The first time the Williams family raced the car, its junkyard motor smoked.
Bill Williams was behind the wheel of the 1985 Ford Mustang when it overheated during laps around the track.
The stock car, which they had found for sale online in Fairbanks, was built to race.
But, it was the end of the summer last year and ultimately the end of the Mustang’s identity as the local racing scene at Twin Cities Raceway would know it.
“I put the wrong gas in ... I put chainsaw gas in it and then it really smoked,” Bill said with a laugh.
Enter Joel, Bill’s 14-year-old son.
With limited racing experience, Joel partnered with his father to begin a winter transformation, of sorts, the likes of which local track goers haven’t seen as long as Bill can remember.
This summer, stock car racers and fans at the raceway were sometimes treated to a glimpse of two unusual sights — the 14-year-old competitor and the lights of a police car.
The once orange colored Mustang has been transformed into a slightly dented, black and white racing machine designed in the image of a police car — complete with authentic lights and Soldotna Police Department decals on the side.
“The crowd really seems to like that car — we get lots of compliments on it,” Bill said.
The most important part, both contend, are the words plastered in red all over — Arrive Alive.
Joel’s race car is a facet of the homegrown campaign designed by Soldotna Police aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, SPD Chief John Lucking said.
Lucking, also a longtime friend of Bill’s, worked with the Williams to develop and execute the re-vamped car. It was a special thing, he added, to watch a father and son construct something together.
“Last winter I was around the shop enough to observe him and his son and their really healthy relationship building this race car,” he said. “It impressed me. Joel is just a really solid young man — he’s not out getting into trouble, he is always constructively using his time for positive things and invested in family.”
The police chief put two and two together and pounced on the opportunity.
“We thought it would be great if we could further the D.A.R.E -type message about youth responsibility, doing the right thing and making the right choices,” he said. “If the department could use him as a role model for that, through the car as a piece of propaganda so to speak, we might be able to reach kids that traditionally we couldn’t.”
Joel said he doesn’t mind that his car carries a message. It’s a part of the new experience he has come to enjoy.
“It’s a major learning experience and it’s a way to get the Arrive Alive campaign out to more of the teenagers,” he said. “We get a lot of feedback from kids and adults and everybody on the car itself.”
Statistics from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration indicate that of the 34,017 crashes in 2008 that killed 37,261 people, 5,870 fatalities — or 16 percent — were due to driver distraction, according to a 2008 study by the Alaska Highway Safety Office.
In Alaska, from 2002 to 2008, there were 399 motor vehicle crashes involving cell phone use, of which 19 crashes resulted in major injuries and one fatality.
Although the Arrive Alive campaign focuses on all aspects of safe driving — driving alert and awake, not texting or using a cell phone, and not driving impaired by drugs or alcohol — the later remains the most deadly, Lucking said.
In 2008 alone, police across Alaska reported 705 crashes involving a driver or a pedestrian with positive blood alcohol content — killing 27 and injuring about 521 people.
One in four Alaska residents have driven within two hours of drinking an alcoholic drink in the past 60 days, according to a 2010 highway safety phone survey.
About 60 percent also reported they regularly talk on their cell phone while driving, but 86 percent said they never text while driving.
“Hopefully for the local community, the words ‘Arrive Alive’ mean something — they know that’s relative to driver safety and the driver’s behavior — not texting, not drinking, not paying attention or driving when you are tired,” Lucking said.
Lucking is convinced Joel’s car is not only spreading the message to more Central Peninsula residents, but it is also hitting a mark with hard-to-reach youth, such as those who might attend stock car races and miss traditional radio or newspaper advertising.
“This is an opportunity to be in an arena and expose to people who might not get exposure to actually generate some deep stimulated thought about how important it is to drive safe and how fragile we are as individuals,” he said. “Sometimes you have to get with the younger generation to get to the younger generation.”
Bill is also seeing the difference the car and its campaign can make in the community.
“A lot of kids won’t pay any attention to the radio ads for this or the newspaper ads, but when they see it on this car, then they might put two and two together,” he said. “I think it’s worked out really well because we have got a lot of feedback. Even the other police know about this car and word gets around.”
The car also has another message, one conveying that law enforcement are not against the sport of racing, as long as it’s done legally. Also, that cops want to do more than write tickets; to be proactive rather than reactive in the community, he said.
“I think it is really sending out a positive message,” Joel said. “There are a lot of cops on the Kenai Peninsula and a lot of people don’t like the cops just because they got pulled over once or they got in trouble or something and I think this car is a way to tell them that the cops do support racing, but just in a legal way.”
Joel never had a moment of hesitation about driving the police car or being a part of the department’s campaign, he said.
“We knew that we were going to have to build a car on the really cheap side and it was going to be really hard for us to build a decent motor and car having a 14-year-old without a job being able to get parts,” he said. “This helps me a lot and I have to thank John Lucking because that car would not be what it is without him.”
Lucking noted the Alaska Peace Officers Association and the City of Soldotna also contributed to the cause.
He also said that the department hopes to continue funding Joel’s car and the Arrive Alive campaign through another 12-month grant, if it’s approved.
Even if the money runs out, Joel’s time behind the wheel won’t be up, he contends.
“I know I am going to be racing stock cars for a while because I mostly want to,” he said.
Racing is in his blood, he said.
Often times three generations of Williamses can be found at the track on race night. Even Joel’s brother Andy and grandfather from Anchorage are in on the passion.
“It is something that we have just done,” Bill said.
Being the youngest guy at the track doesn’t intimidate Joel either.
“A lot of people, the first couple of race days, were just kind of shocked at how young I was,” he said with a laugh.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect because I haven’t ever driven over 15 miles per hour and so I was picturing it myself and I had played lots of video games about it, but there is a large difference from video games to real life. Once you get it down, it is just not that hard at all.”
Just like any other parent would, Bill gets the usual bouts of race day stress, for both of his sons.
“I have had more anxiety when they’re on the track worrying that something could happen than I ever had when I was on the track,” he joked.
And although he knows both of his sons are good young men and becoming better drivers on the track, he understands racing judgment is much different than personal judgment. That gives him anxiety, too.
That’s why as a parent, he whole-heartedly supports the Arrive Alive campaign.
“When I was 21 years old, it was a different world then,” he said with a grin. “I could get by with things that I know Andy can’t.
“My parents couldn’t recognize the signs like I can because I did all that stuff that teenagers do. I’m a little more informed than my parents were.”