Just into his 60s when some others are winding down, Bob Bissell told his wife he wanted to spend a pile of money on a racing car, don a flame retardant suit and go hell bent for leather against people 40 years his junior.
‘‘Go for it!’,” said wife Pat.
‘That was the right decision,’ she says, ‘because he, and we, have never been happier.’
Now the Local 1460 millwright-machinist – at 69, he still works a few hundred hours a year to keep his credentials up – has revived his adolescent interest in stock car racing and become everybody’s favourite ‘geezer’ in the Legend Cars of Alberta racing circuit.
Participants in the league race purpose-built 5/8 scale models of classic pre-World War II cars powered by 1250cc motorcycle engines connected to stick-shift transmissions. They hit speeds of 130 km/hr.
‘Yep…I’m definitely the old guy in every race. Sometimes I race against teens with little experience, and sometimes I’m racing people who are world-class drivers destined for NASCAR.’
‘And now that I have some experience, my skills are improving to the point where I’m winning the occasional trophy.’
In the last couple of years, Bob has won a couple of Trophy Dashes – four-car, four-lap races – and this year he placed fourth in the Masters age class on points he accumulated in five races. If he’d been able to attend all eight meets in the year, his placement would definitely have been higher.
The whole process of racing seems perfectly suited to a union millwright, starting with safety awareness.
‘We wear flameproof suits, our cars are rigorously checked before every race, even our car seats wrap around us for greater protection.’
Bob enjoys the mechanical aspect of racing as well. Now that the first couple of season have fine-tuned his driving ability, he’s rebuilding his car from the frame (which now hangs from his garage ceiling) on up.
‘There’s $3700 worth of rebuilt motor on its way, I’m getting a new body, and I’ve been all over the frame, the brakes and suspension making sure everything’s just perfect.’
Classic racing rules are set up so there are only two real factors that determine winners and also-rans. Engines are sealed so they can’t be ‘super-tuned’, which removes that as a factor in the outcome.
Driving skill, of course, is paramount, and that’s a factor that Bob has certainly improved upon in his short time behind good ‘ol number 52’s wheel. He’s been getting lots of pointers from more experienced drivers who see that he’s serious about racing.
The other key factor is the myriad of adjustments to the ‘tuning’ of the replica ’34 Ford Coupe before each race.
‘They’re really sensitive to factors like temperature, humidity, and even dust in the air. Changes in factors like those demand adjustments in suspension, tire pressure, castor or camber, etc.
‘One day a farmer was combining nearby, and bits of chaff were blowing onto the track. It was awful, because even when we made adjustments to try to compensate, it was still like roaring around on a carpet of tiny ball bearings.’
While some wealthy people take part in the series, it’s far from what you’d call a ‘rich man’s sport’. Bob paid under $10,000 for his car, and a season costs him roughly $5,000 in expenses. He hauls the car in a ‘toy hauler’ RV trailer to minimize accommodation costs, and he’s his own pit crew. His wife, daughter and 14-year-old grandson are his faithful ‘groupies’.
‘So far, I’m unsponsored, so if anyone out there wants to sponsor me, please give me a call,’ he says with a grin.
That grin is a near-constant these days, as racing and part-time millwrighting work are just part of how his life has come together in recent years.
About the 60-year mark, he discovered he had serious sleep apnea – he was actually falling asleep several times a day at work. Then he had a cancer scare, and that was followed by a diabetes diagnosis.
Bob's controlling his diabetes beautifully with exercise and a self-regulated diet, and he sleeps with help from a machine which makes sure his blood is oxygenated.
“I really pulled my life together when all that happened,’ he says.
‘Never felt better.
‘Stronger than ever.
‘Never been happier, that’s for sure!’
Not bad for an old geezer, huh?