Friday, March 18, 2016

Chasing Dreams

When my alarm went off, it was early... REALLY early.  I had intended to get more sleep but it took me longer than I had expected to pack the night before.  As I sat up and wiped the sleep from my eyes, the clock glared at me, flashing 3:30am.  'How was I going to complete this trip with only 4 and a half hours of sleep?' I thought to myself, but I didn't have time to sit and ponder my predicament because I had to be out the door at 4:45.  After my wife dropped me off at the the train station, I was able to make the train with only minutes to spare.  As I sat there in the largely empty train, I finally had a moment to breathe.  Unfortunately, having so little sleep and eating breakfast so early made my stomach very unhappy, so I spent much of the train journey trying to keep from tossing my cookies.  Thankfully though, by the time the train reached the airport, about 45 minutes later, my stomach had calmed down enough where jogging to security wasn't an issue.  What was the issue was the line to get into security.  I've flown out of Atlanta several times, but I had never seen a security line so long.  Fortunately, it was moving quickly, and I was able to get through with no issues.  After boarding, I slipped into my window seat, latched my seat belt and began to relax.  The first stressful part of the trip was over, and I finally had a moment to grasp what was actually happening.

This story, for me, started years and years ago.  According to my parents it started when I was 3 or 4 when I received a collection of matchbox cars from my uncle.  No, there weren't any Honda's in it sadly, but I was still instantly hooked.  I spent hours playing with my toy cars.  As I grew up, my love for cars only grew stronger.  As a pre-teen I discovered racing (NASCAR in particular).  Back then NASCAR was in its hey-day, and it was easy to get caught up in the excitement.  On my eighth grade class trip, I purchased a VHS tape of the 'NASCAR 1996 year in review' that quickly became my most watched, and remained so for several years.  I knew I had to be involved in racing somehow.  My Christmas lists turned from LEGO sets, to 'money for racing school'.  Since I was never in a position to compete while growing up, I decided being part of a pit crew would be the next best thing.  Before I know it, I'm in my red Pontiac Firebird driving to Nashville to start my first year at the Nashville Auto Diesel College where, from what I had learned from a bit of research, recruiters for the top NASCAR teams scouted.

Things didn't turn out quite as planned.  A little over a year later, I found myself back home attending a community college.  It wasn't because I didn't succeed in the Auto Diesel program, it was the reality that I had discovered while I was there that caused the change in career direction.  I wasn't there long when I realized that 99% of the guys that graduated from the program ended up being mechanics at auto dealers and stayed in such a position for the remainder of their career.  The 1% who did make it into racing needed more than talent to obtain their sought-after positions.  It usually boiled down to who knew who.  This was a risk I was not willing to take.  So my career, however continually shaped by my love for cars, veered off in a completely different direction.  What didn't change was my desire to race.  I realized that instead of having a racing career, the next possible way to race would be via hobby.  The problem with that was, in order for racing to be a hobby, I would have to wait till my career caught up to my dream.  That day finally came toward the end of last year and it was time to take action.

The search for a 'track car' (that's what the kids are calling them these days) didn't last long.  I had looked into a couple cars that I found, but those options quickly fell through.  I didn't have a huge budget, so there wasn't a lot out there for me to choose from.  Then I remembered a Red Pepper Racing member had listed his track car online months before.  I remembered distinctly because I had followed his build thread and was so upset when I saw that he had listed it when I was still in no position to buy.  Since so much time had passed since he had first listed the car, I was convinced that it was long gone, but I contacted him anyway.  Much to my surprise, it was still available, and the rest is history!

By the time I touched down in Kansas City, my nerves had settled, and I began to get excited.  I knew I had an extremely long journey ahead of me but at that moment, the only thing I could think about was what was waiting for me only a couple hours away.  First thing to do was pick up the rental truck and trailer.  After short cab ride I found myself signing my life away at the rental counter.  Thankfully the process was quick and easy and I was on my way in no time.  Before I hit the highway, I headed to the store to pick up supplies.  After a cart load of food, drinks, and tie-downs was loaded into the cab, I hit the road.

Driving a box truck and towing something behind it was nothing new for me, however the last few times I did do that, the truck was full and there was a car on the back.  Since I had an empty truck and trailer, things were rough.  The rear axle of the truck had essentially no suspension travel causing an extremely bumpy ride, and the trailer would just bounce around every time I hit a bump.  Those issues turned out to be the least of my worries as I got out of town and into the open country.  It was a strong head-wind that had me wrestling the wheel like it was an agitated alligator.  Whilst struggling to keep the truck on the road, I had to keep my foot buried in the floor to maintain highway speed.  By the time I reached my destination, I had used a full 30 gallon tank of gas to go 200 miles.

All the frustration of the journey was instantly washed away as I pulled up to the sellers house and saw the front of the Civic poking out of the garage.  Everything became real at that moment.  Until then, all the planning, preparations, excitement, nerves, and frustration had distracted me from what was really happening.  Now I realized that I was really going to make my dream come true.  As I walked up the driveway to meet the seller, I couldn't tell you what I said, or what he said in that moment because I was fixated on the car.  As he walked me around the car showing me all that he had done to the car, my head was in a daze.  In an attempt to appreciate what was happening and be in the moment, I failed to concentrate on what was actually going on around me.  It felt like only minutes had passed by, and I was already back on the road.  Even though I was distracted, the whole pickup process went really well.  The seller had friends and family present to help and they were all very hospitable.

As I slowly floated down from cloud nine, I started to think about the 11 hour, 700 mile journey to Chicago that lay in front of me.  It was already 5:30 in the afternoon and I was just starting off.  The thought of doing 80% of the drive in the dark, on 4 hours of sleep, was not making me feel confident at all.  But, I really had no choice but to keep rolling and eat up the miles.  After 100 miles had ticked off the clock, I pulled over to check the load.  Everything in the back of the truck was where I had secured it, only the spare engine that was lashed to the side of the truck needed to be tightened down.  The trailer was a different story.  As I walked around to the back of the car, I noticed that the car wasn't were we left it.  The rear of the car had shifted to the right in such a way that the drivers side wheel was up on the side of the wheel platform.  Not only that, but the drivers side wheel straps had loosened to where it was just laying on top of the wheel.  After I figuratively soiled myself, I tightened the straps down and hoped that the car would shift back to the left as I continued on.  Needless to say, at every stop, I was checking everything twice to make sure it was secure.

As the sun set over the rolling brown hills of eastern Kansas, I started to settle in to the drive.  The wind was behind me, the weather was clear, and traffic was light.  I plowed ahead through Kansas, Missouri, across Iowa, and into Illinois (my home state).  I only had to stop twice for a one hour nap each time.  It seemed that one hour of sleep would buy me three hours of driving.  As I crossed over into Illinois, things started to become more familiar, and that helped me stay awake.

The reason for my journey to the Chicago area was quite simply, another toy.  A good friend of mine had a friend's friend who happen to be selling off her late husband's vintage motorcycle collection for insanely good prices.  I never buy things sight-unseen, but at those prices, it was irresistible.  Before I knew it, I was a proud owner of a 1974 Harley Davidson ss350 Sprint.  Since the bike's location was very close to my parents house, my friend and I arranged to meet at my parents where he would drop the bike off for me.  It was just fortunate that I happened to be driving a virtually empty box truck across the country on the same weekend he was picking up the bikes, so it all worked out.

I pulled up to my parents house around 7:15am, dazed and exhausted.  It was dark and misty out because the early morning snowfall was already starting to melt in the unusually mild temperatures.  I stumbled up to my old bedroom and crashed for a couple hours before my friend showed up with the bikes.  When he did, the excitement of seeing the bike for the first time had me wide awake in no time.  We quickly unloaded the Harley and then loaded into the back of the rental truck.  After a couple hours of catching up, I was back on the road again.  I had planned on getting more sleep while at my parents, but I couldn't resist catching up with my friend who I hadn't seen in several years.

It was about 12:30pm when I left my parents house.  I was groggy, but still hanging on to the few remaining ounces of adrenaline left over from the motorcycle exchange.  The first few hours were easy, not in the sense of the drive, but easy to stay awake because I had to navigate the truck and trailer through miles of construction, horrible weather, worn roads, and harrowing city traffic.  When I came out on 'the other side', which is where I get onto 65 for the first time, I was very awake.  However, the additional energy gained from the first leg of the journey, was quickly used up trying to stay focused on the road between Chicago and Indianapolis.  I have done the trip from Chicago to Atlanta several times and to survive it, I break the trip up into 5 stints: Chicago to Indianapolis, Indianapolis to Louisville, Louisville to Nashville, Nashville to Chattanooga, and Chattanooga to Atlanta.  All of the stints are similar in length, and just short enough to stay awake through.  Since each stint is separated by a large city, where you are awakened from attempting to navigate the traffic, it makes the long trip manageable.

After a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potholes, mountain dew, and gas, I pulled into my driveway in one piece.  Surprisingly I only needed to stop once to get an hour long nap around Chattanooga.  As I climbed out of the truck and stepped back a bit, I struggled to wrap my head around the scene in front of me.  My house, with my own track car in the driveway... but it was much more than that.  It symbolized years of hard work and dedication, times of struggle, life changing decisions, and lots of lost hours of sleep.  I realize it may not seem as important to some, but to me, this was the ultimate success.  Now the fun begins!!

Photos by Stephen Dettman