It is too often unremarkable news when a racer’s hard-earned racecar, parts, and trailer are stolen. It does stand out as great news, though, when a racer is reunited with their cars many years — decades even — after the theft. And that’s precisely what happened to Oklahoma racer Wayne Keith, whose supercharged Chevette was recently recovered after approximately 34 years of separation.
The tale is an interesting one; in April of 1986, Wayne was working as part of the management staff at Tulsa International Raceway. The brazen robbery took place while he was working long hours prepping the facility for an upcoming event.
“I was working 12 hours a day at the track,” Wayne says. “I got home approximately 7:30 p.m. that evening, which was pretty early for me. The second I pulled in the driveway, I noticed my racecar trailer was missing. I had a 2-ton box truck backed up to the trailer and thought that would secure the trailer.”
The thieves hotwired his truck, moved it out of the way, and used their truck to haul the car and trailer away. “I called the police, and once they arrived, the entire neighborhood came out to see the commotion,” he continues. “My neighbors were used to me working late and thought a friend had come to take my racecar to the big event for me.”
Keith did some investigate work of his own in an effort to retrieve his prized property.
“I posted a $10,000 reward, but that didn’t get any response,” Wayne remembers. “I scoured swap meets or classified ads looking for that one little and unique part from the Chevette.”
The Chevette did contain some unique components that would have made it easily identifiable. First, Wayne’s research indicated Don Hardy Race Cars only built four Chevettes during the 1980s. The car also had a unique magnesium DANA-style rear end, along with a large number of gold anodized components and a uniquely fabricated A-arm front suspension.
“I racked my brain thinking of people I personally suspected could do such a thing,” Wayne said. “The neighbors said the thieves appeared like they knew what they were doing in broad daylight. That convinced me it was someone who knew me well.”
One distant acquaintance who Wayne considered “shady” had just moved to Georgia around the timeframe of the robbery. But even after a period of searching, Wayne confided with his son that the car was probably long gone and far away.
But years later, there was a break. Joey Keith, Wayne’s son, used a combination of social media and a lot of effort to find that one clue that finally pulled it all together.
Joey attended a recent event at Atlanta Dragway, and he and a handful of racers were having a conversation when the topic of racing thefts came up. Joey remembered his father’s suspicion that his Chevette had ended up somewhere in the Southeast and commented to the group of racers.
About two months later, Joey received a call from a racer who pointed him toward a man in Alabama whose Facebook page shows him restoring a Don Hardy-built Chevrolet Chevette. Joey went into detective mode and secured the Chevette owner’s phone number.
Joey called the suspect attempting to strike up an innocent conversation. The story went that this Chevette was stored in a barn for many years by his uncle, who did race it for a short time. The uncle passed away, and his aunt gave the racecar to him. As their conversation continued, the story changed slightly three to four times, and the Keiths decided they may be onto something.
Ultimately, a chassis tag was the breakthrough. Wayne Keith admits that he may have made a mistake when he lost his cool with the Alabama owner. During another phone call to purchase the car, photos were received, and he immediately recognized his racecar. The absolute proof found was in one picture: the Chevette amazingly still had the Don Hardy chassis tag on it.
“He told me he wanted $15,000 for the car,” Wayne continues. “Between the recognizable photos and him demanding 15-grand, I lost it with him and told him we were coming to get my stolen car back.”
An argument ensued, and the Alabama man hung up and ceased contact. That is when the Keiths knew they had to move quickly.
Problems arose when the Keiths tried to obtain the original police report from the Tulsa Sheriff’s Department. It seems the office staff had no interest in digging through 30-plus-year-old paperwork. A friend and retired deputy stepped in to help; he was able to fast-track the proper paperwork to Alabama authorities in hopes of handling the situation quickly before the car disappeared again.
With further help from his deputy friend, the Alabama authorities got involved and secured the stolen car quickly from an area body shop, and the Keiths set out on a 948-mile journey to get the car.
“We got a call that the Chevette body shell was retrieved from the body shop,” Keith recollects. “The police told me they were at the stage of painting the chassis and inner body with heavy coats of yellow paint. The police had the body and frame on a rollback wrecker ready to pick up.”
The sheriffs indicated there were no additional parts to the car picked up by the wrecker service, and Wayne should be grateful to get the body and frame back. That comment aggravated Wayne again. He told the sheriff that this $50,000 racecar was stolen and transported across four state lines, and he would get the FBI involved, if necessary.
Keith’s persistence must have accomplished something, because when they arrived, to their amazement, a vast majority of the stolen components were stacked around the Chevette body.
I asked Wayne what it felt like when he saw his prized racecar again after so many years.
“I was sick,” Keith describes. “At one moment, I thought about not even taking it back home. Once I settled down and poked around the parts, I saw the mag-DANA rear end was there, as well, so we loaded everything up and started driving. I think we were in shock because we barely spoke the entire return trip.”
Now that the Chevette is back home, Keith has taken the body and chassis to a media-blaster to remove any remnants of the damage. They have not yet carefully examined the many barn-stored pieces to see what can be saved.
“We will get it rolling again and take it from there,” Keith finishes. “As the shock continues to wear off with time, we will get it going again. I have no idea if they are prosecuting the suspected family for the theft. I got this much back, and that is much more than I would have ever expected a few months ago.”