Happy Birthday to Jeff Hughes, my 1959 Corvette buddy from my Beltsville days. Here is the chapter about Jeff from my book, "Beltsville Shell: You Are What You Drive"
“Brakes are for sissies.”
Jeff Hughes, 1966
Working at the Shell station afforded me the opportunity of buying and selling cars and car parts, usually for a modest profit. I met Jeff Hughes through an advertisement I had placed in the Washington Post to sell some used car parts. He drove over from Wheaton to Beltsville for some shopping. Upon discovering that we both had 1959 Corvettes and were both working toward our college degrees we became instant friends.
It was Jeff Hughes who introduced me to the greatest invention since Jiffy Pop Popcorn – the 8-track tape player! Some scientist had invented a way the record companies could put music onto a magnetic tape that miraculously went back and forth inside a plastic case. Now you could buy your favorite songs and take them with you in your car! You no longer had to twist the dial of your radio back and forth searching for your favorite songs. A tape player was easy to install under your dash and it could even be connected to the same speakers as your radio. Now Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys could go everywhere with me!
Jeff had saved for many years to buy his first car. First paper route money was accumulated. Then when he was 16 Jeff got a summertime construction job paying $2.00 per hour at Truland Electric. Each week he would get paid $80, give a friend $5 for gas money, and save the balance. When Jeff had saved $1,800 he located a beautiful Nassau blue 1959 Corvette owned by Johnny Coleman. Jeff bought the car for $1,300.
I was about one year older than Jeff and had a bit more automobile repair experience, but he was a quick study and soon surpassed my knowledge of Corvette speed parts.
My favorite memory of Jeff was that no matter what happened, he could look on the bright side of every situation.
In the early years of our friendship, my car was a teeny bit faster than Jeff’s. Whenever he made a modification to his car that merited an empirical study of its relative performance increase, he would drive across the Beltway to Beltsville Shell and invite me to race against him. Always willing to help out a friend, I would follow Jeff to Sunnyside Avenue, the unofficial proving grounds for Beltsville Shell, for an impromptu race.
The routine went as follows: we would count down 3 – 2 – 1 and then blast off at the same time, the even start an important part of an impartial scientific measurement. We would crank through all four gears, then immediately jump on the brake pedal so as to stop before crossing into the on coming traffic on Rhode Island Avenue. Sometimes stopping in time was a bit hairy and using this location for racing was stupid as well as dangerous, for this was the exact spot where Buzzy Eslin was killed in his Corvair a few years earlier.
One Saturday night Jeff came by Beltsville Shell to try out his newest modification. The two of us went to the Sunnyside Avenue Drag-A-Way. Riding shot-gun in Jeff’s car was Don Inscoe. We make our first full speed pass and my Corvette was slightly ahead, both of us going about 100MPH. Jeff and I slammed on the brakes simultaneously, stopping in time. I thought the experiment was finished.
Jeff said, “Let me try it one more time, OK?” I agreed. So we drove back to the starting line for a second run.
Although our Corvettes looked identical except for color, there was a fundamental difference. My 1959 Corvette came from the factory with the special metallic brake linings. The metallic brakes were intended for racing, designed so that as they got hotter their stopping power increased. Standard automobile asbestos linings, like on Jeff’s car, were prone to “fading” so that as they got hotter they were less effective.
Our second run was very close with my car only a few feet ahead of Jeff’s during the acceleration. Once again we jumped on the brakes. My car stopped better than the last time because the brakes were warmed up. Jeff’s car was swerving and he barely managed to stop before crossing into the on coming traffic.
Not satisfied, Jeff said, “OK, Let’s try it just one more time.” Not wanting to disappoint a friend I agreed to repeat the process.
On the third run, our cars were fender-to-fender as we accelerated. Once again, I jumped on the brakes and stopped handily. By the third run Jeff’s brakes were useless, and although I could see his taillights glowing brightly, it was immediately obvious that there was no way Jeff could stop before the intersection ahead.
I thought, “Oh God, not Jeff. Please don’t let anything happen to him. If Jeff and Don get killed this will be all my fault.”
Unlike Nace’s 21st birthday party, this time God must have heard me because a miracle happened.
Ahead at the intersection I saw the little blue Corvette go through the stop sign. As it entered the intersection a car coming from the right, going at least 50 MPH, whizzed in front of Jeff’s car. Just as it cleared the Corvette’s path, a second car coming from the other direction swerved to go behind Jeff’s car spewing gravel everywhere.
Hollywood movie producers, with careful timing and trick photography have never staged a closer encounter and more thrilling “near miss” than Jeff Hughes and these two surprised (and pissed off) drivers accomplished at the intersection of Sunnyside and Rhode Island Avenues!
As the noise of screeching tires and honking horns subsided, we retreated to the Shell Station. Jeff was unfazed by the experience. I thanked God beneath my breath.
Undeterred by his near-death experience, Jeff won many races against GTO’s, Chevelles, and Olds 442s, all cars that had engines at least 100 cubic inches larger than his little Corvette.
Brakes never were very important to Jeff. A few years later he purchased a 1962 Corvette that had a straight front axle, tilt front end, an extremely rare aluminum-head 427 engine, and a parachute for stopping. He had planned to enter it in the “B-Gas” class, cars that could not be driven on the street. When I went to see the car in Wheaton, I noticed that it had beefy rear brakes but none in the front. On asking Jeff about the arrangement, I was informed, “Brakes are for sissies!”
I was very impressed with the B-Gas 62 Vette, despite its lack of stopping power. Jeff invited me to be part of his pit crew. A small entourage of Jeff’s friends went to the “75-80 Drag-A-Way” in Damascus, Maryland to see its maiden voyage.
Jeff was full of anticipation. The engine was a monster, and the car was very light with nothing other than those things necessary to make a Corvette go fast. Jeff had removed the spare tire, passenger seat, carpet and upholstery, radio, heater, convertible top, and unnecessary instruments. The car was capable of reaching speeds of about 140 MPH at the end of the quarter mile drag strip.
We all watched as Jeff burned the tires in the staging area getting ready for his big moment. Suddenly he motioned for me to come to the car’s window. Rolling it down quickly, he handed me the cigarette lighter saying, “Every ounce counts!”
Finally, Jeff was staged in the lights and ready to go.
Yellow – yellow – yellow – GREEN. Down came the lights on the “Christmas tree” and the Corvette exploded from the starting line in a cloud of burning exhaust and tire smoke. Jeff had launched the car perfectly, and was shifting the gears like a pro. The car he was racing was left in the smoke and the Corvette was headed for its first victory. In the distance, right at the finish line, just as Jeff streaked under the lights, WHOOSH, the hood of the Corvette blew completely off the car, went straight up in the air, miraculously missed the following car and spectators, and smashed on the asphalt track in pieces.
When Jeff returned to the pits, rather than being upset, he was euphoric. “What a finish! Did the crowd love the show?”
Jeff didn’t live close enough to Beltsville to become a JTRAMFGS regular, but we bestowed adjunct status upon him.