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Muscle Man

Matt Crossman

Rob Kauffman opens the door into his automotive showroom, and it is hard to know what to drool over first. Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds—250 or so of the greatest expressions of speed, power, and ingenuity Detroit ever produced—glow as if they just rolled off the production line. Some of these cars are in Kauffman’s personal collection; the rest belong to RK Motors, his vintage car dealership in Charlotte, N.C. As Kauffman cuts left and walks toward his personal cars, the first one that commands attention is a black 1977 Pontiac Trans Am with a golden Firebird emblem emblazoned on the hood, wings spread wide, ready to hug the world at 100 miles per hour. All that is missing is Burt Reynolds leaning across the center console to kiss Sally Field.

A few cars behind the Firebird sits a 1963 Chevy Impala SS with a red “3” painted on each door and “Holly Farms Poultry” on the rear quarter panels. Kauffman points out the steering wheel, still wrapped in black electrical tape wound just so more than 50 years ago to precisely fit the meaty grip of NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson. The car remains almost unchanged from 1963, when Johnson won seven NASCAR races driving it, powered by a “mystery motor” that was soon outlawed. Kauffman plans to take this muscle-car-on-steroids to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, held every summer at the estate of Lord Charles March in England. “It’s an irreplaceable motor, so I’m not going to try to set the land-speed record with it,” he says. “I’m going to start it up and let people hear it run.”

The fact that Kauffman, a racecar driver and NASCAR team owner, eagerly anticipates cruising slowly up a driveway partly explains why he collects cars: He wants to share the rolling thunder escaping from under the hood. An equal opportunity car fanatic, Kauffman is as apt to wax poetic about his 1928 Bentley as he is about his Bandit Firebird. But he has always had a particular affection for American cars, especially muscle and pony cars—no surprise, considering his first two cars were 1967 Firebirds. When he talks about those cars, the word he uses most often is “fun.” He loves them for the glorious sound of their V-8s, for the way speed translates to the driver’s seat, and for the way driving one transports him to that era.

Take, for example, the 1970 Camaro that he races in the Historic Trans Am series. “What’s fun about it is you’re driving this beast with bias-ply tires and crappy brakes,” he says. “This is how Mark Donohue [the late and legendary driver] and those guys did it. Those guys were studs.”

His dealership, car collection, and NASCAR team do not completely overlap in a business sense, but they all spring from the same passion for loud things that go fast. He likes the NASCAR world because he likes the sport of racing, the camaraderie with like-minded individuals, and the thrilling but frustrating pursuit of trophies, which are given only to the most perfect combination of car and driver on each race day.

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