My Education at Foreign Auto Recyclers

“Remember that time down at Rogers?”

By Mike Cavalieri

Mike “Nitro Mikee” Cavalieri is owner of Cavalieri Brothers Racing and Hemi Parts King in Omaha, Nebraska. He also has been tuning race cars for many years and he and his late twin brother, Louie, campaigned a variety of racecars. And he’s a pinball repair expert, owner of Pinball Past.


Now that the racing season is over, I was asked to provide a small bit of wit and wisdom to the hallowed halls of Drag Racing Online. My only hope is that 50% is enough to pass the test, I am usually good for either wit or wisdom, but seldom both in the same pot!


I have had a bit of time to think about life lately, and when I think about my younger years, invariably most conversations begin with "Remember that time down at Rogers?" Well, Rogers was officially a salvage yard called Foreign Auto Recyclers, but it went by several handles including "the junkyard", "Fat Rogers" (seems ol' Rog had a bit of a weight problem) or "The Bugg House" (this is one that actually garnered some attention from the folks at the world headquarters of VW to the point that they bullied Roger with legal action and in the end it was the good folks that build Berlin Buicks that had to pay Roger to change his company name...hence, Foreign Auto Recyclers.)


Our story begins in 1977. And while this wasn't my first job, or even the second, it is the one that had quite a bit of impact on my life at such a tender age. My dad was friends with Roger and a few of Roger's truck driving buddies. He knew I needed a job, and more importantly, he figured I and my twin brother Louie needed a life-altering encounter that would form the basis for everything that was to come in our lives. Now mind you, Roger was a very intimidating figure, he was well over 6 feet tall, was just a tick over 250 or 400 lbs. and looked a lot like Grizzly Adams. He was also what today is considered an old school salvage yard owner, so all I could do at 16 was just nod and agree and hope for the best. I didn't have any problem securing employment but Roger asked me one question: Do you have a hammer? Of course I said I did, and quickly I was back in the yard being shown the ropes by the old dudes that were currently his yard staff. It didn't take one hour before I was back up in the office area trying to get something I needed for the part I was pulling without Roger seeing me. A few seconds later, he was screaming at me wanting to know what I was doing...I told him I came up front to borrow a hammer from someone, oops!


There are so many stories about this salvage yard that you could write a pretty sizable novel, but I am only going to highlight aspects that have a tie-in to drag racing or bartending or explaining the perils of sending your wife to buy used auto parts armed only with the following information: "It is a yellow car"...that was a painful exercise in restraint for our boy Roger!


Early on, it became obvious that this was nothing like my job as a bus boy at Perkins. One minute you're pulling an engine out of an old VW Beetle and then you're in a Caterpillar 977 driving over junk cars like Bigfoot. The only thing better than crushing cars with a bulldozer was hauling them to the scrap yard with a semi-truck. I was very fortunate as back in the late 1970's trucking was still highly regulated and the only way to get a driving job was to be 25 years old with 3 years’ experience. Seemed a bit disjointed at the time, and since Roger and a lot of his friends, including Willis Chadd, were truck drivers...they thought it would be entertaining to get an 18-year-old kid a CC license.


I was all over it; my dad was a driver, my grandfather was a driver, and I really liked semi-trucks. Before you know it, Roger has an old IHC 4070A semi-truck to haul junk cars. It was a 318 Detroit-powered truck with a 13 speed Road Ranger transmission, and after a few minutes of massaging each muffler with a long pipe...the coolest sounding truck I drove up to that point. Gave a whole new meaning to the term Screamin' Detroit! This was an important step in my life because I decided that I enjoyed driving and wanted to make a career out of semi driving. Plus, we were one of the first drag racing teams to buy a semi-truck and trailer in our area and even if my brother Louie had no use for license plates, someone needed to have a license to drive. I successfully taught Louie, Kurt Prososki, Eric Odinas and my brother Jimmy all how to drive a semi-truck.


At some point, the old guys that worked at Rogers all either quit or accepted their apprenticeship at NASA and before you knew it, the entire operation was in the hands of a bunch of high school kids, and we were all under 20 years old. There was me, Louie, a child motocross national champion prodigy by the name of Dave Weak, Eric Odinas and Kurt Prososki. All of us except for Eric went to Westside High School and were in an OJT program where we received school credit hours for going to work. If the school district knew that a good share of my credits involved racing cars around behind the office in the 10 acres that made up the yard or mixing drinks for Roger or being persuaded to "repair" an AR-15 carbine by replacing the sear...I was all in favor of higher learning. On the other hand, I did learn a couple of skills that have served me well all of these years. One thing was clear: all of us learned how to sell and deal with customers, and even if Roger was occasionally a wee bit irrational, one of us was there to diffuse the situation.


I had no idea at the time what a Lycoming 6 was, but I remember Roger telling me if we were pulled over, to tell the cop this thing has a Lycoming 6 in it. The "thing" we were driving was a 1972 Ford F-350 tilt bed used for hauling junk cars. It had a mildly massaged 390 in it and he had no trouble getting me to drive it 100 MPH. It was painted bright orange with black stripes, but the thing would run. I'm not sure it would have run better with an airplane engine in it, but it was more the look on a grown man’s face seeing someone do something really stupid under his watch! On the other hand, Roger also had a 1937 Packard Crown Victoria 12 convertible, and while I was one of the very few people he trusted to drive it, he would blast me on the side of my head with his massive hand if I so much as slightly ground a gear shifting this non-synchronized monster.


Just when you thought the fun couldn't get any better, we decided that there needed to be some form of entertainment for the customers while they waited for their parts to be pulled. Enter pinball. Since all of us were in some way tied to drag racing, we had a local operator bring in a brand-new Bally Nitro Ground Shaker pinball machine. The customers loved it, Roger got 50% of the take, and we all would play during lunch and right after work. Keep in mind, we had an old Pepsi bottle-style pop machine, and did you know...long neck beer bottles fit in it. Another reason to hang out, cheap beer! If we learned anything else, it was good girls would drink bad beer.


After a few months, the operator had to take Nitro Ground Shaker out of the office, but he gave me a heads up about an auction where one was for sale, and after a high bid of $345, we had one for our own. I still have that very machine in my basement today.


If you work in a salvage yard, you invariably have access to used cars needing very little to be road worthy again. On the face of it, the idea of buying a few old cars and fixing them up and selling them seemed like a great idea. It was such a great idea that I had no trouble talking Kurt Prososki into forming a partnership with me. K&M Auto Sales & Service was born. We were really impressed with ourselves, we had business cards and keychains, some inventory and a genuine love of money.


What we hadn't counted on was that by buying said business cards and key chains, we caught the attention of the state dealer board. And having found our names on the titles of well over 100 cars, we eclipsed the "casual" sale limit of three cars per year. Fortunately, we were also minors, which precluded us from being able to enter into any legal sales, so there wasn't anything they could do to us...yet! Needless to say, K&M Auto Sales & Service had the mother of all Going Out Of Business sales.


Eventually, all of us had to go on to better paying jobs. Kurt has made a successful career out of being a union sheet metal worker, he developed a skill for welding that is as good as anyone in the racecar chassis business today and currently teaches welding at the local union hall. Kurt also had a long career as a driver, starting with my dad, and later with me and Louie, Joe Provost, Allen Hartley and most recently Denny Lewis. His son Terry followed his path in drag racing and has spent the last several years working for DSR, most recently working with Rahn Tobler on the NAPA Funny Car driven by Ron Capps.


Eric Odinas is still in the salvage business owning TNH Salvage, a very popular salvage yard in Las Vegas. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, Eric drove for a variety of trucking companies and, like the rest of us, also spent a lot of time racing motocross.


Dave Weak followed in his father’s footsteps and has been an electrician since he left Rogers. He also continued to race motocross. When we first met Dave, he had just put the wraps on winning the 80cc mini motocross championship and was quite successful after that. At one point he and his dad owned a motocross track in Fort Calhoun, NE, that was part of the weekly circuit and a very popular track with all of the Midwest riders.


My brother Jimmy has made a career out of driving, and is currently driving for one of the largest freight lines in America. Jimmy also had a fairly impressive, if not short, Top Fuel career. When Louie joined up with Mike Peek in the fall of 1999, Jimmy was tagged to take over driving the same Top Fuel car that Tony Schumacher drove. For the next three years, he would make 5-6 appearances a year on the NHRA tour, and even drove for Jack Ostrander for several races, culminating with a runner-up finish at one of their national events in Canada.


Then there was Louie. Louie soaked up the lifestyle he saw at the salvage yard and used it for just about everything he did in life. Louie had no real fear of anything (except maybe the DMV or a time clock), but he was so easily influenced, at one point he was converting semi-automatic rifles to full auto, he coerced Eric to attempt to jump over the Papio Creek in a ‘73 VW Super Beetle, and was one of the promoters of mud wrestling events at another salvage yard in town. Did I mention we were only 16 years old at the time?


Then there was the time Roger and Louie got into show business. They were pioneers in the field of VHS tape sales. So much so that they were guests of the distribution company and given a free trip to an adult film convention in Las Vegas. Of course, Louie was only 17 at the time, but he went all in -- had his hair permed, bought some post-disco era clothes and fit right in with the rest of the conventioneers!


After leaving the salvage yard, Louie went to work for a local hospital that had in its employ about half of my immediate family. This lasted about two years, but there were quite a few rules and expectations like being on time, not paying others to do your job while you ran for Chinese food for the doctors (in their BMW no less), and generally taking your job seriously...which he never did. Considering the fact that he lived in my mom’s basement until he was 31 years old and exhibited no real means of support, yet always had money...this made him the perfect person to go nitro racing I guess. My twin brother is the only person who could tell a state DOT auditor that he would have to take her to a very upscale Italian restaurant for their meeting because his offices were being remodeled. She must have loved the lasagna because we passed the audit.


Louie was one of those guys that believed it when John Belushi told the rest of the Blues Brothers that "The next gig...it will be epic!" Of course he always said we were on a mission from God too so those eight years of Catholic school didn't go completely to waste. The most unfortunate part of Big Louie's life is he never got to live it -- he passed away at 41. It not only left a void in my life, he left behind a young family and the often-asked question of "What if?" If there is a silver lining, it is that I haven't had a traffic ticket for ‘no license on person’ for over 16 years now.


Then there was Roger. While none of us really figured this out at the time, Roger turned over the entire operation of his business to a handful of teenagers. I ran the parts counter and treated everything as if it were my own. We made some impressive sales for the few years we all worked there, and we also explored new horizons such as building VW-powered sand rails and dune buggies. I followed the lead of an old guy that rebuilt alternators and starters and created a successful segment of the business building alternators for British cars out of German parts. All of us were also exposed to the fine art of welding. Some of us, Kurt in particular, were better at it than others, but it was another skill that inadvertently showed up in our lives.


Roger had a family of his own, including two small children at the time, but he seemed to manage to combine his home life with his business life and before he knew it he had a family of 10! One thing is for certain, had we all taken jobs at Sambo's or McDonalds, we probably would have had vastly different careers going forward. More often than not I find myself remembering a certain aspect of my youth while solving a problem at the race track or on the side of the road fixing an issue with one of my semi-trucks and had it not been for the internship at Foreign Auto Recyclers I am guessing a service call and hefty repair bill would have been my future.


Sadly, Roger passed away in early 2001. Prior to that, he would go to a lot of the races we competed in and he was genuinely proud of our accomplishments and he had a reason to be...he provided a base for us to expand on, right or wrong, and perfected the art of intimidation as a motivator! Roger used to always say "Take me home last" and that’s just what we did.


As for me, I was often just glad to be along for the ride. I never really knew how Louie afforded to go nitro racing at the level we were doing it, nor did I care. I know that once he had passed, I was officially retired from racecar ownership and I didn't have a problem with that. Of course, when you least expect it someone comes along and decides to change course for you. I have Paul Romine to thank for that. When he called in the fall of 2008, I was just happy to be the one supplying the parts for his “Man O’ War” nitro funny car. After a few weeks of waiting on the original crew chief he had tabbed to run his car, he asked me if I would like to tune it as well...and just like asking if I had a hammer, I said sure!


While it wasn't the same as being a team built on family members and high school friends, it was a new version of an old favorite for me and once again we were winning races and championships just like it was 30+ years ago. All the while, I continued to operate a business that Louie founded almost 30 years ago, and expanded into the arcade and amusement business, primarily becoming one of the largest pinball sales and service companies in the Midwest. Growing up we all loved pinball, and I often wondered what it would be like had Louie stuck around...my guess is 50,000 square feet of pinball under one roof! I am looking forward to what 2020 has to offer, and who knows, maybe it will involve more active participation in drag racing, or I might just find the perfect VW Super Beetle to finally jump over the Papio.... Take me home last! 



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