COAL: 1976 Chevrolet Nova — Mechanical Destrier — One More Trip Back to the Racetrack

It says “Monte Carlo” on the front bumper, and it sort of looks like a Monte Carlo, but it is actually a 1976 Nova underneath it all. Welcome to the “anything but stock” world of “stock cars”. Orange Show Speedway, 2007.

This is one of those posts that is going to mess with your ordinary way of thinking. The car above doesn’t look much like a ‘70s Nova, does it? And what the heck is a “destrier”? Let’s approach the subject by answering the second question first. A destrier is a large, strong jousting horse. In the Middle Ages, knights and warriors on horseback wanted big, tough horses, from which to stage their attacks and defenses. Destriers were bred to serve the purpose. Over time, the old rules of jousting gave way from actual battle tactics to something more ceremonial. It all evolved over to bright colors, polished armor, and horses and men trained and equipped to show off in structured and staged challenges and fights. Jousting went from a battlefield tactic to a prominent part of an “Annual Faire” or some other ceremonial regional get-together. No doubt there was much drinking, partying, and laying on of bets as to the outcome of the jousts, from the attending crowd.

Modern re-enactors riding destriers. Highly decorated and ceremonial, not unlike stock car racing.

Let’s jump ahead a few hundred years. I am going to sneer at an oft-told story of how stock car racing came to be. The legend is that the old moonshiners decided to race each other rather than actually running shine across the county. But, more likely, stealth instead of speed probably served moonshiners the best. A smart moonshiner would hire some local that didn’t know anything about anything to deliver the load, and figure that if the doofus got caught, just make sure it didn’t trace back to the source. But the ace moonshine driver stories are more fun to tell.

Instead, let’s look at the very early days of racing, say 1910 to 1920. There were essentially two ways it was done. One was a community-sponsored race around the town, or on a marked course through the town, or perhaps around a lake or other geological feature ringed with roads. The local Poobahs would block off the streets, and sell tickets to the spectacle. This sort of racing drew fancy, powerful cars, and drivers the likes of Barney Oldfield. Pitting local talent against the famous drivers, who were traveling around the country to go racing, would attract an audience and sell some tickets. There was, of course, the unspoken draw of potential mayhem and death. This was the root of “road racing”, such as at Watkins Glen and Laguna Seca. Then there is Le Mans in France, where part of the circuit is still made up of pavement used as local roads during the rest of the year. A race such as the Indy 500 is an offshoot of such a spectacle, on a dedicated course, and with fancy, state-of-the-art cars.

Early big-time racing. Block off the city streets and bring in racing’s heavy-hitters in state-of-the-art (such as it was) cars.

The second way to go racing was to get an old car, and see how fast you could go to some spot in the distance and back. Stick a post in the ground, and drive around it to come back again. Add a post at the near end, and now you can go multiple laps in roughly a big circle. Add some other drivers and old cars into the mix. Voila! Circle track racing. I think that’s how it really came to be, apocryphal moonshining tales notwithstanding. And the equipment was old, dinged-up and worn-out cars, not state-of-the-art. Typically Model “T” Fords were used early on, followed later by secondhand cars from the late ‘20s and early ‘30s.

The other way to go racing, back in the day. Get a bunch of old jalopies together and race in a big circle. Racing for the “little guys” and “local heroes”.

NASCAR did start out racing on the beaches of Daytona, so it wasn’t all circle track. But the roots of stock car racing were firmly in the everyday cars that one bought at a new or used car dealer, and drivers raced against each other in a big round circle, more or less. There has also always been some certain preferred amount of crashing and banging, quietly defined and policed (not too much, not too little), to attract ticket buyers, but not get the entire program run out of town and banned.

I mention NASCAR because it is the visible sanctioning body to the uninitiated, but there are actually others, including regional and single-track-specific sanctioning bodies. They police the racing and the prep rules, and arrange for insurance for the whole thing. How would you like to be an insurance actuary, trying to formulate the risks of sometimes violently angry drivers in powerful cars full of flammable fluids, driving at breakneck speeds in a bullring surrounded by spectators?

The first cars, often labeled as “jalopies”, were typically old Fords, and they sometimes ran with the fenders still on them, and sometimes not. Seat belts? Roll bars? Surely you jest. In the fifties and sixties, all sorts of safety equipment began to work their way into the mix. The first roll bars were often fashioned out of plumber’s pipe or occasionally out of four-by-four lumber. One has to start somewhere, with whatever one has close at hand, to try to keep the roof of the car from caving in if you went upside down.

Local “Stock car” racing in the fifties. Find an old thirties Ford, paint numbers on it, and take it to the track.

The stock car builders in the fifties began to add roll bars and modified the seats to actually hold you somewhat in place, perhaps augmented by seat belts. The cars themselves were simply pulled from a showroom (for the big-time guys) or, more likely, a used car lot for the rest of the competitors. Oldsmobiles were popular early on, and Hudson made a bit of a splash, including with some highly prepared cars at the big-time end of things, done up to a level most others could only dream of. Later, Chrysler 300s were the premier (and expensive) choice for those racing in the big leagues.

In the sixties, the cars began to be built as “ships in a bottle”. That meant a roll cage and any other competition adjustments and modifications would be done within the existing body shell and to the factory frame. Cars would be stripped of their interiors, and the familiar Jungle-Gym of roll bars and cages would populate an otherwise sparsely adorned interior. Mark Donohue and Roger Penske famously comprehensively tied the roll cage into all parts of the car, to stiffen it and make it handle better, thereby taking the technology to the next level. The cars were no longer street drivable in any way, realistically.

Local racing would follow along, ten years or so later, as car construction techniques and set-ups would filter down to the local racers.

For the seventies into the eighties, technology marched on. Entire sections of the car would get cut out and rebuilt, but still retain the general appearance of the original car it was derived from, more or less. The level of preparation and engineering was much higher (and more expensive). Underneath the body shell, the makings of purpose-built race car technology were obvious and substantial. No more “ship in a bottle”, but big parts of the frame, body shell, and visible bodywork were still factory stock pieces.

Seventies/eighties “stock car” technology, with some serious hidden re-engineering clothed in still mostly “stock” and recognizable bodywork. This Nova, #267, is the first race-car iteration of the #99 car in the top photo, before it was reworked and rebodied as a Monte Carlo. Cajon Speedway, 1995.

In the nineties, the idea of building up a “stock” car from scratch, retaining only some small vestiges of the original car it was derived from, became the norm in big-time racing, such as the NASCAR circuit. Typically, the floor under the driver’s seat, parts of the frame, and some of the front firewall were “stock”, but the rest of the car was fabricated from scratch, other than the “stock” bodywork in NASCAR’s premier racing leagues, to appease the auto manufacturers. That is where the “1976 Nova” at the top of the page comes in. The only Nova parts are the floor under the seat, the highly modified front Nova/Camaro subframe, and part of the firewall. The rest of it is some sort of vague representation of the early 2000’s Monte Carlo. Meanwhile, paint jobs and the cars themselves got ever more flashy and spectacular. Not too unlike the jousting horses with their bright colors and polished armor. So, too, like the destriers of old, the “stock cars” moved well away from any reasonable real-world function, other than to drive around in circles as fast as possible.

In shorthand, “stock cars” built in the fifties were almost entirely “stock”. In the sixties, they were stripped out and some things were changed around for better performance, but they were still mostly “stock”, and the street car roots of the race cars were easily recognizable. For the seventies and eighties, major elements of the underlying mechanicals were rebuilt and changed around, but there was still a lot of “stock” car to be found, and quite a few highly modified “stock” parts and assemblies in the car. In the nineties, most of the “stock” car was stripped away, and only vestigial parts of the underlying car remained. Most of the rest was custom built. For the 2000’s, the state-of-the-art “stock car” became essentially completely an assembled kit of pre-manufactured non-stock parts, and built mostly to a “spec”, with only bodywork differences, engines, and manufacturer logos to differentiate one make from another. The 2000’s builds are beyond the boundaries of this article or my racing experience. By the time I hung it up in 2008, the “spec” builds were just entering the realm of the local Saturday Night racing crowd.

Nineties-style “stock car” construction, local hero edition. The #99, photographed in battle at the top of the page. Somewhere under there is a heavily modified ‘70s Nova/Camaro front subframe. The rest is custom fabricated, with some elements well done, and some less so.

View from the driver’s seat. Everything you need, nothing you don’t, and not a bit of Nova can be seen.

Nothing under the rear bodywork looks much like a street car.

But, I am getting ahead of my own story here, in order to provide background. In the mid-late 1990’s, I was winding down my Mazda SCCA racing (note how I stated, in my COAL of a few weeks back, that I had reached a carefully parsed “the end of my Mazda and SCCA racing experience”). My extended family had taken on local stock car racing, and from out of nowhere I got sucked into the program (I didn’t push back at all…). My first racing “go-round” (literally, around and around), was in a 1971 Chevelle, roughly built to the sixties “ship-in-a-bottle” spec. A bit up from pulling a car in off the street somewhere, but not too much so. Chevys were popular at the local level, because the engines were the cheapest and most simple and straightforward to build and maintain, and (at least in the day), the cars and spare secondhand factory parts were absolutely everywhere. A stock car with a Chevy 350 was universal, in the small leagues.

Saturday night, 1971 Chevelle, very heavy, mostly stock-ish. Driving a “two-lane” track. The high line was as fast as the low line. Sixties construction techniques, a “ship-in-a-bottle”. Cajon Speedway, 1999.

Hurtling around in a 3,400 pound car on a mostly stock suspension, and on relatively hard and small tires, is a bit of an acquired skill. I would equate it to driving an older full-size pickup truck at speed. You need to learn how to coax the thing around, and nothing happens very fast. But what does happen, does so with deliberation. Meaning, if you are sliding towards a wall or another car, you are going to hit it. There is not a lot you can do about it, once things are in motion. And you need to push your driving to the limit, because if you do not drive at the limits of the capabilities of the car to actually navigate the course, others will, and they will be faster than you. That makes you committed to whatever might happen to take place around you on the track that night, whether you like it or not. More so than in other forms of racing I have done, driving these things is a bit of a dance, taking up space for yourself while leaving space for others. Be pushy and a hog, and others won’t give you space in return, especially at that moment when you really need it. Sort of like in a football game, where players don’t quite hit their opponents as hard as they might (at least most of the time), because, in turn, they don’t get quite as thrashed by the others. High school football rivalries excepted, and YMMV.

The racing was definitely an experience, as you could not mess up or lose momentum for even one corner of one lap, or two or five other cars might pass you. Likewise, when someone else messed up a bit, you had to fight the urge to let up yourself, and instantly take advantage of the moment, without thinking much or long about it. If it sounds a bit like an immersive video game experience, you are correct. But if you crash the car, you don’t hit the “reset” button, you spend a lot of time and effort getting things back in shape. Likewise, those heavy bruises and sore joints the next morning are real.

The track we raced at, Cajon Speedway in El Cajon, CA, was “just right”. Not a half-mile, which is very wide-open and terrifically fast, or a quarter-mile which is a traffic jam, but three-eighths of a mile. Additionally, the track just happened to be a “two-lane” track. That means, through geometry and physics, the top, longer (in distance once around) lane took exactly as long, in lap times, as the lower, shorter lane. Side-by-side racing was encouraged, and was a big part of the event. Most tracks are “one-lane” tracks. That means the real-world fast way around is either high, or low, and passing is very difficult. Students of the sport and fans can watch a stock car race and see where the single “fast” lane is. To deviate from that lane generally means slowing down to keep control, and getting passed. So the cars follow each other around and “poke” the cars in front of them with their front bumpers, trying to make something happen without getting caught doing it. The capacity for side-by-side racing (wherever the car in front of yours is, go below him or above him going into a corner, and then you have a roughly side-by-side duel from there until someone screws up, heats up their tires, or backs off) makes for much better racing, both for the drivers and for the fans. But it is actually fairly uncommon, especially on the smaller, tighter tracks. Speaking of fans, it is an entirely different experience driving in front of thousands of racing fans. They cheer everyone on, and raise the “performance” element (“performance” as akin to an acting gig, not horsepower) of the whole thing.

It took me a few years, and who knows how many thousands of laps, but I got to the point where I was often fast qualifier and I won some races. At Cajon, because of the side-by-side feature of the racing, the fast cars started behind the slow cars, and the pole position car was in the very back of fifteen or twenty cars, in a race of twenty laps. Lots of passing and strategy going on, and occasionally a few quiet side deals made before-hand to give each other some extra room, here and there. One good strategy was to pick the fastest and most consistently driven car in front of you, and follow him for a while. Let him do the hard work.

After a few years of chipping away at things and maximizing my skills (the possession of any kind of natural talent was definitely not the case for me), I won a track championship in 2002. Then I moved up to a faster class for the 2003 season, which was proper etiquette for those who won a championship in a lower class. Move up and out of the way, to give others a shot at it.

Pre-event lap practice. The car appears very long. Besides the two-tone paint job emphasizing the length, this car is another 1976 Nova underneath it all, with a 111 inch wheelbase, compared to the typical 108 inch wheelbase, or less, of most contemporary “stock cars”. Cajon Speedway, 2003.

The “Street Stock” class incorporated the seventies/eighties car building technique, by cutting out some major parts of the car and rebuilding them, but still keeping some mechanical resemblance and ties to the original car, and using a fair number of “factory” parts and assemblies. However, “mission creep”, by then, dictated fiberglass body shells of later model cars, even if the underlying mechanicals were still largely “factory” or “stock” derived. The #221 car (formerly #218, if one wants to dig through the Cajon Speedway archives), was actually mostly Nova underneath the newer bodywork, and it was roughly the functional equivalent of the #267 Nova, or the #256 Nova behind it, as photographed above.

Returning to the pits after lap practice. This “Monte Carlo”, unlike #99 at the top of the post, was still mostly (highly tuned) 1976 Nova under the updated bodywork. Cajon Speedway, 2003.

I had one more good season, finishing top-five for 2003, with the pole position in my final race for the year. A work/life change in the off-season dictated that I hang things up at that point. The track itself lasted only another year, before the city of El Cajon shut it down, late in 2004. We were too noisy and smelly for some tastes, and so were the race cars. To this day, the site sits on an empty lot adjacent to Gillespie Field, and vestiges of the track can be seen on Google Maps satellite photos, all these years later.

A ghostly outline of the race track is still visible in 2022, next to Gillespie Field, eighteen years after closing down. Hallowed ground, of sorts, for a number of local racers.

The story didn’t quite end there, as I tried one more racing foray up at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, in 2007 and 2008. I purchased and drove the #99 “Late Model Sportsman” car, which was an upgraded rebuild of the old #267 Cajon Speedway “Street Stock” car, so I knew the history of it. The car had been further cut apart and race optimized, to the point where almost none of it was Nova, but, instead, fabricated from scratch. Nineties style prep work. The campaign was not particularly successful, for three reasons. One was that the track was a quarter-mile in length, and it was just too small for these big cars, at least for me to be able to quickly adapt to it. Two was that it was a “one-lane” track (like most of them) and the driving experience was nudging the car in front of you with your bumper to try to create an opportunity to pass, while at the same time getting nudged from behind. For me, not a particularly enjoyable racing experience. Three, and perhaps the most significant one, was that I was into my late 40’s by then, and the complex “twitch” responses and flash decision-making processes in competition driving are more of a young man’s game. By the mid-40’s of age and beyond, staying in the game can be done, but it is more a process of mind and muscle memory being exercised, rather than going out fresh to learn a new track and a new level of racing. But I did get in a couple more years of racing, wrapping up my competition career for good in 2008. I was a “field car”, those last two seasons. That’s what I call one of the cars that fills out the grid, while the fast guys go for the win up front.

Eighteen-and-a-half feet of plastic fantastic, as run in 2007 and 2008.

The entire “stock car” experience was incredibly immersive, and taught me a lot about how cars are put together and function. From the car crafting side of it, I feel like I can make anything out of something else. It was also a chronicle of how things always change and evolve. The particular local culture of Cajon Speedway racing is, of course, gone now. But even if the track had remained, no doubt the racing program would have evolved considerably from the one of twenty or so years ago. For one thing, pulling out popular body-on-frame GM cars to go racing with, along with 70s Camaros and Novas from junkyards, has evaporated with time. The inventory of cars in the junkyards simply isn’t there any more. The craft of building circle track race cars has evolved away from working in a garage with welders and tube benders on an existing street car, and has gone over to ordering things on-line and having them show up to be assembled into a “spec” car, identical to all the others but for graphics. Fans don’t go to a lot of the tracks any more, and the grandstands at many tracks are largely empty, outside of friends and family of the participants. (we saw this attendance attrition process well underway in the first decade of the 2000’s). Building a bunch of required pre-fab parts to a “spec”, with a specified “crate” engine, is quite different than my experience of having custom-constructed race cars, and sending engines out to be built and rebuilt by specialist race engine builders. Is the new way of things better or worse? Hard to say, and it is what it is. One of the hard lessons of circle track racing, in particular, is that things are what they are. Win, lose, crash the car, be treated unfairly, they all are things that simply are. The reality of it stares back at you as a given result and outcome, and the only way to make it better is to come back the next weekend and give it another try, to make an attempt for a better result, until the day comes when you have had enough.

In the Car Barn in 2022, waiting for the next race that will likely never happen. Roll cage rules have been upgraded in recent years, to leave many older cars, such as this one, deemed not safe enough to race.