At 71 years of age, Charlie Kuenster of Lancaster isn’t slowing down much.
In fact, you could say he’s just as fast as he’s always been, if not faster.
You see, throughout his adult life, Charlie has had just one real hobby; drag racing.
While most men his age are spending their days golfing, bowling or fishing, this father of six and grandfather of 13, spends his weekends flying at speeds of 123 miles per hour down the drag strip.
Over the course of his racing career though, one lifelong goal has eluded him. He’s never won the World Series of Drag Racing at historic Cordova Dragway Park in Illinois.
That dream recently became a reality on the weekend of Aug. 24-26, when Charlie Kuenster won the 59th Annual World Series of Drag Racing in his 1959 Chevy Impala.
Kuenster (aka “409 Charlie”) races his Impala in the Nostalgia Super Stock series, which run the quarter-mile track between nine and 13 seconds.
Charlie has been racing at Cordova every year since 1968, and has never raced in the final of the World Series, let alone won it.
“I’ve had my share of wins, but this is the big one. This is the one I wanted,” said Charlie.
Prior to making this year’s trip to Cordova, Charlie had mentioned to his family how nice it would be to win the 59th World Series in his ’59 Impala.
After all, this was his dream car, and the first set of wheels he had bought back in 1962 at the age of 21.
Seeing the car around town and knowing that the owner was buying a new car, Charlie purchased the Impala for $1,450 in February of 1962.
Ten years ago he turned down an offer of $14,000 to sell the car, and it would take a lot more than that for him to part with his baby.
He remembers driving the Impala 3500 miles on his honeymoon through Texas, Colorado and Nebraska, and he also remembers getting five tickets along the way.
“Those were the days when tickets were 15 dollars,” said Charlie. “Thank God I grew up when I did. It’s a different world today.”
Charlie has always had a little bit of an itchy foot when pulling up next to a revving car at the stop lights.
One of those tickets on his honeymoon came in Waco, Texas after a young lad stopped at the same light and began revving up his engine. That was a challenge young Charlie wasn’t about to ignore.
In those days he and his buddies even drove to Madison, where he said East Washington, just off the Capital Square, was a popular cruising spot and a place street races often took place.
“I tell you what, when I was a young buck, I liked that street racing,” Charlie said.
He was 19 years old serving in the military and stationed in Maryland when a friend took him to a drag strip outside of Washington D.C., which instantly got him hooked.
In 1965, Charlie took his white Impala off the streets and turned it into a butt-kickin’ drag racer, which he has been racing all over the Midwest.
The Impala is by no means “butchered.” In fact, it still has the plastic seat covers on it, but now boosts a much bigger engine with dual four barrels and extra-wide racing slicks.
His frequent trips take him to Bowling Green, Kentucky; Columbus, Ohio; Byron, Ill.; Cordova, Ill.; Cedar Falls, Iowa; Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis.
He runs in as many as 10 to 12 races a year, but the grand daddy of them all is the World Series in Cordova, which is actually one year older than the National Hot Rod Association’s U.S. Nationals held in Indianapolis.
Charlie will be the first to tell you that this year everything seemed to be going his way when it came to racing at the World Series in Cordova.
Things started going his way in the third round, when Charlie beat Dick Monaco and his 1964 Ford Galaxie. Also in the third round, defending champion, Dan Beale, was eliminated from the competition.
That set up a quarter-final match between Jay Freihage and his Hemi Cuda against Charlie and his Impala, which Charlie won.
In the semi-finals, Charlie did the unthinkable by beating Steven Glubke, who had been running faster all day.
“I knew that if I was going to beat him, it was going to have to be at the lights,” said Charlie. “Even all the other guys there thought that was it for me.”
But Charlie had his best light of the night, cutting an .015 and running a 10.741 on his 10.75 index.
That win put Charlie in the finals against Dennis Diepenbrock and his Mopar Wagon.
At 71 years of age, Charlie said he doesn’t get nervous when sitting at the starting spot waiting for the green light.
“I get the rush, but I stay pretty cool and calm,” Charlie said. “In the staging area I get a little nervous, but nothing like when I was young. Once they give you the sign to pull up, then you settle right down because you’ve gotta think. There’s a lot of things to do there, but the pressure is all gone.”
“In the staging lane is where you get nervous, especially if you’ve gotta wait a long time. When I was younger, it was worse. I’ve gotten older and seasoned I guess.”
In his final, and most memorable race of his life, Charlie cut the worst light he had all weekend, which he said would normally put you on the trailer every time.
But in front of a standing room only crowd, Charlie overcame a .065 holeshot by Diepenbrock with a 10.739 on his 10.75 dial to Diepenbrock’s 10.946 lap on a 11.00 dial.
“I was super lucky,” said Charlie of the win. “A lot of them don’t know it, but I know it.”
After winning his final race at the World Series, Charlie was joined by his jubilant family and friends in the winner’s circle, where he received a check for $1,000 and pair of new racing slicks.
“It kind of blew my mind,” said Charlie of his win. “There were people coming out of the bleachers to congratulate me. It will be one race that I never forget.”
“I’m pretty tough, but I had tears in my eyes a couple times,” Charlie added. “I told all of my buddies that if I never win again, that will be O.K. I wanted this one, and I got her.”
Don’t expect Charlie and his ’59 Impala to slow down anytime soon either. He’s getting ready for a race in Indianapolis next week, and you can rest assured he’ll be racing in the 60th Annual World Series of Drag Racing next season.
“Now it’s going to be more fun, the pressure is off,” Charlie said. “I’ll do it as long as I can, or as long as the good Lord lets me. I don’t golf, I don’t bowl, this is all I ever care to do, and I like it.”