Built for Speed

Drive down Broadway Boulevard late on a Saturday night, and you'll see neon lights illuminating long stretches of road. Closed businesses line each side of the street, and cars glide easily across the cooler pavement. It seems like the city is fast asleep, tired from the hot day before. But head east across the intersection of Broadway Boulevard and Plumer Avenue, and a typical Saturday night in Tucson can turn cool.

Visit Sonic Drive-In at 2222 E. Broadway Blvd. anytime between 10 p.m. and midnight on a Saturday, and a sensory feast is likely. You'll smell food on the grill, hear tunes on the speakers and see cars lined up for viewing pleasure (weather permitting). The 30 or 40 cars parked there are not your typical Ford sedans, but instead are well-built, well-polished muscle cars. You can see a 1967 Mustang, 2002 Z06 Corvette, 1999 Z28 Camaro, 2004 GTO and more. The men and women displaying their vehicles are members of the Sonoran Muscle Car club.

The club, founded by Aaron Barnell, was started by a group of friends who enjoy their cars. The group has approximately 160 members and offers an interactive Web site. "We had other Web sites that weren't member friendly. We wanted a place where (we could) create a family and help (other muscle car enthusiasts) make friends easily." Now, at sonoranmusclecars.com, members with screen names such as monSSter, ViperKiller and Dvst8or can sign on and chat about cars and everyday life. Barnell says many of the members are active military who "can keep in touch with the rest of us" when they are overseas.

Not all members own muscle cars, but all have an appreciation for them. There can be a difference in opinion about what makes a muscle car. "In the older days, a muscle car was a stripped-down car with a big engine," says Barnell. "Now, it's growing into anything that's fast. ... A fast car is capable of speeds that exceed the local speed limit. But there's so much controversy. What people say is fast is different (from person to person.)"

While Sonoran Muscle Car members may have fast cars, you won't necessarily find the majority of them racing their vehicles. "About 30 percent go to the drag strip. There's one at Southern International Raceway on Houghton Road. The other 70 percent just have their cars," says Barnell.

As a non-racer, Barnell says having his car, a 1999 Z28 Camaro Ls1 6-speed, is something he does for enjoyment. "It's something to do. It's fun to get it out and clean it up. It gives me something to dig my hands into."

Not only do members dig into their engines, but they also dig into their pockets to modify their cars. "It's not a cheap pastime," says Barnell. "Members may spend $20,000 on a car and then $10,000 to modify it. They are willing to spend a lot of money purely for fun. But it's also that they did it themselves."

While modifications vary from vehicle to vehicle, some of the common alterations might be adding a turbo or blower, upgrading wheels and changing the exhaust system. The goal is to get the car to go faster and handle better. "We want them to be quick and handle like they are on rails," says Barnell. "You want to make them stay in the exact same line without getting out of shape. Going fast around a corner, a minivan would run off the road. (With a muscle car), you want to make them stick to the road."

Members of the club vary in age from teenagers to a couple in their late 60s. There are no fees or age restrictions. Members are both white and blue-collar, with representatives from the Air Force, city of Tucson, fire and police departments and private industry. While the majority of members are men, there are women who belong to the club, including 03CobraGrl.

But there's more to the group than cars. "We are not just a car club," says Barnell. "We want to become more community oriented. That's what we are trying to turn into."

On Monday, June 27, the group is sponsoring a trip for the children who stay at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in child care. Barnell explains that many of the children's parents on the base must leave their children in child care for extended periods. In order to treat these kids to a field trip, members of Sonoran Muscle Cars paid to allow the children to go to the Tucson Children's Museum. Another project in the works: setting up a car show for Toys for Tots in late December. Sonoran Muscle Cars has also hosted car shows for local businesses and is looking to expand these activities.

Besides community involvement, what fuels the group is its common love of muscle cars. The core group of members who show up at Sonic each Saturday are more than happy to talk about their pastime to any interested party. All are welcome. "Our group is really friendly," says Barnell. "People are more than happy to show their pride and joy. These guys have spent a lot of time on their cars. If people have a question, they shouldn't hesitate to ask."

For more information, call 247-3092.