siblings and I know he never doubted our love for him. He wasn’t around much when I was growing up because he always had to work hard to provide for his family. In later years, I came to understand how much it meant to him to take care of his family since I now had one of my own. He never once let us down. We never had much, but we always had what we needed. He always supported us and provided for us. As we all moved on with our lives and families, dad continued to work. He touched a lot of lives and helped a lot of people along the way. Our neighbor had a simple graveside service when he died and dad loved the simplicity of it, deciding that he would want the same thing. He wasn’t one to call attention to himself. His was to be on a Thursday morning and the funeral director told us to be prepared for a small crowd since most people would have to be at work. I knew dad was well respected by many, but I was unprepared for what I found at the cemetery. I went there early to visit my grandparents’ grave and the church parking lot was already full. I had to park in the grass. Lots of people were already there and more were coming continuously. I slipped around behind the crowd to get to where my grandparents were buried and I could hear more arriving the whole time. I have no idea how many people did show up, but there were far more than anyone anticipated. Friends, family, and co-workers all came to pay their last respects, many staying afterward to share how much dad had meant to them or how good a person he was. They weren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. My mom was touched by the outpouring of kindness from the community and I’m thankful for that. Everyone has told me they will miss my dad and I know I will. As I sit here alone on this Sunday evening I miss him greatly. There’s no way I could ever put into the words everything dad meant to me and my family. I do know that I’m not really alone. Part of him is part of me. Every time I look in a mirror I see some of his face. Whenever I talk, I hear parts of his voice, parts of his words. The last thing I said to him was “I’ll see you later.” And I will. Later, dad.

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2014 York Nostalgia Nationals

Okay, that’s an awesome Hurst Olds I’m seeing before my eyes. Not far away is Miss Hurst herself, Linda Vaughn. Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick’s tiger-schemed Pontiac GTO is in the pit area. There can only be two possibilities that fit these surroundings. Either Rod Serling is going to step out from the tower and tell me I’ve been transported through the Twilight Zone back to the 60’s or it’s business as usual at the 11th annual York Nostalgia Nationals at Beaver Springs Dragway. Anyone that ever saw an event at the old York US30 Dragway would feel right at home for this event. I could almost feel the spirit of Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins at my side as Mike Strickler came to the line in his tribute Camaro that honors his legendary father and Jenkins associate, Dave Strickler to face the equally impressive “Sweet Justice” Camaro of Jim Haislip in a match race. I’m sure “The Grump” would have been proud of the Jenkins Competition name on these cars.

Of course, no nostalgic glimpse into the past would be complete without funny cars and Bruce Larson and Rocky Pirrone supplied the thrills those ground-thumping nitro burners give to the fans. Just a few weeks earlier, I had watched Rocky race his immaculate Willys gassers and I jokingly asked him if he thought he had too many cars. Rocky just looked at me, laughed and replied, “is there such a thing?” Rocky brought two funny cars, the Frantic Ford Mustang and the War Eagle Firebird, while Bruce Larson was at the wheel of John Worm’s USA-1 Larson tribute Camaro. Those cars also included fan-pleasing back up girls just like the old days as well. In a twist that’s not seen every day, the lovely and talented Audrey Worm, who backed up Bruce Larson, was herself backed up by Bruce when she brought her front-engine dragster to the line.

A trip to the early days of drag racing would not be complete without a few rounds of old-time Super Stockers coming to the ling to face a flagman instead of the now familiar lighted christmas tree. George Nye, the voice of York US30 Dragway performed the honor of manning the flag and sending a number of pristine Ford, Chevys, and Mopars down the 1320 just the way it started out back in the day.

Of course, our beloved gassers were well represented by the 38 Special of Rick Osburn and the wheelstanding Willys of Mike Etchberger. Being around Osburn, and Etchberger, I’ve always been impressed with the way their wives support their drag racing habit. I was equally impressed with the duo of Chris and Debby Toth, who were racing their Fiat altered. It looked to me like the fun they were having together was something every couple should try to have together. Chris told me his dream was to have his picture taken with one of the trophies at the end of the day. His dreams were realized by hoisting his runner-up trophy high at the end of the event!

Did I mention that Al Gore was even on hand at this event? No, not that one, the “good” Al Gore (as he was quick to point out) was in attendance. Al was an integral part of Old Dominion Speedway, the first officially-sanctioned drag strip on the East Coast, and he’s still sharp as a tack at age 94. If that’s not a sure sign that drag racing keeps us all young, I don’t know what is. It’s quite possible the popularity of these nostalgia events may last longer than the era they celebrate. This world will be a better place if they do.

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1st Rocking Chair Nationals! 2014

I remember it like it was yesterday. My buddy’s older brother invited the two of us along with him to the drag strip to race his ’67 Nova. I didn’t quite understand it on that day, why he had a smile a mile wide that wouldn’t leave his face the whole way home, because he had lost in the second round. It was a just a short time later that I learned it was a bigger deal to run a 13.96 ET on a 14.25 index than it was to bring home a trophy. Owning a 13-second car was a bigger thrill than bringing home the cup! Something else I remember from that day was getting to watch one of my favorite drivers, Gene Altizer, racing a funny car. Here it is, many years later and I’m back at the scene of the crime, Mason Dixon Dragway, for the 1st Rocking Chair Nationals and Gene Altizer is there once again, still involved in the sport.

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Altizer was in attendance as a part of the legendary S&S Racing crew to kick off this inaugural event, and what an event it was! If your heart didn’t flutter when you entered the grounds, you either don’t care about cars or your heart wasn’t beating. As soon as you entered the gate, you came face-to-face with the car show area. There was certainly something there for everyone regardless of your automotive leanings and all the cars displayed in the car show were all top-shelf material. Amidst all the fine hot rods, I ran across one guy who was showing his car for the prime purpose of showing everyone a good time. Jeff Nutter had his HHR there decked out as the Haunted Hot Rod with all sorts of macabre visuals. As Jeff stated, “most guys here are saying don’t touch my car, while I’m pulling people in to see and touch everything. The kids really love it!” To me, it sounded like a good way to have fun and get people interested in the car show!

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The drag cars on hand were right up to par with the show cars too. There were some really fine examples of front-engined dragsters, some altereds, a handful of “she’s real fine” 409s, and muscle cars galore. What really stood out and made the event special was the “bridge” between the old and new. One of the personalities interviewed at the start of the event was Rick Osburn, whose “38 Special” Chevy truck is a familiar sight to fans who frequent the gasser and nostalgia events. Osburn’s truck is sporting a new look of late that ties his modern day hot rod to the glory days of the past. Gone is the once familiar blower. In its’ place is Hilborn injection by none other than Gene Altizer. As evidenced by Rick’s massive wheelstands, Altizer obviously still knows a thing or two about how things go together.

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Of course, that’s not surprising if you had heard S&S team member, Fred Bear, talking about how Altizer remembered everything, like who was in other lane, the elapsed time, etc. from years gone by. While I was visiting with Bear and Hales, Altizer produced a photo of them racing identical S&S cars at Mason Dixon 52 years ago! What a way to connect the old memories with the present day! There were other connections between past and present days as well. One that immediately caught my attention was an “Old Reliable” Camaro. It was one of my favorites back in the day, when I’d pour over all the hot rodding magazines to see what Dave Strickler and Grumpy Jenkins were up to. I just had to find out if this was the real car or a tribute car and what I found out was even more special than I imagined. Turns out that it was a tribute car, but it was owned by Mike Strickler, Dave’s son. Dave bought Mike the car when he was 16 and it was the very car that he taught Mike how to drive a stick shift in. Mike thought it only fitting the car be a tribute to his dad. I will say that, although no one’s as good as Dave Strickler was back in the day for shifting a four-speed, Mike does a pretty fine job.

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Mike Etchberger’s wheelstanding Willys gasser is another good connection from past to present day. Mike’s car bears a healthy resemblance to Pork Zartman’s old car and the old-time gasser heroes love to watch Mike’s wheelstanding launches. Mike proudly displays his wheelstanding competition victories on his fenders and couldn’t wait to display his latest victory on his front fenders.

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All in all, this first Rocking Chair Nationals seemed to be more about getting out of the rocking chair and getting down to the strip to make new memories, not about sitting in the chair and reminiscing about the old ones. What do you think?

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2014 PA Gasser Nationals

It’s official. We’ve found the fountain of youth, but it’s not something you drink like the old legends go, it’s made up of hot rod iron and racing fuel. Okay, there may be a few shots of nitrous thrown in too for good measure. I offer evidence of that as one “Bones” Balough, legendary gasser pilot of days gone by. Sure, the calendar says he’s 79, and he was winning races before I was even born, but there were plenty of witnesses at the 2nd Annual PA Gasser Nationals that saw Mr. Balough acting like a youngster. He even testified to the phenomena himself. He said when people asked him if he was afraid to drive race cars at his age that “when I get in the car, I feel like I’m 19 again.” Case closed.

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Bones was on hand not only to drive one of Rocky Pirrone’s beautiful AA/GS cars, the “Boss Hydro,” but to connect the gasser memories of the past with the new memories created on that day. Oh, and I believe he had a little bit of fun doing it while he was at it! Bones said at the driver’s meeting that his most memorable win was the ’62 US Nationals, although he couldn’t recall who was in the other lane. He also fondly remembered being the first in the 9’s back in ’64 and stated that his favorite of all the cars he drove was the Big John Mazmanian Willys. That was appropriate since Rocky Pirrone’s gorgeous Mazmanian tribute car was also on hand. Pirrone’s cars were just a few of the fine examples of gassers that were present. The Beaver Springs Dragway was host to just about anything the hot rodding fan could desire. I’ve seen Earl Metzler’s incredible ’37 Chevy hauler before, but the sight of it hauling in Earl’s equally incredible ’34 five-window coupe continues to leave me breathless every time I see it. Earl built an equally impressive hauler for his brother’s car that was driven by Earl’s son, Brian.

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As impressive as Metzler’s machinery was, there was a car that was equally impressive on the opposite end of the spectrum. Dan White’s ’55 Ford gasser will never win a beauty contest, but what it will do is wow the crowd with its’ wicked launches off the starting line. I had the honor of seeing one of those launches up close and personal in the wheelstand competition and it was a memory I won’t soon forget. Speaking of the wheelstand competition, I had the pleasure of observing wheelstanding expert Mike Etchberger as he plotted the best way to ensure his wheels would be up higher and longer than the others. Mike had the proper formula in place as he once again captured another wheelstanding crown thanks to a spectacular wheels-up launch and Dan White’s car getting just a little bit out of shape in the final. Those two guys definitely bring the crowd to attention when those wheels go up!

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Barely behind those two is Rick Osburn in his ’38 Chevy truck and Dan Bergeron in his ’63 Nova. Seeing those four guys putting on a show every time they line up at the tree is the thing hot rod memories are made of! Adding to those memories was Steve Crook and his “Blew By You” AA/GS ’56 Chevy being backed up in old school style by his lovely lady, Pamela. Steve’s car, along with the supercharged Willys cars of the Kasinski brothers and Rocky Pirrone’s cars made thunderous passes that are impossible to forget. The participants also made memories of friends, family, and good times as well. Chris Toth and his wife Debbie campaign a Fiat Altered car and had the misfortune of breaking on Friday. You’d never know that by the gleam in their eyes and the smiles on their faces. They were having the time of their lives just enjoying the camaraderie of their fellow racers and the atmosphere of the event. I saw similar smiles on the faces of Scott and Mary Hasko and their crew. Scott told me how much fun they were having and how much enjoyment they got from competing, win or lose. It was a pleasure listening to them talk of the memories they were making that weekend and others of days gone by.

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I’m sure Dave Dreyer will remember his runner-up finish in the Hot Rod category, not for any of the runs, but for being able to share the spotlight with his son and father. Nothing like three generations sharing a trophy at the strip! With all the families and good people involved at the PA Gasser Nationals, it’s easy to see the hot rodding torch will be passed on for many years to come!

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One to Remember!

Car guys. We love our cars and respect and appreciate the fine rides of our car-loving brothers and sisters. Every now and then a certain car will turn our heads so fast our necks hurt. Such is the case with John Labuda’s gorgeous ’56 Pontiac. In a nostalgic drag racing world full of Willys, Chevys, and Fords, John’s Pontiac stands out in a class by itself. Sure, we “ooohhh” and “ahhhh” over the typical ’55-’57 Chevys, but when was the last time you saw a mid-’50s Pontiac at the drag strip? The inspiration behind this great car came when John realized that he spent too much time working and decided it was time to “just have fun.” There was no doubt in John’s mind that he would build a Pontiac and being an “older guy” he wanted to build an “older car.”

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For a guy that repairs lawn mowers for a living, John certainly built a top-notch ride. This car also sounds and runs as good as it looks. True to the spirit of the car, it’s powered by a 455 Pontiac engine, not a typical hot rod power plant. While this Pontiac shares some of the classic lines of it’s ’56 Chevy cousin, only doors and window glass are the same. John has owned this car for 5 years and if looks are any indication, it’s been a wonderful 5 years full of fun!

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Back to Reality

Okay, you regular followers (you know who you are) know that I haven’t added a post for awhile. No, I haven’t gotten bored with the blogging thing, I’ve been up to something. It was time to write something more in-depth than a blog post, so I began work on a new project. I am now anxiously awaiting the proof copy of my book, “The Jesus Rock” so I can pull the trigger and make it available to the masses. Check out the cover under the “Books” tab on this blog for a peek. It’s written in a fast-paced style to match the short attention span of today’s modern readers. First availability will be a print edition with a Kindle version to shortly follow. Stay tuned for updates and links on where to find it and how to buy it. Thank you all for your support in the past and future!

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Steeler Camp/Steeler Nation – Simply the Best

Every member of the Steeler Nation should take in the spectacle that is Steeler Training Camp at least once in their life. With all of the hate, division, and violence in today’s world, it’s a breath of fresh air to be a part of a crowd that is courteous to one another and respectful to all. Such is the effect of the love affair with the group that calls themselves Steeler Nation and their beloved Steelers.

It always starts innocently enough. People standing in line waiting to get in. Chatting with perfect strangers about their favorite players, who they most want to meet, the team’s chances this season, you know, the usual stuff. When it’s time to go in, there is no pushing or shoving, but some do run to capture their favorite spot. You can always tell the fans who make this trek on a regular basis. They are the ones that run straight for that prime real estate that has a great view of the field and provides shade to keep them out of the hot midday sun. These are usually the diehard fans who plan their summer vacations around training camp. The beauty of the experience is that even if you’re a first-timer with no clue, you can still find a good spot to see your favorite players up close. Not sure you know what you’re doing? Just ask anyone how things usually work, and they’re only too happy to share the wisdom of Steeler Nation.

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It’s a bit of a thrill as they come out of the locker room to walk to the field. Even the most unknown of the rookies will draw a cheer, with fans of all ages lining the fence to shout to the players, most of the youngsters sticking their hands out to get a “high five” from a real, live professional football player. Even though the crowd gives a hearty cheer for every player, it’s easy to tell the fan favorites by the volume of the cheering. On most teams the quarterback is the most popular player and although there were lots of cheers for Ben Roethlisberger, there was one other player who clearly brought the loudest cheers from the crowd. At first, I thought Kiesel’s beard had gone to a whole new level, but then I saw Troy Polamalu behind him and I knew who the cheer was for.

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Wandering through the crowd one can hear all kinds of conversations, but all are centered around the team. Some people talk of injuries to veterans, others the potential of the new group of rookies. The most touching of the conversations revolve around the parents passing the Steeler Nation torch on to their children, telling them stories of the legendary players, teaching them how to identify the players on the field, you know, all the things a typical Steeler fan needs to know. It almost rivals a religious experience. In fact, I’d be willing to bet it may be the biggest religious experience some of the people in the crowd will ever have.

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Watching the players head to the showers is an experience all its’ own. Adoring fans lined up hoping to get an autograph from their favorite player. I always like watching the youngsters getting excited to collect those special autographs. They’re all primed to get their favorite player, but the guy that stops to give them a smile and an autograph instantly becomes they’re new favorite. I can’t lie, I always enjoy getting an autograph and giving a word of encouragement to the new guys myself. I was lucky enough to win a hat at the traveling “Great Hall” so I had the perfect thing to collect autographs on. No, the chances of any of the guys that signed it making it into the Hall of Fame aren’t aren’t a sure thing, but it will always serve as a reminder of a day spent among the faithful of Steeler Nation.

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It’s amazing to consider that these guys were still happily signing so many autographs this late in camp, but such is the bond between the team and their fans. One of the most special scenes I’ve witnessed was presented by Ryan Clark, one of my own personal favorites. Mr. Clark came out….suddenly dropped to the ground, signed his shoes and gave each one to an excited youngster. Even more excited than one of the youngsters was the giddy father that got to hold the shoe himself afterward. I was standing next to him so I got to see it up close and got to hear the excitement in the father’s voice as I talked with him. Chris Rainey also tossed his sweat bands out into the crowd, something this talented young man may get to do for years to come.

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Thus ended my day at Steeler training camp, always a special gathering for members of Steeler Nation. And thanks to Kyle Jolly, Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, Doug Legursky, Chris Carter, Chris Rainey, and Alameda Ta’Amu for signing my hat!

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