Friday, April 16, 2010

Penrose Garage - 1985 Ford Ranger Dragster

Buick 225 in front of the SPOT LITE - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

In rural Illinois, unless their path is diverted by a natural barrier like a river or a Walmart, roads are dead straight and 5,280 feet apart. Perfect for driving large farm implements and drag racing.

I had been through Penrose, IL at least a hundred times and never knew it.

I always slow for the cross street at the bottom of a long, shallow dip in the highway between Sterling – where my wife’s dad lives – and Polo, IL where her Aunt and Uncle used to live. And I always make a point to glance at the old store because it would be a great place to stop if it were ever open, which it never has been in the 20-some years I have been driving by.

I was out early on Easter Sunday and ended up passing through Penrose again, (although I still didn’t know it existed.) To my delight, parked in front of the SPOT-LITE FOOD MART was an early-sixties Buick “deuce and a quarter” with its period full-vinyl interior cavalierly exposed to the destructive rays of the warming sun.

Bob Richards - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

Of course I pulled over and began walking around the car and in doing so set off the black spaniel-kind-of-dog guarding the house across the street and she sent the appropriate alarm up into the otherwise still morning air.

Eventually, her owner stepped squinting from the house to see what had tripped the dog and there I was. He didn’t appear to be overly concerned, but I felt I should apologize for the commotion, so I walked across the street and did so.

We talked for less than a minute about the Buick and it was clear that this was a car guy. “Yeah, I repair transmissions out of the garage there,” he said nodding. “And work on our race car.” This is precisely the kind of statement that makes my day.

1985 Ford Ranger pickup dragster - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

1985 Ford Ranger pickup dragster - front suspension - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

The man’s name is Bob Richards and he operates the Penrose Garage, as he has for over 30 years. Transmissions – automatic transmissions – are his specialty. (Even if you are capable of understanding the schematic of an automatic transmission, don't bother trying to explain it to me. The metal casings look like wood that has been sorely infested with termites, and there are stacks of gears no thicker than the ones on a bicycle that apparently are capable of moving several thousand pounds of automobile.)

I asked Bob if I could see the race car and he informed me that it was actually a Ford Ranger pickup truck. It’s the only Ranger on the local drag race scene, and as far as he knows, the only one going. (Yes, the “Lone Ranger”.)

The Lone Ranger - 1985 Ford Ranger pickup dragster - front suspension - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

Whether you know anything about drag racing or not, you can appreciate the craftsmanship and ingenuity that Bob and his friends have put into this machine. The majority of the parts are designed and fabricated by these guys.

Penrose Garage - tools - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

He pointed out that a few miles down I-80 I would find the Cordova International Raceway Park, and seemed to withhold judgment of me when I said I hadn’t heard of it. (He did ask if I was from Chicago.) He relayed the claim that Cordova puts out - that its “World Series of Drag Racing” is “The Oldest Continuous Drag Race in the World!!!”, having been held every August since 1956. (I plan to be there this year.)

Penrose Garage - shelf full of gears - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

Anyway, Bob has a team – “three old guys who are too dumb to know it can’t be done” - that has worked together over five years to turn a clapped-out $200 pickup truck into a fire-breathing thing of beauty. Bob shared that he is now 62 years old, and his buddies – Terry and Gary - are roughly of the same vintage. Terry, who does most of the driving, is in fact, 69.

Penrose Garage - vintage mini-bike - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

Bob is an extremely modest man. He continuously raved about the man who did the paint, the guy who did the pinstriping, and his partners in the project. Ultimately, Bob said something like this; “I’m not a real religious guy, but all this is a gift from the guy upstairs.” He told me the team has a plan to pay it forward, but asked me to keep the details of that operation “off the record.”

While the “Lone Ranger” is still officially “under development”, Bob suggested (I have to say, somewhat coyly,) that he expects to pull at least 600 Horsepower from the Ford V8 when it’s in full race trim.

Just a few short weeks from now.

All content copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

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