"Where the hell’s the Earth?” is the last thing you want a passenger to yell when you’re at the wheel of a speeding car.
We’re airborne, Greg and I, on a hot dry prairie afternoon, the rough rumble of the dusty road gravel suddenly gone — we’re weightless, silent, shooting through space.
It's Summer 1977 and we're bootin’er around the grid roads east of Regina in the maiden test-run of my newly-built V-8 Vega rocket car, burying the needle on these dead-straight stretches of dirt road. No idea how fast we’re going — we have no reference point: no trees, no houses, not even power poles, nothing ahead to the horizon, the needle bent over 120mph.
Driving like a maniac on flat Saskatchewan grid roads is a ton of fun and you’re not going to hit anything. You’ll always see the dust trail of any moving car from far away.
My only road concern is one part near the north end of Tower Road, a mile north of the TransCanada, where there’s a big bump as it intersects with the dual-train crossing. I’ve bottomed out many times after flying over it driving other cars.
Though all my grease-monkey friends are in awe of this crazy car, they stare at it with many doubts. (Afterwards, many say it was one of the dumbest ideas I had ever had, yet no one said anything during its short lifetime — everyone wanting and waiting to watch how badly this is going to end.)
Chevrolet produce their subcompact car called Vega in the 1970s with a puny four-cylinder aluminum block engine. The Vega line is marketed by General Motors as a smaller, economical, scaled-down version of their super-sexy muscle car, the Camaro. And it truly does look like a miniature Camaro.
Vega enthusiasts rip out the piddling factory engine and plunk in a 283 or 327 cubic-inch small-block 8-cylinder, doubling its power for a small car. Serendipity has a friend of a friend wanting to sell a 454 big-block engine for cheap, making my little Vega over three times as powerful as the original but still within a tiny car frame. Pretty much one of the biggest, most powerful, and fastest engines in the world bolted inside one of the smallest cars at the time.
(An equivalent for today would be to get a Toyota Prius, take out its hybrid motor, and try to fit in the biggest Ford F-150 truck engine that you can find.)
Building this rocket car would seem such a stupid idea as the cost for a low-income high school kid would be astronomical. But my secret financial weapons are two-fold: I work at the Canadian Tire auto parts counter and can get parts-at-cost plus my employee discount, making them almost free; and I have full access to the automotive bays at my high school for free.
The atrium of Miller High School has glassed-in displays of all the awards of the brilliant academic and sports alumni since its opening eleven years previous in 1966. My mom and sister were amongst the first students but there are no awards with their names in the trophy case. I feel somewhat ill at ease knowing I will be the first in my family with a giant trophy for a land speed accomplishment.
I soon realize there is a myriad of issues compounded by simply exchanging a tiny engine with a giant one.
I need new engine mounts to be welded onto the frame; new shocks to absorb the massive increase in weight; the sudden lack of space in the engine compartment forces the radiator to be cut into the front frame; the removal of the firewall; a new transmission with its own coolant radiator; the rear-end differential to be a shortened Chevy 10-bolt; a shortened drive shaft; lowered oil pan; plus rear mag tires so wide it looks like Fred Flintstone’s car from the back.
Sitting in the cramped driver’s seat, I can see out both side windows, but only partially out the front windshield. To my seventeen-year-old brain, this is not an issue. The huge 4-barrel carburetor, topped with the supercharger air pump, is popping out of the engine compartment, blocking the driver’s view of most of the right side of everything straight ahead.
The console dashboard is too small to fit my tach, oil pressure, fuel pressure, and water temperature gauges so they’re all mounted separately outside on the hood, facing in, limiting my straight forward vision.
Insanely speeding down dusty prairie roads in a rocket car is truly a wonderful feeling of freedom for a teen boy in the mid-1970s: the straight road ahead angling into the vanishing point — my left polyester collar flapping in the wind out the open window — my right foot fully extended, literally pushing the pedal to the metal — my left hand gripping the leather-covered steering wheel as tight as I can at 8 o’clock position — my right hand upwards on top the ball of the extended Hurst shifter nearly touching the dome light — my left foot dangling in the air, ready to slam down on the brake if need be — the golden blur of wheat fields on either side.
If I had a rear view mirror, I could look behind to see my miles-long plume of dust and smoke.
I’m in ecstasy in this extreme speed —a total out-of-body experience— until I catch one frame of a railway crossing sign and realize I’m on Tower Road about to catapult over the dual train tracks.
Total silence as the car becomes airborne. My limited vision of the road ahead disappears and all I can see is blue sky and fluffy clouds out the windshield, a most surreal feeling. This is when Greg blurts out his desire for the Earth.
In what seems like a slow-motion minute but may have only been seconds, we soon feel my front-heavy car start to arc downwards, hitting the gravel road with a spine-crushing thud, our heads snapping forward, all the noise assaulting us once again.
A big gap in memory as we sit silently in the simmering, stationary car for who knows how long, both uncomprehending the blood on the dashboard.
I slowly start to feel the summer heat from the open windows, smell the gasoline and oil and burnt rubber, hear the buzz of grasshoppers, and pain from the unusual aches in my body. I look over to Greg who is staring blankly out the broken windshield.
I try to open my door but it seems it is bent tight, never to open again. Painfully and awkwardly sliding my body up and out the window onto a foothold on the gravel, I robotically walk away from the car and turn to look back at it.
A black oil strip emanates from under the rear of my car, towards me, under me, and as I pivot to the opposite way, as far as I can see towards the railway crossing sign on the horizon.
This is not my photo of my car. I lifted this one from the web as it looks quite close to the one in my story (before the accident.)