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Don Fezell's Grocery Getter Collection

For Pennsylvania enthusiast Don Fezell, pursuing vintage drag cars had been a winning strategy

By Geoff Stunkard, Photography by Geoff Stunkard, Joel Stunkard

To win it all is the dream of a lot of people, but folks who have been around awhile will tell you any lasting victory is usually the result of hard work, focus, and willingness to go the distance. In an era when most car collectors seem to be blue-jean millionaires who got lucky on an IPO or had deep family pockets, to see what someone like Don Fezell has accomplished is refreshing. The semi-retired owner of a grocery-store chain that he personally created after working his way up from the ranks of stockboy and cashier, Don and his wife, Mary Lee, parlayed his interest in the classic drag cars he once raced against into one of the nation's most impressive race-car collections.

Indeed, this was actually Don's passion since high school. He was a founding member of the Rev-Masters car club in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a group formed in the parking lot of the Loblaw's grocery market he was managing by age 18 back in 1956. Having already owned a couple of hot, unblown gas-class machines, by 1966 Don wanted a new L79 Nova and bought one that summer, a nasty four-speed 327/350hp stocker. Unfortunately, he was immediately up against other A/S cars in NHRA Division 1 campaigned that year by men like Bill Jenkins and Jere Stahl (the latter a '66 Hemi Belvedere). Undaunted, he and his brother wedged an L88 into the little deuce that winter to move it into A/Modified Production. It was runner-up for class honors at both Englishtown and Indy in 1968.

Like a lot of young men, Don would race several different machines during those fun days, but as he and Mary Lee's family took more time, cars fell by the wayside. His grocery business grew, he got through the hard times of '70s western Pennsylvania, and Don got the bug back when he decided to restore a '57 Chevy as a hobby in 1977. One thing about Don is that he is hands-on; almost every car in his collection has been restored in-house at the shop he maintains near DuBois, Pennsylvania, and the shoebox led to other purchases. But he was far from a "Bow Tie only" guy; what he remembered most from his past was the Super Stock and Factory Experimental cars and their all-star pilots, especially from this region of the nation. As he became more involved with the growing muscle-car boom of the '80s, Don took advantage of his purchasing power to own some of these same one-off cars.

These included lightweight specials from all of the big manufacturing participants—Chevy, Pontiac, Ford, Dodge, Mercury, and Plymouth—and, most importantly, all with authentic pedigrees. Today, the collection contains four Z11 427/425hp Chevy Impalas, including the first one built. A few years ago, even his '66 Nova turned up, and Don bought it back. It has since been restored to its L88 A/MP configuration. The race cars are augmented by a variety of low-mileage survivors and restorations, including fuelie Corvettes, shoebox Chevys, Chevelles, Novas, and early 409 iron, including an authentic four-door '62. No Camaros? Don admits he has not found the right one just yet. Also among the GM cars is a super-rare lightweight 421 Pontiac Catalina.

Mopar is ably represented, too. In addition to a run of wedge, Max Wedge, and Hemi street cars from '62–'72, there are race cars, including the aluminum-nosed '64 Bud Faubel "Honker" Dodge. Faubel was a Chambersburg car salesman, who, as an Air Force fighter pilot, had flown sorties—with success—over both Korea and Vietnam. Don also found and restored Ed Miller's '65 Plymouth A990 Hemi car. This two-year-old Super Stock car took home a $10,000 Hurst Industries check after besting every other big name door-slammer racer in the country at the '67 NHRA World Finals, much to the chagrin of the NHRA and Detroit, which had really expected a new '67 model to win. In addition to a real '68 Hemi Dart and others, a '69 Super Bee with a '70s-era paint scheme resides off to the side. It's powered by a Max Wedge–headed 440, and this was Don's last active car before having to turn his full attention to the supermarket business.

Ford is not left out. That brand now demands a lot of Don's attention; since returning to active NHRA competition, he owns the AA/S record in his '09 Daddy Warbucks Cobra Jet Mustang, which he races several times a year. For vintage Blue Oval iron, there is a real 427 AFX Comet and a '64 T-bolt. Like the Z11s, he couldn't stop with just one, and there are four proven '681⁄2 Cobra Jet Mustangs, as well—Phil Bonner's and Al Joniec's among them. He also owns a 192-mile SCJ429 fastback drag survivor from 1971 and low-mileage side-oilers, Bosses, and SCJ models.

OK, so what? Even if he is a race-car guy, this stuff is just gathering dust in his little personal museum, right? While the collection is private and viewed only by appointment, Don and Mary Lee have displayed the cars regularly, and the cars even get an occasional pass down the track. Everything is kept mechanically correct, including big compression ratios and race tune-ups. The biggest nostalgia event on the East Coast is the York US30 Reunion, hosted by former Division 1 Director Darwin Doll at the old York County Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania. Don will usually have a few cars on display there, but on Sunday before dawn, virtually the whole show moves north to the little Beaver Springs Dragway for "Beaver Bob" McCardle's one-day riot of racing and reminiscing at the Nostalgia Nationals. At this event, over the last decade, Mr. Faubel has pointed that '64 resto down the track on occasion, and Don has pushed the pedal of the original-engine Strickler/Jenkins Z11 to the floor, while several other impossibly rare cars have also had a chance to trip the lights fantastic one last time

They say money can't buy happiness, and Don would probably agree. Mary Lee and Don have dealt with the challenges of life, including a heart health problem some years ago. For Don, owning the cars are about preserving the past, of a time in door-slammer racing that's worthy of remembering in his own words.

By Geoff Stunkard
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