Lots of guys have dusty classic cars sitting in their garage.
But not many have cars like this. And not many take a car from mothballs to the drag strip in two weeks.
Bruce Denis’s 1969 Dodge Dart Swinger, replete with four-speed transmission and 340 cu. in. V8 engine, sat untouched in his garage since 1971.
In the past 39 years, the car became covered in inches of dust. Squirrels took a liking to the Dart as a convenient hiding place for more than 30 pounds of walnuts. It was, for all intents and purposes, abandoned, save for a few covert forays by Bruce Denis’s son, Ryan Denis.
“I remember sneaking in there a couple times when I was a kid and I would sit in the driver’s seat and put the helmet on,” Ryan Denis said.
But last weekend, for the first time since Richard Nixon was president, the Dart was carefully eased out of the garage and into the light.
What the Denis family found was a car in immaculate condition, one that had survived storage looking just as it had the day it entered the garage.
Alongside the Dart was a veritable treasure trove of history, including the original window sticker, proudly stating a MSRP of $3,109. A 1969 Hot Rod magazine was sitting on the hood. And, most importantly, scores of time strips from drag racing filled the glove box.
You see, Bruce Denis purchased the car from his father, Frank Denis Sr., owner of Turlock’s old Denis Dodge dealership. The dealership, like many of the time, believed in the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mentality, and sponsored a drag racing team.
Bruce Denis’s Dart was part of that drag racing team. The car has never been registered, and has only has been driven 91 miles.
“That's all quarter mile runs, it's never hit the street,” Bruce Denis said. “I bought it for one purpose, and that's what I did with it.”
Bruce Denis took his Dart to Vernalis, Fremont and Kingdon Drag Strip in Lodi to test his mettle, towing the Dart to the tracks behind a 1968 Dodge Charger – one classic car pulling another. There, much to the astonishment of big block enthusiasts, the small-blocked Dart put up 11.6 second runs at more than 100 miles an hour.
Like many racers, though, Bruce Denis eventually got married and focused on his family and business rather than spending time out at the drag strip. And so the Dart was parked, something Bruce Denis didn’t want to do away with but something he no longer had a need for.
As a mint-condition relic of a successful drag racing team, it’s the sort of car that should be in a museum. But it’s headed back to the drag strip for another run.
Ryan Denis is the brainchild of the garage-to-racetrack plan. He was raised with the “Mopar or no car” ethos, loving Dodge cars from the time he was born. He tells of family pictures taken on the wing of a Dodge Super Bee, and high school cars that would make any enthusiast drool.
Ryan Denis knew his dad wouldn’t let just anybody work on the beloved Dart, but in the process of fixing up another old Dodge he met Al Truglio, owner of Al’s Automotive Inc., a car restoration company in Ceres.
“I didn’t know this guy Al who restores old cars was an old friend of my dad’s,” Ryan Denis said.
The two started talking, and a plan was hatched. What better fate for the Dart than to race on the same tracks it once dominated?
“When I was 15 going to the drags wanting a car like this, he (Bruce Denis) had one and he was racing it,” Truglio said. “… I thought, man, we need to get that car back on the track.”
They approached Bruce Denis, who instantly got onboard with the idea. And so, the Dart will run again at the Sept. 11-12 Kingdon Drags, just as it raced at the Kingdon Drags 40 years ago.
Since the concept arose just a week ago, there wasn’t much time to get the car in track shape. But Truglio said he’d do it out of love of the sport, and as a nod to the old days when folks were always willing to lend a helping hand at the track.
“I haven’t slept since this car’s been in here,” Truglio said. “My wife said, why don’t you just get up and work on the car.”
Truglio estimates he’ll put in more than 150 hours to get the car track-ready, overhauling the motor, transmission, fuel system, and brakes.
The project’s going swimmingly so far, but there’s much work to be done before Sept. 11.
Ryan Denis is already chomping at the bit with the possibilities for the Dart. He wants to use the car to revive the old Denis Dodge racing team, eventually building cars for the whole family.
After all, his family loves to drive fast and what better way to drive fast than on a drag strip? Maybe the Denis Dodge team will even end up on an episode of SpeedTV’s “Pinks” drag racing show, he said.
But no matter how many cars the Denis Dodge team ends up racing, Ryan Denis knows this Dart will be the most important of them all for his father.
“This car means more to him than any of the cars that we will ever restore,” Ryan Denis said.
Bruce Denis hasn’t even been to a drag strip for 40 years, he said. Just thinking about the prospect of running a quarter mile brings back lots of memories and stirs up lots of emotions for the drag-racing veteran.
Come Sept. 11, Bruce Denis may not be the fastest man on the track. But he’ll certainly be the happiest.
“I don't know if it'll go that fast, I'm an old man I've got a rust on me,” Bruce Denis said. “… It's going to be interesting. And it's going to be interesting.”
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.