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One Man's Junk

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If it weren't for these diatribes, Bill might seem to be just another mild-mannered grandpa -- one with milky blue eyes, receding white hair, tan windbreaker and dark slacks -- visiting the restaurant for a Tuesday-afternoon snack. But these diatribes quickly blow his cover.

"The city doesn't want me to comply," he shouts. "They want to punish me!"

An elderly woman looks up from her McNuggets.

Bill pops another ice cube in his mouth.

"Sorry," he says. "I get carried away because I've been messing with this so damn long. Where were we?"

After WWII, Bill traveled around the Midwest in a flathead Ford V-8 racer owned by a guy named Pop Williams. Together they collected trophies, fans and memories.

"What basketball is today, racing was then," Bill recalls. "Whenever we showed up, the entire town turned out. Everyone would scream and holler. Reporters wrote articles about you. People took you out to dinner. Girls followed you around like groupies. It was quite a deal. You made serious money, too. After you'd race in Iowa, they'd take you out to a cornfield, boil a fifty-gallon barrel of water, throw in some corn and drink beer all afternoon. We were treated like heroes."

And ever since he was a kid, that was the kind of hero he wanted to be. Bill grew up in Denver, with a father who worked for the post office and a mother who was a dental technician. One night when he was fifteen, he snuck his dad's '38 Ford sedan out of the garage and issued a challenge to the city's midnight street-racing champion, a smug older kid with a '37 Ford Club Coupe.

"Did I beat him? You bet," Bill says. "He was more cautious on the blind corners and would hit the breaks, but I just hit the gas. It was stupidity. Blind stupidity. It was an illegal race, and I was driving a stolen car. But there was talent involved. Racing was just something I could do."

Before long, Bill discovered that he could also build his own hot rods. By the time he arrived on the midget-car racing circuit, he was spending almost as much time in the garage as behind the wheel.

"You're always improvising," he says. "You're always working on better ways to do this and better ways to do that. That's just part of the deal."

During his racing days, Bill earned quite a reputation as a speed demon. "When you're young, you think you're bulletproof," he says. But in 1952, at a race in Columbus Junction, Iowa, he found out otherwise.

"I hit a wall and broke my back," he says. "You know those little things that stick out on your spine and hold your muscles in place on your vertebrae? Well, I broke them off like a xylophone. That put me out of the racing business for a while."

Then he sold vacuum cleaners. And aluminum siding. And used books. "I was just trying to survive," he says. But in the musty world of old paperbacks, novels and textbooks, he discovered another talent: collecting. For the next thirty years, Bill owned book dealerships, including A Book Scout's Den and A Better Book Buyer.

It was interesting work, though not exactly profitable, and it also introduced him to the network of secondhand goods that would come in handy later when he was compiling his inventory. But while he often had his nose buried in one novel or another, Bill still kept an eye on the midget-racing circuit. What he saw amazed him.

"They were racing Pintos," he scoffs. "They're lame. Totally lame. I knew I could build a car that would run circles around a Pinto."

So that's what he set out to do. At the time, which was by now the late '80s, Bill happened to be driving a yellow '76 Dodge Colt coupe. One day on his way to the bookstore, that lightbulb turned on: The Colt had a hemispherical combustion engine, which he liked, a variety of gearing, which he also liked, and a solid frame, which sealed the deal.

Since there were so many makes and models of Colts created between 1972 and 1979, he could mix and match parts to customize his racers to the specific demands of a track. If he had enough Colts to work with, the possibilities were endless.

By 1990, Bill had amassed dozens of Colts -- all makes, all models, all colors and all styles. He rented a warehouse off Brighton Boulevard and tinkered to his heart's content. On occasion, even at age 68, he'd take a few laps around the track behind the wheel of a mini-sprint car, which used a motorcycle engine.

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Harrison Fletcher