CAR NAME MEMORIES

Brutus. Eastern Raider. Yankee Peddler. Strip Poker. Names from a period when the cars were the stars. Today, it’s more about the people than anything else, which is probably what it should be, but oh those names, they defined the car and the driver.

I guess I’m tired of this shutdown of sorts and just hunting for some good memories, which brings me to… the Puerto Rican Dream.

Because I was on the other side of the camera lens for so long, I have to first thank so many who have allowed me to use their shots; Auto Imagery, Dave Milcarek, Francis Butler, "Mashie" Mihalko and so many more who I apologize for forgetting.

In 1980 I debuted a C/ED for Comp Eliminator, earning my first NHRA national event final round that year at the now-defunct Grandnationals outside of Montreal. After beating my head and wallet against the wall for two years, I decided I’d had enough, parking the car eventually selling it in 1982. That was also the year I got married and we bought our first house with a small shop in the back.

Enter friend Gilbert Alvarez. He had gone racing with us in the past and wanted his own car. Unbeknownst to me, he purchased what was just a chassis of a Pro Stock Vega. Begun by south Jersey’s Bob Jinkins, the car was originally intended to be his personal Pro Stock car until he probably came to his senses and parked it out back of his shop. The car was little more than a shell with some interior aluminum.

Needing to have it completed, Gilbert sought me out to help. About halfway through the project, redoing a lot of the suspension and tin work, he mentioned he was suffering with that disease “fundsarelow.” This was at a time when the Super Gas class was beginning to be huge. I suggested we partner up with me completing the car, installing my drivetrain and me driving. Deal.

We debuted it sometime in ’83 in primer, actually racing it at Indy that year with a pregnant wife; me driving, not the wife. I also remember running at Island Dragway one time, blowing an engine and taking a detour to the turn-off road through the grass as I slid in my own oil. My actual concern at that point was I thought Dot would drop the baby out right there on the starting line while she ran down to make sure I was alright. That would have been appropriate for our family, huh?

Yeah, I’m getting away from the Puerto Rican Dream part, but stay with me, I’ll get there.

By October; the 28th to be exact; our son was born. One week later was the Little Guy Nationals in Suffolk, Virginia. With a one week old son freshly home from the hospital, what does a racer do? Load up the trailer and head south with Ross Gerken; whom I was with when he won the Gatornationals in ’78. Mom and baby stayed home but they must have been my good luck charms as we earned the first of many wins that weekend with the car.

A week later, was the beginning of the Winter Series in Florida. What to do, what to do? Dot wasn’t about to miss a trip to Florida but do you put a two-week old in the truck and drive 20 hours or so south? I can tell you our families were irate. “You can’t put a two-week old baby in a car seat and drive 20 hours!”

What do we do? Check with an expert.

“Hey doc, is it okay to put the baby in a car seat and drive 20 hours in a truck to the races in Florida?

“Is that what you do? Then you do it. That baby has to get used to your lifestyle, not you to his.”

Enough said and off we went. I don’t remember doing very well but it was Florida in November.

When we got home, Gilbert wanted to paint the car yellow, which we did. Yellow that almost hurt my eyes to look at. Sitting one night at dinner, Gilbert mentioned he wanted to put a name on the car, while throwing out some ideas. Dot; in her infinite Dot sort of way; said kiddingly, “That car looks like a real Puerto Rican Dream.”

Bingo. The rest is… history.

What does a full blooded Puerto Rican and a full blood Italian (me) have in common? A race car. I can’t tell you how many times people would come up to me spouting something in Spanish to which I had to answer, “Huh?”

For decades, Chevrolet used crossed flags as part of their logo, to which we had our own version lettered on the front end by noted artist Glen Weisgerber with an Italian flag on one side and the Puerto Rican on the other.

To quote a once notable Saturday Night Live skit by Chico Escuela (for those of you who knew who he was), in his natural Spanish accent, “That car been berry berry good to me.”

That’s it. Memories is all we have during this pandemic. Think of some of your own while you go back to your regularly scheduled sit-at-home and do nothing. -JOHN DiBARTOLOMEO