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Hell on Wheels

June 13, 1996|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It takes people a few minutes to really get it," says John Dorbacopoulos, gazing fondly on a highly customized '62 Austin-Healey Sprite.

It has no seats and no engine. In their place are three welded steel barbecue pits (the steering wheel has to be removed whenever the driver's side is fired up). The hood and trunk lids fold out to make tables for setting out food. The specially reinforced race car fuel tank known as a fuel safe has been replaced by a beverage cooler ("cool safe").

The original fire extinguisher, however, is still on hand for emergencies.

Dorbacopoulos, a member of the Vintage Auto Racing Assn., traditionally organized the barbecuing at VARA races, cajoling as many as seven members to drag their home barbecues to the track. For about a year, his barbecue pit boss, Bill Bucher, pushed for the acquisition of one big barbecue to simplify things, and around the beginning of the year Dorbacopoulos decided to take steps.

But how did this simple idea turn into a Spritecue? "Some of the members were bad-mouthing Sprites, because Sprites were always beating them in the races," says Dorbacopoulos, who happens to restore Sprites for a living. This gave him the mischievous idea of making the club's barbecue out of an old Sprite.

The anti-Sprite contingent is perfectly pleased with the idea. "There's been a lot of talk in VARA about how being a barbecue is the highest and best use for a Sprite," says Bucher, a Porsche owner.

The upshot was that a member donated an old Sprite and a special-effects designer named Bruce Hayes built the custom pits, studiously using the same proportion of fire chamber volume to ventilation hole size as in a Weber barbecue. Body work was by Big American Dream Co.

The victual vehicle is named Hot Stuff, after a baby demon who appeared in '50s comic books, and that's only the beginning of the gags it incorporates. A Cabbage Patch doll serves as the cap to the (nonexistent) gas tank. Across the trunk it carries the slogan: Eat My Food Today, Eat My Dust Tomorrow.

The car has been given a fictitious production car number, BBQP-1, and in its first public appearance, a VARA race in Las Vegas in April, its "pit crew"--known as Team Ouzo--took the car through the technical inspection required of a race car. The amused inspectors actually issued it a tech sticker. Last month, Hot Stuff has appeared publicly at a charity event for the Marconi Museum and at races in Pomona. Its next appearance will be at the VARA races in Buttonwillow on this weekend.

Dorbacopoulos, known to fellow VARA members as the Mad Greek, is a native of Piraeus, Greece, who came to California to study computer engineering. But he was not cut out to be a computer programmer. "I could never see myself behind a desk," he says.

Among the jobs he worked while putting himself through college was as a garage mechanic. He was entranced by the cars, which had been rare in Greece when he was growing up. He became a classic car fancier and now has a car restoration business in Sun Valley, Vintage Sports Cars.

Another of his college jobs was working in a folk-dance club. When the cook quit, he offered to take over. "Then I called up my aunt," he says, "and asked her what to do, and she told me, 'A little of this, a little of that,' and I was a cook."

He serves a classic Greek barbecue menu. The meat is lamb or tri-tip marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and oregano, skewered with onions, cherry tomatoes and bell peppers. On the side there are cubed potatoes roasted with olive oil and lemon juice, Greek salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, feta and olives), a cucumber-yogurt dip and Greek pita bread.

One of the questions people always ask about the Spritecue is how the engine-less vehicle gets to the events where it's used. The answer is, the same way it did when it was a functioning race car: on a race-car trailer.

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