Innerviews: Hot cars still a turn-on at 79
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At 79, John Gilbert just bought a snazzy, customized high-performance Chevy Camaro. The speedometer stops at 180 (probably a very good thing).
"I have a need for speed," he said.
He grew up poor in a coal community in Cabin Creek, did two four-year terms in the Marines and discovered the excitement of car racing after a trip to a drag strip in Winfield in the late 1950s.
He started racing with a new 1960 Chevy, bought one Corvette after another, went to hundreds of NASCAR races and spent thousands of dollars on Dale Earnhardt paraphernalia. He saw Earnhardt hit the wall that fateful day at Daytona.
Faced with his ex-wife's family-or-racing ultimatum, he surrendered. Sort of. Now, he feeds that insatiable need for speed with "hot street machines" like his spanking new Camaro.
Once a gearhead, always a gearhead.
"I was born near the head of Cabin Creek in a community called Laing. My dad was a coal miner for 44 years. I was the oldest of five boys. As the oldest, my mother made me the domestic in the family.
"It was so hardscrabble in those days up on Cabin Creek that you never took time to think about your future. We never had any idea whatsoever that we would ever get an education beyond junior high.
"We were poor as church mice. When school was out in the spring, our mother required us to take our shoes off, and we wore no shoes during the summer. Come fall, we would start with the shoes we completed with in the spring. Somewhere between the start of school and Christmas, we would get a new pair of boots for school and bib overalls.
"We had no automobile. My dad actually got arrested by the revenuers for running moonshine up Cabin Creek. His license was suspended for life.
"I didn't have a driver's license until I went in the Marine Corps in 1951. In the Marines, I was not associated in any way with transportation. Evidently it was inborn in me, what speed and sound and a racing motor can do for your psyche.
"When I became 17, about three months from high school graduation, a recruiter kept coming up to the old East Bank High School and insisting that we go in. They needed people in Korea. I finally relented. I passed the physical even though I weighed only 105 pounds, the minimum weight.
"I knew my mother would never sign my enlistment papers. I told my dad what was going on. I had the papers in my underwear. He reminded me there was a war going on.
"I told him I didn't want to be addicted to the coal mine. It was against his better judgment, but he signed for my mother and him."
"I was in the infantry, a grunt. I was in the Marine Corps for eight years, two four-year active duty enlistments.
"You could enlist for four years then get released and become a member of the active reserves. I decided to stay full time. The military fit my MO.
"My mother taught me how to keep house and cook and sew. The professional drill instructors think they're tough. They should have met my mother.
"I was all over the world as a Marine security guard. I did two tours with the Sixth Fleet.
"I was in Korea 17 months. I decided to get out while the getting was good. Vietnam was on the horizon, and I would be right out front with some infantry company.
"Within a year, I got married and moved into an apartment near Lock Six. On a sunny September day, a guy there asked if I wanted to go to a drag race. I said, 'Drag race? What's that?'
"There was a little drag strip at Winfield. That day, there were two '59 Chevrolets. Those two Chevrolets just cleaned everybody's plow. They ended up with the trophies.
"On the way home, I told him I had to get one of those '59 Chevys. I went to Landers Chevrolet in Hurricane. It was too late for a '59, but they ordered me a 1960 Bel-Air two-door hardtop with a 348-cubic-inch motor and a 4-speed transmission, and I turned it into a race car.
"I raced until 1975. My former wife and I had identical twin daughters. When she told me to give up racing and take care of my family, I sold all the racing equipment I had.
"I won my share of trophies. Racing was exciting as hell. In Winfield, you were in dirt all the time. The only paved surface was the drag strip itself. Flagging on both ends was done manually. Today, it's all sophisticated electronics.
"I could not get racing out of my blood. So I began then to buy hot street machines. I had three new Corvettes, a '61, '62 and '63, all from Landers Chevrolet.
"The most expensive Corvette I ever had was $6,800, brand new. We used Sunoco 260 gasoline, your highest octane, for racing and it was 30 cents a gallon. Regular gasoline was 19 cents.
"I went to my first NASCAR race in 1960 in Charlotte, the first race on that track. The track came apart coming out of turn four. They continued to race but put barricades around those holes.
"Every one of those drivers is a millionaire. I first saw Dale Earnhardt race in the early 1980s. He drove a Ford sponsored by Wrangler. He did better for his time in racing than anyone. He was the first who knew how to market himself.
"Earnhardt was a good 'ol boy. He didn't graduate from high school. He worked with his father in a little garage in back of the house and drove whatever anybody would let him drive until he proved he could race, and then it just took fire.
"He sold more memorabilia and apparel than anyone except Jeff Gordon. I probably had at least $3,000 worth of his stuff. I gave it all away and put some on E-bay. I had three leather Goodwrench jackets and T-shirts by the drawers-full, and caps.
"I was sitting on Turn 4 at Daytona, on the 44th row, same seats I'd had for 27 years, and Earnhardt came out of Turn 3 and got bumped and hit that wall. We didn't know he'd died until we were coming back and heard it on the radio.
"I went the next year, but I never could go back. It wasn't as interesting to me anymore without Earnhardt's threat. It wouldn't matter if he was four laps down, he was always a threat to come back.
"I've seen enough NASCAR races to do me for 300 years. My current wife likes it. We go to Bristol and Charlotte and Dover.
"On one of my birthdays, my daughters bought me a ticket to drive a NASCAR car at Charlotte Speedway. I went with a friend and we spent a whole day driving cars.
"I retired in 1994 from the West Virginia Department of Transportation as assistant director of construction, statewide. I retired with 37 years of service.
"When I started, there was a one-mile section of I-81 under construction over in Berkeley County, all the expressway we had. I was there the entire period of Interstate and Appalachian Corridor construction.
"Part of my responsibility was issuing bidding documents to the contracting industry, accepting them and reviewing them publicly and awarding the jobs to the low bidder.
"Nobody could ever imagine how far we have come in terms of transportation. We have fabulous highways in this state compared to states near here. Our money has been managed decently.
"I've been lucky. I've had two good wives who kept me on the straight and narrow, hardheaded as I was. As I've had time now to reflect on my life, if it hadn't been for those two people, I wouldn't be as far as I am.
"I wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for my current wife. Two years ago, I had brain surgery. She slept on that couch for three months every night, and I slept in that chair. She would set her alarm clock to get up and give me medication.
"I continued to fool around with hot street cars. Before I had this car, I had a 2007 Chevrolet Blazer with a Corvette engine and transmission package.
"I just bought a 2013 Camaro SS-RS, two different packages with different features in each package. I got practically every high performance accessory I wanted. It's a 2-door hardtop coupe. It's got a 180-mile speedometer. I don't have what it takes to do that, but if I could get out where there weren't many dangers, I could probably run 160.
"It's a six-speed automatic shift that you can paddle shift. You can make a manual transmission out of it. It gets about 12 miles to the gallon, but I knew that when I ordered it.
"I told Joey Holland, 'I have a need for speed.' The car I have now will no doubt do me. And it will be the last car I will ever need. At 79, I don't think I can wear it out.
"My parents did the best they could with five kids in a coal mining community. I like to think that somehow or other, they realize that. We have one daughter in Scott Depot and one in Elkview. One is an attorney and the other a bank officer. My mother would have to think that they did far better than ever expected in the scrubs of Cabin Creek."Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.