For many of us who ogle over rows of classic muscle cars each weekend, we tend to overlook those with imperfections in favor of those with a desirable make and model year, a brighter color, maybe better presentation, and other elements.
We’ve all done it.
At first glance, Don Chiovitti’s 1968 Dodge Dart GTS is far from perfect, but if you take a closer look you can start to appreciate why that is. “I’ve dinged it and scuffed it all over,” he says almost embarrassingly, but mistaking his twenty-foot Dart’s condition for a lack of passion woefully underestimates the man who owns it.
Like many red-blooded American teenagers of the early 70’s, Chiovitti had his sights set on securing his first car after high school graduation. “I always wanted a Roadrunner,” he says with a sly grin.
“Man, those cars were the baddest thing going” he continued. “I couldn’t afford one, but I sure wanted one.”
The 62-year-old Floridian then tells us he got his first job, installing carpet, and had began to save money after graduating high school in 1973. Less than a week later disaster struck.
“As most Floridians do, I headed to a friends house to go swimming,” he said adding that he suffered a catastrophic injury while swimming. It was a day that changed his life forever.
The injury left him a quadriplegic.
Chiovitti makes no bones about what happened next: “It sucked,” he said emphatically. “In those days they didn’t have the treatments and support systems that we have today. I was just beginning a journey that would last over a decade and take me to some pretty dark places.”
“There’s nothing fun about it,” Chiovitti said with a serious tone.
One day at the insistence of his family, Chiovitti was introduced to wheelchair racing. “After a decade of struggling, I had found something that interests me,” he said.
“I had always liked the sensation of speed, ever since I was a little kid up north skiing down the biggest hill in the neighborhood.”
“I started practicing wheeling my chair around the block to build up strength,” he says. Though significantly limited, Chiovitti was determined to prove he could do it.
“I saved up money and was able to buy a race chair” he continues. “The doctors all said I shouldn’t be able to do it, but they were wrong.”
With newfound enthusiasm, Chiovitti had his share of wheelchair racing success. He was strong, determined and carried a new outlook on life. “I decided then that I also wanted to get my degree,” he says.
Although it was no cakewalk, Chiovitti not only achieved his goal but secured an additional diploma in secondary education.
“I thought, before my accident I was a really good mechanic you know and now that I have built up my strength maybe I could use my degree to help kids and teach them what I know.”
Chiovitti could not have been more right.
“I started as a middle school substitute, then a social studies teacher, then a technology teacher” Chiovitti explains.
Through this newfound interest, Chiovitti would eventually discover another passion: muscle cars.
Currently a popular guidance counselor with nearly 30 years under his belt, Chiovitti is as well known for his fire-breathing 422 ci Dart as he is dedicated to the students of his west central Florida community.
LEARNING TO FLY
“My car is the closest I can come to feeling the sensation of speed,” says Chiovitti. “I was always a competitive person and owning a cool car and then finding a way to drive it was my next goal.”
To that end, the skilled mechanic utilizing his ‘68 Dart as a learning tool, enlists friends and students to keep the car compatible with his limitations and capable of roasting the tires.
“We put a bunch of contraptions on it that might look ugly, but that doesn’t bother me because I didn’t just want to drive the sucker, I wanted to race it,” he says defiantly. “It took years, but we did it.”
The ever-humble Chiovitti spreads credit for both his personal and extracurricular successes to everyone, taking little for himself. “I don’t want to single anyone out because I owe so much to so many.”
Amazingly, Chiovitti is at home at his local cruise night as he is at the drag strip. “My best time is 11.5 seconds at 128 miles per hour,” he says triumphantly. The fact that Chiovitti manages to accelerate, shift, steer and brake all with one hand makes this accomplishment even more significant.
Today, Chiovitti says he is looking forward to retirement soon and hopefully achieving his next goal. “I’d really like to drive in the Power Tour one day.”
As for now, his students and his community are happy to have him, but if you do happen to see a Dodge Dart with funny contraptions and paint chips in the lower quarters from a wheelchair, look past them – because sometimes the best car in a show, is the one with the most amazing journey just to get there.