An Army veteran story of life and healing including cars and a racetrack Part 1

Episode 289

November 10, 2019

Project Blackjack The Mustang Part 1 The lead up…

Cliff Warren was born in Castine where he grew up riding shotgun with his Uncle Danny in his Uncle Danny’s 74 Oldsmobile Cutlass S, a two-tone brown and black, long, sleek, grumbling hulk of Detroit steel.  With swivel bucket seats and an auto on the floor the young men cruised the downeast.

This attention from Uncle Danny, only four years his elder, made a lasting impression and developed a love for automobiles in Cliff. An eight year stint in the Army with three duty stations included some drag racing at Fort Wainwright, Alaska where they would close the runway for a time.

In 1993 he won the True Street class at Fort Wainwright with his 1988 Camaro V6 which he described as not fast but consistent.

After serving as a computer and network management specialist for the military, Warren took a job with a Fortune 500 company in Virginia. When that company went under, he moved back to the Bangor area in 2000 taking a job working for Penobscot County government.

After a bad experience at a GM dealership, Warren looked for a Ford. His wife Stacey and several family members were diehard Ford fans and they welcomed the change. A purple 1996 Mustang nicknamed Li’l Mare was purchased. Eventually he bought “Big Mare” pictured below.

Warren said, “The one car that has been both my most beloved possession and the bane of my existence – the Big Mare, a 2004 beautiful Redfire Pearl Metallic Mustang GT. From the moment I first saw it and drove it, I was in love. I have a wife and I have a mistress and my wife was there when I found her, which just happened to be on the eve of our anniversary and she knew from the moment I turned the key in it for the first time that it was a foregone conclusion that this was MY car.” (Cliff Warren photo)

The interface between life and cars

The rest of the story, told in Warren’s own words, depicts how cars and life were interwoven and included good times and some of the very worst times.

” I’ve owned the Big Mare now for over a decade.  We’ve had good times and bad times together.  And until the last couple of years, it’s been a stalwart companion – a place where I vented my frustration, a place where Stacey and I spent countless hours driving back country roads listening to the car sing to us while we talked, a place where I would find solace after a hard day’s work or in darker times in my life that would come.

Which leads me to the last several years.  Since 2014, my life has been somewhat tumultuous.  In that summer, when the Big Mare was in the height of her prime and I had just begun succumbing to the mod bug adding new exhaust, intake, suspension modifications, and increasing her horsepower and her attitude, I had back to back to deaths that affected me deeply.

Early in the summer, Tom Duffy, a close friend died of complications following a fight with aplastic anemia a couple of weeks before my birthday. He also was a Mustang fan and, having faced such a disease, he had been forced to retire without much fanfare and I had taken it on myself to do something special for him and took up a collection to restore and detail his little Mustang to the best of our ability.

Shortly after, the second and more devastating blow hit me when I learned that my Uncle Danny, the man who had introduced me to my love of cars passed away from brain cancer.

Warren’s Uncle Danny and his family before he passed away from brain cancer. (Contributed photo from Cliff Warren)

I spent many hours cruising the back roads around Bangor, just me and my Mustang, thinking and trying to cope with everything that had happened that summer.  Two funerals in as many weeks, both within a few days of my birthday weighed heavily on me.

In the years that followed, my mother, who had been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis for many years, began to experience a more rapid decline in her health.  At the same time, my stepfather, who had been a steadfast influence in my life, suddenly grew ancient before my eyes, requiring more attention.

With nine siblings total between natural siblings and step-siblings, for whatever reason, it fell to me to try to help my parents as best I could as they aged and their health declined.  And so began the long and difficult trek towards an inevitable outcome.

My parents weren’t the only ones to age.  My precious Mustang had also begun to show signs of failure as one component after another began to wear out. Each successive failure was more expensive than the previous one.

I soldiered on, borrowing what money I could, scrimping and saving to try to keep up on the repairs and make upgrades as I could.  First suspension, then (and always) tires, brakes, you name it.  It seemed it spent more time hanging from a lift than it did on the ground.

In 2017, following the Togus Car Show, I noted that I had something mechanically wrong with the Mustang of a serious nature.  Turns out I had a cracked intake.  But I had plans and with a little credit left, I charged forward with the most ambitious goal yet, to replace the intake on the Mustang with an aftermarket intake and for the first time, introduce a supercharger.

But the best laid plans of mice and men…

Despite having the most competent of mechanics and tuners at my disposal, the Big Mare plagued me with issue after issue.  Fuel delivery issues inundated the car and more and more money was spent trying to correct the anomalous issue.  And just when we thought we had it figured out and went to dyno the car, the car threw a new curve at us.

During the dyno session, everything looked good, putting down well over 400 horsepower on a partial pull.  The tuner wanted to see a 6500 RPM pull and would then make adjustments.

That was the last time the original engine would run.  She flatlined at about 6000 RPM.  A puff of smoke came out of the pipes and she quit during deceleration…and refused to start.  A post-mortem showed that she had taken a bite out of the number eight piston.

Like many auto projects, Warrens Big Mare Mustang spent too much time with the hood up or on the lift. (Cliff Warren photo)

With little in reserve, I had no option at this late time in the season but to park it. She sat until mid-February when, I thought at last, I had a stroke of luck.  I had been granted another line of credit which allowed me to purchase a fresh forged motor for the Big Mare.  This was going to be a glorious year!


Coming into 2018, it seemed like all the stars had aligned.  I was going to have a freshly built forged powerplant, a new clutch, a new tune and well on my way to having practically a whole new car.  On top of that, it was going to be the summer of my 50th birthday, my 25th wedding anniversary and the year I would pay off my house!

Sure, we still had our issues as Stacey and I struggled to balance our home life and my professional life.  With the constant demands of a small department with big projects to deliver on, the regular day-to-day demands of life and an ever-growing number of issues related to the health of our parents, we frequently struggled to try to keep up on it all.

Stacey and Cliff Warren (Cliff Warren photo)

With my mother’s condition worsening, my stepfather’s health issues, and Stacey’s mother having her own bout with cancer, the stress was real.  But we persisted and hoped that our plans at least for the Big Mare would come to fruition and we’d find our solace in the pleasant cruises we’d take in our sports car.

Things do not always work out the way we plan

But that’s not how things worked out…

My mechanic and I found out the hard way finally what the issue with the car was, and it wasn’t engine related, but fuel system related.  We hadn’t foreseen that the issue could be related to the injectors and it manifested itself in the worst way.

During her initial dyno pull with the fresh engine, it started to skip.  While the computer was saying that things were all working as they should, what was happening inside the combustion chamber was a completely different story.  Due to an incomplete burn, the amount of heat we were generating was devastating.  And on her first dyno run, she failed…a freshly built, forged engine reduced to junk, or so we believed.

Suffice it to say, I got drunk that night.  I went home, bought a pint of whiskey and a couple of cigars and thought, “well, so much for that”.  I had also taken up smoking again more heavily in the last several months.  This led to ANOTHER issue.

I’ve long had a condition called leukoplakia.  It’s also known as “smoker’s keratosis”.  It’s a pre-cancerous condition, usually leading to oral cancer unless treated and/or the smoker ceases to smoke.  I hadn’t paid much attention to it as it hadn’t changed in years, but with my increased smoking due to the stresses I’d been under (no excuse, I know), it had spread.  And it had spread with alarming quickness – enough so that my dentist insisted that I see an oral surgeon.

I hadn’t told my wife at this point.  But for the first time in my life, I was scared.  With everything else that was going on, I was sure I was already in the first stages of oral cancer.  And having seen what the outcome usually is, even when successfully treated, I had already set my mind to the fact that I would rather die intact than suffer the devastating consequences of the treatment that might follow.

Eventually, I did tell my wife and we spoke long about it.  But this was to be my year.  We doubled down on our determination to get the Big Mare operational.  We needed that vent.  We needed that ability to lose ourselves in thought and conversation while the Big Mare grumbled away down back roads.

More and more, the demands of life pressed on us as we dealt with both her parents and mine as their health became greater issues and as work became more and more involved at the office.  But I spoke to my mechanic and we set our shoulder to the job and, after asking if it could be done by my birthday, he and I made a pact we’d make it happen.

Most of the summer was already gone at that point and the race was on.  With a hopeful heart, I made plans to set the date as my birthday, my 50th birthday, that I’d be back behind the wheel of my Mustang.  I even made plans for our silver anniversary.  Stacey and I made arrangements to attend the Mustang Club of America car show in Merrimack, New Hampshire, which happened to coincide with the weekend of our 25th wedding anniversary.

We worked hard and I took out more credit to get the car back in shape.  The day before my birthday, with freshly ported and reconditioned heads and a monumental effort on behalf of Batten Motorsports in Brewer we got the engine put back together and, in the car, and ready for the dyno.

I went over to film the dyno session.  We started up the car and, even before it was put in gear to roll up to the dyno, I could tell something was off.  I knew what it was, although I didn’t want to admit it.  The ‘kiss’ between the valve and piston was more damaging than we’d thought.  There was a knock in the rotating assembly.

While I didn’t want to do it, I knew the most prudent thing was to wave off the dyno session as it was obvious the engine was more gravely injured than we’d believed and to put it through the stress of a dyno tune would most assuredly have killed it.  But it did kill something that morning…my hope that my summer was at all salvageable.

The car went into storage at that point.  I didn’t even want to look at it.  And it is there even today waiting for a day when my finances heal enough that I can return and maybe, if I’m lucky, see it on the road again.

Part 2 next week’s episode

Learn how a drag racing Ford F350 service truck, a Lincoln in a snow bank and a race track helped heal a wounded man and his family. I am looking forward to sharing it with you.

Cold Hard Art at SEMA 2019 show

Cold Hard Arts’s Tom Patsis, wife Amanda, and daughter Luna at the 2019 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. They were accompanied by Amanda’s mom June Crawford Sanning who watched Luna while her Mom and Dad were working at the show. (Cold Hard Art photo)

Artisan Tom Patsis points out the Miller Welding project he worked on at the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas, Nevada last week. The Ellsworth High School graduate and family were an integral part of the Miller display. (Cold Hard Art photo)

The Miller Welding crew at SEMA 2019.Patsis mentioned that he, his wife Amanda, daughter Luna and mother in law June Crawford Sanning were treated like royalty and had a great time. Most of these same folks will be at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Show in Indianapolis December 12-14, 2019. (Miller Welding photo)

I really like the new Cold Hard Art shirt on display at Las Vegas. ZAP! ZAP! (Cold Hard Art photo)

One more reason to watch NASCAR season finale next Sunday

Three out of four of the Monster Energy Cup finalists are from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. The fourth finalist, Kevin Harvick represents Stewart Haas Racing. I suspect there will be four steaming hulks at the end of the race when the gloves come off. The season champion may win it on his roof sliding across the finish line. Should be good.

Another reason to watch will be the return of Austin Theriault in the Bangor Savings Bank/Travis Mills Foundation #52 Rick Ware Racing Ford.

Austin Theriault’s #52 Bangor Savings Bank/Travis Mills Foundation Ford from Rick Ware. Theriault will be racing at Homestead Miami in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup finale the Ford EcoBoost 400 live at 3 pm. It can be seen on NBC, heard on MRN, and live streamed on NBCSports. (Rick Ware Racing photo)

Austin Theriault previews the race and the last few weeks

Swanson races at Daytona this week

Kody Swanson will team up with Brad Jaeger later this week to drive this Doran Enterprises 2005 Ford GT Mk7 at the Daytona Classic 24 Hour race. This will be Swanson’s sports car racing debut. (Doran Enterprises photo)

Let’s Go Racing!

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria (Matthew 5:16)

Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing. He races Champ Karts and owns HTF Motorsports in remote Westmanland, Maine