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Drag racing Hough family perseveres

Rick Hough's family was ready to give up.

Drag racing kept Rick's dad signing autographs into his 60s, but now Dave Hough was just a father saddled with guilt in a Gainesville hospital after watching the car he made famous become a barrel-rolling fireball with his son Rick trapped inside.

Rick's wife was finished, too.

Racing had been a part of her life since the night she was born, but Gloria couldn't take it any more, not after watching her husband nearly die on the track. Again.

But Rick wanted more.

For 40 years, his family had toured the country with "Nanook," a nostalgia fuel-altered roadster. Racing took them to cheap hotels and Niagara Falls. It ate up their free time and spare change. It's what they talked about at dinner. It's who they were.

"You'll die if we don't run this car," Rick told his dad.

Besides, Rick's son had just turned 13. He was almost ready to get behind the wheel.

•••

Rick's father, Dave, grew up when racing was booming in Southern California in the late 1950s. He would sneak out at night to race with his 1959 El Camino.

"My father would have killed me if he knew I was drag racing," Dave said.

In the early '60s, Dave and his friends put new hemi engines in old roadsters; first a 1929 Model A, then a 1923 Model T. They named the cars Nanook.

His biggest achievement came in 1976, when Nanook was a late addition to a 64-car field in California. It ripped through its half of the bracket for a showdown with Hall of Famer Don Prudhomme. Dave lost but still autographs photos from that day.

But racing was a hobby, not a job. When the Houghs traveled across the country, they sped home so Dave wouldn't be late to his Monday shift at the cement plant.

"Babysitters were expensive," said his son Rick, "so they just dragged me along."

By 10, Rick was tearing motors apart by himself.

•••

Nanook disappeared for two decades after the Houghs moved to Hawaii, but by 1999 the family found the specs from their 1972 hot rod and got the original painter to revive its green-and-orange scheme.

With Dave in the garage, Rick behind the wheel and Rick's son Kyle screwing off valves, the Houghs traveled across the country from their new home in Las Vegas, stopping by Niagara Falls or Yellowstone National Park on their way to the next track.

They were at a drag strip in Boise, Idaho, in August 2005 when Rick slammed into the left guardrail after 500 feet. His wife and son watched as Nanook jetted back to the right and stopped, on fire, in the other lane.

"I was waiting for him to move, to get out of the car and tell me that everything was okay," Gloria said. "That didn't happen."

And it didn't happen until nine days later, when Rick woke from his coma with a broken neck.

He returned for the 2006 Gatornationals seven months later in Gainesville, where he made the fastest run in his life, a quarter-mile in 6.16 seconds. But something broke along the way, and Nanook veered into the right wall. His son only saw the puff of white smoke.

When Rick steered left, the car flipped a half-dozen times and caught fire. The barrel rolls trapped his arm and shredded his right hand, but he walked away.

"That was kind of the low in my life," Dave said. "When you hurt your children, that's really something."

Dave and Gloria wanted to quit before anything worse happened to Rick. But motor oil runs through the family's veins. Dave met his wife working as a mechanic at a gas station. On the night Gloria was born, her father was at the track, racing.

Three generations were working in the same garage with the same tools on a car that has had the same name for five decades.

What else were the Houghs going to do? Go fishing?

"We don't go bowling," Kyle said. "We go drag racing."

So they resurrected the car, again.

Rick couldn't drive after doctors amputated his right hand, so his brother-in-law and a family friend filled in for a few years, until his son was old enough to get his license.

Kyle was 19 last year when he claimed the IHRA Nitro Jam series' nostalgia fuel-altered championship. He has won both races this spring in a replica of the roadster his grandfather made famous in 1976, and he will be a favorite this weekend when the IHRA stops at Bradenton Motorsports Park.

The Houghs' roles have evolved, but the whole family remains involved. Kyle's mom drains the oil. His sister leads the cheering section. His grandpa tows Nanook in the 70-foot rig from stop to stop. And his father straps him in tight just before the green lights flash.

"Seeing the joy on my grand­father's and father's faces; that's who I do it for," Kyle said. "It's what keeps them going."

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @matthometeam.

Drag racing Hough family perseveres 04/17/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 9:25pm]
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