Some things never change for Kenneth Justen. For starters, he's never changed his hometown. He's stayed put his whole life in McHenry.
Another constant is his need for speed. That's as strong within him today as it was decades ago.
It all started back in 1973. He purchased a used 1971 Chevy Camaro and nothing could match the rush of mashing the gas pedal down on open rural roads. It sure was fun but the Camaro was also a handful. In 1975, the car was totaled.
That accident put Justen on the prowl for another performance-oriented machine. He saved up some cash and, already being a Camaro fan, headed to Smith's Central Garage in Johnsburg. There he ordered a new '76 Camaro. "Must haves" included black paint, a manual transmission and the biggest engine available -- a rumbling 350-cubic-inch V-8.
The vehicle took two months to arrive. When it did, showroom employees were dumbfounded. "They kept staring," Justen recalls. "Usually they sold family cars like Impalas and Biscaynes. Something sporty was a rare sight."
But employees were gawking while Justen was scrutinizing. The car's $5,416.22 price tag was a hefty sum for the young man and he expected his new buy to be pristine. Come to find out, it wasn't.
Under one of the fender badges was a paint run. Feigning to be fuming, Justen demanded the manager have the car immediately resprayed. The awkwardness lingered before a smiling Justen admitted he was "goofing off'." Still, the joker leveraged the situation and negotiated a deal. He'd forgive the blemish in exchange for use of one of the shop's lifts for the next week.
For the next couple of evenings (when business was slow), Justen sprayed on protective undercoating -- a rust inhibitor to combat salty roads and Illinois winters.
Justen's company work truck allowed him to preserve the Camaro for weekend play. That's when he'd go all out on area asphalt. "I beat on it pretty good; I aimed to maximize the warranty," he says. He did just that. The lead-foot finagled getting the transmission rebuilt, not once but twice -- and both times fully covered. All this within his first year of ownership.
When Justen burned up the transmission a third time, the dealer refused. They had wised up to his tire-smoking antics. Justen's next move was to install a stronger transmission on his own. That did the trick; he hasn't broken it since.
Soon he jumped to his next motorized thrill: muddy, off-road 4x4s. While he was off driving four-wheel drive trucks, the Camaro got sidelined, sitting parked from the early 1980s to 1999. Eventually, some fluid changes were all that were needed to get the Chevy roadworthy again.
Justen's passion is shared by his car-crazy daughter, Karlyn. He's already decided she'll take over ownership one day.
But not before a few more all-out runs.
"I love when cocky drivers come up on the road," Justen said. "I just shake my head and blow them away."
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