I like to think of myself as a car guy, but I did not have a special car of my own. I have three kids instead! I am, however, surrounded by some of the most serious car guys on the planet and that’s bound to have repercussions.
Through of a crazy chain of events and because of my appreciation for racing history, I was invited to serve on the Board for the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame. The NCARHOF was founded by Don Miller, founder and president of Penske Racing South, now retired. A close friend, Bill Rhine, owner of Rhine Built, is also on the Board. Bill’s shop is the industry benchmark of vintage stock car restorations.
Our Hall of Fame has Indy cars, Land Speed Record Cars, Drag Cars, Dirt Cars, and vintage NASCARs. I, myself, love British cars—the Gentleman Racers—I’ve kept my passion for British cars to myself when walking these hallowed halls. I assumed there must have been a reason the car guys around me never spoke about them.
Behind Barbed Wire
It was a Monday morning in High Point, North Carolina, the “Furniture Capitol of the World.” Even though it’s a small town, it has both a ritzy, Bentley dealership area and a sketchy side too. I was wrapping up work in the heart of the city and assessing the quickest route back to safety and a Starbucks. I hung a left, made it a block, and to my right something caught my eye. It was light blue and had a roll bar and numbers on the door. It was distressed, but very cool and very out of place. I was intrigued to say the least.
Numbers on a door usually means one thing—a racecar. I needed a closer look. It was behind a barbed wire fence. I took a second glance around and scoped out this scrap metal salvage yard where all walks of life bring whatever they have scrounged in exchange for cash. I pulled my car into the lot and parked near what I thought was an MG. I wasn’t far off. “How did this little Sprite end up here?” I wondered. I shot a couple pictures with my phone and sent them to my car-guy friends.
Enter Carl, the owner of the scrap yard. He asked if he could help me and I said, “No, I just saw the car and thought it looked cool and had to check it out.” He explained he was asked by a lady to help clean out her recently deceased husband’s barn. The car was in there with an MG Midget that looked more at home at the scrap yard. Carl said he contemplated restoring the Sprite, but decided, no, too much work to bring it back to life. “I know nothing about British cars,” he said, “but I can’t bring myself to scrap it. Someone will appreciate it.” Good for you, Carl.
He asked me if I wanted to buy it. I laughed and said, “No, better not.” I thought to myself, “I have kids in private school and a wife who is ultra tolerant of me even though I tend to push her limits. If I got this car it may end badly for me.”
I left the scrap yard and saw that my friends, Don and Bill had responded back with enthusiasm. I called Don and he said, “What’s up with the Healey?” I thought, what does Don know about British Cars? Silly me. If it burns fuel Don Miller probably built one to go faster. Don is best known for NASCAR, but his real passion is drag racing and vintage cars. “The first car I ever raced on a road course was a ’59 Healey,” said Don. “Since then, I’ve restored a few. You should buy that one.” I laughed and he said, “It would be a great car to have, and fairly easy to get back on the road.”
When I talked with Bill Rhine he chuckled at my picture and called it an “itty bitty baby race car,” but then said the same thing as Don, “You need that car.”
I could barely sleep Monday night. My friends’ peer pressure had gotten to me. Instead of sleeping I fired up the computer and read everything I could find on Austin-Healeys, and before the sun came up I had a plan. Tuesday, I called Hagerty to get the estimated value. By Tuesday afternoon, I was obsessed with this car. Wednesday, I went back to Carl and made an offer. He smiled and agreed under one condition. I had to take the MG Midget as well. What was I going to do with that? But…I agreed. At home I was sneaking around corners and “low talking” with Don and Bill about the restoration process. Car restorations are a collaborative effort and thankfully I have some talented friends. Thursday, I secured the deal and the barn find was mine.
Thursday night I am a tightly wound spring, and it hits me—I’ve lost my mind. I never told Cami, my wife.
Friday afternoon, I rehearsed my speech, came home and asked Cami to sit down. I said, “We need to talk. It’s very important. Please keep an open mind.” I rolled out my grand plan and showed her pictures that Carl had given me of when the car raced. She sat quietly and listened. Her only response was a playful “Can you have it ready by the weekend?” A wife approved restoration! I was now free to talk openly about the car. I told her I thought this would be a cool project that the kids could help with and she agreed.
The kids’ excitement level topped mine. Together we made a Facebook and Twitter page to post our progress. They thought it was cool that we had our own hashtag: #MyBarnFind.
Every which way I turned, people told me to talk with Rodney Trask, owner of Trask Automotive, for help with the car’s reconstruction. Turns out Rodney not only raced an Austin-Healey Sprite, he was a SCCA Southeast Series Champion in 2004 and 2005. On top of that, Rodney’s dad, George Trask, was a racing legend. George built and raced Lotus 11s, Formula Fords, Formula Vs, and a Brabham in the 60s and 70s.
One phone call and I was invited over to talk shop. Rodney is a true gentleman and he’s an incredible resource. I told Rodney about the MG Midget I was also saddled with and he said, “Great you can use the parts from it!” I knew nothing about Austin-Healeys or the relationship with MG, or what it takes to restore a car. That whole time I didn’t fully realize I had a donor car and what that could mean. I felt like the planets were aligning just for me. But best of all, Rodney’s garage is just two miles from where I keep the cars.
The car has immersed itself into our daily lives. My kids know iPads, iPhones, and Playstations, and now they know how to pull an engine and transmission out. It’s great having them help me, spending time together. It is hard work and my hands are now stained with grease, but there’s something so inspiring about rebuilding a car. There is no better way to fire up the imagination than to bring a piece of history roaring back to life. I want my kids to experience this history too. I have befriended the wife of the previous owner, a fellow named Johnny Dayton Jones, and we are learning more about him every time she and I talk.
In some ways the plans for the Sprite are pretty simple and fun, like autocrossing with Cami this summer. But it’s hard when you have car friends like I do, not to dream big. Bill and I are discussing entering the Great Race across the US put on by Hemmings, and I’d also like to try my hand at vintage racing.
The more I get into this project the deeper my appreciation grows for the people who took these fun little sporty cars and turned them and themselves into local racing legends through organizations like the Sports Car Club of America. In fact, after talking it over with Don Miller, we’re going to use this Austin-Healey to create a tribute to the SCCA at the Auto Racing Hall of Fame. It will be our first British car in the museum.
At the same time as work is being done on the car, an SCCA display is under construction, and next to it the Sprite will sit. We will pay homage to guys like Johnny Dayton Jones, George Trask, Roger Penske and other racers. Don recently told me, “The great thing about SCCA racers is their spirit. They race for the thrill of it all and not for the money.”
In a lot of ways Don’s comment matches the way I feel about restoring the car. The money spent is always a consideration, of course. But this car is valuable to me in so many ways. I love it but not because it has numbers on the door. I love it for its ability to revive a bit of history after 30 years of living in a barn in North Carolina. The car is creating new friendships and has brought my kids closer to me. And I now have a classic racecar that will be taking me places I have never been. How do you put a price on a car restoration? For me and my family, this Sprite is priceless.
By Todd Morris