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Early Influences

By: Tom Olsen

In the articles I write for this magazine, the subject of “what got you started in the car hobby” invariably comes up. Commonly, it’s a father’s, or a grandfather’s influence. Sometimes a brother, sister, or uncle is mentioned. Whenever I’m involved in one of these stories, I can’t help but analyze how I got involved in the hobby. Looking back on it, I have to give credit to a couple young fellows that lived in the upstairs duplex.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t have a lot of involvement with my dad or that he wasn’t a strong influence. Quite the contrary. I credit him with many things in my life, but hot cars, drag racing, and all that goes along with it was not anything he particularly wanted his son involved in. I know that he enjoyed some forms of racing, as he used to take me to the old Soo Speedway and Husets Speedway back in the 1950s. I think he was just a practical enough man to feel that little Tommy Olsen had better places to spend his money than on broken down cars. Looking back on it, he probably was right but, as father and son stories go, I managed to get hooked on the hobby anyway.

My folks’ home was a duplex when they bought it, and for a few years, a Mrs. Hall lived upstairs with her two sons, Randy and Kenny. Some of you “seasoned” readers of the magazine, and lifelong Sioux Falls residents may have known Randy or Kenny. Kenny was a year older than me, and Randy was a few years older yet. When the Halls moved into the duplex, sometime around 1959, I recall there were cool cars and motorcycles parked out front from day one.

Kenny and I weren’t old enough to drive yet, so we were occupied with go-karts powered by old washing machine or lawn mower motors initially. This was the early start of it all, as I knew nothing of these things. But Kenny let me work with him on building a couple of these contraptions. Then, we’d careen down the sidewalk on these homemade death traps. (It’s a wonder we were never seriously injured!)

My first recollection of their cars was a turquoise blue and white ’57 Chevy. I remember Helen (Mrs. Hall) or Kenny explaining that it was the “power Pack” 283 with a 3-speed transmission. I was coached on the fact that the power pack engine had better heads, a 4-barrel carb, and dual exhaust. All news to me, but it was the start of an interest in those facts. Within a few days, Randy was in front of the house installing a floor shifter and some spun aluminum “cone discs” (hubcaps), which were popular at the time. Again, I recall Helen explaining that the floor shifter helped a person “speed shift,” for racing purposes. Looking back on it, it’s apparent that Helen was very well versed on these things for a mother. But with her two sons around, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

After some period of time, a beautiful black 1957 Olds “J2” replaced the 57 Chevy. The Olds was a 2-door hardtop, and the J2 package included 3-two barrel carbs, and a 300hp, 371 ci engine. A full length set of “lakes pipes” and some spinner hub caps appeared on the Olds in the coming weeks. Following this was a white 1960 Pontiac Catalina with a tri-power 389 and a 4-speed transmission. This was a real beauty with a blue interior, chrome wheels, and all the current performance goodies. It’s my understanding that this car eventually made its way to southern California where, I’m sure, it was right at home.

I think it was in 1962 when Kenny and I went to a car show at the old Sioux Falls Coliseum. The coliseum was full of customs, hot rods and drag cars; I was enthralled with all of them and I still have photos from that day. Through the Halls, their buddies, and some of my other friends, I now was seriously hooked on cars.

Within another year or so, Kenny bought a black ’62 Chevy Impala with the 409hp, 409ci engine and a 4-speed. The Halls had moved into a home several blocks away by this time, but I was over there regularly. Kenny bought the 409 to do some racing, and he was constantly tuning on it, then going out on the road to run it through the gears. Whenever possible I would be with him on trips to the old “Corbett’s Place” speed shop or while he was wrenching on the car in his garage.

By this time, I was beginning to do some driving, but my dad was very careful to see that I didn’t have anything with any performance potential. I’m sure that watching the procession of hot cars that the Halls had probably was a factor here. My first car was a 1953 Plymouth, 6 cylinder. (Ugh!) This didn’t stay too long, though, as my grades plummeted and my dad found the car to be at fault. I’m sure he was right. Some months later, I was really desperate for anything with four wheels and a motor and I talked my dad out of a 1958 Triumph Herald that he had taken in trade on a boat at the family business. This car actually served me pretty well until an unfortunate crash with a sheep on a dark stretch of highway late one night. But, that’s a story for another time…

By 1964, one of my closest friends was Randy Williams. Now THERE was an automotive influence! Randy was a hard-core Chevrolet guy. His dad operated a service station, and the Chevy Racing Team guys all did business there. Randy and my other close friends and I talked Chevrolets almost non-stop in those days. (According to my wife, that hasn’t changed.) Randy schooled me in all things Chevrolet and performance, and my first trip to a dragstrip was with Randy. He was the total influence for the purchase of my next car, a 1956 Chevy 2-door station wagon. Once I bought my wagon and started to build it into something special, several of the Chevy Racing Team guys helped me out with guidance and tuning that proved invaluable. From that time on, a variety of individuals with more experience than me continued to influence my car guy persona.

I count myself as fortunate to grow up in a time of some of the greatest classic cars ever built, and with several mentors that nurtured my car interests along the way. Who was instrumental in beginning your car hobby? Do they realize they were a part of it? Sadly, I lost several of my early influences before thanking them for the role they played, and I regret that.


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