The day my high school classmate flipped the bird at a Lincoln Continental was the day I learned that handling is more important than horsepower. VINNIE (as proclaimed by his vanity plate) decided that my erstwhile friend’s one finger salute justified our immediate extinction. His black Lincoln rammed the back of my Ford Pinto station wagon as I entered the highway on-ramp. Although I later learned that the Pinto tended to explode in such circumstances, even then I knew I had to drive as if my life depended on it. If only because it did.
If it wasn’t so ridiculous it would have been ludicrous: a gi-normous Lincoln luxobarge (Bill Blass edition?) trying to destroy the sine qua non of shitboxes. Vinnie had literally four times as much horsepower (210hp vs. 54hp) and twice the heft (5264lbs. vs. 2800lbs.). Ah, but I had Pirelli P-Zeros (hey, why not?). I was also blessed with better genetics (a guy named Vinnie driving a Lincoln in Rhode Island?) lots of experience driving at extra legal speeds (so now you know Dad) and all the adrenal acuity of a hunted fox.
My only chance: cornering. I’d gained a little distance on Vinnie on the 180-degree on-ramp. He caught up with us in the straight and rammed us twice more on the highway, HARD. Luckily, there was an off-ramp only a mile away. I managed to get the Pinto into a residential area just across the river. I started taking corner after corner after corner as fast as I could, four wheel drifting my way around countless city blocks. Vinnie’s barge lost ground. Now all I had to do was… hide.
When I couldn’t see the big Lincoln in the rear view mirror, I looked for an open garage. I drove straight into the first one I saw– at speed. My friend and I ducked down. Vinnie sped past. Mission accomplished. Lesson learned: when push comes to shove, it’s better to be able to shove the accelerator to the carpet in a turn than get pushed into the Seekonk River by a guido in a Lincoln Continental.
Of course, I wasn’t entirely horsepower aversive. It’s just that I’d learned to associate hugely powerful cars with boat-like handling. Even my father’s Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 conformed to the basic principle that you steer big engined cars with your right foot. For me, handling was all. (Well, that and beauty.) So when the moment finally arrived when I could finally afford something more like an automotive athlete– and less like a tubercular coal miner– I opted for a Mazda RX7.
As you probably know, to get the [first gen] RX7 to speed you had to wind up the pint-sized Waring blender (a.k.a. rotary engine) sitting in its nose to approximately one million rpm. Even then, you relied on The Big Mo (momentum) to fully exploit the genius of its wonderfully balanced chassis and superb (for its time) suspension. For a Pinto refugee? No problem. In fact, the only problem was that I soon developed a taste for street racing. Obviously, I’m not talking about drag racing. The RX7 only offered 46 more horses than my original FoMoCo “stallion.” It sewing machined from zero to sixty in 8.5 seconds (with the AC off). I’m talking about racing through highway traffic.
I realize this concept is about as politically correct as lighting up a stogie in a children’s cancer ward. But hey, that’s the way it was. We even developed names for maneuvers: the three lane Charlie (cutting across three lanes in one move), two lane Ralph (passing a car in the middle lane before the “hole” closed) and the ‘Frig (letting a car try to pass you on the right, then closing the hole; named after William “The Refrigerator” Perry). This unconscionable “sport” appealed to me because winning required tactics, timing and courage more than brute power.
I left the game in Atlanta. I was racing a Z28 on a six lane undivided highway. I was in the left lane. I’d boxed the Z in but good. To my horror he cut behind me and INTO THE ONCOMING TRAFFIC. He went to the left of two cars coming straight at him, missing a head on collision by feet, then cut back right ahead of me. I was done.
While I was OK with taking risks with my own driving, I hadn’t realized that my actions could cause other people to take innocent lives. If the Z28 had taken out one of those cars in the opposite lane, it would have been my fault, and I knew I couldn’t live with that. I learned that car control and self-control go hand-in-hand.