Blackjack Part Two

Episode 290

November 16, 2019

Meet Blackjack

Last week’s episode of UpNorth Motorsports included the story of Cliff Warren, Bangor, an Army veteran who, after several years in the military and a stint with a Fortune 500 company, came back to Maine. His return included trying his hand at owning a couple of Mustang muscle cars which helped him develop a love for mechanics.

Warren’s life was rather tumultuous with family health issues as well as his own struggles with leukoplakia. The loss of two engines in his 2004 Mustang led to a depleted bank account.


The story picks up where Warren left off in the last episode. “At this point, the health of my parents had begun to take a significant turn.  My stepfather was in and out of the hospital. We had worked to try to keep up with his life and ours, it was apparent that we were fighting a losing battle.

Our 25th anniversary came and went and we trudged into what promised to be a long, hard winter with little hope in sight. I promised myself that I’d do something for myself this next year.  I had to.  I felt like if I didn’t, then I’d lose my mind.

Late in the fall, I saw the oral surgeon and he ordered a biopsy done.  I fretted for weeks over this.  All the while, I was frequently visiting my mother in the nursing home as I watched her decline, and my stepfather in his home or in the hospital as emergencies dictated.

I hoped and prayed for two things:

  • That I didn’t have cancer myself or if I did that it was easily treatable.
  • Some sort of vent going into the next year, because it was obvious that the Mustang wasn’t going to be it.

Surprisingly, late in September, my son came to me and asked me what I was doing one weekend.  Not really knowing for sure, I told him as much.

He owns Absolute Tree and has a few different vehicles, one a rather bulky F-350 service truck.  He asked me if I’d represent his business by driving his truck at the Winterport Dragway ‘Tyler’s Garage Truck Show and Drag’.

I figured, why not.  Sounds like fun.

My racing is limited to say the least.  I’d done a little drag racing back in the early 90s while stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.  They used to hold annual drags on the airstrip.  And surprisingly, my little 88 Camaro, while not fast,  by a long shot, was deadly consistent.

And I came away with the “True Street” title in 1993.  But aside from that, I was not a regular participant at the track.

So when the day came, I didn’t think much about it.  It was kind of a giggle when I rolled through the gate, a big white F350 dually with a service body on the back.

As a matter of fact, the staff at Winterport were a little perplexed.  They had to ask whether I was there to spectate or whether I was working on the track since they have several similar vehicles for track maintenance.

I replied, ‘Nah, I’m here to race’!

Sampson, as we affectionately call the old truck, definitely seemed like he was out of his league.  But race we did.  And at the end of the day, and the first time facing a tree again, I came home with the trophy for first place in the Super Diesel class.

Cliff Warren with Sampson in the Winner’s Circle for the Super Diesel class at Tyler’s Garage Truck Show and Drag at Winterport Dragway with his son’s F350 work truck. (Jodie Larrabee photo)

Right about then, I began to see something – a glimmer of hope for the year to come.  My son had mentioned that I should drive his truck for the entire 2019 season.  I knew that was his workhorse and I also knew, with a budding business, the chances were that truck had other, more serious work to do.

But I had been bitten by the bug and I was determined that, yes, this was what I was going to do.  This was going to be my escape.

So, I began to tentatively feel things out around November 2018.  But I still had debts to pay off, some even to family who had generously donated to the cause to try to bring the Mustang back to life.  Getting another car was out of the question at that point, though the idea of what I was looking for was forming in my mind.

On top of that, I wanted to show that, especially with someplace like Winterport, which bills itself as a “Family Fun Track”, that it absolutely is.  Their program is set up to allow anyone to compete.  Run what you brung and have some fun!

The idea began to take form…something preferably V8 powered, rear wheel drive with an automatic.  Something that, while maybe not fast, would be consistent.  Above all my other wants, I’d hoped it was a Ford, but I was open-minded.  As winter set in, the idea became more solid and the search truly began.

More Setbacks in 2019

Then something that hit me like a brick occurred.  My mother passed away on January 24th of this year.  When the nursing home couldn’t get in touch with my stepfather, they contacted me.

I was left with the dark task of going down to my stepfather’s home to break the news to him that his wife of 40+ years, my mother, had died that night.

It was also in this same time frame that my biopsy results came back and were mixed in their results.  I had stopped smoking, switching to vaping instead.  The progression of the leukoplakia had stopped.

But my results indicated “advanced leukoplakia with mild dysplasia.  This is another way of saying that there were abnormalities of the cells, but not cancer.  They had made arrangements to remove the lesion from my mouth, which I hadn’t looked forward to.

When I next went to the doctor, they noted that it hadn’t changed and that, in fact, it had receded slightly.  And I was granted a reprieve.  While I was glad for the fact that I was granted a reprieve, the weight of my mother’s passing pressed heavily on me, even more so as I knew my stepfather’s health was failing, too.

With my mother’s death weighing on my shoulders and a future I knew would be an issue where my stepfather was concerned, I wanted nothing more to turn my attention to my goal and renewed my determination that I had to do something for me.

The search begins in earnest

When I originally started looking, Thunderbirds were a dime a dozen.  Wouldn’t you know as winter progressed and I started to get out from under the cloud of debt incurred by the Big Mare, they (Thunderbirds) would all disappear, so I set my sights a little lower.

I looked at old Crown Vic police cruisers and Mercurys. Those didn’t pan out.

I began to look on a wider scale.  I looked at BMWs and even entertained the idea of a Volvo S80 if the owner hadn’t been such a dummy about it.

The final car I looked at was a Generation 3 Firebird TA, which showed promise.  But when I saw it in person, while a very straight car and for someone who might have interest in restoring it, it was not the car for me.

I was pretty despondent at that point and having driven all the way down to the southern part of the state, I was preparing to make my long trek back to Bangor when I checked Facebook one more time. Lo and behold, there it was, the unicorn, a 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII, black on black.

Now ordinarily, most wouldn’t consider a Lincoln as a race car.  But for what I had in mind, it was perfect.  Also, as many might know, Thunderbirds, Cougars and Mark VIII of that vintage that spend any amount of time in Maine usually have a cancer of their own.

But I knew the history of these cars, the first car had the modular V8 engine, a close cousin to the one in my Mustang.  I also knew that, even if the car was a complete basket case, it was the perfect donor for the Mustang if it came to it, with its Teksid 4.6L DOHC V8 engine that could easily slide between the frame rails of my Mustang if I got desperate.

As it turned out, the car, although not looking the best and buried in a snow bank for weeks, was remarkably solid.  I had seen this before, unattended cars that are left for long periods of time end up having other issues.

Project Blackjack after hours of shovelling snow to rescue it from the clutches of winter. (Cliff Warren photo)

I was sure the Lincoln wasn’t going to start or that if it did, it was going to run horribly. The owner and I worked for several hours to dig the car out, he put a battery pack on it and I slid behind the wheel for the first time.

I have to say, the smell of ode de rodent was rather strong as squirrels and mice had taken up residence in the car.  Much to my surprise, as I turned the key, the car didn’t turn over seven times before she sprung to life and not a tic from the engine, it sounded beautiful.  The only thing left was a test drive.

Several hours more of getting it off the ice pack, I got to take it out for her maiden voyage under my hand.  She drove and shifted fantastically!  I was sold.  This was everything I was looking for and more!  I felt like I’d just struck it rich at the casino!  We exchanged money and he signed the title over to me and I returned a week later and drove her home and dubbed her “Blackjack”.

I felt like I’d just hit it big in a casino. I’d found a one in a million lucky strike, and just in time. Even within my budget. The previous owner had been asking $1800 which would have made things tight. He had dropped the price on our negotiations to $1500 leaving me enough for excise taxes and registration, making the deal that much more sweet.

So what better name than Blackjack.

A little cleaning and some routine repair work and I was prepared for the track!  I was going to make it this year.  I was going to do something for me, maybe not in celebration, but something for me.

And so began my honest venture into bracket racing at Winterport Dragway.

For those that think, ‘What’s the big deal; you’re just going in a straight line?’

There is SO much more that goes into this, especially if you’re competing in the regular season. How you stage, how you leave, how long a burnout you need to do to make sure you get traction, when to leave the tree.

These guys have been doing this for a long time and know their cars like the back of their hands. They complain when they’re off by .03 seconds in either direction from their dial in time.  It’s a challenge and these guys are pros!

Winterport Dragway family orientation

The racing is only half of what I’d learn this year.  There is a bigger lesson to be learned and I have come to cherish it dearly.

Beyond the racing, there is a class of people at Winterport Dragway you will find nowhere else.  Car people as a rule are the best people.  But racing people are the best of all!

They are the first to come up and congratulate you on your win if you get so lucky. The first to come up and give you support when you’re frustrated and most important of all, they’re the first to extend their hand and their hospitality when you have real life things going on.

Not surprisingly, this summer was no different.  I’d struggled with work, with my stepfather, and with life in general.  And each time, the racers, staff, and fans of Winterport were there.

Even though Blackjack was frequently the slowest car at the track, I steadfastly kept my promise to be there every week.  And every week, throughout all of my trials and tribulations, my newfound family at Winterport Dragway were there to cheer for me, support me when I was down, either by virtue of my frustration when I wasn’t doing as well as I would like at the track or when my life seemed to be going sideways.  They treated me as one of their own.

I’ve watched and lived with the people of Winterport Dragway all season. I came to realize I was not alone when I looked at the adversity faced by so many that attend Winterport Dragway every week, the staff, the spectators, the participants.

Many were suffering different life altering events, including me.  And in each instance, the people of Winterport Dragway would rally around them, support them, and show them that they were family.  I don’t know as I’ve ever felt so at home with people who were not of my blood except in serving in the military.  These are outstanding people, people who will be there for you when you need them, people who will put their hand on your shoulder and help lift you up when you need it most, encourage you when you’re feeling down and will always be there when everything else in the world seems to be upside down.

They’re not going to cut you a break when you come to the line, it’s all business when that tree begins to drop.  But when you get back to the pits, you can be sure that, win or lose, a warm handshake and a clap on the back is waiting for you.

What did Project Blackjack accomplish?

Blackjack was an experiment that started out with the idea to test whether you could dig a car out of its grave, bring it to the track and compete.  And to that end, the experiment was a success.  Sixth overall in points, mostly by sheer determination, two wins, two second place finishes, one third (and a lot of time bumbling up to the tower for a buyback), I’d say that’s a success.

Cliff Warren in Winners Circle at season finale at Winterport Dragway. This was his second victory of the 2019 season. For Warren the season was about more than simply racing. (Holly Marston photo)

A greater lesson was learned here in the heart of Maine, a lesson about humanity.  When we all turn and face the flag during the National Anthem and put our hands over our hearts, or in my case with, don my cap and salute in respect. Follow that with a prayer for those who need it, our extended family, there is no other feeling warmer and more welcoming than to be part of such a family, as a racer, a spectator, or staff.

If nothing else, I hope that more people follow my experiment.  Maybe buy a cheap “Blackjack” of their own and make the effort I did.  It’s no small amount of dedication.

Days are hot and long.  And it’s an every week thing.  Many of these people dedicate a lot of hours outside of the track to make sure they can make it every week.  It’s a lot of work.

But every minute behind that wheel, sweat rolling down your brow as you face the tree, every bit of frustration when you red light, break out, or on those rare occasions when you trip the win light, every second you spend is worth it.  The racing is a big part of it.  And going fast is always fun.  But at the end of the day, it’s the journey that is the biggest thing and the people who become family to you…that’s the biggest thing you can take away from it.”


Will there be a chapter two?  I don’t know.  Blackjack needs work.  The Big Mare needs even more work.  And life isn’t getting any easier.  My stepfather passed away on the 17th of October and I am not deeply invested in just trying to settle his affairs.

But there’s a part of me that mournfully wishes it was still summer and that I was still going to the track every weekend.  Right now, I can only look one day at a time.  My finances need to heal.  And racing, even at this level, isn’t exactly cheap.  But I wouldn’t trade a second of it.  I’d spend every penny again if I had it to do over again.

While racing, and even better winning, is a great feeling, and it did my heart a world of good to close out my season with my second win, there is something so much larger to take away from Winterport Dragway.  The people and the relationships you build there.  It truly is a “Family Track” and if you haven’t been, you need to go.

Swanson races at Daytona International Speedway

Five-time USAC Silver Crown Champion Kody Swanson in Gatorade Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway after placing first in class and third overall in the Historic Sports Car Racing (HSR) 24 Hours of Daytona races. This edition of the Classic featured the largest number of entrants in HSR history. Swanson drove the Doran Racing 2005 Ford GT. (Jordan Swanson photo)

Congratulations to Kyle Busch who won his 2nd NASCAR Monster Energy Cup title, Joe Gibbs Racing’s (JGR) fifth title, 19 of 36 races during the season. And JGR finished the season the same as they began with a 1-2-3 finish.

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