PUERTO RICAN PETE

This might get a little long, but stories are sometimes all we have.

Was the early ‘70s when I first met Puerto Rican Pete (and I say that with the utmost respect for the man. However, now I can’t recall his last name-some friend I am huh? Maybe we never even knew his last name though.). Anyway, he was building a 351 Cleveland engine for his Mustang, a project which was taking way longer than it should. Pete also introduced me to his friend Gilbert Alvarez who I later partnered up with to race the Puerto Rican Dream Super Gas Vega. Both of them hailed from the Bronx and were somehow connected to the shop in Teaneck, NJ, we all hung out at, U.S. Performance.

The year was 1975 and Ron Leek from Byron Dragway in Illinois was putting on what I remember as his second big bracket event, the U.S. Bracketnationals over Labor Day weekend. Myself along with several of our other Island Dragway (NJ) friends; Dave and Lori Schapiro, Billy and Joanie Nees, Ken Gardner and his girlfriend Mary, Charlie and Peg Schmidt, Larry Monjack, in addition to Pete along with Gilbert; all made plans to travel out together to the race.

Pete’s car had yet to even be started if I remember correctly, but he was all-in for the event and worked diligently to finish the project. He eventually got the engine done, but somehow, Ford never offered a 351 engine in a 1968 Mustang, all of which became a problem when it came time for headers. Pete lined up a header company in Massachusetts to build him a custom set which meant bringing the car there. Gorgeous set of headers they built with one exception: You couldn’t fit a starter on the engine. Minor issue, right?

Pete felt he could simply put some “mild” dents in the pipe to clear the starter. Anyone who has ever attempted to put some “minor” dents in a header tube might know where this is going. Depending on where you put a “dent” in a tube can have an adverse effect on what the end of the tube does. What it did was where all four header tubes should come together to meet the collector, now all four were pointed in slightly different directions which meant there was no way the collector was going to go on easily. Somehow, Pete got that all figured out and off he went to meet up at U.S. Performance.

I had also just purchased my first open trailer and felt like Don Prudhomme, while Pete was still flat-towing the Mustang. For the trip west, Gilbert “borrowed” an enclosed U-Haul truck. I mention this only because I’m sure the Statute of Limitations has expired, not to mention that Gilbert has long since passed away and I really don’t know where Pete is at this moment. Anyway, the U-Haul truck had one loading ramp designed so that it hooked to the body in the center of the back roll-up door. Gilbert also “borrowed” another loading ramp to which he and Pete notched holes in the back of the truck to mount both ramps to drive the car up.

With me at home loading my car, I get a phone call from the pair who are at U.S. Performance saying one of the ramps slid out and the leaf spring traction bars had poked another hole in the truck body and the car was stuck. I rushed over to help the boys out but by the time I got there, they had unwedged the car from the body and now had the car in the trailer. Bear in mind also that there was no way to tie the car down so it was simply, stick it in gear and shut the back door. And off we went.

Somewhere in Indiana, we got separated from one another and by the time I got to the Illinois Turnpike, the U-Haul truck was parked on the side of the road by the toll booths. I pulled over and there sat Gilbert on the passenger’s side of the truck with Pete berating him about something. Come to find out, Gilbert was wearing bib overalls on the trip. At the last rest area, he had gone into the bathroom and proceeded to unbutton the overalls. With all his money in the top pocket of the overall, I guess you can imagine what happened.

“Can we go back to that rest area,” he asks?

“That was two hours ago. That money is long gone by now.”

And on we went.

We had all decided to stay at a campground near the track, Lake Louise. It looked good in the pictures, but then they all do. Bear in mind this was also at a time where you couldn’t leave your race car at the track, which meant taking it back and forth every day. Day 1 and Pete’s Mustang loses oil pressure. It’s then decided to put his car on my open trailer and stick my car inside the U-Haul. This would allow us to take the oil pan off with the car on the trailer in order to see what the problem was that night back at the campground.

Because my Chevelle was lower than the Mustang, it required us to put the front end of the truck up on a hill in order load my car. The only hill was some terrain right on the edge of the track, which meant having to load it quickly between cars using the track. I’ll never forget Byron’s Ron Leek yelling, yes yelling in his all too familiar deep gravelly voice, “Get that truck off my track now!” Leek also had a penchant for remembering names. Only years ago when I attended the Class Nationals to cover the event, he called me out, this time with a little more love in his voice. An amazing promoter who passed several years ago.

Back at the campground, we found an oil plug had popped out of the Ford block which necessitated engine disassembly to repair. Not wishing to do that, Pete became my crew for the weekend. I might add that he was a great crew guy. Always knew what to do, didn’t need to be told, very ambitious. Just an all-around great guy. However…

So the decision is made to keep his car loaded up. At a late hour of the night, I decide to retire to my sleeping abode (the back seat of my station wagon) while Pete and Gilbert stayed up no doubt drinking and smoking weed. At some hour of the night, I hear yelling and screaming from their “area.” Jumping up, I see them sitting on the end of the trailer throwing rocks at something on the ground.

“What are you guys doing?”

“Throwing rocks at that snapping turtle on the ground.”

“What snapping turtle? You guys have had enough to drink. That’s a pair of shoes!”

Back to the race. I don’t remember doing very well, but we all stuck around to watch Charlie Schmidt take runner-up honors in his Plymouth Valiant. Pete and Gilbert had loaded up the U-Haul and left earlier. Somewhere on the ride home, I see this U-Haul stuck on the side of Route 80. What are the chances? Pretty good actually.

There is Gilbert, all 300 pounds of him, dancing on the side of the road with a sign they found behind the back seat of the truck, “Low Cost,” dancing to the tune of “Do a little dance, make a little love…” How could you miss him?

Apparently the fan belt had broken on the truck and without a “legitimate” U-Haul contract (I told you they had “borrowed it”) they were stuck. Somehow, we found a fan belt and got them on the way. Whether that truck ever was returned or it simply “vanished,” is a story I don’t recall, nor do I think I even want to know.

Eventually the Mustang was repaired and other than partnering with Gilbert in the ‘80s, I can’t recall what ever happened to Puerto Rican Pete. But we had some great times. And the stories are always priceless. -JOHN DiBARTOLOMEO