Car Crazy in Honolulu
We may hate to commute in Honolulu, but we love our cars. Meet some of the everyday Honoluluans who race, collect and adore their automobiles.
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What does your car mean to you? Is it simply a machine to get you from point A to point B? Or is it something you cherish? Or perhaps something to demolish? As of Dec. 31, 2010 there were just over 700,000 registered cars and trucks on the island of Oahu alone. While it might seem like all of them are in front of you during your daily commute, there are, in fact, considerably more registered vehicles in the City and County of Honolulu than there are licensed drivers to operate them. “That’s simply because people love and have always been crazy for their cars,” says car enthusiast George Nitta, owner of Nitta’s Auto Repair in Kapalama. “Cars are like a part of the family. Just because they get old, you’re not going to kick them out of the house.”
Cars have been at the center of Nitta’s life for the better part of 50 years, from fixing and racing them, to sharing his knowledge of cars through his radio show, and a continuing education course in the 1990s at the University of Hawaii, called Practical Auto.
He says there are as many different ways to love a car as there are makes and models.
“You have the extreme owners who pour thousands and thousands of dollars into their cars just to make them look good, and spend nothing on their wives or their families,” says Nitta. “And then there are those who just tinker, or who are interested in racing, or just want to get a car running well enough so they can take out it on the track and destroy it.”
Here are the stories of just a few of the people in Honolulu who have gone a little car crazy.
The Old Man and the T
Americans have enjoyed a passionate romance with the automobile since Henry Ford began mass-producing the first Model T in 1908. For Kailua’s Victor Weisberger, it’s a love affair that has withstood the test of time. He owns, and still drives, the 1914 Model T he purchased more than a half-century ago.
“I bought it when I was 19 and it has lasted far longer than any job, relationship or marriage I’ve ever had,” says Weisberger. “It’s a great toy. It keeps me young and takes me back to the early days of motorized transportation when the transition was being made from the horse and wagon.”
For the past 30 years, Weisberger has served as news editor for the Antique Automobile Club of America’s Aloha Region. His son, Fred, is president. “We’ve been around for about 35 years now as a local club and have about 40 fairly active members,” says Fred. “The club is designed for any car at least 25 years old. When the national club was started back in the mid 1930s, that would have been a very old car from about 1910, but now it can be cars from the 1980s.”
The younger Weisberger describes himself as the consummate tinkerer. With five antique cars parked around his house right now, there’s never a shortage of work.
“You have to always tinker just to keep them going,” says Fred Weisberger. “Old cars are not very reliable.”
Like most car collectors, Fred has a life that extends beyond the garage. This collector of history also teaches history at Le Jardin Academy.
“I talk about the cars where appropriate,” he says. “Most of the kids are probably sick of it, but they enjoy hearing about my cars. I’ve even brought some to school and we’ve had car rides. So it’s been a great learning experience and history lesson for the kids.”
Married with two children of his own, Fred admits that splitting time between his real life loves and his mechanical babies is a delicate balancing act.
“It’s always a struggle, but I’m lucky that my wife is super supportive,” he says. “She enjoys traveling to car events, and we’ve met great people, including Jay Leno and other famous race car drivers. And I think I’ve managed to stay not in the doghouse, but in the good house, because I’ve made money on every car I’ve ever bought except for one I sold to a friend.”
You Only Hurt the Cars You Love
While the Antique Automobile Club strives to preserve cars, some folks out at Kalaeloa Raceway Park seem to get a kick out of destroying them on the track.
“We’ve been working for the past three years to bring racing back to this part of Oahu after Hawaii Raceway Park shut down in April 2006,” says track coordinator Michael Kitchens. “It’s been a huge effort trying to get the park open, schedule events and get people racing again with the support of the SCCA [Sports Car Club of America].”
While the sounds of roaring engines are once again filling the air at Kalaeloa, so is the dust. Due to a lack of funds, all events at Kalaeloa these days are on dirt.
“We had no choice, because dirt is cheap and dirt is easy,” says Kitchens. “Everyone has dirt they’re trying to give away. So the focus for us is on getting asphalt so that we can do everything we used to do at the park.”
A funny thing happened to this self-described “asphalt guy” and many others who yearn for the days of hard surfaces and drag racing. Because they’ve been forced to adapt, they’ve turned into an entirely new breed of racing enthusiasts.
“One of the more popular events is something we call the ‘Hula Cross,’ which is an extreme off-road rally,” says Kitchens. “It’s one of the most amazing, exciting things I’ve ever seen. A mixture of stock-car racing, demolition derby and road racing. It is so visceral and visual. Watching them go through the mud pit and jumping four feet off the ground and doing the table tops in these off-the-shelf cars, it’s awesome.”
Kitchens says most of the cars competing in the Hula Cross are junkyard specials purchased for $500 or less. If you don’t have a beater of your own, Kalaeloa Raceway Park just might have one for you.
“We were thinking of creative ways to get new people out here because so few people have ever done this before,” he says. “Since we already had access to some beaters, we decided to buy them, prep them and make them available at an affordable price. As far as I know, there’s nowhere else in Hawaii where you can rent a racecar and hit the track, and that’s what we’re doing. And the growing number of people who come out are loving it.”
You need to sign a liability waiver if you plan to race, but Kitchens says it’s actually extremely safe because the speeds are relatively low.