Published 12:00 am Friday, April 13, 2012
SALISBURY — Bill and Kimberley Naves follow the same ritual for each journey down the dragstrip.
She kisses him before he puts on his helmet.
Bill makes the final adjustments to his fire suit.
He then shakes the hand of each member of his crew.
Kimberley returns for a hug and wishes him good luck before the whole body of his funny car is raised and he climbs behind its 3,000-horsepower engine.
Kimberley is the last person Bill wants to have physical contact with. She helps push the car toward the starting line, where their son Jagger, named for Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, usually guides it to the staging lights.
As the engines roar and the crowd’s anticipation grows, the couple feed on the sound.
Then there’s the speed.
In an instant, the time it takes Bill’s brain to move from green light to the throttle, he’s off — down the quarter-mile strip in the blur of 6 seconds.
On the way, he reaches a speed of around 235 mph before the parachutes explode from the back.
Over the past 25 years, Bill Naves has raced at more than 80 different dragways, almost exclusively on his own nickel and ingenuity.
But more important, he has competed and persevered with the full-out support of his wife and family.
Today and Saturday, Naves will be racing his Top Alcohol funny car at the National Hot Rod Association Four-Wide Nationals. The event takes place at the zMax Dragway, next to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
NHRA chose Bill and Kimberley Naves’ humble team from Salisbury to promote its 2012 “Nitro Generation” racing season.
Making its debut at the zMax Dragway, the car celebrates the many generations of racers, teams and fans that have followed the NHRA style of drag racing.
The Nitro Generation car’s paint scheme — really a wrap — features several photographs from the NHRA archives.
“It’s the history of NHRA racers passing their passion down from generation to generation,” NHRA President Tom Compton said. “The Bernsteins, the Coughlins, the Forces, the Johnsons, the Kalittas. The list goes on.”
Though not so famous, Bill and Kimberley Naves are a perfect choice to represent the generational aspect of racing.
Building, tuning and drag racing his own car since 1987 and enamored with funny cars since he was a schoolboy in Massachusetts, Bill Naves learned early on his would not be a regular lifestyle.
He would be giving up normal holidays, birthday parties, anniversaries, school events and vacations, while all of his extra time and money flowed into the sport.
Naves says it takes “a wife that does it with you,” and Kimberley was that kind of woman when they started Shooting Star Motorsports 25 years ago.
They also raised their four children at the track — Magen, Jagger, Mandi and Matthew, all grown now and all, to various degrees, with junior dragster careers as part of their own racing resumes.
“We did our camping trips with the race car behind us.” Bill says.
Every Easter, for example, the Naves family raced — and still does — at Eastside Dragway in Waynesboro, Va.
Anniversary at track
This weekend, Bill and Kimberley will be celebrating their 29th anniversary at the zMax Dragway.
Family vacations to Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Hershey Park, Pa., were built around race weekends.
“We all give up a lot to keep him going,” Kimberley says.
By the same token, Bill thinks his children had experiences most other kids did not, traveling up and down the East Coast.
Jagger Naves, who now has his own racing promotion business called Earth Shaking Entertainment, qualified to run in the first Junior Dragster Nationals, held in Indianapolis, Ind. It was a family trip, of course.
Bill Naves has a reputation for being a sage of sorts, a great tuner to whom others often seek advice. As a driver, Kimberley says her husband is “not a risk taker,” though he has had three significant wrecks.
Bill likes to say he can squeeze $500 out of 50 cents to keep his funny cars going. As other drag teams cycle out parts, he buys them for pennies on the dollar and finds ways to reuse them.
Even at age 56, Naves would quit his full-time day job if a big sponsor ever signed on and he could be a funny car dragster full-time.
“Wouldn’t even think twice,” he says.
Naves has averaged roughly 12 to 15 races a year, placing in the top five of his division at times. But some years because of other commitments and resources, he has only been able to race three or four times.
One season, he liquidated his 401K retirement savings and went for it, with son Matthew accompanying him to 26 different venues.
“We had a ball,” he says.
Not another fisherman
Bill Naves grew up in Gloucester, Mass. a fishing town. His fisherman father was lost in a storm at sea when Bill was 6, leaving his mother to raise five boys in a two-bedroom house. She was adamant about his not being a fisherman.
Kimberley lived in Rockport, an artists’ community and testimony, she says, to the notion that opposites attract. She definitely was attracted to the racer in Bill Naves. They met at a gas station, where he was manager and she pumped gas. “But I fell in love with him at a funeral,” she laughs.
Bill always has been a top-notch mechanic, working at gas stations, dealerships or independent shops. For the bigger concerns, he has been a line technician, supervisor and service manager.
Always a mechanic
Today he works as a line technician at Ben Mynatt Nissan in Salisbury after stints at Team Chevrolet and Larry King Chevrolet.
In Salisbury, Mass. — the coincidence is not lost on him — Naves started building and tuning his first funny car in a garage with just enough room for him to make it around the vehicle. The Dodge Omni became the first of many funny cars he and Kimberley would run in match races and on the NHRA and IHRA circuits.
Before that, he was bracket racing at local tracks, eventually driving the Don Garlits Shorty dragster in Pro Comp races.
Kimberley used to sell Princess House crystal and was good enough to win all-expense-paid trips to places such as Hawaii and Mexico.
“He worked days, and I worked nights,” Kimberley says. She also found ways to squeeze in a college education around the racing and raising children. She has a bachelor’s degree in business.
Bill calls her “Super Mom.”
For a time, she was his “left cylinder-head guy” on the race team and even competed a few times herself in the Super Comp class.
“He taught me everything I know,” she says.
“That’s why she had to quit,” Bill adds.
Bill had his first accident at New England Dragway. Just an instant from the starting line, he felt his tires shaking, and soon his dragster was careening toward a guardrail that cut it in half.
“I beat the ambulance to his wreck, and I threatened to divorce him in the ambulance,” Kimberley says.
“A lot of people thought I was done,” Bill says, but he is referring to the loss of his car, not his life.
A second crash came in Bristol, Tenn., at one of the few races Kimberley could not attend. He only required stitches for his injuries from that high-speed crash.
A third accident occurred two years ago in Waynesboro, Va.
Kimberley has a video of it, and she’s saying “No, no, no,” into the microphone as the wreck transpires.
“I thought I was done that time, too,” Bill Naves says, but again he’s talking about fielding a race team.
It took three days for other racers, friends and family members to talk him into starting over with a new car.
Naves kept asking himself how he and Kimberley would find the money to keep going without a high-dollar sponsor. It came down to him and his relentless drive.
“If I didn’t have the abilities I have,” he says, “it would be impossible.”
Move to Salisbury
The family moved to Salisbury (N.C.) in 1995 to put Bill closer to more of the dragstrips.
Kimberley has worked for the past eight years for Easter Seals.
Wherever they have lived through the years, the size of the garage and the length of the driveway — is it long enough for their racing rig? — always have been the primary considerations.
They built a garage from scratch at their current residence. At first, it was big enough to include a storage room for Kimberley’s things. Now, that section is a shelf in Bill’s shop. “We’re out of room,” he says.
In Charlotte with the “Nitro Generation” car, Bill Naves will be tucked inside a Dodge Stratus, carbon-fiber body as he burns down the track on methanol fuel.
His race team this weekend will include Kimberley, Jagger, Jason and Clay Higgins and Allen Heglar.
“Cargoyle,” a popular gargoyle paint scheme by Eric Black of Burlington, was Shining Star’s funny car last season.
Last week, Shining Star showcased its “Extreme Pursuit” car in Waynesboro for Easter weekend. A half-body 1934 Ford coupe with lights and sirens, it also will be used by law enforcement in traffic safety messages.
Bill and Kimberley Naves now have six grandchildren who are slowly getting a taste for their sport.
Kimberley sees it as more opportunities to build lasting family memories.
“It’s priceless,” she says of the drag racing life. “What they get far exceeds anything you could buy. … I can’t imagine our family without this.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.