Story of a Lucky Penny and the Underbird
By: Guest Columnist ~ Kelly Meiste
Editor’s note: Late Tuesday evening, an email arrived in my inbox. It was from a Race Fans Forever reader and addressed to both David Nance and me. It read as follows:
Dear PattyKay and David,
Thank you so much for the articles you have both written this past week regarding the history and untimely passing of Alan Kulwicki. He was one of my favorite drivers and a true inspiration in my life. I can’t imagine the struggles he had to overcome to make it to the top in his career.
Your recent columns about Alan inspired me to sit down and write you both about a recent racing experience that I had with my son. For a little background, I’m from Northwest Illinois but I spent from 1960 to 1970 growing up in High Point NC. Being a “Yankee” and moving to the south in the 60’s at the age of 8 was a real culture shock for me. But I quickly learned to love living in the south and NASCAR. Back then I spent many a Saturday evening at Bowman Gray and other local short tracks in the area. I even had the honor of watching Petty get his 100th win at BG in 69 (and have photos I took of the event somewhere around here).
I’ll cut to the chase and just say after 1970 I moved back to NW Illinois, got drafted into the army after high school, came home and graduated college with a Mechanical Engineering degree, got married and had two sons. But after all that I still loved NASCAR and watching the weekend races on TV with my kids.
I guess like father, like son. My oldest son (Greg) learned to love watching the weekend races on TV as much (or more) than I did. But as far as being involved in racing, that’s about as far as it went. Time passed, my son went off to college to earn his Engineering degree in Milwaukee, WI (not far from where Alan’s now buried).
After his college graduation he came home, got a job but he was now bored on weekends, and I was also bored and getting older. It was about then it dawned on me that I spent most of my life loving racing but never actually trying it myself, as I always dreamed of doing when I was younger. I didn’t want my son to be like me, 70 someday and having the same regrets I’ve had. So, the story begins!
Story of a Lucky Penny and the Underbird
By: Kelly Meiste
In 2013 the “Allison Legacy” race cars formed a series that ran at the Grundy County Speedway in Morris, Illinois not far from the new NASCAR track in Joliet, just outside of Chicago. The Grundy County Speedway is a 1/3rd-mile track with an asphalt surface.
So, in 2013 I took the plunge and purchased an old Allison Legacy Thunderbird, chassis number 072. At the time it had an old penny taped to the dash board from some previous owner (I promptly removed it thinking it was stupid). Neither my son (now driver of the #18 Thunderbird) nor I (now the spotter, crew chief, mechanic, body man, hauler driver, and sponsor) had ever been in a race car, let alone work on one. We quickly found out it was not as easy as it looks on TV. The first few years we were getting lapped every race and on many occasions hauling home a wrecked car to rebuild for the next race.
To make matters worse, our competition from the Chicago area all had previous racing experience, the tools, and sponsors to help their racing efforts. “Meiste Motor Sports” (our so called race team) found out racing as an independent can be a real challenge since we were located at the opposite side of the state, in the middle of corn fields. We had no “racing” tools to help setting up our car and relied on anything we could find online for tips on making our race car faster. Purchasing a set of 4 heavy duty bathroom scales was the best investment we made! Needless to say, we came in last most the time but we were having FUN and making progress but sadly never seeing a win.
Fast forward to 2016. It’s Labor Day weekend and the final race of the season. Like the Super Bowl, this is the one everyone wants to win to cap off their year. Once again, our little race team from Fairhaven IL is up against the Chicago area sponsored teams. Well something strange, or you may say mystical happened on that final race day. It all started when in desperation I got out my roll of white tape and taped over the “TH” on the “Thunderbird” decal on the nose of our painted white Thunderbird. In the past, I’ve lectured my son about the power of the “UNDERBIRD” but he was too young to remember it. By the look on his face I could tell he thought I was crazy. Then to top it off, when we were climbing into the truck to head out to the race track I happened to look down to see a VERY beat up old penny lying on the ground just below the door. I picked it up & handed it to my son telling him "Here's your lucky penny." He just looked at me again like I was nuts and shoved the penny into his pocket.
When we got to the track and unloaded the car, it was clear that lucky penny was starting to work its magic. Our newly minted “Underbird” was one of the fastest cars of the practice session! Later that evening came the dreaded heat race (I always prayed to finish it with no damage) and we would be starting towards the front of the field due to our fast qualifying speed. My son managed to pass the race leader coming out of turn 4 on the last lap to take the win by about one car length!! Still don't believe in that magic penny or the power of the Underbird? There's still one more race of the night.
It's now time for the 20-lap feature race and the butterflies are working overtime. By the luck of the draw my son would start this race on the outside of the front row (like Martinsville, not a good place to be). When the green flag dropped the Underbird found its way into the lead coming out of turn #2. After that the race seemed like it played out in slow motion as it seemed to last forever. Every lap my son and the mighty Underbird had competitors on the rear bumper. So far, he managed to hold the lead every lap, with me screaming into his earbuds every second of every lap. On unlucky lap thirteen there was a caution flag and everyone bunched back up for the restart. Much to our dismay, the usual race winner and past series Champion 3 years running was now lined up on the Underbird’s back bumper for the restart.
Once again the green flag dropped and it's game on. Counting down...lap 7 to go, Greg's still in the lead; 6, 5, 4 still in the lead but not by much as the second place car (the past champion) is still right on Greg's rear bumper and trying to get inside of the Underbird on every turn. Now 3, then 2 and things aren't looking good as the second place car is now dead even with us. To make matters worse, he managed to get inside of my son and we’re now stuck on the outside (not the preferred way around on this race track).
As the two cars pass the start/finish line, the white flag is waved and everyone in the stands are now on their feet. At this point I’m screaming so loud into my headset mic I don’t think my son needed an in-car radio to hear me. Coming out of turn #2 my son is still stuck on the outside, but now the tired old Underbird falls behind by about a half a car length and it’s not looking good as they enter turn #3. But it was about then that old beat up lucky penny combined with the power of the Underbird kicked into a higher gear than I have ever seen. Going through the final turn and almost rubbing fenders Greg somehow pulls even with the other car! They’re now door handle to door handle, and it's a drag race to the finish line. When they got about 20 feet from the finish line I see a hand come out of Greg's window doing a fist pump to the crowd. He and the “Underbird” and that beat up old penny must have had no doubt they were going to win. They crossed the finish line in a photo finish for his first ever feature race victory and leading the race from start to finish!!!
So, was it the power of the “Underbird”, that old beat up penny, or ???
Sad to say, after that last race of the season the race track promoters decided to drop our series in favor of a newer series at the track. Since then the Allison Series in the Midwest has disbanded and all the cars have been sold but mine. I find it hard to part with something that we worked so hard to achieve like the famous “Underbird” of the past.
It’s satisfying to know our small family team finally won their first race in the final race ever run and was going out on top. I’m now extremely proud that my son and I (but on a much smaller scale) achieved our goal, as Alan did with his “Underbird” years before. I’m also very happy I was able to help my son fulfill a dream of his (and mine) before it was too late for either of us.
Thanks for taking the time to read my story.