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Rick Lubbers: Ride inside hot rod offers heart-stopping view of Duluth

The first time I broke the speed limit on Garfield Avenue, I sat behind the wheel of a blue Chevy Aveo and tickled the radar of a Duluth police officer.

Drag racing
Chris Pirkola gets News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers strapped in for the ride on Sunday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The first time I broke the speed limit on Garfield Avenue, I sat behind the wheel of a blue Chevy Aveo and tickled the radar of a Duluth police officer.

One ticket later, I was quite a bit lighter in the wallet, despite driving a car that accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in five minutes.

The second time I broke the speed limit on Garfield Avenue, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a 1939 red Willys Overland that nearly tripled the posted number.

Thankfully for my wallet, Sunday morning's trip was legal. No ticket. All thrills.

My joy ride came courtesy of Duluth's Chris Pirkola, 46, moments before the start of the Kia of Duluth Drag Races and Car Show. Pirkola and other drivers were laying down rubber on the road and invited members of the media to hitch a ride.

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Why not? Can't get ticketed from the passenger seat, right?

The specs from Pirkola's hot rod (more a rocket with wheels than a passenger car) include a 498-cubic inch big block Chevy engine that has nitrous on it.

Translation: It's jet-engine loud and Jimmie Johnson-fast. Most cars have four wheels. This car seemed content using only its back pair.

Pirkola's car is a true labor of love: He's owned it for about six years and did all of the work himself -- engine, chassis, paint.

Strapped securely into the mean machine by a thick safety belt, Pirkola started with a couple of burnouts -- short but intense bursts of speed and acceleration that produced tons of smoke and burning rubber.

They also stopped my heart for a split second.

Then it was time to get serious.

"Are you ready?"

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Famous last words.

Before I knew it, Pirkola hit the gas, and the engine's powerful purr lapsed into a roar, the front wheels left the ground and major portions of my life passed before my eyes. The car accelerated from 0 to nearly 100 mph in no time, and I aged about 10 years instantly.

Truthfully, I never stole a glance at the speed we were traveling. I was too busy watching Duluth turn into a blurry wonderland and wondering what the in-flight meal was going to be.

Like any great amusement park ride, it was over woefully soon.

But as I drove away from Garfield Avenue, I had one thought:

"What would it cost to drop a 498-cubic inch big block engine into a little blue Chevy Aveo?"

Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at rlubbers@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5317.

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Drag racing
Chris Pirkola takes News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers for a ride in his 1939 Willys Overland before Sunday's drag races on Garfield Avenue. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Rick Lubbers has been in his role since 2014 and at the News Tribune since 2005. Previous stops include the Superior Telegram (1999-2005) and Budgeteer News (1997-1999). Prior to that, he worked at the St. Cloud Times and Annandale Advocate in Minnesota, and the Greenville Daily News and Grand Rapids Press in Michigan. He received his journalism degree at Central Michigan University.
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