Racing clan's youngest to show dragster at Autorama

Melissa Preddy
Special to The Detroit News

One of the exhibitors at the this year's 63rd annual Autorama is too young to drive himself to Cobo Center, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming licensed by the National Hot Rod Association and posting his first big win in 2014.

Nick Kassin, 8, will be displaying his 2014 American Racer Junior dragster, and attending along with his dad and fellow racer Jack Kassin and other relatives.

Nick Kassin

For the Kassin clan and many other entrants at this year's show, cars and racing are a family affair. As many people with ties to the Motor City know, it's an interest that often is passed from generation to generation.

In only his third time behind the wheel of the mini racer, last summer Nick, following in the footsteps of his dad, uncle and grandfather, ran the eighth-of-a-mile sprint in first place, capturing a $2,000 prize.

Granted, the starter race cars aren't exactly top-fuel models; they run on a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower-type 6-8hp engine that pushes a maximum speed of 55 mph — still pretty heady stuff for beginning drivers.

But the Kassins have a history of working their way up into more powerful cars. Nick's cousin Shelby Hoffmeyer, 16, races a more advanced version of the junior dragster, a Super Rhino II that runs at about 85 mph.

Jack Kassin — who got his first whiff of dragster fuel as a baby in the 1960s when his dad was competing at Detroit Dragway and other regional venues — started racing a 1969 Road Runner during high school and these days is driving an S & W rear-engine machine that generates 800 hp on the quarter-mile.

"This really is a sport for the entire family," said Kassin. "Just about every weekend we're traveling or out at some track."

And the Kassin racing dynasty isn't done quite yet; Nick's younger sister Megan, 5, is waiting for her turn to don the fire suit and take the wheel of the junior dragster when he moves up.

Elsewhere on the floor, Shawna Tenyer and dad Tom Tenyer are another family team. They'll be exhibiting her dragster, "The Godfather," a 1927 Ford AA/Altered that has the swooped fenders and fancy grill to reflect its vintage, along with a lot of more up-to-date parts. The auto spent many years on the show circuit before the Tenyers converted it to a racing machine.

"It's really cool because people remember the car, and come up and tell us stories about it," said Shawna, 31, whose dad purchased The Godfather 10 years ago. Some of her earliest memories involve weekends watching her father race — "our mom would take us to the track on Sundays," she recalls — and the sounds and fumes and engine vibrations inspired yet another future competitor.

On Christmas Day 2010, Tenyer got her long-held wish when her dad unveiled an extra present he had sneaked into the house: The Godfather's hood scoops custom painted with the driver's name: Shawna 'LeRoy.'

"I cried," she said. "LeRoy was a nickname since I was a little girl. I knew that meant he wanted me to race the car."

Wearing her dad's old fire suit, helmet and gloves, with no experience, "I just got in the car and did it. My knees were shaking but it came naturally," Shawna recalls. "Now every time I start the car I get so happy — it's a dream come true."

Father and daughter put in a lot of weekends at area tracks, mostly the Ubley Dragway in Michigan's thumb area. Shawna figures she makes about 100 runs a year behind the 450 hp small-block Chevy engine. But more important than the competition, she said, is the companionship.

"How many people are lucky enough to spend these good times with their dad?" she said.

Another family project will be on display and Sam Stanley of Grosse Pointe Park will be realizing a decades-long dream when he unveils the glossy black Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe he created at the urging of daughter Tara, as an antidote to 70-hour workweeks at his day job in the actuarial business. The coupe is the culmination of an automotive saga that stretches back into the 1960s and is replete with drama, setbacks and now, triumph.

After developing a love of Pontiacs when his mom purchased a brand-new '68 GTO, Stanley eventually purchased a '67 four-speed Firebird and eventually, in the 1980s, decided to restore it. He removed the 400 cubic-inch V-8, the transmission and other components and sent the body to a shop to begin the process.

"Apparently they were storing it outside and it got stolen," said Stanley. "Meanwhile I had the motor on a stand in the garage."

The years rolled on and other automotive setbacks ensued — that '68 GTO burned up in a fire in his mom's garage, for one. Stanley — a member of the Grosse Pointe symphony — used the insurance money to buy a violin. And still the Firebird's V-8 waited.

Finally, "Tara convinced me to get a car to put the motor in," said Stanley. "We researched and decided what we really liked was the '65 Shelby Cobra."

Stanley ordered the kit, attended the manufacturer's three-day build school and he and Tara began several years and thousands of hours of work, turning half the family garage into a custom car shop. Fitting the Pontiac into the Cobra's engine compartment was a super-tight squeeze."If it was a quarter-inch bigger, it wouldn't have worked," said Stanley. "Now, this is the only Daytona Cope with a Pontiac V-8 in it. A lot of people think that's sacrilege but I don't care. I'm a Pontiac guy, and car people know what that means."

With the paint barely dry — black with a chartreuse stripe — Stanley scrambled to find a trailer, eventually hiring a flat-bed tow truck and praying for a dry day to transport the coupe to Cobo. The first-time exhibitor can't wait to show off his street-legal race car.

"This has been my dream for decades," he said.

If you go

The 63rd annual Autorama in Detroit will feature competitions like a sock hop contest and Miss Autorama pinup contest, celebrity appearances and entertainment in addition to hot rod and custom automobile exhibits. The Toy-A-Rama expo features collectibles dealers.

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Cobo Center, Detroit

Tickets: $19 for adults, $6 for children, kids under 5 are free. Discounts available at O'Reilly Auto Parts.

To learn more: Go to https://autorama.com/attend/detroit/