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A homegrown team burns rubber at the strip
Islander Chris Barnes’ road to drag racing began at a California art school in the late 1980s. As the publisher of a “zine” — a small photocopied magazine — Barnes went to a drag race thinking he’d write an article. Instead, he got hooked.
“I thought, ‘This is what I was born to do,’” he recalled. “That’s when it all started.”
Two decades and several race cars later, Barnes, 46, and his race partner Mike Brenno, also 46, now race the fastest station wagon on the planet with their Island drag racing team Wagons of Steel.
“I always thought cars were cool. I never thought I’d be a drag racer, though. I had no idea the sport even existed ’til I had this stupid magazine,” Barnes said, laughing, as he and Brenno, who works at Sawbones, stood outside the shop next to his home on Westside Highway one warm evening. Their prized ’64 Plymouth Savoy was parked under cover behind them, plastered with sponsor stickers and the words “Wagons of Steel” emblazoned along its side.
Barnes, the team owner, still periodically publishes the zine — also called “Wagons of Steel” — but it’s now all about the team of a half-dozen Islanders and its classic station wagons, vehicles that have been turning heads at drag-racing competitions up and down the West Coast.
As the men shot the breeze, it looked to be a regular night for the two car lovers, who slowly nursed microbrews and were joined by teammate Step Graves, another long-time Islander who they affectionately call a Rastafarian and who details all the team’s cars.
“People are amazed,” Barnes said of the cars. “People who have never seen a classic race car from the 70s.”
Barnes’ 5-year-old daughter Caroline ran in and out of the shop, often jumping up into her father’s arms. Barnes’ wife Natalie Kosovac, who owns a graphic design business, stayed inside with the couple’s 7-year-old son Joe. The kids love that their dad races cars, Barnes said. And while his wife doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the sport, she is supportive, he said. Barnes’ custom T-shirt printing business — also called Wagons of Steel, of course — makes enough to support his spendy hobby.
“It’s so much fun,” Barnes said. “It’s like a grown-up Hot Wheels.”
Though the men’s handful of classic race cars, mostly station wagons, stand up to the competition at a dozen West Coast events a year, they’re humble about their accomplishments. It almost doesn’t matter if they win, they said.
“It’s a family-oriented type thing,” Graves said, explaining that so many Islanders, young and old, are either involved in the team’s work or come along for races that it’s as if a family has formed around the cars.
“They make everyone feel welcome, even if they don’t know about racing,” Graves said of Barnes and Brenno. “That’s what makes Steel a popular race team, not only here but at the track.”
One of the things that first drew Barnes to drag racing, he explained, was that any vehicle could enter races, from golf carts to snowmobiles. And though most contestants bring souped-up hot rods to the track, Barnes started out with the only set of wheels he owned: a 1972 Chrysler Town & Country station wagon. After fixing up the family-style car and giving it a shiny coat of lime green paint, The Mighty Josephine was ready to enter the stock eliminator category, where cars must be “stock” — meaning their parts haven’t been upgraded, but are equivalent to the ones the cars were originally manufactured with. Barnes’ station wagon could go up against an old Barracuda in one race and a mid-80s Camaro in the next, as all cars were given handicaps based on their weight and horsepower.
And though Josephine didn’t look like a hot rod, it wasn’t just a family car, either. As Barnes explained, in the 1960s the auto industry caught on to the drag-racing trend and manufactured some seemingly tame cars with “monster motors” under the hood. Stripped of unneeded weight such as seats, Barnes pushed the station wagon to complete the quarter-mile track in under 12 seconds, a good time for the heavy-weight racer.
Today, Barnes’ large, grassy yard is filled with old station wagons he has collected — some rusted and falling apart — mostly to pull parts for the four cars Wagons of Steel currently races.
Barnes admits he could have moved on to lighter or more modern race cars, but he simply loves the wagons.
“I feel like I’m keeping up a tradition,” he said. “And it’s an easy car to get for almost nothing, and you can spend all the money making it fast.”
Stock eliminator is also the toughest category in National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) racing, Barnes said. It’s expensive and time consuming to keep the classic cars on what Brenno, the crew chief and lead mechanic, calls a “jet-helicopter maintenance schedule.” What’s more, they never know what might go wrong with the 60s- and 70s-era cars the day of the big race.
“That car will throw a hook at you,” Brenno said.
The team has had its difficulties — the Savoy’s engine literally blew up once, forcing a one-year hiatus in its race schedule — but the men have also had success. The Savoy, which Barnes calls “the same car that Plymouth released for people to drive their kids around,” has been known to reach 125 mph by the finish of the quarter-mile track.
“When we do win … ,” Barnes said.
“You better believe it’s a celebration,” Brenno interjected.
Graves was more eager to tell about his friends’ success. Darting into the shop, he emerged with a trophy topped with a golden figure that at first glance looked to be an Oscar.
Wagons of Steel earned the “Wally,” — the most prestigious trophy in drag racing, named after NHRA founder Wally Parks — two years ago when the team took champion at a divisional event in Medford, Ore., their biggest win to date.
“That was the coolest thing in my life, next to seeing my kids being born,” Barnes said.
Whether they win the event or go out in the first round of the bracket racing, Barnes and Brenno will likely have smiles on their faces. Half the reason they go to the events, Barnes said, is because it’s fun to show off the cars to visitors during the long stretches of down time they have. The team also has a 1970 Chrysler Town & Country, a 1966 Chevy Malibu wagon and a 1966 Plymouth Belvedere named Brutus — their only car that isn’t a station wagon.
“What makes it so much fun is it’s like a car show where people actually race the cars that they’re showing,” he said.
Steve Payne, the former owner of Vashon Auto Parts, sponsored Wagons of Steel for years and has followed the men’s racing career closely. He said racing station wagons is a unique choice in drag racing, but it’s also what makes the team interesting.
“They could have always gone fast if they’d run lighter cars,” Payne said. “They chose to run the big, heavy station wagons because it’s what made them different.”
He remembers attending their earliest races, when he along with other Islanders watched the wagons zip down the track; he’s also watched the men grow from novice racers into a winning team.
“They started out at the bottom,” he said. “They got to know where they were going, and they gained the respect of other people at the drag strip.”
To learn more about Wagons of Steel, see www.wagonsofsteel.com or the team's Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wagons-of-Steel/120033664678292.