Note:  A preview of my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)


Most of my youth was spent around trucks and truck people.  I’m a truck guy to this day.  While the inestimable Rojito will be staying here in Colorado in the care of loyal sidekick Rat after our upcoming move, I will be looking for (probably) an F-350 Diesel for the various things I’ll need a truck for in the Great Land.

In northeast Iowa farm country, in fact through most of the state in the Seventies, pickup trucks were more common than cars.  They were more useful for plenty of folks, they were the cool vehicle for young fellas to have, and in the words of country music icon Joe Diffie, there’s just something women like about a pickup man.

But my first couple of vehicles were cars, not trucks, and the Seventies was also the time of growling big-block V-8s.  It was the time of the Muscle Car, and Allamakee County was not excluded from this trend.

And, of course, the ultimate challenge for one’s car was to see how many other cars you could outrun.  A guy with a fast car gained stature.  Stature led to other things – like (hopefully) impressing girls.

The Strip

About two hours south of Allamakee County lay the small cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls, and through those towns ran the six-lane University Avenue.  That throughway had ample stoplights and roadside parking areas, making it a place teenagers from miles around would come to go cruising.  There, guys from all over northeastern Iowa would congregate on Friday and Saturday nights to show off our Detroit iron and test our appeal to the local girls.  In those days five bucks would buy most of a tank of gas, which we stretched by parking in the various lots along the Strip and shooting the breeze, usually with hoods open and cold beers in hands.

Those trips to what we thought of as a considerable city (that was well before I saw such places as Boston, New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai) didn’t always work out as planned.  We had our plans for those evenings, but the local cops had their own plans.

Our plans frequently involved a little informal racing on University Avenue.  The cops’ plans usually involved stopping us from a little informal racing.

On one such evening I was flying solo, driving my old ’66 Galaxie 500, the Iron Coyote.  The old Ford didn’t look like much but had a pretty fair motor, a rebuilt 390GT that drove the heavy old beast along very well, as long as you didn’t try to take a corner too fast; the Coyote cornered like a bathtub.

Not my old Ford, but much the same.

I was sitting at a stoplight when the Firebird pulled up.

I looked over at the Pontiac, to see its driver looking back at me.  He revved his engine a couple of times.  I replied in like manner.  We both looked up at the light.  Ahead of us the Strip went up a small hill, bore left and straightened out for the run towards Cedar Falls.

The light turned green.  We hit the gas, taking off in a cloud of white tire smoke and the roar of engines.  We roared past a gas station on the right, and to my horror, a Waterloo cop was just walking out of the station, a pack of cigarettes in his hand.  He crossed the parking lot in two long steps, jumped in his patrol car and came after us.

Seeing the flashing bubblegum machine on the cop car, the Firebird stopped.  I hit the gas hard.  The Waterloo PD used stock Ford LTDs and I figured I could outrun him.

But there was a complication.  Ahead, the next light was red, and cars blocked all three lanes.  There was only one way around; the turnoff to Highway 63 south was a left-hand turn at that intersection.  The problem with that was that the light was green for oncoming traffic.

There was one gap in the oncoming traffic…

If you want to go really fast, try putting a V-8 in a Pinto.

I did my best impression of a NASCAR driver, putting the Galaxie into a 50-mph four-wheel drift through three lanes of oncoming traffic.  Straightening out on 63, I hit the gas again, opening up the big Autolite four-barrel’s secondaries; the old car leaped ahead.

Behind me the police cruiser was slowed as he relied on lights and siren to clear a path, but I was headed for Hudson, passing a hundred as I shot down the darkened highway leaving town.  I watched the police lights shrinking in my rear-view mirror until I hit a side road, killed my lights, and left the highway behind.

I took back roads around town and headed back home, thinking to myself that I wouldn’t bring the Iron Coyote to town again for a while, at least until the local yokels more or less forgot about it…  which brings me to another event that happened just a couple of weeks later.

This One Time…

It’s not widely known, but my old buddy Dave and I hold the world’s land speed record for driving an automobile from the Decorah, Iowa city limits to the Waterloo, Iowa city limits.  It all started on a bright, sunny Saturday summer afternoon.

Dave had recently bought a 1968 Mercury Cougar XR-7, white with a black vinyl top, a slick, lightweight car with a 302, a Holley 4-barrel carb and Hooker headers.  It was a quick little thing, and that Saturday we were just leaving Decorah headed for Waterloo when Dave had an idea.

“Hey,” he said, “how long does it usually take you to get to Waterloo?”

“Hour and a half,” I replied.  “Sometimes longer.”  I had a heavy foot myself, and my old Ford’s 390 made it a three-figure runner on the highway.

“Think we can make it in an hour?”

“Well,” I said, thinking Dave was kidding, “we won’t know until we try.”

Dave grinned.  We were just passing the Decorah city limits sign headed out of town.  “Check your watch,” he said, and hit the gas.  The Cougar roared.  I looked at my watch:  12:01.

We broke the 100mph mark going up the big hill out of town.  Dave kept the gas pedal on the floor as the road leveled out.  Three cows, reaching through a fence for that famously greener grass, looked up wide-eyed as we went through a shallow-S-curve and shot away.

Ten miles down the road was Calmar, little more than a wide place in the road, but the highway came into town and made a right at a stop sign.  We screeched to a stop, took the right, and roared off, leaving the wide-eyed townies in our wake.

The highway went straight through the little hamlets of Fort Atkinson, Jackson Junction and Lawler.  So did we.  But the real challenge came in the town where we had to hit highway 63 south towards Waterloo, in the medium-sized town of New Hampton.

Local legend told of that day for years afterwards, which on a quiet summer Saturday an apparition shot through town.  It was white and black, the legend said, trailing tire smoke, the roar of turbo mufflers and the bass-fiddle thrum of a four-barrel carburetor pulling air.  Firing through the center of town, the strange thing rounded the corner off old Highway 24 onto 63 southbound on two wheels, then flew out of sight, bound for Denver and Waterloo.

“We’re on the good highway now,” Dave shouted at me over the roar of the engine.  “I can really step on it here.”  Highway 63 had been resurfaced the year before and was wide, straight, smooth, and clean.  Dave pushed the accelerator pedal to the floor and left it there.

I stole a peek at the Cougar’s speedometer.  In those older cars, there was a phenomenon known as “burying the needle.”  Not all cars could attain this goal, which involved attaining a speed higher than the speedometer could record, whence the speedometer needle left the dial and sank into the gauge.

Inside a 68 Cougar, with the speedometer in question.

Dave had the needle buried.  “Roll up your window,” he shouted, turning the crank on the door on his side.  “Bet we can get another five miles per hour without the drag.”  I rolled up the window; the blast of air had been getting uncomfortable.

Denver was ahead – not the big Denver of Colorado renown but a dusty little cow town north of Waterloo, bisected by the highway.  We shot through Denver, leaving the townspeople clasping their hands over their ears; the shockwave the Cougar trailed cracked several windows and knocked small children off their feet.  With Denver behind us, the Waterloo city limits were only minutes away.  I looked at my watch.  “12:52,” I called to Dave.

We were going well over a hundred and twenty when we blew past the state trooper.  The state policeman, seated in his cruiser with the radar gun out, watched us fly past; his eyes were big as saucers, his jaw dropped into his lap.  Hitting lights and siren, he tore out of the farm driveway he had been watching from and came after us.  Dave glanced in the rear-view and swore.  “Dammit,” he said, “now we have to see if we can outrun a radio.”

We had forgotten about the four-way stop on the highway just north of Waterloo.  The four-way stop, where Cedar Wapsi Road crossed the highway, was in a small depression with low visibility.  Because  of the poor visibility and the number of accidents that happened there, the intersection was known locally as Suicide Corners.

Dave still had the needle buried.  We shot over a slight rise and were horrified to see the stop sign a quarter mile ahead, and a semi pulling a cattle trailer just entering the intersection from the right.

The trucker never saw us until Dave shot past, barely missing the front of his truck; we skidded a little and recovered, shedding a little speed but losing the highway patrolman, caught behind the semi, who has slammed on his brakes and stopped, blocking the intersection.

“Almost there,” Dave ground out through gritted teeth.  He pushed down hard on the gas, regaining the speed we had lost at Suicide Corners.  “Almost there…”

I saw the sign: “Waterloo City Limits.”  As we flashed past, I checked my watch: “12:59 even!  Fifty-eight minutes!”

Dave hit the brakes.  I bounced off the dash as he brought us back down to the 55-mph speed limit.  “Hang on,” he called, taking a right onto a side road.  All of a sudden, we decided hanging around in town wasn’t the best idea, and so took side roads home.

A few months later I had occasion to ride down to Waterloo with the Old Man, who was in the habit of driving sedately along at the speed limit.  I checked the time from city limits to city limits, Decorah to Waterloo:  One hour, forty-nine minutes.

Dad noticed me checking my watch.  “Keeping time?” he asked, “why?”

“Oh, no reason.”  I never did tell him about the world record, although I suspect he heard about it from other quarters, as these things did tend to get around.  As far as I was ever able to tell, nobody has broken that record to this day.

These Days

With age comes wisdom – supposedly.

Dave eventually sold his Cougar, but always regretted the sale.  Decades later, after his retirement, Dave found another ‘68 XR-7, bought it, and had it restored to look just like the one he had owned back in the day.  Instead of the small-block 302, he equipped this one with a 428 Super Cobra Jet and a 4-speed transmission.  The fellow who helped him with the build criticized Dave’s decision to change out the motor, and also his use of a new electronic ignition, as well as other modernizations.  “It would be worth more,” the guy told Dave, “if it were rebuilt as original.”  Meanwhile the shop that built his engine was trying to sell him the last few upgrades to try to pull another 5-10 horses out of that 428.

Dave shut down the discussions.  “I’m not building a race car,” he told them, “or a museum piece.  I’m building a time machine.”

Not long after the Cougar was finished, Dave and I took it for a ride.  It was a Sunday afternoon rather than a Saturday night, but for old time’s sake, we took the restored car out on University Avenue.

We were at a stoplight when the two teenagers pulled up.  They were in a little Honda; the big round muffler protruding from the back made it sound like a lawnmower.  Not understanding what the galloping rumble of a big-block V-8 signified, the driver ran up his motor a few times and grinned at the two gray-haired guys in the old car.

Dave looked at me.  He smiled the old smile.  The light turned green.  He hit the gas.  The Cougar leaped away from the light, and the Honda, in a cloud of tire smoke.

The time machine worked.