After a couple of
months hanging out at Kniola Automotive, I learned to spot the hustlers. They
would saunter in from the parking lot, lean against the soft drink dispenser,
eyeball the bulletin board, finger the slicks piled near the doorway—and say
not a word. Then when the counter cleared: ZIPPPP! Like a fuel dragster coming
off the line they were next to Jack whispering an order for a new intake
manifold or camshaft, pledging him to secrecy.
I hadn't noticed
the hustlers until they were pointed out by Jack Kniola, founder, owner and
chief counterman of Michigan City, Indiana's only speed shop. Jack said that
when the high-performance part they had ordered arrived, they often sneaked it
out under their jackets. If anyone should walk without warning into their
garage: SLAMMM! Down would go the hoods of their cars. "They want to make
some money before everybody finds out what they got," explained Jack.
The mark of the
In contrast, some
of the punks stand around Jack's at night bragging about their rock-crusher
M-22s. "If there were as many rock crushers in cars as people claim,"
says Jack, " General Motors would declare a triple dividend." They boast
how they're turning eight grand on the tach. "He's lucky if he can get his
wheels to spin in gravel," whispers Jack. The savvy street racer never
brags about his machine, or even hints at the shattering power under its hood
for fear of scaring away potential competition. Instead, the street racer
functions like a pool-room hustler, gulling his customers, miscuing
occasionally, suckering them along. Then—in a cloud of smoke and screech of
rubber—stripping them of their last week's paychecks.
One night a kid
named Wilbur from nearby La Porte appeared at Kniola's itching to test his
wheels. He had just bought a souped-up Plymouth Duster. It had a new engine,
headers and special gears, not to mention a gleaming paint job. Wilbur hinted
he had run some fast times at a nearby sanctioned drag strip, but he wouldn't
say how fast, and finally Malcolm, who rented a garage behind Kniola
Automotive, said: "Yeah, I'll run you."
got?" asked Wilbur.
Malcolm took him
to the rear garage and pointed to a 7-year-old Dodge Dart. It had paint
splotches all over the body and its side pipes hung loose. It looked like maybe
it might make it as far as the junkyard.
"You got to
spot me something for those meats," said Wilbur, indicating Malcolm's
oversized rear tires.
you got that gear in the car," said Malcolm, trying for a touch, a tone of
apprehension in his voice. Finally, however, Malcolm agreed to give Wilbur two
car lengths. Wilbur seemed surprised at the gift.
back into the auto shop laughing out loud. "Hey, there's some dude out back
who's going to race me in an old junker."