You never know what’s going to turn up in one of these columns. And, sometimes, neither do I.
This one came out of Anna’s cedar chest. It was a lovely piece of folk furniture that always sat somewhere near the foot of our bed. A family heirloom, it was crafted in red cedar with studded copper hinge and lock plates. Young girls call them “hope chests,” but we’re way beyond that. Anna has always used hers to store personal keepsakes. I’ve never known what was in it, and I’ve never asked.
But one thing this old house of ours has always lacked is enough bookshelves. So we recently decided to remedy that, but the only place the new ones could go was along the wall where the cedar chest sat. It was time to pass this heirloom on to a new family member, which of course meant Anna had to empty it. I wasn’t very curious about what was in it, but the first thing she pulled out, and set on the bed, both surprised me and brought a tingling flood of warm memories. That’s exactly what keepsakes are supposed to do, right? But this was just a stack of T-shirts. Small, colorful T-shirts with names and other things written on them. From–my god, can it really be?–thirty-some years ago.
There are a couple of long stories represented by these shirts, some of which you may have heard, most probably not. But way more than I can tell here. The immediate thing these small T-shirts represent to me was how eagerly involved Anna (and later young “Billy”) were in my/our hot rod activities.
We’ll start with the Low Buck Special, which was the Hemi-powered Altered Roadster I found and rebuilt for the new Nostalgia Drags at Fremont Raceway in the mid-’80s. (After long storage in a collection in Texas, it was recently acquired by Sam Strube, in all-original-condition, and put back on the track, so you might have seen it recently). But when I did this in ’83-’84, I was a staff editor at Hot Rod magazine, and they had just invoked a rule that staffers could not be seen working on, or owning, cars shown in the magazine. So that’s why I had to call myself Floyd Lippencotte III and put a bag over my head. We, including driver/tuner Bob McKray, all had a lot of fun with this, because that’s what Nostalgia Drags used to be about. Yep, that’s Floyd and Mrs. Floyd, first time out with the Low Buck at Fremont, May ’84. That’s Bob McKray’s flathead dragster in the background. And I just noticed that I had to borrow a trailer, and truck, to get there that year. But the direct-drive tire-smoker ran 150 in 10 seconds on swap meet slicks and used parts. Not bad for a truly low-buck car. I had my shirt made; don’t know where it went.
What I really wanted to show, though, is how involved Anna was. The photo below shows the second version of the car, after one Don’s Boxed Rod decided to exit the block. With a new block, crank, aluminum rods, and pistons, we decided to add a semi-slider clutch and hook the new slicks up. So, with no reverser, that meant we–Anna and I–had to push the car back after Bob did a short burnout. This was May of ’85 (still big hair and bell-bottom days), and now the slightly-less-Low Buck Spl. turned 162/9.13.
By this time I found a cheap trailer and bought and rebuilt the ’56 F-100 to tow it. We don’t have our yellow shirts on, but this is to show that young Bill (7 or 8…don’t hold me to exact dates) was part of the team. But the real significance of this cool photo–somewhere along barren I-5–was that it was taken by Anna, who’s pretty good with a camera, too.
Next chapter: Somewhere between ’86-’87 I sold the Low Buck (for very low bucks), and teamed up with the legendary Gene Adams (engine) and Don Enriquez (driver) to build the unblown Adams & Enriquez A/Fuel dragster, with which Gene told me “I think we could beat these guys.” And we did. Man that was fun. And Anna and Bill were definitely part of the team.These were all direct-drive, push-start cars, just like the old days. So here we’re just starting down the fire-up road at Fremont. Don’s in the seat. That’s the top of Anna’s head between Gene and me in the truck. And that’s NDRA founder Tom Prufer watching us. I think Philippe Danh took the photo, but I love it. You can barely see Bill’s arm in the back of the truck. Anna still loves the smell of nitro.
Gene Adams had the “Nitro” shirts made up, which were very cool. Don Garlits came out to Fremont one time with his restored Swamp Rat I to make smoky passes. He had fun visiting with Gene, and gave Anna a signed shirt. The Gale Banks Gearhead Bash and Calori coupe (Pebble Beach) shirts came later, but are obviously prized mementos.
This is a large B&W print of a photo taken by Dave Wallace on the night in ’87 when we won the Fuel and Gas Championship at Bakersfield. It’s been taped on my garage wall since 1987. Anna’s wearing the nitro shirt; Gene’s holding the plaque; Don’s admiring the $1000 prize money. We also won the March Meet there again in ’88.
Chapter Three: Meanwhile, since I had been fired as editor of Hot Rod, I convinced Lee Kelly to let me revive Rod & Custom magazine in ’88. I was all for that. Only problem was that I was a staff of 1. Didn’t even have a secretary, just an answer phone. Fortunately–especially for Bill, who was then 10–Anna was being a stay-at-home mom. So that summer I got a small booth at the first NSRA Nats held in Louisville, KY (also the first to draw 10,000+ pre-’49 rods), got a cheap banner made, and had Andy Brizio print up a bunch of T-shirts with the “Its’ Back!” logo by Thom Taylor. There’s plenty more to this story (like I had to pay for the shirts myself, Jim DeFrank trucked them out, and Billy spent the week at my parents’ on “the ranch”). But Anna “manned” the booth, selling shirts as well as signing up thankfully willing customers for new R&C subscriptions, while I was out photographing cars and taking notes for the “Full Coverage” in our Dec. ’88 “PREMIER ISSUE (again)”. What few people know is that Anna also did a full P.R. campaign, on her on time, for R&C’s rebirth, which is one big reason it got off the ground successfully, and made a pretty valiant run for almost 30 years. Again. Almost.
I know many of you collect rod event T-shirts. One day I’ll share some of the rare or better examples I’ve stashed away, along with various other sorts of “Rodabilia.” Some of it might even be truly collectible or valuable. But this isn’t really about T-shirts. It’s about family keepsake, good-time memories. They’re much more valuable.