Drag Illustrated Issue 177, July / August 2022 - Page 76


On the Road with Van Abernethy

If you hang around drag racing for any length of time , you ’ ll soon figure out that the relationships that make up this sport are something of a small world . Take my knowing John Bartunek for example . At the time I was watching his horrific crash in Englishtown , New Jersey , in 2009 through my camera lens , I had yet to have my first conversation with the man .

It was through this unfortunate incident that we got acquainted and became friends . I was able to snap in the neighborhood of 21 frames of this crash , many of which were published in this magazine shortly after it happened , and I made sure John received copies of the prints .
From then on , we always caught up each time we saw each other . He was living just outside New York City , and he made sure I knew that I had a standing invitation to come see him if ever I was up that way . Well , I fully planned on making good on that invitation , but work always seemed to get in the way . Such is life , I guess .
Earlier this year , I ran into John at the season-opening PDRA race and he excitedly told me that he had retired and moved to North Carolina ... and for good measure also bought Union Dragway in South Carolina ! John always figured he ’ d retire down South and resume his racing adventures where tracks are plentiful and traffic jams aren ’ t usually a problem .
Buying a dragstrip , however , wasn ’ t part of the grand plan , but it just kinda fell into place . “ For us to go racing up North we have to drive three hours . Down South , you ’ ve got dragstrips every 50 miles !” he laughs .
Oh sure , he had contemplated the “ big move ” for years , but on one fateful morning he simply woke up and felt it was time . “ I was tired , ready to retire , so I told my wife , Liz , I just can ’ t do this no more .” A day or so later , John sat down with his son-in-law , James , who works for John in his large and thriving auto repair shop . He asked James if he ’ d like to take over the business , which James agreed to do . “ Good , ‘ cause I ’ m leaving Monday !” he told him . As good as his word , John left on
that particular Monday in 2020 and has never once returned to the shop .
Meanwhile , John had been communicating for years with a real estate broker in North Carolina . “ This lady had stayed in touch with me for several years , ever since I made the first inquiry about property in the Lake
Norman area ,” he says .
Finally , the time had come for them to meet and look at property . John typed her office address into his GPS and to his surprise he wound up at Chris Cline ’ s race car shop in Mooresville , which John fully thought was some sort of bizarre mistake ! “ I ’ ve been friends with Chris for
years , but I certainly wasn ’ t expecting to visit his shop that morning !” John walked in , still wondering how this was even possible , when suddenly a friendly blonde lady greeted him with a list of houses to look at that morning .
The mystery real estate broker was none other than Chris ’ s thengirlfriend , Shannon Hilton , whose real estate office was located inside the race car shop ! “ In all the emails and conversations we ’ d had , the subject of drag racing never came up , so I was completely floored when I realized who Shannon turned out to be !” laughs John .
After he settled on a house and remodeled it just the way he liked , he then heard a rumor that Union Dragway might be for sale . “ When Mike Baker told me that a guy named Tony Brown was running the track , and it was the same Tony Brown who raced Super Stock , I instantly knew who he was because everybody knew Tony ’ s 55 Chevy !”
Amazingly , Tony lived just 10 miles from John ’ s new home , so the two got together for dinner and discussed the track . Tony had likewise watched John race Pro Stock and Pro Mod over the years , always admiring his operation , but the two had never met until now . They made fast friends , and John indeed bought the track , but only under the condition that Tony would stay on and be his track manager .
Just when I thought this story couldn ’ t possibly have worked out any better , John then told me how Liz worked for JP Morgan Chase back in New York , and she figured she ’ d just get a job working somewhere else when they moved to North Carolina . But right at the perfect moment , her employer opened a branch four miles from their new home in North Carolina ! The whole thing just couldn ’ t hardly have been scripted any better .
So now , John lives a mere 34 miles from me , and since he ’ s once again extended the “ Come see me if you ’ re in the area ” invitation , I think I may actually be able to take him up on this one ! But again , what an incredibly small world the sport of drag racing can be . DI
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