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What it Took for This Insane 1957 Chevy to Win the 2018 Ridler Award

An exercise in doing well by doing good, or what it really takes to win the Ridler

Chris Shelton Jan 30, 2019
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For every show car you see on a pedestal, probably a dozen more languish in garages across the country, often as painful reminders of what could’ve been. Ironically, it’s not innovation, craftsmanship, or even finances that make a show car so difficult to finish. As curious as it may seem, it’s persistence.

More than an example of the finest quality, the ’57 Chevy that won the Don Ridler Memorial Award at the 2018 Detroit Autorama may well be the finest example of persistence. You see, the car that belongs to Greg Hrehovcsik and Johnny Martin by all accounts should be one of those stillborn examples. That Johnny Martin has any sort of financial stake in the car testifies to the resolve that it took to see this job through.

The story begins in the mid-aughts when Jim Fox hired Scott Schneckloth at Snik’s Rod & Custom to build the Tri-Five of all Tri-Fives. “I basically came up with an idea like if Chevrolet was going to come back with the Tri-Five, kinda like they did with the Camaro and Ford did with the Mustang,” he said (we tried to contact Fox but all leads went nowhere). “I had a picture in my mind so I called Jason Rushforth. He did the original artwork. We came up with a plan and started building a body. “We basically built that body from scratch,” he continues. Scott and his crew (Steve Petersen, Mike Johnson, and Fred Huff) used parts of the quarter skins and bits of the front fenders. “They were cut-up; we re-radiused the openings and, of course, lengthened them.

“(Jim) also had a chassis started but it was a bit of a mess,” Scott adds. “It was Pro Streeted, but we didn’t want to do that. We took it up to Bob Fuller at C&F Race Cars in Ramsey, Minnesota. He redid the chassis the way it is now, except we added all the flanging on the frame so we could body-work that floor in.”

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“I was involved about 2008, maybe ’07,” recalls designer/fabricator Bob Thrash. “Andy Leach (2013 Ridler winner) was coming up on the weekends and we’d meet there and work for two or three days.” They worked primarily on the chassis and suspension. “I knew that undercarriage had to be over the top to win,” Scott reveals.

For starters, they based the rear suspension on a C4 Corvette carrier that they skinned in aluminum sheet. “Then we made all new control arms to make it look completely different.” But that only touches on what they did. For example, “I never liked the way U-joints look on a show car,” Bob states. “The driveshafts have ball-and-socket joints but those are just covers that pivot at the same arc as the U-joint on the inside.” The inspiration? “My parents have a farm in Missouri, and if there’s a driveshaft, like a PTO, there’s a cover over it. It’s the same thing on the control arms, only with (rod ends).

Progress on the ’57 moved along at a fair clip. “The chrome was built, glass was made, and metal fab was done,” Scott remembers. “The chassis was complete, drivetrain was done. Everything was in epoxy. Most of the interior panels were done. Unfortunately, so was owner Jim Fox. Scott remembers it as 2009 or 2010. The car moved around the country.

Fast forward to 2012. According to Greg Hrehovcsik, “A good friend of mine was doing a book on the current state of hot rodding, driving a truck cross-country doing these interviews,” he says. “I told him there was a lot of car stuff going on in this little town called Alamosa (in Colorado),” (Greg’s home base). I called a friend, Jeff Woodward, who hooked up an interview with Johnny Martin (Johnny’s Auto Trim & Rod Shop). “Well, at the end of a follow-up interview, Johnny shows us this car on the computer,” Greg continues. It was the abandoned ’57 project. “I think he was trying to get (someone else) interested in the build, but it kind of resonated with me. The Corvette that got the Great 8 in 2011 (that Johnny’s crew built) amazed me. So I believed in his talents and began looking at this car with him and the Ridler in mind.”

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There was only one problem. “There were pictures on the Internet because they were trying to sell the f***er,” Johnny recalls. If you must know anything about the Don Ridler Memorial Award, make it this: Detroit Autorama wants exclusive debut rights, so any published images basically disqualify a car. “I wasn’t doing shit until they (Autorama promoters) okay it,” Johnny adds. “Because if there are already pictures online, it’s stupid to pay all this money just to get disqualified.” The promoters gave the green light. Greg bought the car in December 2012 and work resumed in earnest. “The build evolved,” Greg admits. “Some builders would have thought it would have been easier to start over because it isn’t easy picking up where someone left off,” Johnny adds. “However, easy wasn’t our goal. The work that had already been completed by team one was extensive. Our hats will always be off to these guys.

“(But) we ran into issues with the build that ran deeper than we thought,” he continues. “The chassis was there and the body was a little beyond roughed-in but, Jesus, it took us a million hours to make it right. Not that it was shitty work, but we needed to get it to the level where it’s at now.” Case in point, they documented 12,000 work hours on the car. And he admits that’s not a full account. Johnny also brought in guys like Tom Stark at Precision Designs in Denver to address some of the technical elements, including redoing the plumbing on the elaborate turbocharged, 515-inch big-block that Nelson Racing Engines built. His guys logged another 2,700 hours.

But a cloud still seemed to loom over the project. “In July 2013, I had an unexpected spinal cord surgery,” Greg says. “The surgery, the recovery, and the damage done really affected me. So we got to 2015 and it was obvious that we weren’t going to make it.” Johnny sorely remembers, “The car was going to come to another stop again.

“I got to thinking of the army of people who were involved in this project,” he continues. “Well, if this thing never gets finished, it’s good for nobody. Hell, like everyone else does building these cars, I gave away thousands of hours so I wanted something to show for it, too.” So Johnny borrowed some money. “A lot of money,” he clarifies. “Now the customer and I are partners in the car—we both spent more than we expected.”

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Wayne Saunders at Alternative Automotive Design in Colorado Springs painted the car (another 2,000 hours of work). Naturally, Johnny’s crew trimmed the interior rather than painting it as Scott Schneckloth intended it. “It was gapped and finished the way you’d do the outside of a car,” Scott observes. “But when I saw it covered, I actually liked it a lot better.”

Though desperately fast-paced to make the deadline, things seemed like they couldn’t go wrong. But they did. Catastrophically ... and at the last minute, at that.

On the Monday before the show, Ryan Martin—Johnny’s son and right-hand man, who, by all accounts, played the single most critical role in the car’s late stage—was cutting down a headlight bucket. “The bucket caught in the bandsaw and pulled his hand in,” Johnny says, still wincing at the spectacle. “There was only one little piece of skin holding his thumb on. We’re down to the last hour trying to finish this thing ... it was devastating.”

Minus Ryan, they still persevered. “The guys said I worked 38 hours straight and jumped right in the truck,” Johnny says, not bragging as much as marveling. “We drove non-stop to Detroit—my brother Mike, my daughter Ashlee, and Tom Stark saved our ass.” They arrived at 9 p.m. on a 10 p.m. cutoff. “It was close, man!

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“But we’re covered, right?” Johnny says. “We hadn’t put anything online. We’re there on time. They pick the Great 8. Then, on like Saturday, you get to pitch the judges on what you did. We’re the last ones. “We’re all waiting to watch the judges do their thing but they’re late. They’re never late. Here they come. ‘We got a problem,’ they tell me. Come to find out, one of the people in the Great 8 got on their phone and looked for crap that they could find on the competition. They found that picture of Jason Graham’s. Then they found a picture of Chris Ryan’s car in the upholstery shop. And then those photos of this car when it was for sale.

“Now, we got clearance for all that way before we started so I wasn’t too concerned. But things got pretty heated. And the two pictures of the other cars was really a bullshit deal. Anyway, we have a meeting and they let everyone back in. We all agreed to go with it. Well, that made some people pretty hot afterward.

“My hat’s off to those judges. Because once they let those other people back in, everyone assumed that those of us who were disqualified didn’t have a chance.” As history shows, they did, in fact, have a chance—Greg and Johnny’s magnum opus took the title. He reflects on his 2011 bid for the title with the Corvette that made the Great 8 but didn’t win. “I learned a lot of lessons, one of them how to lose,” he says. “Yeah, I was pissed that we didn’t win. But then I went and looked at the winning car. And you know what? We got beat by a better car.

“That’s when I realized that we (builders) aren’t going against each other in the Great 8. We’re going against those guys who judge. Bless their hearts—they have a hard job, man! At the end of the day, after all that drama, the best car won again.” But just as importantly, their perseverance paid off in another way: by granting the craftsmen who brought this car to this point the recognition that they deserve. Unfortunately, we don’t have the space to include everyone here (for that matter we don’t think any single person has a full account of everybody who touched this car) but we did the best with the resources we had.

“The real reason this car got done is because Greg and I stood by each other through thick and thin and had each other’s back,” Johnny says. “I think a lot of these builders, they think some award is the end goal. They think that you win this one week and next week you’re Bobby Alloway.

“But that doesn’t happen. It’s not even what it’s about,” he continues. “It gets back to the thing that I used to hear the old guys say: we do it for each other. I wouldn’t have met half of the people who worked on this car. When we won I was so freaked out. I just called everybody up on the stage and tried to give as much credit and thanks as I could. Because that’s what it takes—I couldn’t have done this car by myself. No way. No one person can.”

Ultimately, persistence pays off larger dividends than just an award. “You hate hearing that a customer runs into hard times and sells a car that you’ve worked on,” Bob Thrash says. “You don’t know if the car’s ever going to get done, much less if people get to see your work.” And in that case, persistence was driven largely by the drive that unites us. “Usually what happens is that they change everything you did, but they kept the things that we did. That’s so respectful; I appreciate that so much.”

“Everyone involved in this project from beginning to end worked their asses off,” Johnny concludes. “At the end of the day everyone should take their hats off to Greg Hrehovcsik, owner, who had enough guts to buy the car and who got us across the finish line. Even today, Greg continues to support touring Imagine so the incredible work completed by everyone can be seen.”

Photography by Chris Shelton

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