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At least to my knowledge, there has been exactly one car show in the otherwise outdoor activity-loving town of Chapel Hill since I arrived 37 years ago. I decided this spring I would begin entering these automotive equivalents of the county beauty pageant. I don't know why, exactly; maybe it's time to give my Thunderbird its wings?

But because the shows won't come to me, I must go to them. So far, I've competed in Mebane, Efland and Burlington, but as the summer's heat begins to bear down on the ever-present asphalt, I plan to ease up until autumn. I don't think my Bird and I will be missed. I've brought home no medals, ribbons or the prize that all entrants hope for—those three-foot-tall, best-in-class trophies, gleaming in the sun as if waxed with the best car polish. Still, even those of us without a prayer will hang around until 3 p.m., the universal time at which winners are announced, trophies are awarded and smiling photos are taken. Hope is a thing with zinc additives.

The technocrat sitting in a folding chair behind his car is the ruler of his domain. With a Chick-fil-A sandwich and a bottled water in hand, he perches near his pride and joy, with some cleaning rags, a cooler full of more bottled water and an eagerness to talk shop. Downdraft or side-draft carbs? Pushrods or overhead cams? Leave it at six volts or rewire for 12? It's a language in which I lack fluency, so I listen politely, astounded by the mechanical ability of the guy who removed the V-8 from his '32 Ford and replaced it with another V-8. The first was the size of a case of beer; the new one is as big as a Rottweiler's doghouse. The blower on top looks like the mother of all George Foreman grills. The 16 bolts inserted into its perimeter, though, betray the tremendous pressure produced within. It requires three fan belts running side-by-side to power its pulley. If man's wealth were measured by dyno-certified horsepower, I'd be surrounded by America's super-rich.

In Efland, the car directly across from mine was a 1934 Pontiac convertible, with a V-8 up front and a rumble seat behind. It was a perfect medium blue, and every square inch shone absolutely flawlessly. A placard said this car was one of only 51 made. My car is one of 68,098 made. It has a few parking lot dings and has been modified only insofar as I've replaced a few interior lightbulbs with LEDs. These daytime car shows don't allow my upgrade to be viewed to maximum effect; in truth, it's a modification not quite in the same league as cars that have been chopped and channeled, or old trucks that have had body-off restorations. These are car-show cars, and, though I've never been asked, I think each one deserves a trophy. My Thunderbird is too stock, too standard. It's just seven years old, and it draws only about a dozen lookers during a typical hot afternoon show.

Anyway, it's 3 p.m. The overlooked, the underappreciated, the also-rans—and those of us who compete just for the experience and some smiles—take our leave as the trophy winners stand about, grinning and celebrating. They offer cheers with bottled water, and I head back to Chapel Hill.

  • The technocrat sitting in a folding chair behind his car is the ruler of his domain.

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