Driving with a passion


The Mirror

When Tom Cantrell and his 1969 Ford Mustang thunder down the opening stretch of asphalt at Kent’s Pacific Raceway this weekend, the track’s terrifying first turn should demand his undivided attention. Only after he has crossed the finish line safe and sound will Cantrell allow himself a satisfied smile.

“You’re going so fast you begin to wonder if you’ll really make it,” he said. “But the car always seems to know.”

Cantrell is a newcomer to the affable world of vintage auto racing. He’s been a member of the Society of Vintage Racing Enthusiasts (SOVREN) for less than a year. The Peasley Canyon-area resident purchased his orange and black Mustang from longtime vintage racer Randy Dunphy in April after attending Pacific Speedway’s Performance Driving School.

“I did some drag racing when I was young,” he said. “Now that my children are older I can start to enjoy being irresponsible again.”

This weekend’s 17th annual Pacific Northwest Historics Auto Races will be Cantrell’s street racing debut. The festivities, which kicked off yesterday, attract hundreds of beautiful vehicles and experienced drivers from all over the West Coast and British Columbia. It’s SOVREN’s premier event and Cantrell would have to be considered an underdog in the V8 Big Bore racing group.

But that doesn’t really matter in the end. All proceeds benefit uncompensated care at Children’s Hospital in Seattle and the competition is strictly amateur. The event has raised over $4 million in the past and race organizers hope to contribute at least $450,000 this year.

“There are no trophies. There’s no money and no recognition,” Cantrell said. “It’s just a really good time.”

The races will feature more than 250 vintage cars, including Ferraris, Lotuses, Alphas, Cobras, Porsches and McLarens. Another 250 vintage and collector cars will be on display and celebrity drivers from the Champ Car and Indy Car circuits will be on hand as well. Perhaps the biggest draw is the open pit area where the public is allowed to examine each car and chat with owners.

“The weekend is about helping children,” Cantrell said. “Everything else is just a bonus.”

Cantrell considers himself a man’s man. In other words, the 45-year-old contractor lives for speed, horsepower and axle grease. He keeps a whole stable of muscle cars and motorcycles in a mammoth custom garage next door. A full bar, leather recliner and giant flat-screen TV fill the loft overlooking Cantrell’s hot rod collection.

“I’ve always been involved with cars. I’m into anything and everything that’s motorized and going fast,” he said. “I love machinery. I’m a regular red-blooded guy.”

But Cantrell’s Y chromosome doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s also got something to do with homemade popcorn, drive-in movies and neon signs. Growing up in South Seattle, Cantrell admits his family was pretty poor. They couldn’t afford a whole lot of entertainment. But gas was cheap, just 25 or 30 cents to the gallon.

“My mom, dad, brothers and I all used to pile into the car once a week. Our Friday night out would consist of driving through town. We’d stop at A&W, look at the lights, cars, people and signs, and if we were lucky we’d see a drive-in movie. Once a year we’d go up to Marysville for the stock car races.”

Now a prosperous businessman, Cantrell has spent decades gathering memorabilia that recalls those simpler times. The ‘69 Boss-302 Mustang he’ll be racing this weekend is the crown jewel in his collection. Purchased new by Jim Harrel, it was raced as a privateer car on the Trans-Am circuit. And despite its age, Cantrell’s Mustang can still tear up the track.

“Our car will be traveling 140 miles per hour on the straight-away,” he said. “Everybody who enjoys cars has a deep-rooted sickness. We love driving as fast as possible.”

Mike Reischl, a 52-year-old Auburn resident and longtime SOVREN member, admits that cheap thrills contribute to vintage racing’s appeal, but argues that speed isn’t everything.

“Racing is the end result of restoring and preparing and tweaking,” he said. “It’s a legal way to really experience the engineering aspects that the car is provided with.”

Both Reischl and Cantrell appreciate racing for the time and expense that go into their vehicles. Cantrell employs a full-time mechanic to help him restore, prep, clean and double-check every part of the car before racing. Vintage car enthusiasts often traverse the country in search of a single part. They’ll do virtually whatever it takes to build the best engine or make their restoration authentic. For most of the drivers competing in the Historics Auto Races, cars have become a kind of addiction.

“One day you’ll find something you want and when you become successful you’ll turn the world upside down for it,” Cantrell said. “We’re lucky enough to have cars that allow us to go out and act like children. We’re just grown men playing in our own little sandbox.”

For Cantrell, whizzing past the checkered flag at Pacific Speedway this weekend will be a dream come true. When it’s all over he’ll probably climb from the Mustang, wipe his brow, smile quietly and shake hands with his fellow drivers. Vintage racing is just a hobby and he is a man’s man, after all. But, somewhere deep inside him, a 10-year-old boy will be going berserk with happiness.

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