Monte Carlo plus one. This is how my father remembers the year I was born. We had a ’73 Monte Carlo. I was born in 1974. Monte Carlo plus one.
Monte Carlo plus one. Never buy a Ford. Always root for number “3”. This was the logic and reasoning of my childhood, passed on by my father.
Growing up in Michigan, cars were no small part of our lives. On a summer weekend you could look up and down the street to observe half a dozen men playing mechanic in their driveways. Dream cars, muscle cars, a teenager’s first car. My brother’s room was decorated with framed photos of race cars. Perched atop my father’s desk was a die cast model of NASCAR’s number “3.” Memorial Day weekend was a high holiday and five hundred miles of Indianapolis bliss.
Springtime meant my father put on his special overalls and he, too, headed for the driveway. He would roll up the garage door, pop the hood of the vehicle and, like a pig basking in mud, before long he would be elbow deep in grease. If we were lucky he would ask one of us to be his assistant. We would stand at the front wheel of the car anxious for the moment when he would request a tool and we would scurry to retrieve it.
There was the black Volkswagen Beetle. It rarely ran for very long. There were brief moments when my father would tweak something, when one of us would test the ignition or pump the gas pedal as he called out, “Try it again now…try it again now,” and suddenly the engine would come to life. It was a clarion call, summoning us from all corners of the household into the Beetle for an impromptu country ride.
My father liked to drive down hills fast, making my brother and I float off the back seat, like a roller coaster. My mother would grip the dashboard while my brother and I called out for more. We hit a bump and smacked our heads against the white vinyl of the interior roof. We all laughed. We loved that car. I think it broke his heart a little the day my father decided that Beetle had to go.
Then there was the Opal GT. Many valiant hours, weeks and months in my father’s intensive care unit were dedicated to that car. She was purchased cheap, but expensive to fix. She was rare and finicky. She was, in the end, too far gone for him to save. After she was sold, my father found an Opal GT Matchbox car and bought it for my brother. I was jealous of that car. My little Hot Wheels Trans Am had nothing on that Opal.
One summer a friend of my father’s gave us tickets to the Michigan 500. My brother and I pointed and gawked as we walked by Team Penske’s trucks. We cheered for Unser, Sr., but were skeptical of Junior. Mario Andretti was the coolest, but in our hearts we still rooted for A.J. Foyt. He was our favorite, though even then it was edging past his days of victory. We waited for him to get angry and kick his car.
I can still taste the exhaust and feel the vibration of those vicious machines as they made my heart flutter. Their beauty was grotesque and palpable. Our tender ear drums and sun burnt shoulders were worth every utterance of the high-pitched scream of the engines whipping around the turns of the big oval.
We were not old enough to visit the infield or the pit. We sent my father on a reconnaissance mission and he returned to us in the stands with stories, autographs and photos. He stood next to those cars. He touched them. His joy was infectious and he did not mind that we made him tell us again and again.
But the true sport of our household was not Indy racing, it was NASCAR. When the summer sun was too hot and the air too humid, it was perfect for turning on the basement television, eating Sloppy-Joe sandwiches from paper plates, and watching the cars go round and round. Those tobacco-chewing, Country-music-listening, Southern men were the heroes of our childhood. My brother refused to learn in school, but he knew every bit of math there was to know about those cars. I did not know a thing about football or basketball, but I knew the man who won the Winston Cup.
And, like my father taught us, we always rooted for number “3”.
Our house was a shrine to number “3” and despite how mad my father might get at the television, despite his frustration with the occasional questionable tactic, we all knew that if you were not an Earnhardt fan, you were not one of us. Never buy a Ford and always root for Earnhardt. This is what I learned those summer days in the basement, circled around the television. These were the lessons of my childhood at the age of Monte Carlo plus one.
Eventually I left Michigan. I left the land where men bleed oil and your car is who you are. Even though I never watched the races, I knew the days of the week when three generations of the men in my family could be found, spread across the country, planning their dinner times around the lap count at Daytona, Talladega or Indianapolis.
It was February 18th, 2001. Working as an assistant music editor meant long days and isolation from the rest of the world. It was late at night and I was driving home in the dark. The news came on the radio. I remember exactly where I was, driving up the side of the mountain, headed south, just before the Chinatown exit. The man on the radio said Dale Earnhardt died.
Before I could think, I was crying. I had not watched the races in years. I no longer followed the sport. I was crying for our hero, for the family rally cry of number “3.” I was crying for the men I loved, because in that instant, I knew my father’s heart was broken.