Like so many of us gearheads, Dustin Lee was a young teenager when he fell in love with cars. After a road trip with a friend and his father, Dustin thought his friend’s dad had the coolest car and he fell in love with it. Even though it was 1994 and most teenagers were into Hondas and Nissans, he wasn’t following the “in” crowd when it came to transportation.
Since Dustin wasn’t into the import scene, you would suspect that he would have wanted a Camaro or Mustang because they’re sporty, they’re fast, and they are very popular. But that wasn’t even close to what Dustin thought was cool, and wouldn’t you know that Dustin eventually persuaded his father to do some trading for that very same car that he fell in love with? He must have been very persuasive, too, considering he grew up in a family of Chevrolet owners.
The car he fell for was not your typical teenagers choice, unless you were expecting it to be the family wagon. But not just any wagon, this one didn’t have faux wood on the side, nor did it have the cool, rear-facing fold-down seat in the rear. The car he envied was a 1953 Ford Ranch Wagon Custom Line, and it is a behemoth of a wagon – every bit as big as you would suspect, given the year of it.
No, this wagon wasn’t your typical hot rod or muscle car that you’d think would compel a kid to want it, but then, Dustin wasn’t you typical kid. By 15 years old, he was building single-cylinder engines for his customers in junior dragster world, and even competed with his brother to see who could get that extra horsepower out of their engine. This is probably about the point where Dustin fell in love with building engines, and it started him on a path that, to his own credit, has been pretty successful.
Dustin’s initial intent for this Ranch Wagon was to make a cool cruiser out of it. Since he had been racing junior dragsters, it wasn’t the kind of car he envisioned that he would be drag racing with. But by the time he got his license, like so many other teenagers, it was his only car and therefore that’s what he drove.
Drag racing wasn’t in the plans, but one night he found himself at Los Angeles County Raceway (LACR) and even though some people laughed at the mere thought of this big wagon on the dragstrip, the laughing soon subsided because it didn’t take long before Dustin and his wagon would win their class – and the very next night he won the finals with it. They say that it’s typically the driver who wins, not necessarily the car, and Lee sure proved that.
I’m not about the glamor. Sure, it’s nice to get your name in the paper once in a while. But racing doesn’t strike me as a job, for me it’s kind of a getaway. -Dustin Lee
At 18, Lee was working with then three-time NHRA Top Eliminator champion Bill Maropulos, doing what he loved best: building engines. Driving his Ranch wagon back and forth to Simi Valley every day when gas was just over a buck a gallon, he decided to build a little bit of a hotter motor. At the track, that motor was reeling in high 13s, which wasn’t bad for a kid who was building his own engines.
If you ask Dustin, he credits working with people like Maropulos that gave him the confidence and skills to build race engines, and Lee knew that it was something he was destined to do. He feels that he puts his best into an engine and that each racer counts on the engine to work and to be successful. It might be a lot of pressure on some people, but to Dustin it isn’t so much pressure as it is inspiration.
We asked Dustin about racing and building engines and he said, “I’m more about showing people what I’m capable of doing for them. I’ve done a lot of research and development for people and I enjoy that part. I’m not about the glamor, sure; it’s nice to get your name in the paper once in a while. But racing doesn’t strike me as a job, for me it’s kind of a getaway.”
Dustin began to do a bit of bracket racing with his wagon, and despite the wins and losses, he never got discouraged. He continued to race the wagon, and with the hotter engine his long trips to work were getting tougher on the wallet, so an import became the commuter car while the wagon was reserved for cruising, and bracket racing, of course.
No Laughing Matter
We asked what the condition of the wagon was when he got it, and he described it as red, cream and rough, complete with genuine patina. In 1998 he decided to paint it silver and had the interior reupholstered. It was becoming a better looking cruiser, but if there was ever a sleeper wagon it was this Ranch Wagon. Tell someone it could lift the front end and they might ask for proof given the engine isn’t sticking through the hood and the car has a full interior.
With a few performance parts, flat top pistons and some massaging, he was getting 535 ponies at the crank at 7000 rpm. He says it’s nothing special, he has very little money in it and did all the work himself. This low budget wagon is pretty impressive, despite the nonchalant way that Lee describes it.
When Dustin takes this car to the track, it’s very unassuming. Some people are still laughing when they first see it, he tells us, but then when he begins winning races the laughing sometimes turns to intimidation. Who wants to line up with a tank like this Ranch Wagon and see nothing but tail lights? His competitors are familiar with the tail lights, much to their chagrin.
In 1998 while he was racing, keep in mind that Lee was running in High School Class because he was still only 18 years old. He was already making a name for himself and winning round after round. A little over ten years later he was undefeated in the West Coast Hot Rod Association, and Dustin was on his way to winning, by his best guess, some 50-65 awards with his wagon.
If some of the information and details seem vague as you’re reading this, it’s because Dustin is very humble and tries to avoid the spotlight. Even when we caught up with him at NMCA West at Pomona in August, he wasn’t anything like some of the other class winners who were hamming it up for the photogs. Some people didn’t want to talk, others seemed larger than life, and then there were people like Dustin – who sees this as his hobby instead of something that draws attention. How can you win races and not get attention? He sure would like to figure that out, he genuinely just likes racing.
When we walked up to Lee and asked if we could take some pictures and talk to him about his car, he seemed surprised about it. It was about the same as how others reacted when they saw he was taking home the Wally for winning the B&M Racing Open Comp that day. We had to assure him that it was not just because he won, but because he had won with something different, something we don’t see at every race.
He graciously pulled his car to the side so we could take pictures, and almost awkwardly walked away because he seemed to still be wondering why we were interested. We had to coax him to stand by the car so we could get pictures of him and his Wally, however, somehow he felt he was getting in the way by standing near his car.
When we called him to talk about that day, and his other races, he was still flattered that we wanted to know more. If he hadn’t taken home so many other awards with this car, we would have thought that it merely hadn’t sunken in yet that he had won. He even told us about friends who heard of his victory and how they chastised him for not telling them that he won. No, Dustin doesn’t want or need the limelight, he is simply a guy who loves to build engines, loves to bracket race his car, and to him that’s just part of his life.
Perhaps he can only guess at how many awards he’s won because he doesn’t race for a living, he races for the pure fun of it. To this day, he still knows that Bill Maropulos was a three-time NHRA Top Eliminator champion. But ask Dustin how many times he’s won and you get that vague number – give or take a dozen. Some racers can tell you how many times they’ve won, and where it was that they won. It’s not to say that other racers are bigger than life, it’s just to point out that Dustin isn’t motivated by trophies and accolades, he truly loves racing.
So what goes into the making of a bracket winning, 1953 Ford Ranch Wagon Custom Line? This car is every bit the cruiser that Lee intended it to be, and a look into the interior doesn’t necessarily hint at racing. He drives it for fun, he drives it to the track and races it, and then he drives it home. He doesn’t expect to win any car shows with it, nor does he spend hours polishing and cleaning it. He refers to his engine as “nothing special” and that’s not just fodder to throw off the competition.
He’s been successful with his wagon, but we asked him if it’s discouraging at times since he’s so passionate about it. He told us, “There are times when things aren’t going so well and I get frustrated. But I have to step back and realize what I’m doing and put things in perspective. If I’m having fun that’s all that matters.”
When we asked to open the hood, he shrugged as if to say “why would you want to do that?”. Granted, we did expect to see something more than we did, but even at 535 crank horsepower the engine was about as unassuming as the rest of the car. Sure, there are subtle clues here and there: the Moser Engineering sticker on the ends of his axles, the Edelbrock intake, the Weld Racing wheels – all signs that his wagon is a bit more than a boulevard cruiser. But then there’s the tweed interior, the average appearance of the engine compartment, and the shadow the Ranch wagon casts that would swallow up a Honda entirely.
It’s a big car and we figured that in order to get it moving – to get the front wheels in the air the way he does – that Lee had something up his sleeve, like a low profile blower. At about 3,680 pounds, getting the front in the air is quite impressive, to say the least. But he’s been working on and around race engines most all of his life, and it’s not surprising that his other car is a dragster.
When we tried to get a hold of Dustin, we were surprised we didn’t hear back from him after a week. When we finally did, he let us know that he was in Phoenix with his Ranch Wagon, and that he came home with another passenger: he won the B&M Open Comp Award, and brought home another Wally. That explains everything.