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.
1963 Chevy Impala 427 Z11: 2 Miles
Dave Strickler/Bill Jenkins "Old Reliable"
"It's now been voted twice the number-one vintage factory race car," Don says. "It won 99 percent of its races in 1963–'64. It is one of the 57 made and was the first one off the assembly line. This car has only had four owners. Ammon R. Smith sold it in 1964 to a guy named Lou Czern in New Jersey, who raced it from 1965–'67. He kept it until 1982, and then Bill Jenkins bought it back from him. Jenkins exhibition-raced it a little bit, kept it for about four years, until Floyd Garrett bought it from him. Mary Lee and I first saw it when Floyd had it in his first museum in Florida. Floyd sold it to a stockbroker in New York City in the late '80s. In 1991, when the stock market went south, we had been talking to him. He had 40-some cars and lived in this huge mansion he had inherited from his parents. He had sold all but two of them; this car and an automatic '64 T-bolt. He told me if I would buy both cars, I could have them." Don continues, "So, I did. I sold the T-bolt a couple months later, and we bored the Z11 out 0.030 and rebuilt the engine with rings and bearings. Jenkins had done the paint, but it was actually very original. His big original decals were still on it. All Czern had done was replace the Smith name for his, and the car's interior has never been out of it. We clearcoated everything we could to preserve it. We did repaint the right front fender; Dave had hit a pole with it in the pits at Indy in 1963 and had simply put Bondo in it. Randy Delisio pulled it and got it straightened out. The original air breather is still on it. The original motor as raced, the driveline, and Jenkins' early long-ladder suspension was still on it. Jenkins had a special retard switch in the dash. This pulled the vacuum out of the distributor in high gear. That's still there, too.
"This is frankly the best car in my collection, not just moneywise but in terms of sentimental value. It never fails to start or to run. We have run 11.1 times with it, using the 40-year-old tires. It's too much fun to drive."
1966 A/MP L88 Chevy Nova: 809 miles
"I bought that car new in 1966, a 350hp 327, and set it up as an A/Stocker. I ran into Jenkins on two occasions, and he beat me by a couple of car lengths each time. That wasn't going to work, so the next winter, we decided to do Modified Production racing. My brother worked at Sahli Motors, which was the car's sponsor, so Ed Sahli ordered a new L88 crate motor, and we put the 327 into my brother's street Corvette. We got the 427 engine in and ran A/MP. It ran really well, down into the 10s, with 7-inch tires. It was a handful, honestly," Don says.
"I sold it in 1970 and went Super Stock racing in an SS/GA Dodge Super Bee that I still own. The Nova went through four owners here in Pennsylvania, and the fourth owner had blown the motor and had begun to cut the car up to run as an Altered. He never raced it; a friend of mine in Pittsburgh found it and bought the front fenders, so I could make sure it was mine. I still had all of the paperwork here, the window sticker, so we knew that car was it. It still had the Aztec Bronze paint, the original dash, the stickers from the early meets I went to. A lot of the factory parts were with it.
"That was about five years ago. We restored it with an L88, and I've gone partway down the track with it. I did put 9-inch tires under it; it would probably run low 10s now, but I'm not chancing it. It's a beast—really cool to have that car back."
1961 409 Super Sport Impala: 57,000 miles
"Chevrolet made 142 cars with the 409 in 1961. This was the single-four-barrel, 360hp version of the engine, and it was also the first year of the Super Sport," Don says. "I've heard a few engines ended up in four-doors and wagons that year but have never seen one. Most were two-doors. Jenkins and Strickler had a 409 Biscayne, and Nicholson had a 409 hardtop that year. I found this car back in the early '80s through an ad in Hemmings. It was in Paducah, Kentucky, and two brothers owned it. It had always been a race car—a little beat up but not rusty. The original motor was still in it, and even the carpet is original. The '61 SS cars didn't have bucket seats or seatbelts; there was a bench seat with a grab bar for the passenger to hold onto! The SS spinner hubcaps and a couple of emblems were the only things that told you it was special that year. This car is both rare and complete. We restored it and painted it in my garage, years ago."
1964 "The Honker" Hemi Dodge: 5 miles
"Bud Faubel was a pretty famous racer back in the day, and this '64 ‘Honker' Dodge was the first race Hemi sold to the general public. The Ramchargers got the mule car, and this one was the first off the assembly line. Faubel picked it up in Detroit, and actually drove it all the way back to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Bud raced it with an engine Jenkins built and did well with it. Later, it was sold to a New York buyer and then ended up out West. It was found in a shed in Arizona with all of the original paint still on it. A guy in Phoenix who was building a car museum bought it, and Steve Banker restored it for him. Well, when the owner decided to dissolve that collection, Banker called me, and that was how I ended up buying it. Because of Bud, I just had to bring it back here to Pennsylvania. We finished the motor and did some of the little details, but it was a very complete car."
Don continues, "Bud loves to drive it. If we are someplace where he is, he gets in it and goes. It'll go high 11s, if you don't spin the tires. That particular race Hemi always sounds great; it's a wonderful car and has a great history."
1962 "Tonto II" SD421 Pontiac Catalina: 13,100 miles
"That '62 Pontiac was a car that both Randy Delisio and I looked for years to find. These Pontiacs are hard to find, because they were not packages like the Z11. You could order whatever special stuff you wanted from the dealership, so it was a mix-and-match deal for them. There were about 140-plus Super Dutys built that year, and some of them were SD389, not 421s, and not many got all the lightweight stuff. This 421 Catalina has every piece of aluminum that was offered—the exhaust manifolds, the bumper and the bumper braces, the sheetmetal, the differential center section. All of it," says Don."This car was originally raced by a dealer in Wyoming, who started racing Pontiacs in 1961. It is called Tonto II because it was their second car and his crew chief was a Native American whose name actually was Tonto. The dealership raced until about 1966. This car was finally discovered sitting behind a service station in Wyoming. The buyer was from Michigan, but he decided he really could not afford to do the car right, so Randy basically brokered it for him to me, and then Randy did the restoration. It was complete but still needed to be redone, and Delisio is great with the aluminum."
"As a side note, that aluminum is hard to restore. It gets very brittle, and you cannot grind or hammer on it much. In fact, if I have one of my aluminum cars out in the sun at a show, you can look at it after a couple of hours, and the fenders will begin to look wavy. Pull into the shade and in a couple of hours it'll straighten back up. The aluminum from back then is so thick that it just absorbs the heat."
1969 Dodge Hemi Super Bee: 21,000 miles
"That Hemi Bee was a one-owner car; a friend of mine up near Niagara Falls located that car in Buffalo, where the owner had left it out in his backyard since the '70s. The wheels and tires were down in 3 to 4 inches of dirt; it's a very low-mileage Hemi car, at 21,000 miles, and it was all there. The owner had run out of money for racing it, and he simply parked it when the gas prices spiked back then and never moved it again," Don says. "It is one of the few red-on-red Hemi Mopars with a white top and white stripe. The paperwork was all there, and we found the build sheet when we took it apart. This was a wonderful car to restore; the sheetmetal was still solid, mostly surface rust with some pitting in the lower front quarters from leaves piling in there. The driveshaft still had the three tape stripes showing. I think it is probably the prettiest car in the garage."
1964 McCoy Motors 427 A/FX Mercury Comet Caliente: 12,126 miles
"They only made 22 of those cars. There were about 100 Ford Thunderbolts but just 22 of these Calientes, all built on two days and all modified for Mercury by Bill Stroppe in California. These cars were hardtops with bucket seats, so the Comets were a little heavier and got a fiberglass decklid that the T-bolt didn't, but mechanically they are almost identical. Glass hood, doors, inner fenders, bumpers—that shaved about 300 pounds off the car," Don says. "Moyer Motors campaigned it originally, and I met up with the original driver when we displayed it at York a couple of years ago. It is special to me that it is from Pennsylvania, because when we checked about a year ago, there are only eight of these Comets known to still exist."
Don continues, "This was a car Randy Delisio actually restored for himself. This thing has a great running 427 in it, the original motor, and it will fly down into the low 11s on the 9-inch tires we've got under it. I only own it because Randy had another car he wanted to do, and I got the chance to buy it for that reason. It's a lot of fun."
1967 R-code 427 Eight-Barrel Fairlane: 9,900 miles
"That car is from here in Dubois, always has been, so it is pretty special. Cletus Heller, who ran a spring works here in Dubois, always had new cars, and he bought this one for his son, Greg, as a graduation present in 1967. Greg drove it around a little bit, raced it at Keystone Raceway a couple of times, put headers and wheels on it, and then Cletus put it away in the basement of a building here in town, about four blocks from my garage. For years, people tried to buy the cars; there was a '55 T-bird, which I still have, and a '60 T-bird that I sold, as well as others. One day, Greg called me and told me he needed to sell his Fairlane. That opened the door to buy all of the cars, but the Fairlane was first.
"He kept all the parts he had taken off, such as wheels, tires, manifolds, and had even bought the scooped Super Stock hood that was available that year. I took this car to Randy, and we pulled the motor out of it and freshened it. Other than that and reinstalling the old parts, including the steel hood, that car has never been apart. It is probably the best original R-code 427 Fairlane in the country."
1968-1⁄2 Phil Bonner "Daddy Warbucks" 428 CJ Cobra Jet Mustang: 3,077 miles
"The Daddy Warbucks was given to Phil Bonner by Ford. Back then, those guys all raced for Ford. He paid a dollar for it and raced it as a Super Stock in the early months of 1968, then made an Ultra Stock match-race car out of it and installed a 'cammer in it mid-year. Back in those days, guys were match racing during the week, so he had a good reason to change it. In 1969, it was sold and ended up in Rochester, New York. The 'cammer was still in it, and that owner ran it until 1973, when he blew the motor up. Then, he sold it to another owner in New York, who simply parked it in the back of his garage for 20-some years. In the late '90s, Randy Delisio found it, and I bought it and took it right to Randy's shop to get it redone. It still had the SOHC mounts, but the VIN was in it, and Randy spent a year and a half restoring it. Those cars were all white, and we painted it with Mack Truck Blue like Bonner had done, putting it right over the white paint. Phil is very proud of the resto. He ran a 7-second eighth-mile with it at a match race against Al Joniec in his old Cobra Jet, which I also own."
1971 SJC429 Mustang SS/E drag car: 192 miles
"The dealer raced the car and won SS/E class at Indy in 1971, but he had disbanded the race team at the end of the season, since a couple of guys were stealing from him," Don says. "They simply put the car away in a building near Washington, D.C. Well, my son and his grandson were working in the same computer department in D.C. and were talking about cars, and that was how I heard about it. The grandson had been told it would be his, but he wasn't a racer, and when he knew I was going to keep it as it was, he sold it to me. This car still has the original gold-leaf race paint, original interior, and original driveline. It's a real surviving example of that era's Super Stockers."