TERRE HAUTE —
On my last ride at the wheel of a ’Vette, I was a wide-eyed teenager, guiding my brother’s almost-new, orange 1976 model.
Alas, the Chevette I drove in the 1980s — God rest its wonderfully basic, durable, unadorned soul — doesn’t count.
Instead, we’re talking a Corvette, the opposite end of Chevrolet’s technological spectrum.
Wednesday morning, on the eve of the iconic American sports car’s 60th birthday last week, I got reacquainted with the Corvette — in a sharp, red 2001 version owned by semi-retired Terre Haute electrician Tommy McGregor. Circumstances changed between my two ’Vette moments. I’m a wiser, more careful, more responsible, more skilled driver now. Usually.
Corvettes changed, too. Its horsepower, weight, styling, engineering and marketing have gone through twists and turns, like a forlorn stretch of Route 66. Its bottom-line virtue, though, remains intact.
Sporty exterior. Brisk acceleration. Two seats. A spirit of Americana on the open road.
McGregor, though, keeps a down-to-earth perspective (which helps, considering the Corvette’s underside clears the pavement by just 6 inches).
“If you want to call it a lifestyle, yeah,” he said. “Mostly, it involves driving these things somewhere.”
On Wednesday, McGregor drove it to Effingham, Ill., where Mid America Motorworks houses an eye-popping private collection of rare Corvettes in its My Garage Museum, and graciously let me ride shotgun. The facility on the flat Illinois prairie also is the site of the annual Corvette Funfest, hosted by Mid America owner Mike Yager. It contains gems ranging from a dazzling ’68 LeMans Corvette (“When you look inside and all you see is switches and a gear shift, that makes me slobber — I’m sorry,” Tommy said, laughing) to a 1957 Corvette “barn find” with grime and deflated tires intact (“Everybody’s looking for one of these,” said David Jones, museum staffer for the past 13 years).
Mid America is a favorite stop for McGregor and his usual road-trip companion, Judy, his wife. They’ve seen miles of scenery through the years. They started dating as 14-year-old next-door-neighbors and have been together ever since, navigating through Tommy’s service with the Air Force in Vietnam, raising a family with two sons, jobs, the arrivals of grandchildren, health concerns for both, retirements and life.
Corvettes mark mileposts in their timeline, like thousands of other aficionados.
Tommy bought his first ’Vette in 1966, brand new, at Indianapolis. He was 20. Chevrolet produced his car during the model’s “C2” generation, an era that leaves nostalgic auto buffs misty-eyed. The engines had grown from the original six-cylinder two-speeds in 1953 to a 427 cubic-inch motor with 425 horsepower. “When you’re talking ’66 Corvettes, you’re not talking road cruisers,” McGregor said.
You’re also not talking family cars, and that was the stage of life the McGregors were entering. “A 427 cubic-inch Corvette was not the ideal car for a young married couple,” he said, grinning. He sold it, they married and family life began.
“It was actually 40 years later when I got my next Corvette,” McGregor said.
In the meantime, the Corvette model endured a rocky road. Of its seven generations — C1 through the new C7 unveiled this month at the Detroit Auto Show — the C3s from 1968 to ’82 struggled most to uphold Corvette’s status as “the cornerstone of American automotive performance,” according to the official history on the Chevrolet website. It lost horsepower, due to submission to federal air-quality and fuel-consumption regulations, gained weight and lost some luster.
It “got fat,” as McGregor put it.
But the famed model survived.
Chevy redesigned and reintroduced Corvette as a juiced up C4 in 1984, followed by gradual upgrades in the C5 in 1997, the C6 in 2005, and the C7 last week.
Owners come in varieties, too, McGregor explained, including the “gold chain” set — those more inclined to pose next to their Corvettes rather than drive them. “Some people don’t want anyone near ’em,” he said. “I’m the guy putting the kids in the car. That kid might be the one buying the car someday. You’ve got to keep the sport alive.”
McGregor rejoined Corvette ownership in 2003, and it was a life-changing moment, for different reasons. He suffered a form of heart attack with a less than 10-percent survival rate. “If you don’t think prayer and God do marvelous things, you’re wrong,” he said while driving toward Effingham. “I should’ve died that night.”
He recovered, of course, and a few months later he and Judy mulled an idea. “We’d always talked about, sometime, getting another Corvette,” he said.
Thumbing through a trader magazine, Tommy spotted a 1966 for sale in upstate New York — white exterior, bright blue interior, a 427-cubic-inch engine with 390 horsepower that ran nicely on modern unleaded fuel. It needed some work, a project car, with a modest pricetag. “A perfect car equipped like that [would be] well outside our price range,” he said. They said yes, and started renovating the car, together, and even dropped the refurbished motor back in with the help of their two sons, Tommy proudly recalled. A family effort.
The knack for auto work came naturally for Tommy. His dad eventually owned local Burger Chef restaurants, but started work as a master auto body man at a Terre Haute Ford dealership and raced midget cars as a hobby. Tommy spent countless hours at his side in the garage, learning firsthand. Those skills proved valuable decades later with the rebuild job on the ’66 Corvette.
Sharp as it turned out, it had its drawbacks, specifically a lack of air-conditioning. With one son living in Oklahoma, the McGregors’ road treks from Terre Haute into the hot Southwestern heat got intense inside the car. So, they sold it four years ago, and found in Paris, Ill., their current 2001 C5 “Z06” — a code that harkens back to the early 1960s heyday crafted by Corvette engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, whose name and legend Tommy knows well.
It can do zero-to-60 mph in less than four “Mississippi’s” but McGregor points to a less ballyhooed feature on the dashboard. Going 70 mph on Interstate 70, the miles-per-gallon indicator light shows 29.9. “That’s better than our other car,” he said, referring to a 2003 Dodge Intrepid. With a smaller price but more quick power than some European sports cars, the Corvette is more economical, with “the biggest bang for your buck” in that automotive genre, he said.
It’s also a means to touch lives. One of their fondest journeys is an annual “Vets ’n Vettes” gathering on Veterans Day in Bowling Green, Ky., home of GM’s Corvette manufacturing plant and the National Corvette Museum. Through the program, Corvette owners treat wounded veterans with personalized rides and a few days of fun and camaraderie. “There’s a lot of interaction between somebody who’s been there and somebody who’s just got back,” Tommy said. “It’s kind of therapy as much for me as it is him.”
He recounted giving one young vet a spin and a taste of the acceleration. (With a police escort, of course.) With the young man gripping the dashboard, McGregor asked if he was OK. “Oh yeah,” the guy answered enthusiastically.
On last week’s excursion to Effingham, I rode in that same passenger seat and felt the same G force. Then, on a stretch of U.S. 40 in Illinois between Montrose and Casey, I got behind the controls. The finger-touch handling, zip and occasional second-glances from other motorists reminded me of that drive in my brother’s Corvette years earlier. But the best part of my reunion with that motorized symbol of Americana was the laughs and conversation about, yes, cars, but mostly family, faith, jobs, school, ups, downs and good roadside diners.
The Corvette was just the facilitator.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org
MARK BENNETT: A sense of Americana constant passenger as iconic Corvette motors through milestone birthday
TERRE HAUTE —
On my last ride at the wheel of a ’Vette, I was a wide-eyed teenager, guiding my brother’s almost-new, orange 1976 model.
- Mark Bennett Opinion
MARK BENNETT: ABA’s record proves Bobby Leonard’s a legit Hall of Famer
Bobby Leonard symbolized the feisty competitive flair of the old ABA.
MARK BENNETT: Letter from coach’s young daughter put pro sports, Christmas in perspective
Most of us sympathize with people forced to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That list is growing, now that Black Friday has morphed into Black Thursday, causing retail employees to join doctors, nurses, hospital staffers, police, firefighters, emergency responders, military members, convenience store clerks, road crews and media to spend holidays at work. Ideally, we’ll feel gratitude when we require their services on those special days. Too often, their sacrificed time gets taken for granted.
Terry Leonard wanted the executives to remember her dad, and their family, at Christmastime.
And, amazingly, they listened.
MARK BENNETT: A degree of success
Determination to get that diploma Larry Bird’s deepest bond with fellow ISU alums, students
MARK BENNETT: Brad Fenton and friends set dominos in motion to make Larry Bird statue a reality
The idea has been out there for awhile, floating.
Locals in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s would say, “They need to put up a statue of Larry Bird. I mean, one of the all-time greatest basketball players played right here in Terre Haute at Indiana State University.”
MARK BENNETT: Next chapter set to begin
Use the classic Tommy Tutone song to memorize the following number …
MARK BENNETT: One-ring blues?
Minutes before kickoff tonight, the Lucas Oil Stadium tech crew should play Sam Cooke’s classic, “(What a) Wonderful World” over the sound system.
MARK BENNETT: At Peace in Parke County
Northwestern Parke County — The stream merely trickles beneath Mill Creek Bridge. It’s just a few inches deep, but the water keeps moving.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute native Tommy John belongs in Cooperstown for pitching like a Hall of Famer
Few players in history left a greater impact on baseball than Tommy John.
And he did so through his performance on the field.
MARK BENNETT: Remotely confused
“Must See TV,” where have you gone?
MARK BENNETT: Popularity Contest: Congress does little to improve its standing with Americans
The members of Congress ardently resisting the Affordable Care Act emphasize its unpopularity.
MARK BENNETT: ‘The voice of the Democratic Party’
The ad stands as a campaign classic. Its scenario is part of history. Its narrator would be familiar to millions of Americans, yet anonymous, too.
MARK BENNETT: Transparency in public decision-making includes sincerely listening to the people
Transparency isn’t universally accepted in public entities.
MARK BENNETT: This Little Light: Remote chapel keeps a light shining on story of Flight 93
Father Al explained the meaning of the lamp. He asked me to light it.
The reverence in his voice offset the raspiness, left by his latest battle with cancer. Clearly, he saw this place as special.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections on the Wabash
The series “500 Miles of Wabash” wrapped up last Sunday after a five-week run. Readers offered some enlightening insights, memories and photographs as the series unfolded.
MARK BENNETT: Current Information: Put your Wabash knowledge to the test … or quiz
Just for fun, ponder a few questions concerning the large waterway flowing through Indiana and Terre Haute, as the Tribune-Star’s series, “500 Miles of Wabash” concludes in today’s editions. Those who’ve followed the five-part series of stories, photographs and videos about people and communities uniquely embracing the Wabash River may have a head start. If you’re just catching up, check them out in the online editions at www.tribstar.com.
- Answers to the Wabash River Quiz
MARK BENNETT: Pedestrian paths across the Wabash few, so far, but appreciated
The future tends to sneak up on you. Planning for it offers no guarantees, but it helps.
MARK BENNETT: Questions of fairness, impartiality, public trust legitimate in wake of school rating controversy
The discovery of a double-standard in public policy — or the appearance of it — weakens trust. The acceptance of a double-standard in public policy — or the appearance of it — erases trust. Indiana needs to draw a clear line between the former and the latter, and not cross it.
MARK BENNETT: Living downstream: From source, Wabash bears mark of mankind mile after mile
Something was missing. I’d never visited this spot before, but the view looked familiar. I’ve walked the banks of the Wabash River and its tributaries countless times, catching crawdads and skipping rocks in Honey Creek as a kid. On the other side of the state, where the Wabash crosses from Ohio into Indiana, trees arched over the water as it ran under a bridge on a quiet country road. It looked like western Indiana, except for one absent element. Litter.
MARK BENNETT: We are Hauteans (ho-shuns)
I fielded an hilariously disturbing question recently. A friend asked if the word “Hautean” is meant to be a derogatory label.
MARK BENNETT: Lesson in the Test
ISTEP is important, but it should not be predominant.
MARK BENNETT: Commencement Advice
Today’s high school commencement speakers should repeat their speeches in hospital delivery rooms in the months ahead.
MARK BENNETT: American nurses, medics, stranded behind Nazi lines, survived through tenacity, heroism, generosity
A story of survival, perseverance, danger, and extraordinary courage and generosity extended in the midst of war remained untold for decades, but thankfully not forever.
Mark Bennett: High-profile mural connects historical dots from city to river
At 96 feet wide and 2 stories tall, the power, impact and value of the Wabash will be evident.
MARK BENNETT: Life at face value: Mom’s simple advice still presents a valuable daily challenge
Most moms don’t base their advice on scientific research.
(Unless, of course, your mother is a scientific researcher. If so, carry a No. 2 pencil and take good notes.)
MARK BENNETT: Should I stay or should I go?
Some have their Bill Clinton-era Cavalier packed (with the trunk bungee-ed shut), apartment cleaned (except for the fridge), and iPhone GPS locked onto the fastest route out of Terre Haute. Others are staying — until they find a better job, or because they’re starting a career here, or because this town feels like home. In each case, a new stage of life begins today.
College Class of '13 gets a little extra advice
Local college grads will hear commencement speakers offer life and career advice this month. We’re offering them an extra dose here from folks who’ve found success in various vocations and regions of the nation. Many have Terre Haute roots.
MARK BENNETT: Spirited response to a rising river
The power within the Wabash revealed itself last week.
MARK BENNETT: Littered with irony: Why do people callously discard their trash, and who are they?
Though they aren’t acknowledged by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are basically two demographic groups of people … Those who would dump their old toilet on the banks of the Wabash River or a rural roadside. And those who wouldn’t.
MARK BENNETT: Performing under the radar: Toiling for years behind the scenes, Terre Haute native J.T. Corenflos finally earned a splash of musical recognition
People who diligently work to make others shine are a rare breed.
- More Mark Bennett Opinion Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: ABA’s record proves Bobby Leonard’s a legit Hall of Famer