Apr 15

Rocket Oldsmobile

 By Jon Reed 

Back in High School, my best friend Denny’s father had a relatively new 1956 “Rocket” Oldsmobile with a high horsepower engine for its time. I couldn’t figure out why his father bought it, knowing his son’s wayward inclinations. Do people put dogs next to a hundred dollars-worth of steak and tell them not to eat? The Oldsmobile was a great looking car with a stunning two-tone coral and silver paint job. But all my friend knew about cars was taking off an air cleaner without dropping it. Late night, when he was allowed to drive it, with myself and our other friend, Kenny, in the front seat, he would put it in reverse and floor the accelerator until we hit 30 mph. Then he would shift into drive, spinning the tires in a haze of burning rubber as we screeched forward a half-block. Only years later, after graduating with an engineering degree, did I realize how durable that Oldsmobile was. Amazingly, nothing ever broke, but his father always complained about his lousy GM rear tires wearing out so quickly. 

Michigan’s first National Hot Rod Association drag racing facility, the Detroit Dragway, opened downriver near Dix and Sibley that spring. It was a big event in the Detroit area and any licensed driver who wanted to run a car in a drag race was encouraged to participate. The news flashed around Fordson High School, and even families were talking about drag-racing, likening it to an adventurous outing. At the time, the drag strip portrayed itself in a family carnival fair atmosphere, but Oldsmobile friend was being kept on a short leash, allowed to use the car for only a few hours on weekends. Oddly, its lousy GM rear tires didn’t wear out so fast when he was kept away from it. 

One Saturday night, he was granted the privilege of going out for hamburgers, but he had a surprise. After picking up Kenny and me, instead of burgers and milkshakes at a local drive-in where our parents thought we were headed, Denny drove us down to Dix and Sibley to race the Olds. Of course, this was all happening without his father even suspecting. I couldn’t believe I was involved in an adventure so obviously wrong. His father was stricter than mine, and this was as dangerous as drinking Mogen David wine with girls in the back seat at a drive-in movie. If the car was damaged in any way or anybody discovered us, we were dead meat, grounded forever. 

Nearing Detroit Dragway, night sky was lit with searchlights, deafening loud speakers, bellowing cars, and screaming race fans. The scene along the spectator fence was pandemonium, howling cars streaking away into the distance every few minutes. We went back to the parking lot to remove the Oldsmobile’s air cleaner, wheel covers, and spare tire to reduce weight. After Denny registered to race, Kenny and I ran to the starting line to watch. Sure enough, there it was, a two-tone Oldsmobile in the line moving up to begin its race into the night. I shuddered, still wondering how I had contributed to Denny abusing his family’s Oldsmobile without his father knowing. What if he blew up the engine, finally destroying the car’s rear axle after all its abuse, or went off the track and crashed the thing somewhere in the process? I was both excited and horrified, but we cheered mightily as the car’s tires spun with a burnout perfected late at night on neighborhood streets. 

As the starting lights blinked down yellow to green, Denny gunned the engine and stood on the brakes to keep the car from moving forward. The poor sedan never meant for anything like this, howled, wanting to lunge forward. Lights flashing, spectators screaming, raw fuel and burning rubber in the air, we were focused on the green starting light about to flash. 

That’s when I felt a nudge from Kenny and a gesture to the rear. Glancing back, I froze. Both my parents and Denny’s were sitting two rows back, probably the first and last time they would attend such a “family adventure” together. It turned out later our totally respectable, middle-American parents had decided to visit the drag strip on this particular night, on a whim, to see what all their friends and kids were talking about. My father had driven them down because we boys were supposed to have gone out for local hamburgers. 

At that singular moment, the Oldsmobile began howling and snorting at the starting line, smoke bellowing from rear tires. Kenny and I turned to watch, while two sets of stunned parents and thousands of spectators saw the starting green light finally blink. Without any idea his parents were there, Denny timed it perfectly. The Oldsmobile gathered its flanks and sprang forward, gaining speed, screaming down the quarter-mile track. The loud speakers announced a great run, his speed displayed a respectable 84 mph on a large sign at the end of the quarter-mile. We ran to meet him on the return road and, after excited laughter and congratulations, we told him about our parents and his grin faded into wide-eyed grimace. 

We somehow avoided a confrontation and, without waiting around, climbed in and drove back to the parking lot to reassemble the car. As one might guess, there wasn’t much conversation on the way home. My parents never thought much of the incident, assuming Denny had his father’s permission but, a few days later, the three of us met at a local soda fountain to find out what happened. Denny said when his father returned that night, he thought he would be maimed for life by a belt-whipping. But his transgression was so great, apparently, his father simply asked what his elapsed time was before telling him he should go to bed since it had been quite a night. And he should begin saving money for a new set of tires. 

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