All summer long, a green-and-black Dodge Challenger will sit in the atrium of the Museum of History & Industry. It's eye candy for car lovers, worth more than half a million dollars. More important, it's a piece of the region's racing history.
The 1970 Challenger was donated to MOHAI by Al Young, one of the first Asian Americans to win a world championship in automotive racing when he took the American Hot Rod Association's drag racing World Championship in 1981. Young, 67, donated the vehicle in 2007 after someone offered to buy it for $20,000. It was later appraised for $600,000.
"The car had so much history that I'd rather give it away and let other people see it," Young says. "It was a piece of our racing heritage for the people who race on a weekly basis in the Northwest, as well as the West Coast."
Young, a longtime Seattleite who also taught at the alternative Summit School, bought the car for $1,100 in 1975 and modified it over time. It was still street-legal when he won the 1981 championship in the Super Street division.
That classification was new to the American Hot Rod Association, and Young says it opened a door to allow him to race with professionals who had millions of dollars in backing.
"When you see a race car, it's usually [driven] by someone who's driven on a circuit professionally and that's all he's done," Young says. "This car started as a regular car that you drove on the street and evolved into a race car, which is the opposite way things happen. Every time we raced it we improved it, and it finally evolved into a full-fledged race car rather than a hot rod.
"That's why it's so unique. And the fact that a regular person like myself got to race in a professional circuit."
Over his career, Young won all of the major Northwest drag events while continuing to teach and raise a family. Former student Elden Goe, who is now a drag racer himself, attended a recent talk by Young at MOHAI. "We did things like authorized burnouts in the school parking lots under his watch," Goe says.
Young's talk focused on the mechanics of his winning Challenger. At one point, he worked with racing friend Tom Shrum to show how light and agile the car is by removing the hood, front end, fenders and doors in less than two minutes. The car is about 500 pounds lighter than a Honda Civic, but makes 1,000 horsepower and goes from zero to 158 mph in 8.67 seconds.
Many of the modifications made over the years were paid for by Young's principal sponsor, Bardahl. He approached the Ballard-based oil company at a trade show in 1976.
It agreed to supply him with oil and a small amount of money, which paid for a logo on the Challenger's hood.
After Young won the World Championship in 1981, Bardahl "bought" the whole car. Over the next dozen years the company paid for improvements, maintenance and entry fees for races, Young says.
"In the race-car world it's not that big, but for a little guy, a schoolteacher, it was big money," he says. "I was able to travel to race tracks all over that had pretty big purses."
Young raced the car full time, participating in 40 to 60 races per year, from 1975 to 1994. He scaled back to 20 races per year until 2002, and then took a break to spend more time with his family.
But he couldn't stay away from the track, he says. In 2008, he returned in the Sportsman Class, racing slower Corvettes on the weekends at Bremerton Raceway and Pacific Raceways in Kent.
In the early days of his career, Young says, he'd go south for events and not see any people of color, even spectators. But he says he always got respect for what he'd done with the Challenger.
"I think it's partially because it's a mechanic's sport," he says. "You respect a person's ability to design a car. You're looking at the car a lot more than you're looking at the driver."