The Car Guy of Benchfield
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Senior Burn Out Day
By Steve Wingate
Last Day of School, 1985
I paused in front of "A" building that day to watch the seniors leave the parking lot, hoping all the best cars would go through the oil before the police arrived. I had only seen a few minutes of the year-end spectacle known as "Senior Burn Out Day" last year before the police came and put a stop to the whole thing by routing all exiting traffic across one corner of the football field. I was hoping for a better and longer view of the festivities that year.
Senior Burn Out Day was an ancient Huffman High tradition dating back to at least 1979 when some enterprising senior got the idea to soak the exit to the student parking lot with gallon upon gallon of used motor oil. The result was quite spectacular… all students, whether they wanted to or not, were able to perform impressive and prolonged burn outs capable of producing enough smoke to be seen from space. Every year since, exiting seniors arranged an oil spill rivaled only by the Exxon Valdez to cover the graded parking lot exit.
I wasn't the only one expecting a show, either. The sidewalks that ran along both sides of the exit were crowded with non-driving students like myself. Some were waiting on buses or parents, some of them were postponing their walk home, but all of them envied the students who were able to drive their own cars to school. Many of them were probably thinking; Yeah… that'll be me out there next year. I know I was… and not just because of what having a car symbolized to a teenager, but because I simply loved cars and couldn't wait to get behind the wheel of one.
I come from a long line of car nuts, so becoming one myself was to be expected, but unlike my grandfather with his affinity for oddish French cars, and my dad with his unnatural fixation on Volvos, I had become quite taken with muscle cars. Big, loud, fast and obnoxious gasaholic behemoths with thunderous exhaust notes capable of interrupting normal heart rhythms. It was these cars that I was hoping to see, and legendary senior Lee Woodard owned the granddaddy of all muscle cars, a 1971 Pontiac Trans Am.
Lee Woodard wasn't as legendary as the car itself. It had once belonged to Lee's brother Randy who graduated from Huffman in 1979. Randy Woodard was rumored to be the individual who actually started Senior Burn Out Day, though no one was really sure.
The accounts of what happened on that first burn out day back in 1979 were sketchy, often shrouded in legend and exaggeration. Just like any boy at Huffman High could tell you what was under the hood of that '71 TA, they could also tell you what they knew about the Inaugural Senior Burn Out Day. Supposedly, Randy had replaced his rear tires with a couple of old bald tires with the radial threads showing through so that he wouldn't ruin his good tires. Rumor had it that Randy performed "mother of all burnouts" on that infamous day, smoking those threadbare tires so long and so hard that the steel belts actually ignited the rubber, transforming the TA's burnout into something out of a Big Daddy Roth cartoon. Whether this really happened or not is doubtful, but it makes one hell of a high school mythology.
Randy went on to join the Air Force the following fall, and the TA was handed down to Lee, who was graduating this year, in 1985. Lee intended to join the Air Force as well, which meant that he would also be leaving the TA behind. It just so happened that Lee's younger brother Jay was my age and also a good friend of mine. So, there was a promise of some kind of future between myself and the big white Trans Am.
This was fortunate because it was likely to be the only relationship I ever had with a real muscle car because my father was not at all keen on the idea of me owning one. He just knew I was going to wind up getting myself killed in one of those three ton monsters, and considering all of the trouble that I later got in just riding in muscle cars, I have to admit that I now, as an adult, agree with his decision.
Growing more anxious, I looked down the line and noticed that Lee's TA was third in line to exit, which meant that within ten minutes, I was likely to witness the 1985 version of the "mother of all burnouts". Not only was the arrival of the police a possibility, I also knew that my dad was on vacation that week and could be showing up any minute to pick me up. I'd have rather ridden the bus… hell, I would have rather been tied to the bumper of the bus and drug all the way home. I saw bus 83-01 idling at the curb and wondered briefly where I might find some rope. A brief smattering of sarcastic applause and a rousing chorus of "you suck" drew my attention back to the exit where a wheezing Tercel was skittering it's way through the oil. Lee Woodard was next in line.
Lee expertly whipped the TA to the right towards the exit, already frying the tires in an impressive power slide and made his way to the top of the exit completely sideways. Wild applause broke out… Lee's non-driving public was pleased. He paused at the top of the hill for dramatic effect. The headliner act was still ahead. Silence descended. The crossing guard wisely fled and stood on the curb. I wondered if she had been present in 1979 and remembered this car. No one breathed. The TA sat… a predator preparing to pounce. The engine revved once, twice… then began to yowl. The TA still sat, although there was a curious whispering, droning noise just barely heard above the bellow of the 455 cubic inch power plant. Smoke began to billow in copious quantities from the rear tires. The crowd was still holding it's collective breath. That whispering-droning noise intensified, became a thin shriek. The big white car became to slide sideways at the rear tires, preparing for launch. The non-driving public began to applaud in anticipation… some scattered hoots and hollers went up.
Then something horrible happened.
Just as the TA launched, something about the engine note changed, followed by a bone jarring CLANK-- a sound still haunts my dreams to this very day. The TA was silent, rolling forward, smoke seeming to pour from everywhere. The almost-summer vacation air was charged with the smell of super-heated metal, and the only sound, it seemed, was the delicate tinkling of small pieces of metal bouncing gaily off the asphalt. Lee guided the mortally wounded Trans Am to the curb and exited the car. He looked back towards his adoring public at the exit and took a deep bow. The crowd erupted. Once again, the TA had made a legend of itself. This time, however, it appeared to have martyred itself for the sake of it's own notoriety.
An insistent honking drew my attention away from the last act of the '71 TA. There was my father, proudly perched behind the wheel of his shiny new Dodge Caravan. I fully believe, even to this day, that he bought that damned ugly piece of machinery for the sole purpose of embarrassing me. As if the car with it's rakish, Dustbuster styling wasn't embarrassing enough, he was wearing that floppy, ridiculous-looking powder blue rollup hat along with an over sized pair of aviator sunglasses that had been out of style since before I was potty trained. A big plastic pocket protector bristling with an assortment of writing utensils was stuffed halfway into his shirt pocket. He was waving like a fruitcake and shouting; "Hi son! It's me! Your old poppa!" A gaggle of girls, many of whom I knew, passed directly between me and the minivan, giggling. One of them said: "Hey Steve! Is that your 'poppa'? Nice hat!" The piercing stream of giggles that followed made me want to go suck on the minivan's exhaust pipe until I knew no more.
I climbed into the minivan and slumped as far down in the seat as I could. As we passed the dead TA, my dad asked me what had happened. "He blew it up." I answered, trying to slide even further down in the seat. I was deathly afraid he was going to stop and ask if they needed any help. "What a little dipshit." He said as we passed.
When he was sure that we were far enough away from the school, he took off the hat and the sunglasses, then put the pocket protector on the dash. I took this as a signal that it was safe to once again sit upright, which I did.
"You do that shit on purpose, don't you?" I asked him. My being able to use profanity on a moderate level was a new thing between us.
"It's what I live for." He said, affecting the British accent of Hobson in the movie "Arthur".
"When are you going to get rid of this thing?" I asked, indicating the minivan. My father, who would buy two more Mopar mini-haulers after this one, indicated that he would stop when it was no longer fun to embarrass me. The year I graduated college, he traded in his last minivan, (a horrid powder blue metallic with woodgrain sides) on a beautiful 4 door 1992 Honda Accord with a five speed transmission. It was the first car he ever owned that I liked, even though it wasn't a muscle car.
Later that day, I found myself thinking about the TA again. I knew that it was dead, but Jay was still next in line to inherit the car. I wondered if Jay would be able to bring it back from the dead in time for our own senior burn out day in 1987-- I would probably still be without a car by then. I was 16 and still car-less due to the fact that I refused to take possession of my mother's car, a pea-green 1972 Volvo 144. Thus, I was still relegated to walking, riding my bike or hitching a ride. But I was planning on working in the exciting field of air conditioning repair that summer, and I hoped to save enough money to buy my own muscle car by the end of the summer.
However, by the start of my junior year, I had failed to save enough money to even be able to buy a book about muscle cars. Many of the kids returning to school that year now had their own cars, and most of my friends ended up with muscle cars. Except for Jay, who was driving his father's battered old Datsun pickup while he patiently tinkered with the dead Trans Am. So, I got to ride in a lot of cool cars through the first semester of my junior year.
It was also during this time that I began to go out with my friends on weekends and exhibit typical deviant adolescent behaviors. Most of these behaviors involved vomiting behind dumpsters in the Food World parking lot and a LOT of falling down. I tried my first cigarette, a Winston (Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should) in the front seat of a 74 Camaro Z28 on the same night I got really drunk for the first time. On that same night, I also got to experience what it was like to yark up an entire six pack of Miller Lite while hanging out of a car door. On other nights, I peed on dumpsters while a friend yelled, "Hey dude, hurry up… I think I just saw a cop" from the seat of his Chevelle SS. I once woke up at three in the morning sprawled across the hood of a 67 GTO. I tried hard liquor for the first time while being chauffeured around in a Gremlin X-- that guy, mostly as a joke, kept a stash of air sickness bags in the glove box. Later that night, I was eternally grateful for his sense of humor as I filled up three of them. I tried grass for the first time in the passenger seat of a Mach 1, and tried in vain to get laid for the first time in the back seat of that same car. I later discovered that to get laid, both of the parties usually have to be conscious… I'm still not sure who was conscious, me or her. And all of this was always interlaced with two or three drag races or white knuckle 120 MPH+ runs down Parkway East in Birmingham. I still marvel sometimes at the fact that I survived those years.
Finally, on Christmas of my junior year, I got a car. My folks had bought me a 1975 Chevelle Malibu… not exactly a muscle car, but it had muscle car potential. It had a 350 and a 2 barrel carburetor, whitewall tires, and a vinyl top. It also had a terrible case of automotive emphysema due to all the various smog devices GM was trying out in the early 70s. I came to refer to it as the "Wheezemobile"… actually, I believe that this was why my father chose that car… it fulfilled my two basic requirements, a V8 and two doors, but it was still relatively safe due to the fact that it accelerated faster if you got behind and pushed than it did if you actually stepped on the gas. I kept the Chevelle for a little over a year, and it broke down at least twice every month. Seeing that I was not going to get anything better, I decided on a different strategy… I asked for a Japanese car with a straight shift, and in January of 1987, I got one as an early graduation gift.
However, I still retained my interest in muscle cars… the only difference now was that I had resigned myself to never having one as long as my father was the one who paid the doctor bills. It just so happened that Jay got the TA running again about the same time I got my rice rocket, so instead of driving my Toyota everywhere, I thumbed a ride with Jay as often as I could. . In return, he thumbed a ride with me every time the TA broke down, which was often. Jay was not a wild driver-- he respected his ride and never really romped on it, no matter how much I prodded him about it. He told me that he was only going to thrash the car once, and that one time was to be Senior Burn Out Day.
Finally, our time had come. Jay and I were going to be graduating. Just a few days before the last day of school, Jay confided in me that it really was his brother Randy that had started "Senior Burn Out Day" by dumping the used oil, and that his brother Lee had carried on the tradition. He also told me that even though he did not participate last year, it was he that arranged last year's spill. The night before Senior Burn Out Day, Jay sneaked out to the school and carried out his family tradition.
The next day, however, the school administration had finally decided to do something about Senior Burn Out Day after eight years. John Eppilito, the new boy's advisor, had called the city and arranged to have an entire dumptruck load of sand spread over the oil slick. We could do nothing but stand on the sidewalk and glower at the self-important little twit as he surveyed his handiwork. Jay appeared unfazed. He muttered something about not needing oil anyway, and sauntered off. He fully intended to have his burn out, no matter what. Tradition is tradition, after all.
Eppilito was standing at the top of that hill that afternoon with a notebook in his hand. Ordinarily, this would not have thwarted anybody, but today was different because two Alabama State Troopers had joined him. One trooper was out of the car, using a portable radar gun, and one was sitting in an idling cruiser. Both cars had their light bars going. I was right behind Jay in my own car, and was mightily disappointed that I wasn't going to see the TA perform. Instead, he motored peaceably between the two cruisers while showing Eppilito his middle finger. Eppilito wrote something on his pad, then motioned for the police officer with the radar gun to do something. The officer said something and shrugged… whatever it was must have really pissed Eppilito off because his lips drew into a thin white line and he began writing again furiously. He was still writing when I pulled up to the exit in my Toyota. Seeing that he was not going to look up before I pulled out, I blipped the horn, then showed him my own middle finger. Eppilito went a frightening shade of purple and shouted something to the officer, who shrugged again, but this time with a small smirk on his face. I lowered my middle finger and politely tipped the officer a small wave, which he returned with a subtle nod. I saw Eppilito in the mirror as he threw down the notebook and stalked away like a surly child denied a third pudding pop.
I met up with Jay at Haynes Chevron. He was leaning against the TA, drinking a Jolt Cola and smoking an unfiltered Camel. We exchanged a wordless high five, and he asked me to ride with him to the graduation ceremony that night. I knew then that Jay meant to have his burn out after all. The ceremony was going to be at the ultra-ritzy Cathedral of The Cross, or "Jesus Inc.", as I called it. The parking lot there would be jammed with hundreds of cars, and the school administration would not dare insult all those parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and whatnot by having two police cars sitting at the exit. We would get there early, take a spot close to the exit, escape the ceremony as quickly as possible, then pull to the exit and wait until there were a good many people in the parking lot before we left.
I remember nothing of the ceremony, aside from the fact that Eppilito eyed both Jay and myself from his place on the stage throughout the evening. Every once in a while, he would lean over and say something to the assistant principal and point right at us. During one of these instances when they were both looking at us, Jay hung his tongue out the side of his mouth, crossed his eyes and made a rude gesture involving a clenched fist with his right hand. Eppilito turned purple again.
We were the first ones outside, and we jumped in the car and made our way towards the exit. I looked back towards the church and it just so happened that Eppilito, the principal and the assistant principal had followed us out and were scanning the parking lot, looking for the white TA. I relayed this information to Jay, who revved the engine a few times to attract their attention. I saw them turn and point at us, then I said: "NOW!" The TA's engine wailed and we careened out onto Parkway East completely sideways, laying an impenetrable cloud of smoke behind us. I was pinned to the seat, cheeks flapping, as the Jay expertly corrected the car and shot forward, barking the tires through the first three gears. Jay didn't let off until we were a mile away from the church and he proudly informed me that the speedo had registered 130 just before he let off. Way cool.
Jay went off to join the Air Force and I went off to college, and we never saw each other again. Sad, but that's the way it happens after high school. I of course swore off the booze and the drugs, but the cigarettes stuck with me. I eventually married and swore off muscle cars in favor of SUVs until I bought a Trans Am of my own in 2002. It's nothing like the one Jay had, but it has the same spirit, and that's enough for me.
Every once in a while, I cruise through my old neighborhood just to see how things have changed. On my last visit, I drove by Jay's old house. I'm assuming his parents still live there, because there's something sitting in the grass beside the garage. Something covered up with a tarp. Something I'm pretty sure is a slumbering beast awaiting a high school boy, possibly a son of one of the Woodard brothers, to wake him up.
There's hope for the future.
2003 Car Guy of Benchfield