Roadrunners put Jim Denning in touch with his high school days
In Great Bend, Kan., the Denning family had six boys and three girls. The boys all worked and that meant they needed cars to get to their jobs.
But you know boys and horsepower. Most of the Denning boys chose Plymouth Roadrunners. Because there were so many cars in the family, Jim said his mother referred to them by nicknames based on their colors. She called his 1973 black and white Roadrunner “Skunk.”
“We liked Plymouths because it was the smallest car company, and we liked our cars to be different,” Jim said. “Most of the other kids drove Super Sports and Camaros.”
Jim, and his brother, Frank, were well known in Great Bend for having fast cars. When challenged, they would head to the local drag strip to defend their honor. Several times it was settled going to stop light to stop light on Main Street.
It may seem unlikely, but Great Bend is legendary in the drag racing world. The first National Hot Rod Association “Nationals” were held in Great Bend in 1955. The track is still in operation.
Today, Jim Denning, 56, of Overland Park, represents the 19th District in the Kansas House of Representatives. He is also owns four Plymouth Roadrunners. His brother, Frank, is the Johnson County Sheriff, and he owns and races a highly modified Chevy Nova.
“Back in high school, Frank and I built a 1955 Chevy to race,” Jim said. They were challenged to a drag race but blew the engine at the starting line.
“The challenger asked if we would be interested in racing my ’73 Roadrunner street car instead,” Jim said. We won the race by a car length. The challenger later bought the Roadrunner. “If I can’t beat it, I’ll buy it,” said the challenger.
As happens to so many enthusiasts, Jim put his car passion on hold as he raised a family and established his career. After his three daughters were through college, he decided it was time to revisit his Roadrunner passion. Now he and his wife, Marearl, have four: a 1969, a 1970, a 1971 and a 1973. All are in exceptional condition.
The black 1973, now wearing the nickname Skunk like his car from high school, was a rusted mess when Jim acquired it in 2008. He said the ’73 Roadrunner represents the end of the muscle car era because that was the year the OPEC oil embargo brought long gas lines and rising prices.
Jim said Hot Rod Express in Blue Springs restored his ’73. They took all of the body parts to an idled Nissan plant in Alabama and had them electrocoated. “It won’t rust for 100 years,” Jim said.
Once reassembled, the black ’73 was outfitted with 4.11 rear-end gears and the 440 engine was stroked. Jim has entered it in several vintage drag races where it turns an 11-second quarter mile. That’s fast, even for today.
“That car is so powerful,” he said, “it can be dangerous if you don’t know what to expect when you tromp on the throttle.”
Once spring comes, Jim takes his Roadrunners out of storage. He likes nothing more than driving them, so each weekend he picks one, cleans it up and uses it for the weekend.
Growing up in Great Bend may seem long ago, but not when he slips behind the wheel of a Roadrunner.