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STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART: VW BUGS BOND FATHER-SON DRAG RACERS
Jeff Gilliam sat anxiously in the waiting room at Children's Medical Center Dallas. His 18-year-old son, Brock, was undergoing his third open-heart surgery since the age of three and Jeff wanted to come up with a father-son project for the two of them to work on after Brock's recovery.
Little did the two know that a fire red 1957 Volkswagen Bug would change their lives forever.
"When it came up for sale, I was trying to figure out how I was going to break the news to my wife that - while my son is in intensive care after open-heart surgery - we're fixing to buy a race car," Jeff said.
The '57 Bug, along with the Gilliams, are now fixtures at Universal Technical Institute Friday Night Drags. Jeff even has his own Bug, a '53 edition that regularly challenges Brock in the Summit Racing Equipment Sportsman Division. In fact, Jeff and Brock raced for a UTI Friday Night Drags championship on the final night of the six-week season back in 2016.
"My daddy taught me how to drive a Volkswagen Bug when I was about 12 years old in a rodeo arena parking lot, so that's where it started for me," said Jeff, a 58-year-old native of Longview. "I remember my grandmother sitting in the backseat hollering that lunch was burning and that we probably had to get back to the house. But that was the first vehicle I ever drove."
It also was the first make and model that his son raced. Born with an aortic valve blockage, Brock has undergone three open-heart surgeries - his last coming at the age of 18 to remove an aneurism on top of his heart. While he certainly appreciates the amazing work by the dedicated medical personnel at Children's, he also believes his newfound love of drag racing has played a huge part in his recovery and continued wellness.
"I've been going ever since and go back and monitor it every year to make sure everything is okay, said Brock, who is now 24 years old. "But I remember my first race. The Mustang I raced against was a two-valve Mustang and he was revving and revving before the start," Brock recalled. "My dad had told me, 'Don't break this car. Just cruise; don't race.' But I had to do it and I went from first to second to third (gear) and I was planted in the seat and it was awesome. The look on his face, I'll never forget it. He couldn't believe a Bug just beat his Mustang."
Unable to compete in active sports or football because of his condition, racing has helped Brock be able to represent himself in a competitive way. It's also helped him be active and as he puts it, not feel sorry for himself.
It wasn't long after Brock's first race that he told his father he'd like to drag race at Texas Motor Speedway.
"I said, 'Son, it's circles and lanes, there's no place to drag race.' Then he showed me a couple videos, so we came up here and spectated and watched," Jeff recalled. "That was four seasons ago. We watched one and raced two that season. We've been coming ever since."
After watching the enjoyment and success of his son, Jeff decided to join in the fun two years ago. Like father, like son, Jeff bought a '53 VW Bug and rebuilt it with the help of his son and some family friends.
In 2016, the two battled it out for six weeks in the Reunion Tower GeO Deck Bandit Division. The championship came down to the final race as the two went head-to-head on Texas Motor Speedway's 1/8-mile pit road dragway.
"I looked at him and I said, 'You better not let me win,' Brock remembered saying to his father before the race began.
Brock ended up getting the better of his father on that night, as Jeff missed second gear and was unable to chase his son down before the finish line. Brock collected some hardware for his victory, which included a championship trophy along with a Snap-on Tools roll cart.
"Yes, I missed a gear. And yes, he did beat me. But the main thing I remember from that night is when we came back to the pits, we were loading up the cars and taking pictures with the trophies, and (Brock) told me, 'Dad I know it's going to be a long night and we have a long drive home,' " said Jeff, whose hometown of Longview is about 166 miles southeast of Fort Worth. "He said 'I'm going to take the lead all the way home that way you won't have to worry about missing an exit or anything like that. And you'll be able to look at my toolbox all the way home.
"It was a really awesome moment and I wouldn't trade it for the world."