November 19, 2012
I remember counting eight headlights coming at us head-on. Four lanes of traffic, two lights per car. Yup. The math was correct. Our closing speed was nearly 200 miles per hour.
But everything is a joke when you're young. Blessed with abundant stupidity, it would be twenty years before it occurred to me how dumb this really was. But I was having too much fun at the time to realize it.
It was the autumn of 1983. Rush was playing on the car's cassette stereo because that was Willie's favorite band. Willie was my new roommate at college. His dad had come into money through a real estate deal that left Willie with the impression that the world was his for the taking.
Willie's biggest boast was that no girl had ever turned him down for a date and he was determined to keep it that way. He either had the best luck with women since James Bond or he was the biggest liar since Richard Nixon, I was never really sure. But something always told me he was telling the truth. Mostly.
He had just bought a 1974 Fiat X1/9 and as usual, couldn't stop bragging about it. He made the mistake of insisting that it could corner faster than my Mustang. I said, “That'll be the day.” So Willie asked me to go for a drive and he would prove it.
Since it was nearly 2 am on a school night and the dorms were locked, Willie and I had to use our usual escape route. We were on the second floor of a house dorm that had a conveniently placed tree near the front porch. We opened our oversized window, checked for campus security, and climbed out onto the roof.
Don't judge me. You did things this stupid, too.
After walking quietly across the roof, we grabbed a branch and climbed down the tree to the ground. Yes, it actually worked. I would like to take credit for this brilliantly conceived path to liberty, but it was actually demonstrated to me by upper classmen who swore me to secrecy as soon as I moved into the dormitory.
Safely out of the dorm, Willie and I crept through the darkness and slipped silently into the cockpit of his X1/9.
Ha. They'll never catch us now.
We were soon blasting off campus in second gear at 5,000 rpm's with all four tires squealing around every corner, while I watched our six to make sure campus security wasn't following. I don't know how many gangsters made their way out of Chicago like this in the 1930's, but I promise you they'd have been proud of us that night.
We drove around the city for a while at mind-numbing speeds, never leaving the city limits of Chattanooga and somehow never coming across a cop. And Willie was actually a pretty good driver for a college kid. After proving that his Fiat could easily out-corner my Mustang, we headed back to campus along McCallie Avenue at 70 mph. Although it is a two-way street today, in 1983 McCallie was a one-way, four-lane road.
It was here that Willie decided his Fiat was faster than my Mustang in a straight line, too. As this idea crystallized in his head, he hammered the throttle, slammed the shifter down into third gear and we blew past Hawthorne Street at the velocity of a Boeing Cruise Missile.
“How fast are we going,” I yelled over the blast of the Fiat's four-cylinder engine.
“A hundred and seventeen!”
Willie screamed, “Look for yourself!”
I leaned across the cockpit and looked at the speedometer. Holy mother of Jeroboam. It read 117 miles per hour. And the needle was still climbing.
I looked up. “Hey, that was our turn!” Willie slammed on the brakes. All four tires screeched as the little Fiat clawed for traction and a cloud of blue smoke disappeared into the darkness behind us. “Let's turn around,” Willie suggested.
“You can't do that. It's a one-way street.”
“The heck we can’t!”
Tires screeched again. Willie masterfully whipped the car around, chirped the tires and sped right back down McCallie Avenue in the wrong direction. By the time we hit fourth gear, only Willie and Our Heavenly Father knew our precise speed, but I can tell you that it made 117 mph look slow.
We popped over a small rise in the road, now separated only by a few blocks from the turn we missed moments ago. I look up and see all four lanes of McCallie Avenue ablaze with oncoming headlights. Two… four… eight… yup, we got a full house.
“We're not gonna make it.”
“Yes, we are.”
“No, Willie, we're really not going to make this.”
“YES WE ARE!!”
The gap between our Fiat and every car on McCallie Avenue closed at a combined speed of about 180 mph. Either we were going to hit them head on, or make it back to our turn in time to get out of the way. Here comes Hawthorne Street. The headlights are so bright by now that I've lost depth perception and can't really judge distance anymore. My eyes say we won't make it. My mental clock says we will. So does Willie.
He slams the brakes again and yanks the wheel to the left. He uses no turn signal. I conclude that a guy who sneaks off campus to drive 130 mph the wrong way on a downtown city street at 2 am doesn't have many regulatory hangups.
Sure enough, Willie was right. It wasn't as close at it seemed. There was still a good fifty yards between us and the terrorized, honking motorists on McCallie Avenue when we successfully executed our wild, high speed turn out of harm's way, onto Hawthorne Street, back to campus, back up the tree, back onto the roof, back through the window, and finally, to bed.
Willie had proved his point. His Fiat really did turn faster than my Mustang. If it didn't, I wouldn't be writing this.
I really liked that Fiat X1/9. It was a great little car. I went home and bought one the following summer, but I never told Willie. The last thing he needed to know was that he had been right yet again.
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