Hot roddin' is no drag

The speedometer on Chris Pirkola's 1939 Willys Overland conveniently quit working on this day, and for the demonstration he was about to give, that was probably a good thing.

Chris Pirkola shows his car that took News Tribune staffers for a ride recently on Garfield Avenue in Duluth. Pirkola will be racing the car this weekend. (News Tribune photo)

The speedometer on Chris Pirkola’s 1939 Willys Overland conveniently quit working on this day, and for the demonstration he was about to give, that was probably a good thing.
I didn’t want to feel like we were breaking any laws here, even if, perhaps, we were about to bend them.
Pirkola, of Duluth, had his hot rod down on Garfield Avenue two weeks ago to promote this weekend’s 10th annual Kia of Duluth Drag Races and Car Show. I, along with my co-worker, News Tribune multimedia producer Samantha Erkkila, got to go along for the ride.
The National Hot Rod Association was founded to take hot rodding off the street, to regulate it and make it safe, and for Pirkola, these drag races on Garfield Avenue work in much the same way.
“I haven’t gotten a ticket since they started,” Pirkola quipped.
Pirkola’s Willys Overland features a
498 cubic-inch big block Chevy engine because anything less doesn’t do it for him. The car includes a roll cage, but the Willys body is completely original, all steel. The car has been featured on websites, billboards and posters promoting the event. When the traction is right, it has the power to lift the front end off the ground, so wheelie bars extend from the back to prevent flips.
Erkkila was up first. After strapping a GoPro camera on, she hopped in the two-seater and
buckled herself into the safety harness.
“I just want to give you a feel for what it’s like,” Pirkola said.
Erkkila was asked if she was ready.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she said.
Pirkola hopped in and away they went (you can see Erkkila’s video at I, along with promoter Ryan Kern, Pirkola’s brother, Dean, and friend, Troy Tuhkanen, stood back and watched.
Pirkola didn’t waste time in working in the newbie, burning rubber as soon as they left the parking lot, giving Erkkila a jolt before quickly braking back to a crawl. They headed toward the High Bridge, turned around by Goodwill and headed back, burning rubber a couple more times for good measure before returning.
“Oh, my gosh. I don’t know where my stomach is,” Erkkila said. “That was awesome.”
Erkkila was asked if her heart was racing.
“It’s still up there,” she said. “I don’t think I need to go for a run after work today.”
Then it was my turn.
I hopped in, and it was almost wishful thinking that I wouldn’t have to loosen Sam’s seatbelt. I got it snug and was ready to roll.
People started coming outside to look, appearing more entertained than anything else. Pirkola was going to give them a show.
We followed the same route he took Sam on, going down and back, with Pirkola constantly looking around and checking his mirrors for any traffic, burning rubber when he could. Clearly telling I enjoyed it, he took me for a second lap. When he dropped the pedal, my legs got stiff as the G forces pushed me back in my seat.
“It feels like you’re strapped to a rocket,” I said.
You could feel the back of the car get a little squirrely, as if there was a monster in the trunk trying to get out, while the fat rear racing slicks warmed up. Every time the 1939 Willys Overland started to get up to speed, Pirkola quickly shut it down, keeping the speed down while heating up his brakes. This was just a demonstration, after all, and not the real thing.
“It definitely takes off faster than it slows down,” Pirkola said.
Drag racing is about the easiest way to feel a little what it’s like to be an astronaut or fighter pilot. That, combined with vintage cars from a different era, and you quickly see where the passion and enthusiasm for this sport comes from, with every car a classic, every mile a memory.
“They don’t make ’em like this anymore,” I said.
“No, they don’t,” Pirkola agreed.
Pirkola admitted he used to drag race on Garfield. A commercial and industrial area, at night, there was nobody else around. The Arrowhead Bridge was another hot spot. You might get an exhibition ticket, or worse, reckless driving, or worse yet, somebody getting hurt.
“I don’t miss looking over my shoulder (for police),” Pirkola said.
Saturday’s event features time trials to see which of three divisions 110 cars will be divided into for Sunday’s eighth-mile drag races. The idea is to make it as fair and competitive as possible. Tech inspectors are there to make sure you’re not hiding anything under the hood, or in Pirkola’s case, behind the seat, where his nitrous canister is kept (no nitrous was used in our demonstration).
Pirkola, 50, does insurance work and custom paint jobs. He was asked if his Willys Overland keeps him young.
“When I drive it,” he said, laughing.
One of the coolest parts of my job is that I often get to take part, to feel a little bit what it’s like to be a participant, rather than just a spectator. Doing, not just watching. The experience on Garfield left me wanting more, to let Pirkola let it rip the entire eighth mile, or even quarter, and rather than burning out those brakes, letting the horses run. The event raffles off test rides for spectators, and it’s a good idea, allowing more people to experience what I just experienced.
Even with Pirkola (mostly) following the rules of the road, as I climbed out, I felt like I had just taken a fair ride, a really good fair ride.
“That puts a smile on your face,” I said, beaming.
Everyone else was smiling, too.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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