GRUDGE RACING, A MILLION-DOLLAR STEERING WHEEL AND THE STOTT BOYS
Remember the climactic scene from the “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” movie?
It’s where bad guy Walter Sullivan, in a quest for eternal life, had to select the correct cup among dozens of shiny, jewel-encrusted chalices. He “chose poorly,” to quote the aged knight who stood guard over the collection for 700 years. In fact, the priceless piece -- the Holy Grail -- was the cup in the room that was the least glitzy.
It’s much the same scenario in Quain Stott’s collection of valued wares.
There are trophies from eight IHRA Pro Modified national-event wins and a handful from ADRL competition. There are two awards honoring him as the IHRA Sportsman of the Year. In 2001, he was a Car Craft magazine all-star driver. And then there’s his treasured 2006 IHRA Pro Mod championship hardware.
But the most recent addition to the collection arrived in the past year and has eclipsed the others in sentimental value. It’s something that, in the eyes of Stott and his younger brother, Mitch, will keep their names alive in drag racing lore longer than the rest.
It’s a steering wheel.
There’s nothing special about it at first glance, and its presence in a trophy case would elicit an obvious question: Why? It’s just a steering wheel, right? It’s a circular implement made of metal and wood, held together by a dozen bolts -- and it’s clearly an old piece at that, with a closer inspection of the chrome revealing tiny specks of rust.
What makes it special is the place it holds in Quain Stott’s heart, and what it represents to him and Mitch. It’s the steering wheel from a chopped-top Chevy Vega they rebuilt for a grudge race outside Rochester, N.Y., about 35 years ago. Quain won that winner-take-all contest and nearly all those that followed in the couple of years he drove that car.
In a nutshell, Stott calls it “the million-dollar steering wheel” because he’s convinced he won that much and more in bets for ‘Rob,’ the car’s owner at the time. ‘Rob,’ Quain said, is the shorter version of ‘Wicked Rob’ given to describe a man who stands 6-foot-3 and “was very, very intimidating” when they met, Quain said.
‘Rob’ is actually Johnny B. Bivins. What’s the ‘B’ stand for? “My mama never told me,” he said.
OK, now you know three of the players involved in this story.
The Stott brothers were up-and-comers on the Southern drag racing scene in the mid-1980s. What they accomplished with Bivins’ Vega -- and they were motivated by a very real fear of failure that day in Rochester -- set the stage for them to both become IHRA Pro Mod champs.
Bivins is now 77, lives in Hephzibah, Ga., and owns an automotive shop and recording studio in Newark, N.J. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with ‘Rob’ through much of this story.
The man who owned the car Quain Stott beat that day is John Cotton, better known as “Pee Wee.” A native of Commerce, Ga., Cotton is now 83 and has called Rochester home for decades. The other racers playing a role in this story are Bob Tornow, who drove Cotton’s Corvette, and Larry Don Bullock of Rienzi, Miss., the current owner of the Vega and the man who gave Quain a keepsake unlike any other.
* * * * *
Quain Stott had no idea what he had gotten himself into when he took on the job of upgrading a car for a client he hadn’t met.
Even at age 25, Stott said he was “a pretty prominent racecar builder” in Spartanburg, S.C., when he got a call from a man in New York “talking all this gibberish” about modifying a Vega for a grudge race. There was a catch, though: The updated car had to appear to the naked eye to have not undergone any work.
That detail was crucial because it would prove to be the most important part of the deception that was already in motion. Stott said the caller -- ‘Rob’ -- told him that money was no object, and made it clear that he was to do everything necessary to ensure the car would win … just keep it all hidden from view.
“It had to look like it was built a long time ago. He wanted it to run like a modern car, but he wanted it to look old,” Stott said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ At the time, I didn’t know what this was all about. I finally realized they were wanting to do this because they’re trying to trick people into betting with them. I later figured out -- found out -- that this was an old car that ‘Rob’ raced in the early 70s.”
As Stott understood it, Rob was telling a group of men, including Cotton, how awesome his Vega had been when he drove it more than a decade earlier. The other group was of the opinion that Bivins’ car couldn’t handle a more up-to-date piece in a head-to-head battle. The conversation continued until a bet was made.
“I told him he couldn’t whip me with that old thing,” Cotton said.
There was plenty of grudge racing taking place in New York long before it was called that, and certainly long before a TV show was contrived based on that premise, Bivins said.
“It went from $2,000 to $20,000,” he added. “You don’t show up on that day, you lose $20,000 to the other guy. That’s the way we raced, all the time. ...
“Pee Wee was the man in Rochester. He was whipping everybody from Syracuse, Buffalo -- he was the man. So I showed him a picture of the Vega. He said, ‘You bring that thing back down here’ … you know how that talk goes. ‘Let’s bet, sky’s the limit.’ I said, ‘Alright.’ ”
But knowing he was all in and couldn’t retreat, Rob soon realized he might have bitten off more than he could chew. He had to bring the Vega to the duel looking exactly as it had in the photo he had shown Cotton, but with a major -- and all but invisible -- makeover.
To pull that off would involve complete secrecy, and the fewer people in the loop, the better. The Vega certainly didn’t appear intimidating when it arrived at Quain Stott’s shop in Spartanburg.
“It was gray primer, that’s all it had on it,” Stott said. “It looked like a pile of junk.
“We completely gutted it and started over. All we used was the skin. As we were building it, we were real careful to try to make it still have the look it would’ve had in the 70s. We used 2-by-3 (steel framing). He didn’t want us to use round tubing because they’d have known he changed it, so we used 2x3 like he had back then. I wasn’t allowed to promote that I was building it, so I put it in the back of the shop.”
And that’s where all the upfitting was done. When ‘Rob’ flew to Spartanburg to check on the progress -- and to meet Quain in person for the first time -- it was obvious that the Stott brothers had been very busy with the project.
“Quain and them cut everything outta that car. It was all over in the garbage can,” Bivins said. “That boy was sharp, I mean sharp.”
Another Spartanburg racer, engine specialist Gene Fulton, was also part of the endeavor. He was commissioned to produce a 540 cubic-inch Chevy engine whose horsepower would be boosted by, as Stott put it, “a truckload of nitrous” oxide, and its inclusion was also part of the secretive ‘build.’
“They wanted this car to be updated to where it would be much faster,” Mitch Stott said, “but so nobody would know that it had been changed.”
Once the car was finished by the Stotts -- and with Bivins’ right-hand man, known only as ‘Ram,’ routinely keeping an eye on the progress -- it was time to test what they’d constructed. Again, secrecy was key, and ‘Rob’ and ‘Ram’ insisted that the cloak-and-dagger rules remain strictly in force until seconds before the race. Word about the modifications to the Vega could not get back to New York.
“We took it to Shuffletown Dragway in Charlotte” for testing, Quain said. “We rented the track exclusively to us. Nobody was allowed there. They didn’t even want the track officials to see the numbers the car ran.”
Quain was pleased with the car’s performance, and he figured his and Mitch’s involvement had ended at that point. He could not have been more wrong.
“They asked me would I ‘jockey’ the car. I ain’t knowing what the hell that means,” Quain said. “I said, ‘Do what?’ Rob said, ‘Will you jockey it for us in New York?’ I said, ‘I still don’t know what you mean.’ Finally, I understood that he wanted me to drive it -- like a horse jockey.”
Quain agreed to be the driver for a fee of $400 a day -- “That was good money back then,” he said -- plus expenses and a plane ticket. Ditto for Mitch.
And then it came time to put up or shut up.
* * * * *
With the car having been put through its paces at Shuffletown, returned to New York under wraps, and a deal struck for 25-year-old Quain to drive and 21-year-old Mitch to serve as crew chief, the stage was finally set for the showdown: ‘Rob’ Bivins’ chopped-top, primered Vega vs. Pee Wee Cotton’s late-model Corvette with Bob Tornow at the wheel.
“They brought the Vega up about two weeks before Quain got here,” Cotton said. “I said, ‘Man, get this thing away from here. You can’t whip me with that thing.’ ”
“This guy that worked on Pee Wee’s car looked at it,” Bivins recalls, “and said, ‘Man, we’ve got this guy beat already’ ”-- which is precisely the kind of overconfidence he wanted to instill in the opposition.
There was only one way to find out for sure who had the faster car.
The Stott brothers flew to upstate New York and were picked up at the airport in a limo sent by Bivins. The track -- Empire Motorsports Park near Rochester, N.Y. -- had been rented for the occasion, and the duel took place on “a Tuesday or Wednesday, I don’t remember” Quain said.
The Vega and the ‘Vette were the only racecars at the track, and when the Stotts got a look at the car Quain would be up against, they got nervous.
“Quain and I felt certain … that this was going to be a loss. There was no way this car was going to win the race,” Mitch said. “The Corvette was modern, had a tube chassis, Lenco, where the ol’ Vega was running automatic. The ‘Vette was a killer racecar.”
Several thousand fans were on hand for the quarter-mile throwdown, and while the Stotts had street-raced “for a little bit of money, like $50,” Mitch said, the stakes were exponentially higher this time around.
“The biggest concern you had at home was the cops hiding and busting you,” Mitch said.
“But now you’re surrounded by people your imagination can run wild with. ... You see these movies and stories, if you don’t do what you was hired to do, they cap you. We had no clue in this world as to what was fixing to go down of this magnitude. We’re thinking, ‘This is going to be a $5,000 race.’ ”
That guesstimate missed the mark by about the distance that Spartanburg is from Rochester.
By the time the Stotts had prepped the car -- but not warming the engine per Bivins’ orders -- there were piles of money stacked for all to see. The pressure the Stotts felt grew as the stacks increased.
“Me and Mitch was working on the car, getting ready to run, and I heard one guy (say), ‘‘Man, I’m gonna bet on Pee Wee. He’s got that nice, new Corvette drag car. This ol’ Vega’s been sitting up for 10 years,’ ” Quain said. “This other boy said, ‘Naw, man, I’ve done heard about this Vega. It’s been sitting up alright, it’s been sitting up on a dragstrip down in North Carolina,’ so word had leaked out that we had been testing this car. He said, ‘I’m betting on the Vega.’
“We got done, got ready to do what I thought was going to be a test run, a practice run. Rob said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, there won’t be a practice run. If they see this car run, they won’t bet.’
“I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’
“He said, ‘It’s one run, winner takes all.’ ”
Mitch could see the anxiety mounting when he looked in his older brother’s eyes. They had been told that more than $100,000 had been wagered on the outcome, and Quain was “under extreme pressure” knowing the stakes, Mitch said.
“So here I sit,” Quain said, “knowing over a hundred thousand dollars is bet on a car I’ve taken to Shuffletown and tested. Now they’ve drug it up to New York, and two months later -- and who knows what’s been going on with it in that time -- I’ve got to go out there … looking at all these people that’s betting on that car, expecting me to win and not knowing if they’re going to hang us from the highest tree if we lose!”
Bivins had a hunch he needed to protect his investment, if you will, and made sure nobody tried to intimidate the Stotts by placing bodyguards in their pit area.
“But that was before the race,” Quain said. “I’m thinking, ‘If I lose this race, this same bodyguard’s gonna put me in a hole in the ground in the back 40.’ ”
* * * * *
The primered Vega actually had an edge over the newer, flashier competition. The Vega had Quain Stott behind the steering wheel.
When it finally came time to race -- it was almost dusk, Quain said -- the Stotts pushed their car to the starting line on Bivins’ orders.
“I told Quain, ‘Do not start this car,’ ” Bivins said. “I knew if they started the car, they would know” the car had been modified. “The other guy did his burnout, I told Quain, ‘Start it.’ …
“Man, when Quain shot the nitrous in that thing, everybody there got quiet. That’s when I disappeared.”
Aside from having a talented driver at the wheel, the Stotts had the advantage of having raced on a “pro tree” before: stage the car, one yellow light and then the green. When that happened, Quain was gone before Tornow knew it.
“The Corvette was much faster than the Vega,” Mitch said, “but the boy, I think he was sleepy when the light came on. Quain just welded him on the tree, my God, like two car lengths. It’s like the boy said, ‘Oh, shit, I’m supposed to go now?’ ”
“Man, let me tell you something,” Bivins said, “Quain left him sitting there, good God almighty.”
But that didn’t necessarily mean the race had been decided, not with a quarter-mile for Tornow to try to recover from his mistake.
“I knew that starting-line advantage had just taken place,” Mitch said, “but I also knew that Corvette was a bad-fast son of a gun. He was coming up on Quain fast and heavy, and you start to stretch that to a quarter of a mile, it’s hard to tell exactly who’s ahead.
“When the win light came on, first you’ve got disbelief, second you’ve got relief, and third you have jubilation.”
But it wasn’t as close as it seemed from a distance, Quain said: “We wore his butt out, I mean bad. Just slaughtered him. … I was never so happy and relieved in my life.”
The crowd went berserk when the win light came on in Quain’s lane. Bivins said there were so many people in his pit area when Stott returned that “I couldn’t even get to the damn car. People were all over that Vega like they were giving away free money and food to eat.”
“They toted me around on their shoulders like I’d won some big Olympic thing,” Quain said.
The secret project built in South Carolina was a hit with the fans that day in New York. Even Cotton, who suffered a heavy financial blow -- “I had a guy tell me Pee Wee said it took him three years to pay that bill off,” Bivins said -- was impressed by what he’d seen in the car’s performance and the driver’s, too.
“I done whupped everybody from Canada to New York,” Cotton said, “and Quain came along and whupped me. I fell in love with him even though he whupped me.”
* * * * *
Even in the time before the internet existed, hardcore racing fans got wind of what had occurred in Rochester, where Bivins said more than $300,000 was bet. That one race generated more opportunities for him and the Stotts, from New York down to Florida.
Tracks in Orangeburg and Aiken, S.C., hosted similar grudge races involving the Vega. West Palm Beach, Fla., a track in Tennessee … wherever someone was willing to take on Stott and put up enough money to entice Bivins, that’s where they’d show up.
“The format never changed,” Quain said. “It was always one run for all the money.
“But I told them after the first race that I didn’t ever want to know how much money was on the line again.”
Stott, who said the car usually ran the quarter-mile in 7.5 seconds or quicker, lost at least twice that he can remember, once to former NHRA Pro Stock driver Joe Lepone Jr. with Pat Musi tuning the car, and another time to Jim Diamond when a wire controlling part of the nitrous system fell off.
Quain and Bivins raced “a couple of years,” the former said, and shortly after that stint the Stotts joined the Pro Modified bandwagon. Mitch won the IHRA championship in 2003, and Quain followed suit with an IHRA crown in ’06.
In ’03, Mitch became the first driver of a ‘doorslammer’ to break into the five-second zone. He said that blast heard ’round the world and the Vega’s victory in Rochester top everything else they’ve accomplished.
“The championship is something that you win this year and somebody else wins it next year, or maybe you do. But the point is, you’re only as good as your last race,” Mitch said. “We won that race (in Rochester) forever. … That win with that Vega on that day was the equivalent of that five-second pass because the first one to do it was the last one to do it.
“It had such a profound effect on our careers. That car today, to go back and have ownership of that car today, you would want to protect in a shrine because of what it provided for us -- or what it allowed us to provide for ourselves, whichever way you want to look at that. It was the literal building blocks for what we accomplished. There’s no other single aspect in my or Quain’s racing career that was as influential as that was.”
The details about how the Vega’s ownership changed hands over the years are a bit murky. But what is known is that it belongs to Mississippi’s Larry Don Bullock, and not until he contacted Quain Stott on Facebook last year did the latter have a piece of the past to literally hold in his hands again.
Bullock was in the market for a new drag-racing car to replace the Chevy S-10 pickup he had crashed. He found the Vega for sale in Indiana, and it fit the bill.
“I wanted a lightweight, big-tire car that was easy to work on,” Bullock said. “I got the car, and the owner said it was a Quain Stott-built vehicle -- so I know it’s good, but didn’t know any other history.”
“After I had it running, I decided to get with Quain about the history of the car, and that’s when he told me the full story.”
“He called and said, ‘I understand you used to build drag cars,’ ” Stott said. “I said, ‘Well, I still do, sorta.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve got a car that somebody said was really famous in the ’80s that you built and drove.’ I said, ‘Man, I built 70-something cars back then, I have no clue. Does it have my serial plate on it?’ I can’t remember whether he said yes or no, but he said, ‘It’s a chopped-top Vega.’ I said, ‘Well, I didn’t build but one of them.’
“He sent me pictures of it and I said, ‘Yep, that’s it,’ and very little had been changed on it. I told him, ‘Man, that car won over a million dollars -- well over a million dollars -- back in the day.’ … I told that guy, ‘I’d love to have something off that car.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m gonna put a new steering wheel in it.’ ”
Stott offered to buy the steering wheel, but Bullock insisted he accept it as a gift and shipped it to North Carolina.
Other than its distinctive chopped-top bodyline, the Vega looks nothing like it did when Stott drove it. Bullock said the car was painted “about 10 colors” when he purchased it, and that he plans to repaint it black and red. He said he races the car in index, bracket and big-tire heads-up competition at his tracks in his area.
Quain Stott wishes the car could compete at a higher level than it does now.
“That’s like a Pro Stocker being turned into a bracket car, it just makes me sick to hear that happens to them,” he said. The car was built to race ‘first to the finish line wins’ with no penalty for going too fast. That’s what I call racing ’cause you look up the word ‘racing’ in the dictionary, it says ‘first one to the finish line wins,’ it don’t say nothing about going too fast.
“A car with that kind of pedigree, you’d rather see it put into a museum or put up somewhere.”
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