It's Midnight Mayhem night at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway dragstrip, and we're on scene concluding the first day of Car Craft's Anti-Tour. It's sneaking up on midnight when a nondescript Chevelle pulls into the staging lanes. It rumbles with that telltale tenor that most knowledgeable car crafters instantly recognize as the signature of displacement with a little bit of compression and cam timing. Few notice the Chevelle amid all the hot street cars, especially with the buzz in the pits surrounding a bright-orange Camaro from Utah-the driver claims it's an original ZL1 Camaro and the car's making laps in the low 12s. While everyone's rubbernecking the Camaro, the Chevelle idles right through staging and does a quick burnout. When the Tree comes down, the black A-body leaves straight with no drama, pulling down an impressive high-10-second blast at well over 120 mph. The driver pulls into the pits, kills the ignition, and saunters over toward a group of cars. Few have noticed until we nonchalantly ask about the Chevelle.
"That a Rat motor?"
"Yeah, it's a 540." OK, you just got our attention.
"What's it run?"
"It's kinda off tonight, probably the heat. It only ran a 10.80-something. Its best is a 10.69 at 125 mph."
All of a sudden the conversation has been neatly hijacked by the unassuming owner of this low-key Chevelle. This story could be about how first impressions are not always accurate. Or perhaps it could be about how the desert seems to attract unique car crafters and fast cars like bugs to a bright-yellow staging bulb. Rowdy McDaniel is the Chevelle's owner, with long hair and the look of a guy who's been there and heard all the stories already. Truth is, he's full of his own stories, which come at you all at once in submachine-gun-like fashion. At first they sound almost too fantastic, but there's something about him that makes you want to believe. It's at that moment when you realize this guy's a hustler, but in a good way. Besides, he's really not selling anything. This self-employed remote-location manager for commercials, television, and movies is quick to tell you he's owned his Chevelle or, as we learned, the essence of his car, for 29 years. He barely looks older than his machine and we're loading up for that question. But he's already three steps ahead, pointing out that he bought this Chevelle for the hefty sum of $1,250 when he was only 14. That's when the stories start flying. He started driving the car right away, not bothering with such trivial requirements as a driver's license. Somehow he survived the street races and Wild West adventures. The car was not nearly as lucky: At just inside three decades, the Chevelle's been wrapped around a telephone pole, stolen, and reincarnated from the ground up three times. The last time, Rowdy started with two bodies and two frames in late December and finished the build on March 1. Most importantly, he points out proudly, it's been a daily driver for all those years. The car's history sounds as if it would read like a movie script, and we can't help thinking that the Chevelle would be perfect for a remake of Two-Lane Blacktop. It wouldn't even need James Taylor-Rowdy fits the part of the long-haired driver perfectly. All it would need is a suitable desert rat to play Dennis Wilson's part as the mechanic.
Rowdy says this car has always been a driver. He's done the Las-Vegas-to-Phoenix run about 10 times, roughly a 600-mile jaunt, when he was going to school in Phoenix at UTI. He estimates that the car has seen an average of 10,000 miles a year for most of those 29 years. "Except for last year-it was under construction so I only got to put about 5,000 miles on it." Gas mileage? If you have to ask, Rowdy says, you've missed the whole point. Clearly he's not concerned with trivial matters like ecology or world petroleum reserves. Here's a guy who's just interested in equal helpings of horsepower and fun. Everything else is secondary.
One last story should wrap this all up. Since Rowdy lives in a big convention town, the SEMA show is a huge annual affair. One year he was leaving the show at the end of the day when he noticed long lines of people waiting for a taxi. He offered to take three guys, loaded down with their booty of catalogs and shop-wall posters (you know the kind, signed in Sharpie black ink with a mildly suggestive greeting) back to their crosstown hotel in his black Rat-turned-taxi. "I had so much fun," Rowdy says, "I made three or four trips runnin' guys all over town." It only takes about five minutes with Rowdy to understand that he just enjoys the hell out of this car, and that's as it should be.