Some kids still want to be Champ. Some men still dream dreams about cars.
In an industrial alleyway in Springfield, Va., a blue-throbbing thing of beauty is being winched out of a silver van. On a rain-stippled pavement mere mortals are sucking in their breath, shaking their heads slowly. "First time I ever seen it outside," somebody says in low tones. "Jeez, it's the Rolls-Royce of rods," says somebody else, as if one kind of poetry must need evoke another.
According to Hot Rod magazine, which has just named this car the Street Machine of the Year, it has a "Jimmy-blown rat on the bottle." To rodders, such a sentence is perfectly limpid. To non-rodders, a smidge of explanation might help: The magazine editors are talking not of rodents or Jimmy Carter, but of what's under the hood, all that gleaming tube and coil and piston and plug, 454 cubic inches of engine, 1,000 straining horses, with dual Holley 4-barrel carbs, a 6-71 blower, twin turbos with nitrous injection.
And to think, once upon a time this was just another ignominious Chevy Nova in Fairfax County driven by an old lady to church and the 7-Eleven. The new owner swears this is true.
"So far as we know, it's the only one in creation that has two turbos, a supercharger, plus these tanks of nitrous oxide," says the man who built and now owns the car, leaning lightly on the door handle. The man's name is Rick Dobbertin, and he has just pulled in from another show, this one in Philly, the 25th Annual Custom Car, Van & Celebrity Show, where, natch, he pretty much cleaned up again in his class, brought home another trophy and a couple of plaques. This keeps up, Rick Dobbertin and his wife are going to have to get a new house.
Once Rick Dobbertin repossessed cars for General Motors. Before that he worked as a sandblaster. He went to college at Northern Virginia Community, Ashland in Ohio, George Mason; didn't graduate. He has owned 49 vehicles of one sort or another. These days he is proprietor of the AA Speed and Custom Discounters in Springfield. The company retails high-performance parts and builds custom exhaust systems. In the back of the shop, Dobbertin works on his dream car.
"Rick Dobbertin's Rat-Powered '65 Nova Is OVERKILL!" headlined Hot Rod last fall, when the car first hit the national slicks. Since then, fame has come va-rooooming down to Fairfax. Now rod aficionados from Car Craft and Hot Rod and all the other chrome-and-muscle mags (whose four-color displays look a little like car wrecks in themselves) fly in from California and other places to get a gawk. Then they go home and write sentences like these: "We had a chance to do a few burnouts in Rick's slick trick. And while the nitrous wasn't hooked up, neither were the tires. The power, even at partial throttle, was frightening, and the noise generated by the combined turbos and Roots blower was beyond belief."
What does he get for building such a car, one is tempted to ask. "Aw, I might get a plaque and a jacket," he says. "Zero cash. They used to give a gold steering wheel."
Last fall, at Car Craft's Street Machine Nationals in Springfield, Ill., Rick Dobbertin's car won Best Interior, Best Engine, Best Engineered, Best Car, Best Pro Street Car, not to say Grand Participating Champion. Alas, the machine came in third in Paint, which actually, some would say, was an out-and-out rook. Because the paint job on this "eye-popping boulevard rocket" (to quote the ever-eloquent Hot Rod) is one of the very best things about it, and practically any nitwit who has ogled the car could tell you that. The paint job is Firemist Blue, "same color as a '76 Caddy, bluest blue you can find," says Dobbertin. It was applied by "Paint by Chip," which is rodder Chip Whittington's outfit down in Woodbridge.
According to Car Craft, Dobbertin's car stands out at shows "like the Hope Diamond in a drawer full of rhinestones." The rear tires are 19 inches wide!
The license plate says: PRO GAS!
On a panel beneath the steering wheel are 17 gauges--pressure gauges, oil gauges, voltmeter, water meter, who knows what kind of meter. The inside of this monster looks like a jet cockpit. Too, there is that specially designed on-board firefighting system: You pull a pin and something called Halon comes out everywhere. After all, the buggy has $38,000 worth of parts in it, 6,000 man-hours. (Dobbertin's been offered $50,000 for the car, he says. He isn't selling.)
The interior is a sexy crushed black velvet, courtesy of Lee's Custom and Trim in Springfield.
And the gas pedal?
"It's out of a jet boat, or at least it's the kind they use in a jet boat," says the owner. The pedal is silvery and in the shape of a foot. Only the foot looks like it must belong to the Abominable Snowman.
Does the radio work?
"We never play it. We're always listening for little sounds."
Sadly, Rick Dobbertin's car won't be fired up for the press boys today. "Nope, can't take a chance," he says. "Got the Southeastern regionals coming up in Atlanta. Never know when you might blow some smoke. Ha. Just kidding about that."
He shakes his head again. "Right now my car's not very clean, and I don't like that." He reaches down and traces a pinkie along one edge of the engine frame. "All this stuff. Dust. If your car's not clean, you can't win."
It's the machine here that's mean; the man himself seems plain, reserved, unassuming. Rick Dobbertin, 30, with a terry cloth shirt and helmet of hair and a slight bulge at his belt (too many Quarter Pounders out on the circuit), is married to a Japanese woman from Hawaii named Lani. Lani hardly knew cars from bars when she and Rick hooked up eight or so years ago. Now she's hooked on rods. "It's our kid, our house," she says with the kind of sigh that makes you wonder if someday she wouldn't like to have a child and her own home, put a stop to all this mad running around the country to show the car. At the moment, everything goes into the car--and keeping her husband on the circuit.
In one stretch last November, they were up 55 hours. On Christmas Day, Dobbertin and his wife were in Hershey, Pa., for a show. In one three-week binge, Dobbertin drove his silver van with his blue showpiece in it from Detroit to Miami to Toronto. "I've been losing a night's sleep every seven days," he says. "Lots of Vitamin C. I've had a cold for . . . six months."
"We've tried regular jobs," says Lani. "I don't know what's the matter with us, but we can't take direction very well. Now we're happily poor."
Around Fairfax, Lani drives a '67 Corvette, her husband a '72 Chevy wagon. "That's one of the benefits of building a show car," he says. "You get to drive junk."
But why does he do it at all? "Well, in high school, when other kids were getting drunk and taking drugs, I was thinking about cars. That's all I can tell you."