Racing against time

By  | August 30, 2018 | 5 Comments | Filed under: Announcements

Tom Vann, left, and Sheldon Rier of the Tyrods Classic Car club in Cambridge with their restored vehicles. Vann’s car is a 1967 Dodge Dart;

Rier’s is a 1937 Studebaker Dictator coupe. – Peter Lee , Waterloo Region Record


Sheldon Rier’s 1937 Studebaker during the Great Race from Buffalo to Halifax. – courtesy The Great Race.

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Sheldon Rier’s 1937 Studebaker at the start of this year’s Great Race from Buffalo to Halifax. – courtesy The Great Race.

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A love of vintage cars was born in the brotherhood of ’70s street-racing.

Whats On Aug 29, 2018by Valerie Hill Waterloo Region Record

CAMBRIDGE — In the 1970s a few dozen young men in their souped up cars would meet up at the Water Street Harvey’s in Cambridge on a Friday or Saturday night. Volunteers were assigned duties, entry fees of about $20 were collected, then they headed to some rural road that, under the cover of darkness, would double as a quarter-mile track.

A flat stretch of asphalt with good visibility on Roseville Road was one of their favourite spots. Just like in the 1978 movie “Grease,” the flag person would stand between two cars, count down, drop the flag, and the cars were off in a roar of burning rubber and smoking engines.

Track marshalls at each end of the strip held lights they could flash to indicate when someone was coming.

All this was illegal, but Cambridge was still a small town where everyone knew everyone. The kids had grown up with most of the cops, who didn’t necessarily turn a blind eye, but no one was ever issued a ticket for street racing.

And no one was ever hurt, said Tom Vann, now 61, and a member of the Tyrods Car Club where a few members continue the racing tradition, though they have moved to official tracks in St. Thomas and Cayuga.

Forty year ago, Vann purchased and restored his gold, two-door ’61 Dodge Dart. It looks deceptively like a family sedan, but under the hood is a V8 with more than 350 horsepower. When he drives that car, which gets all of “eight miles a gallon,” he is thrust back four decades to the good old days of street racing.

“It was well organized and safe,” he said. “If you had a piece of junk for a car and it was dangerous, we wouldn’t let you race, and we wouldn’t let you race if you’d been drinking.”

Some guys turned up with their dads’ station wagons. There wasn’t a lot of speed in those beasts, but that wasn’t always the point.

“It became a culture,” he said. “Everyone would help each other.”

Vann, a landscaper and diehard vintage car buff, waxes poetic about the races — the smell of the engines, the excited crowds.

Everything changed in the early ’80s. The guys were getting married and having kids, and new street-racing laws made it expensive if you were caught.

Street racing was fun, but it was usually done in cars the kids could afford — $50 wrecks they’d spend months fixing up. Today those “vintage” wrecks, regardless of condition, are worth a small fortune.

You can take the racing away from the boys but you can’t quench their desire for a cool car. “You get noticed, everyone turns their heads,” said Vann, who restored a gleaming white, gas-guzzling ’61 Cadillac deVille for his wife Lucy as a 35th anniversary gift. These cars are awe inspiring if not practical.

Sheldon Rier, 53, tops most of the racers in the Tyrods club with the oldest racing vehicle, though his ’37 Studebaker Dictator coupe wouldn’t do well on a straight track. It’s not built for speed.

Rier, who owns a graphic-design company and auto parts distributor, has several vintage cars, but it was the Studebaker he entered into the 2018 Great Race from Buffalo to Halifax.

Rier served as navigator for driver Ron VanderMarel, and together they completed the 10-day, 3,784 kilometres race, finishing 63rd out of 118 competitors from across North America and Japan. The route took them east from Buffalo into New York state, New Hampshire and up into Eastern Canada.

The four oldest vehicles in the race were built earlier than 1920, including two 1916 Hudsons. The newest vehicle in the race was from 1972, and the overall winner, a ’33 Ford pickup truck, took home the $50,000 cash prize.

To qualify for the race, all the vehicles had to have their original engines and transmissions.

“Driving an 80-year-old car through the mountains added another layer of complexity,” said Rier. “You have to maintain an average speed and the car is heavy, all your spare parts are with you.”

The race is promoted as a “timed, navigation, controlled speed, endurance race” so no speeding, no GPS, or even maps. The highest tech allowed is a stopwatch. Just as the race is about to start, drivers are handed a three-inch binder with detailed descriptions of the route.

It wasn’t long ago that Rier purchased the Studebaker in the U.S., a rusty old wreck in desperate need of restoration. The car has been so beautifully restored, he was awarded “best classic car” in the Great Race.

Along the route, communities held barbecues and car shows, and at the end of the day the racers would convene in their hotel parking lot to swap stories and help each other with issues, even supplying parts when needed.

This is part of what draws Vann and Rier, the camaraderie.

In Rier’s case, it all started in high school. “I went to St. Benedict in Cambridge,” said Rier. “In Grade 10, we started a car club even though we weren’t 16 and didn’t have our driver’s licence. A lot of us had older brothers who had cars.”

The boys in the club all had part-time jobs, saving enough money to purchase 10-year-old cars, and did their own restorations, waiting for the day they could legally get behind that wheel.

Cars are a love he continues to share with his father and brother, and now his son, three generations who all love vintage cars.

And they are not alone in this passion.

“It’s really a people hobby masquerading as a car hobby,” said Rier to which Vann added. “It’s a great brotherhood.”

Twitter: @HillRecord

Twitter: @HillRecord

Valerie Hill

by Valerie Hill

Valerie Hill is a reporter with the Waterloo Region Record and can be reached via email or Twitter @HillRecord.

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5 Responses to Racing against time

    Tom Vann August 30, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    Valerie from the Record was excellent to talk to. Asked all the right questions. My friend Sheldon is brilliant with cars. Those were the days when cops made the call and not a judge. Some of the stories I could tell. Some of the guys still race and their cars are doing 9 seconds in the 1/4 mile at about 150 miles per hour. Thanks Deb. People liked me back then.

    Maggie August 30, 2018 at 8:30 pm

    A great article. Well done guys. What wonderful cars to have.
    What a gift to bring them back to life & enjoy. Your lucky wife Tom.
    Thanks for sharing your experience with us – brings back good memories.
    And we all love you Tommy. Never fear. |

    Tom Vann August 30, 2018 at 10:28 pm

    Just got an invite tonight to be in a movie with my car, and or Lucy’s car. Cool.

    alan marshall August 31, 2018 at 7:28 am

    Betty spotted you in the Record first Tom. Great article and good comments.

    Tom Vann August 31, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks Al. We had some good cops back then. I remember a Sargent pulling me over for running a red light he said. I told him it wasn’t red. Okay, let’s see what’s under the hood. We spoke for some time and I handed him my keys. Now give me yours and I’II meet you in Preston I said. He said no, the car was nice and sounds great but slow down. Okay, as I spun the tires and left.

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