Built for Speed
Mud hops, MOPAR, and Me Maw’s blue Nova
“[After the races] they invited girls out of the stands to use their cars,” says Luken, posing recently with her ’71 Chevy Nova (top), another racer, and her beloved John Deere. “They lend you the helmet and you’re off. I came in fourth the first time, then first place after that. It was like nothing else. It was awesome.”
Published: February 27, 2013
In her early years, Carol Luken kept her addiction a secret from her family. It wasn’t beer, whiskey, or heavy petting. She was hooked on something that even the so-called “women’s libbers” wouldn’t touch: drag racing. Getting behind the wheel of a tricked-out roadster in a poodle skirt and grinding around a hard-packed dirt track was no way for a lady in her teens to spend her Friday nights back in those days. But Luken proved them all wrong. She was ahead of her time and had a hankering for the wind and rush that could only be sated by a speeding, souped-up automobile shooting through the humid summer darkness.
Now, at 74, the Loch Raven native is the matriarch of a tight-knit super-team of drag racing, motor-building speed junkies and affable gearheads.
“I was probably 15 when I started,” says Luken, sitting at the dining room table of her Perry Hall home. “My father was a car salesman, so cars were always around. But my parents were extremely strict. When they said, ‘Be in by midnight,’ they meant midnight.”
Luken pauses for a second, as if she is suddenly back where her addiction began, at Dorsey’s old dirt track, not far from her home.
“I hitchhiked down to the track. In those days, that was safe,” she says in a voice that brings to mind the pleasant crunch of gravel under your tires on race day. “I knew it took 45 minutes to get home, so I always left the track at 11.”
Once there, she made her way through the dust and headlights of the low growling flatheads and Chevy V8s to sit with the other spectators: boys pomaded up, packets of smokes rolled tight in T-shirt sleeves like big-screen rebels preening for chicks in fluffed-up skirts and homemade high hair courtesy of friends with names like Madge and Ethel. All were elated to be away from the accusatory eyes of their square parents.
“I found out that [after the races] they invited girls out of the stands to use their cars,” she says. “But you had to be picked. I was picked by the drivers three times in a row. They lend you the helmet and you’re off. I came in fourth the first time, then first place after that. It was like nothing else. It was awesome.”
But familial rules and social norms gave her little opportunity to celebrate.
“I couldn’t bring anything home,” Luken says. “I had to hide the little trophies I got in the glove compartment of our car and get them out when my parents weren’t around. My mother never knew until about a year before she died. If they knew, I’d be punished for the rest of my life.”
Then, suddenly, she had to put the brakes on and raise a family.
As she filled her time with jigsaw puzzles and the occasional trip to the Autobahn (where she admittedly pushed 90 mph), Luken missed out on the late ’50s “bustle bomb” engines that pushed the cars past the then-theoretical 150 mph ceiling; she missed the cool ’60s dragsters caricatured by Rat Fink illustrator Ed “Big Daddy” Roth; and the sunny ’70s with its tricked-out El Caminos, MOPAR (short for motor and parts) stickers, and Evel Knievel-like celebrities. By the time the ’90s rolled around, Luken was tired of waiting. She wanted back in.
“I stopped racing because it was what you did back then,” she says, two of her sons, Mark and Scott sitting by her side. “You raise a family. But there came a day when the colleges were all paid for and it was my turn. I turned to my son Scott, who had been racing for a while and said, ‘Scott, I want a car.’”
Scott Luken, 43, is a professional mechanic who started racing back in the ’80s. “I went to a mud hop with a friend and he turned to me and said that I should give drag racing a shot,” he says. “And that was it. I was hooked.” After his first “mud hop,” or dirt-track race, Scott got to work on his own dragster and entered into the wrench-turning business.
“Suddenly mom wanted a car,” Scott says. “We got the Chevelle, gutted it, and rebuilt it to be street legal.”
But moms being moms, everything was done on a budget so as not to break the family bank.
“I was firm,” Carol Luken says. “I said, ‘nothing over $150 a week,’ so it took awhile. The most expensive part actually was the paint job. But I blew the engine out of that one.”
Carol Luken remembers clearly the moment she climbed back in the driver’s seat after an almost 40-year dry spell. “It was awesome. Just awesome,” she says in a way that sums up that entire day at a track in Carroll County. “I couldn’t believe I was racing again.”
And neither could her fellow drivers, who affectionately called her “Me Maw.”
“I’ve never met someone like her,” said Kent Newsom, a veteran racer of 30-some years, who peels up asphalt in his rear-engine dragster with a 377-cubic-inch supercharged small-boxed Chevy engine. “Carol was an anomaly. There’s plenty of older men drag racing, but you never hear of older women. Carol was unique.”
Anticipating their mother’s love for grinding out cars and pushing herself, her sons built a special cage that was easily escapable in case of an emergency. Such an incident came to pass, although Carol almost didn’t make it out in time.
“The special pin [that would release the door] didn’t work and the engine was on fire. I blew another one,” she says. “We luckily got the cage open. I wasn’t worried.”
Still, it’s been three years since then and Luken hasn’t been back behind the wheel. Her last car, a metallic blue beast of a ’71 Chevy Nova with fat back tires, rests quietly in the family garage beside her sons’ custom-built dragster with chrome-moly frame rails.
Luken would love to give the Nova one more go, but these days she’s blowing out motors on the grassier track of her lawn.
“You know, I think that the John Deere man was shocked when I went in to buy another tractor and asked him if they had anything with more horsepower,” she says. “I just want my tractor to go faster. That’s all I ask.”
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