October 27, 2012

One couple’s car connection

Cars — especially race cars — sometimes have a way of getting in between a husband and wife.

Cars — especially race cars — sometimes have a way of getting in between a husband and wife.

Not only has that not happened in the 56 years that Ron and Sarita Coleman have been married, but their collection of round track race cars, along with some really sweet street rods, clearly has been a passion they both share.

"Our second date was at the old Cee Jay Stadium,” Sarita said. “I always said if I hadn’t liked racing, there probably wouldn’t have been a third date."

Ron was into street rods and hot rods even before they met.

"I’m one of the original nuts," he said.

Most of those street cars are long gone now, including a ’38 Cadillac, a ’50 Ford convertible, a ’55 Chevy and a classic ’32 Ford roadster powered by a Chrysler Hemi engine.

But one of the most outstanding custom builds is still safely tucked away in a far corner of a garage, a brilliant red 1940 Chevy convertible with a removable Carson top.

"It took me three years to do this car. It has suicide doors, everything on it is electric — it’s a nightmare," Ron joked, noting that he mounted a rod across the rear end that allows the tail lights and license plate to automatically rotate up, out of sight, when the ignition is switched off.

He widened the frame to allow a 400 cubic-inch Chevy small block V-8, complete with a blower and fuel injection, to fit below the hood. The car was smoothed of bumpers and trim, fore and aft, and has a full belly pan beneath it. But it hasn’t been fired up in years.

"I got kind of worn out on street rods," Coleman said. "I dropped out of it for 15 years and did race cars."

His focus was mostly on midget cars, although Coleman never had a burning desire to drive those fast little clod-throwers himself.

He enjoyed building and rebuilding race cars and campaigning them with drivers such as Rick England at the wheel. Over the years, the Colemans’ collection of race cars has numbered as many as eight, although it’s currently down to seven.

One of their favorites is the white No. 74 car.

"It originally was an Offenhauser car. It ran USAC for its whole life … it’s kinda historic," Coleman said, noting it set two track records and won a major race for a previous owner at the Houston Astrodome. The car now is powered by a 153 cubic inch Chevy II 4-cylinder engine equipped with Hilborn injectors.

Nearby rests the yellow No. 12 midget.

"I put it together from spare pieces I had accumulated," Coleman said. He used a junk frame and built new body panels for the competition-worn car, which is powered by a slightly larger Chevy II engine.

The biggest car in the Coleman collection is an early Culbert Auto Engineering sprint car, built using a 3-inch "sewer pipe" frame and a Hilborn-injected Chevy smallblock V-8.

"It’s pretty much a stock engine. I don’t believe in a lot of horsepower, especially for what we are doing now," said Coleman, who takes part in vintage racing events.

Their pride and joy, though, stays garaged.

"It is the only one in the world," he says. "It is a genuine Kurtis Kraft car, period correct. No front brakes, drum brakes in back. C.Z. Abbott of Jefferson City, Mo., built and raced this car.

"He cast and built the engine from scratch. He cast and built the in-and-out box from scratch. He cast and built the rear end from scratch.”

The engine consists of four steel sleeves bolted together, with a homemade, one-of-a-kind double overhead camshaft aluminum head fitted to it. The cams are driven by a bicycle chain and the engine is fed by handmade injectors. Abbott only built one of the 91 cubic inch engines, making this one of the rarest midget racers around.

The quick-change rear end is canted at an angle, rather than being vertical, apparently to allow the car to ride closer to the racing surface. Coleman has the original gear sets stored in a wooden box in his shop — they will only fit the black No. 65 car.

While the race cars obviously still hold a special place in the Colemans’ lives, a recent turn of events brought them back to street rodding.

"This is the car I bought in 1972 at the air base," Coleman said, showing off their brilliant red 1932 Ford Tudor. He had built the car with a 283 Chevy engine in it and painted it a metallic blue color before he sold it three years later to someone in Oklahoma.

Over the next 36 years, the car made its way around the Midwest, at some point getting a top chop that Coleman says he wouldn’t have done, but is an excellent example of the practice, with an Edsel station wagon roof expertly grafted to the original sheet metal. The car eventually ended up back in Wichita and Coleman was able to buy it from Rocky Burris.

"It was just a body and chassis in primer," said Coleman. But the car had the ’65 Mustang bucket seats in it that he had installed so long ago. Coleman did all the body and paint work, installed a 327 Chevy V-8 and 3-speed automatic in the car and had Morgan-Bulleigh stitch up a fresh interior.

"I do everything but interiors. I’m a jack of all trades. I just love doing it," Coleman said.

"He’s not happy unless he’s got a project," said Sarita, who has enjoyed all of their cars and their road trips and racing campaigns.

Remarkably, the rebuild of the red Tudor took only six months.

"I’m just glad to have it back," said her husband, who has already volunteered to help friends restore another midget racer and a 1957 Chevy Nomad.

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