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Another Ten Horsepower
by Suzanne Beaubien

Kenny Beaubien, born and raised in the Vancouver Island mill town of Chemainus, bought a '56 Chevy Beaumont when he was 18 years-old in 1966.

With a 3.96-litre engine and a four-speed tranny, it had dual-carbuerators and blue-bottle tailpipes. Kenny worked at Ken Fisher's Chemainus Shell station for 10 years, from the time he was 16 until he was married and a father.

There he learned to fix his car, using the tools and lifts to "soup it up" for weekend drag races at Nanaimo Lakes Road.

The races started around six in the evening on Sunday nights and would go until 10 or 11 p.m. On some nights there would be 100 races. As soon as one was over and the winner declared, the kids who had come from as far as Chemainus and Duncan set up for another. This went on until no one else wanted
to go.

They raced two cars at a time, from a standing position, along the straightaway stretch of Nanaimo Lakes Road. Up behind the gravel pit on the west side of the river, the quarter-mile makeshift race track would be lined with hundreds of teenagers and 20-somethings, all waiting expectantly for the flag person to drop their towel and yell "go!"

The most popular cars for racing among the Chemainus kids were Chevy Beaumonts, Dodge Chargers and Ford Cobras, which they customized with illegal tricks and parts to make them faster. Drilling holes in a tailpipe was illegal then, just as it is now, but most kids still did it, pushing steel wool up their pipes while driving in town to avoid tickets. So were "slicks," the
12-inch tires with no tread, popular with racecars for their traction. To avoid getting a ticket Kenny used a burning iron to put a single tread onto the rubber. Disconnecting the fan, also illegal, gave his engine another 10 horsepower.

"Parents never bought nobody a car back then," says Kenny today. He, like most of the other highschool kids who raced, assembled his own car, working part-time on weekends to pay for parts. The parts for the Beaumont he got at Ricky Rumley's dad's autowreckers across the highway, just outside of town.
Jake Rumley, Ricky's dad, loved to help the kids find just the right part and always took time to teach them a thing or two about the cars they loved. He had a habit of getting drunk and taking the go-cart he'd made out on the streets of Chemainus. The cops always tried to catch him, but they never could; the cart went 90 miles an hour. Jake Rumley died while his son was still a teenager. He was pulling a car out of a ditch with the wrecker when he stepped out onto the road and a passing car struck him.

Most nights at the track, the police would show up to hand out a few tickets for open beers, noisy tailpipes and busted taillights. As soon as they left the strip, the kids resumed racing. They listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Willie and the Poorboys on eight-track players and, before the races, the kids went to the Star Restaurant in Ladysmith where carhops on rollerskates served up burgers and milkshakes.

One Saturday night Kenny got a ticket for the holes he had drilled in his straight tailpipes. He didn't have to pay a fine, but had to take his car in the following day to the cop shop in town for a sound check. While he usually stuffed steel wool up his pipes to trap noise and pass the test, the hardware store was closed on Sundays. The grocery store, however, was open, so Kenny bought S.O.S. pads and shoved them up the blue bottles before he took the Beaumont in to be inspected. As he reved his engine, the moisture from the exhaust reacted with the soap in the S.O.S. pads and green foam sputtered out the base of the pipe.

"You better get your engine checked," recommended the officer, spotting the strange-looking suds. Kenny thanked him, threw the warning in the trash and burned off.

When Wayne Kay challenged him to a race one Sunday, Kenny stayed up all night at the garage with his boss Ken, putting in a new cam shaft and rings to increase the Beaumont's horsepower. Wayne drove a '52 Ford with a flathead V8
engine and beat Kenny despite his efforts.

But he broke his steering box turning around after the race and Kenny had to tow Wayne home behind the Beaumont, a detail that Kenny says gave him the last laugh.

"You didn't challenge a guy unless you knew what his car could do," says Kenny. "There was no way of handicapping cars. It was a direct one-on-one challenge." The winner could usually be determined in the first few seconds after the go; in a standing race, it's acceleration that counts. "Whoever got to the line first, won; it didn't matter how fast you could go.

Getting a jump on a start usually meant winning the race," he says. When they weren't drag racing in Nanaimo, Kenny and his friends went "doodlebugging" at a track they made out beyond MacMillan Bloedel's dryland sort area near Bear Point in Chemainus. With glassless clunker cars bought for $25 each at Rumley's autowreckers, they raced one-way around the half-mile
dirt oval track, hitting each other sideways in a modified demolition derby-style. Though doodlebugging was like just bumper cars, no one ever got hurt badly. Bruises and a couple crushed fingers were the worst injuries that

Kenny ever saw. Often there would be eight or nine cars racing, all of them kept at Rumley's in the day, where there was another, smaller doodlebug track behind the gravel pit. Late Friday nights Kenny and his friends stole the MacBlo graders from the logging road and took them through the bush to the track. They graded the oval and then returned the machines, brushing away the tracks. On other occasions, they borrowed a bulldozer, and, several times, logging trucks. They never got caught.

Two older guys, Burt Vanderbrink and Russell McCollough, dominated the Chemainus racing scene. In their mid-20s, both guys worked fulltime jobs and bought their cars factory-made. They made additions to their vehicles almost every week to race each other Sunday nights. Their rivalry was based on a mutual interest in a girl who was known to date only the guy who drove the fastest car.

While no one ever died drag racing at Nanaimo Lakes Road, several kids were killed while speeding on local highways. Burt, the racetrack guru, died in '68 when his car went out of control on the Nanaimo Lakes bridge and slid sideways into a rock wall. Four people died in the crash, all of them graduates from Chemainus High. After the collision the car was no more than two-feet wide.

It was towed to the Ladysmith Shell Station garage, and a week later when it rained, blood ran out of the vehicle into the ditch.

Kenny's parents never asked him about the races or his car. Maybe they didn't worry. Maybe they didn't want to know. Either way, he was one of the lucky ones; he was never hurt and, after he turned 22, Kenny got married. His wife wouldn't let him race so he took up fishing. But his love of cars remained and for over 30 years now he has worked for MacMillan Bloedel, then Weyerheuser, as a heavy-duty mechanic, having got his start by stealing the equipment he would later learn to fix.

After Burt died, Russell married the girl, had a few kids and then, 16 years later, a sex change. Even though he is now known as Sally McCollough, Russell's high school peers remember him as one of the fastest and most dedicated to the sport, both outracing and outspending them all.

In the '70s cops eventually cracked down on the races at Nanaimo Lakes Road, forcing the kids to either the official track in Cobble Hill or to the streets, where most teen drag racers operate today, endangering pedestrians and, recently, killing cops.

The drag racers of the '60s claim theirs was a safer time, that there were less people on the road then, that cops were understanding; so long as nobody was in danger, the kids could proceed with their fun. Today, they say, kids don't even know how their cars work and police don't have the sense to let a
little racing slide.


Suzanne Beaubien likes pictures of engines.

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