The Challenger: The Al Young Story
Al couldn’t believe he was about to compete in the International Hot Rod Association’s 1981 World Championship at Bristol, Tennessee. The smell of race gas filled his nostrils. Engines thundered around him at full throttle, turning heads and raising the ears of spectators. The bright sun beat down on the dragstrip, more brilliant then the grey skies over the Pacific Northwest that Al was accustomed to.
Al blinked his eyes and remembered how he had once been overwhelmed as a boy by so many sensations – so much so that his mother Mary kept his home from school for weeks at a time. From his family’s house on 37th Avenue, Al heard the sounds of his classmates playing during recess at his nearby grammar school. The rusty squeak of swing sets. The laughter of children his own age. Basketballs bouncing on asphalt. The whole world hummed with activity, and Al was outside of it.
In the stands, spectators waved Confederate flags with white stars and blue bars. Thirty-four thousand people gathered to watch the championship race. Out of 350 competitors, Al stood out as the only Asian American. Spectators placed bets in the stands. “He doesn’t have a chance!” They scrutinized Al’s bold green 1970 Dodge Challenger.
Al remembered the stories that his folks had told him of about his family’s move from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1946. When property owners refused to sell his parents a home, his father’s army buddies banded together to buy a house and sell it to the Young family. The neighbors fought back and started a petition to push the family out. But their next-door neighbors, the Stevensons, refused to sign it, and their son, Jimmy, became Al’s best friend.
Al’s gaze searched the pit to lock eyes with his friend Sherman, who towed Al’s car from Seattle for him – two friends making the journey south together.
Sherman waved and Al beamed back, drawing strength from Sherman and the memories of the many friends who’d believed in him throughout his life. Al thought of Mrs. Steinberg, his fourth-grade teacher, who saw past Al’s stutter and nervous tics to see a curious mind. She sent Al to the Lux Lab, an after-school science program where he fell in love with building things with his hands.
At the Lux Lab, nearly a hundred boys and girls, toyed with making new inventions, using soldering iron, transistors, capacitors, and solar batteries. If Al needed a special part for a project, he could simply march down to the supply room. Al spent most of his time focused on assembling radios. When he wasn’t tinkering at his workstation, Al tried to absorb lectures on physics and math delivered by Dr. Kitigaki and his lab assistants.
But it was too much. Dr. Kitigaki put out the blaze, when a device Al built burst into flames. “I’m not a genius, like some of these other kids,” Al confided to his parents.
“It’s not a waste of time, if you learn from the experience,” Al’s father reassured his son.
Al thought not only of his father, but of the supporter who had paved the way for his race
at Bristol. Ole Bardahl arrived in Seattle via Norway. Unable to speak a word of English and with only $29 in his pockets, Ole went on to establish an brand of motor oil used around the world. When the starting line lights flashed their amber, Al pictured the landmark neon sign for Bardahl’s Oil looming over the Ballard Bridge.
Al guided his car into position at the starting line, preparing for the countdown of the starting signal lights. At the first amber, Al remembered his first car, a four-door 1950 Ford Mercury that he bought for $20 with money saved from his paper route.
Al had dreamed of buying and building his first hot rod since entering high school. He was bored in the basic skills courses that the school placed him in and couldn’t connect to his studies. Though he would read a paragraph over and over again, he couldn’t remember a word of it. Al’s grades slipped and he found himself in classes with other kids who had fallen behind. In Mr. Ruane’s class, students watched hours of instructional film, while Al daydreamed of fixing up his first car. He hid his secret purchase from his parents by parking it around the corner from their house near the elementary school.
Al’s classmates laughed when he drove to school in the rusted olive drab Mercury, so Al set to work on restoring his vehicle. He bought a can of royal-blue Rust-oleum and painted the right fender. Surprised that he ran out of paint so soon, he ran back to the hardware store to buy more. After painting the left fender and two doors (along with parts of the sidewalk and the car next to his, because of an unusually strong wind), he ran out of paint again.
In the end, Al’s car ended up with four different shades of patchwork blue.
Al gazed at the ugly patchwork of colors and felt regret for all the money he’d spent on his project. His sister’s boyfriend encouraged Al to confess to his parents. John and Mary Young were relieved to learn that their son wasn’t hanging out with gangs, or spray-painting buildings. They agreed to let Al pursue his hobby on one condition.
“You can work on cars, but you must get your grades up and stay in school.” John even set up a job for his son at a local repair shop.
Al learned how to adjust carburetors, service radiators, and replace spark plugs – he was in heaven. “If I drove the fastest car in school, I bet the girls wouldn’t be able to resist me,” Al thought. But what Al didn’t know was what the girls really liked were guys with cars that looked like they went fast. Al spent more and more time under his car, trying to make it run faster.
Engines roared, bringing Al back to his senses. He exhaled sharply and as the second amber light fired, Al thought of his long journey to Tennessee and leaving home for the first time.
After Al’s graduation from high school, Al’s father encouraged him to go to summer school. John didn’t tell his son that he worried Al would be drafted to fight in Vietnam if he didn’t go to college. After earning Cs and Ds for years, Al’s grades finally improved. By the end of the year, Al regained his confidence and made a big decision. “I’m leaving California,” he announced. Al wanted to strike out on his own. He looked at a map and chose Longview, WA, a small town of 20,000 people, where he could get some distance from San Francisco.
In Longview, Al was determined to read all of the great books. To keep his mind on studying, Al discovered that his body needed to move. Walking the three-mile loop around Lake Sacajawea, Al spent hours reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. He passed families out fishing for trout and never lifted his head from his books. When the weather got too cold, Al shut himself in his apartment and read while standing on a stool. Using these tricks, Al improved his grades and transferred to the University of Washington.
With a college diploma in hand, Al found work teaching auto shop and social studies. With a steady income, Al turned his attention back to his love of cars and began racing competitively.
As the last amber light flickered in front of him, Al brought the memory of his first win into focus. On a trip driving back to Washington from Las Vegas, Al passed the racetrack in Kent. He had raced his 1964 Plymouth Barracuda once before and knew the car could compete with the best. Al turned around and went back to the track, where he unloaded his luggage and tools and tinkered beneath the car. Al didn’t have a pit crew or a safe place to leave his things, so he raced with his luggage in his trunk.
Al’s Barracuda left before any of his opponents cars even moved. Within thousands of a second after the green light went on, Al’s tires slammed down to bite the road and move forward. Al beat out 50 cars in an afternoon of quarter-mile racing and walked away with first prize: a check for $10 and a 12-piece bucket of chicken.
But today, Al competed for a $40,000 Corvette and a major title. As the last light turned green, car engines roared and fans rose to their seats. Al’s Challenger shot forward from the starting line, his tires gripping the track as his car surged ahead. The whole world hummed with activity, and Al was inside of it.
Al Young retired from competitive racing in 2003 and donated his racecar to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. The lime-green car presides over the museum lobby and displays the decals of Al’s many supporters, a dense pattern of stickers reminiscent of the colorful patchwork of paint on Al’s first Mercury. Al paid $1,100 for his Challenger, in 1975. Today, it is worth $600,000.
In 2011, Al undertook an 8,000-mile roadtrip with Vicki, his wife of 32 years. Though Al made countless trips cross-country during his racing career, it had always been under the pressure of meeting a race schedule deadline. He dreamed of taking a trip where he could stop whenever he wanted, to get a feel for the country that he was crossing. Cruising the highways in his restored 1973 Plymouth Roadrunner, Al and his wife wove through the West, Midwest and parts of the South, along Route 66 through San Antonio, Albuquerque, and Kingman. After 28 days on the road, Al and Vicki arrived back in the Pacific Northwest. As Al approached the highway off-ramp to their home, Vicki turned to Al and said, “I could keep on going…”
Al couldn’t have agreed more.
Alfred John Young was born on April 28, 1946, in Whittier, California, the youngest child of John and Mary Lee. Trained as an engineer, Al’s father was not only a decorated army war veteran, but also an entrepreneur. John moved the Young family to the Richmond District of San Francisco, where Al grew up with his two older sisters Janey and Connie, while John ran Wing Nien Foods, a producer of specialty Asian foods.
Tapped early on as a whiz kid, Al spent his childhood years at the Lux Lab, an accelerated science program established by President Eisenhower’s administration to identify the next generation of rocket scientists. Al finished the program, but struggled with his studies throughout junior high and high school. It was during this time that his interest in cars developed. At the age of 15, Al bought and repaired his first car.
Al graduated high school with below-average grades and enrolled in school to avoid the draft for Vietnam. He attended Stanford University summer school and several community colleges, before going to Longview Community College in Washington. In Longview, Al undertook an intense self-imposed course of study to improve his grades. With his academic performance up, Al transferred to the University of Washington. During the late 1960s, Al participated in a historic protest with his classmates against the war, which shut down Interstate 5. It was also in Seattle, that Al became interested in kung fu, and started practicing with the Seattle Kung Fu Club, where he would later meet his future wife. He completed his college and graduate education at the University of Washington and began his teaching career in 1972.
Al taught for 37 years in the Seattle Public Schools, working mostly for Seattle’s first alternative high school. In 1973, he began his career at the Summit School, instructing subjects that ranged from Auto Shop to American Government. In 2004, Al was recognized as one Seattle Public Schools’ “Heroes in the Classroom.” He retired from teaching in 2008.
In a competitive sport that is known for “making billionaires out of millionaires,” Al raced on a modest teacher’s income through the support of Bardahl Oil and other product sponsors. In 1974, Al won his first race and went on to win every major event in the Northwest at least twice between 1976 to1996.
Known as Al “Oil Down” Young, for once blowing a motor during a race and oiling down both sides of the track, and by the nickname “Smilin’ Al Young – The Gentleman,” Al developed a reputation for his friendly manner and his willingness to chat with fans in the pit.
Over decades of competition, Al raced his Challenger at speeds over 150 miles per hour, winning everything from state championships to thousands of dollars as a three-time world champion of Hot Rod Racing. His titles include the American Hot Rod Association World Champion, the National Hot Rod Association Division Champion, and American Hot Rod Association World Finals Champion.
Today, at 67-years-old, Al is once again active in racing, but doesn’t tow any of his cars to the track anymore. Al drives to the track, empties the trunk of lawn chairs, and just goes. He is still a practicing member of the Seattle Kung Fu Club and studies traditional Hung Gar Kuen with SiFu John S. S. Leong.
Al lives outside of Seattle with his wife, Vicki. They have two children and six grandchildren.