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Reckless in Wrecks : Jalopy Builder Nunes Thrives on Crash Courses at Saugus Speedway

March 06, 1987|RICH TOSCHES | Times Staff Writer

George Nunes stood beside his 1969 Chevrolet and his 1971 Chevrolet, which is, thanks to a little ingenuity and a lot of acetylene torch, just one car. He smiled as he told tales of how he spent many hours putting the car together, piece by grimy piece. The rear end is a '69 Chevy, the front end a '71 Chevy. He coaxed together 500 parts and built an engine. He formed heavy steel tubing around the chassis, attached fenders and had it painted a sparkling white.

And then Nunes took the car out and wrecked it, slamming into other cars and concrete walls and turning it into a 2,000-pound dent. This, you can imagine, is what Leon Spinks' car might have looked like had authorities not had the good sense to revoke the ex-boxing champion's driver's license years ago.

"It was a great car," Nunes said.

Almost as nice, he offers, as the car he built and drove in 1985. That car was half 1965 Chevrolet Malibu and half 1966 Buick. He called it a Malibuick. But it met the same fate as his 1969-1971 Chevrolet.

Wham, bam, thank you, Saugus.

"I've got a room full of trophies," Nunes said. "That's all I race for. The trophies."

Nunes, 40, has been a fixture at Saugus Speedway for the past five years. He has raced in the hobby stock division and driven in endurance races, but his biggest success has come in Figure-8 racing. What is it? Well, to fully understand Figure-8 racing, get on the Ventura Freeway at rush hour tonight and drive from the Valley to downtown Los Angeles. In the northbound lanes.

Figure-8 racing consists of upwards of 20 cars traveling at 45 mph and crossing the intersection of the Figure-8 track. No one has the right of way. Knowing Nunes is the defending Figure-8 champion at Saugus goes a long way toward explaining the appearance of his cars. You don't get these kinds of dents by having a Ralph's shopping cart roll into your door.

"The hobby racing is fun, but the Figure-8 is my event," said Nunes, who has never been injured racing. "That's the hairiest. If we're lucky, we miss each other by, well, not by much. But we're not lucky all the time. There are some big crashes. I think I have an advantage over some of the guys in Figure-8 racing. I never use my brakes."

Saugus Speedway's season gets under way tonight. Nunes hopes to have this year's car--a combination of a 1972 Chevrolet and several other things--ready for opening night, but at midweek he wasn't sure he'd make it. Something about the car not having an engine or a transmission or tires or a seat. In racing, it's often the little things that make the difference.

"It's a long season," Nunes said. "If I can't make it Friday, I'll be there for the next one."

Toward this end, Nunes has been meeting nightly with some friends. Nunes leaves his job as manager of Beverly Hills Auto Body each evening and drives to Claude Mereau's German Performance garage in Reseda. There, Nunes and Mereau, 37, wait for the arrival of fellow Valley racers Tom Siebuhr, Doug Strom and Larry Greenspan. And mingled in with lots of pizza and a few bottles of beer, they fuel their passion.

Mereau is a Paris-born mechanic who has raced in both France and the United States under the Sports Car Club of America banner. He will race at Saugus this year in the more violent foreign stock division. Mereau, who moved to the United States in 1975 and speaks with a heavy French accent, determined last year that Saugus Speedway is not to be confused with the more upper-class tracks in Paris. When introduction time rolled around for an Enduro race, the Saugus announcer asked Mereau where he was from.

"Tijuana," Mereau responded in his finest Inspector Clouseau accent.

And when the introductions were made, driving car No. 2 was Claude Mereau of Tijuana.

"I did it for a lee - tle joke ," Mereau said. "I didn't theenk he will use it."

Siebuhr, 39, an exhaust-system specialist and the group's designated welder, will race against Nunes and Greenspan in the hobby stock division again. Joining them for his first full season will be Strom, a 34-year-old sign painter who caught the bug, or breathed the fumes, for the first time in 1986.

"I painted George's car, and he appreciated my work," said Strom, who failed to mention that among the items he painted on Nunes' car were four well-placed bull's-eyes.

"He set me up in a car for the mechanics' division. Jalopies. I loved it. The adrenaline was pumping so hard you wouldn't believe it. These guys are serious about racing. That first race was incredible. I finished fifth or sixth, but that didn't matter. I got to do things out there that you want to do on the Ventura Freeway when you get stopped cold at rush hour, things you know you can't do. But at the race track, you can do those things."

Strom knows, however, that he will be up against drivers with much more driving experience.

Nunes, for example.

"I stole my old man's car when I was a teen-ager," said Nunes, a transplanted Canadian. "I took it on the road and blew the transmission out. Some friends helped me push it back into the driveway and I never told him anything.

"All he knew was that when he tried to back his car out of the driveway the next morning there was no transmission in it."

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