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Reeves Callaway isn't a chip of the ol' block

SUNDAY DRIVER -

December 18, 2005|By JASON STEIN

His future was mapped out for him, wasn't it?

If everything fell into place, and the "ordinary" pattern fit, Reeves Callaway could have walked into his father's golf business and quietly gone about building the family empire.

There was just one problem: Callaway is no quiet, ordinary man.

If you don't know the story, Callaway's father was that Callaway, the founder of the "Big Bertha" golf club and Callaway Golf, a bold company that allowed the average golfer to do something extraordinary with his or her game.

Reeves Callaway, the founder of the twin-turbocharged, light-your-hair-on-fire Corvette, created a monster that allowed the average driver to do something extraordinary on the race track and, to some degree, on the street.

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Who needed a future that was mapped out, anyway?

For the better part of two decades, Callaway has been Mr. Performance in the performance-car world. Nestled in stoic, rural New England, Callaway has been taking average Corvettes (and other vehicles) and lighting a fire in their tail pipes.

Callaway Advanced Engineering established itself as a tour de force in the worldwide automotive arena.

"Our mission is to take raw material and make it into the best iteration of the car that it can be," Callaway said in an interview with Vette Magazine. "We can do things that point the car towards a narrower market."

Truth be told, Callaway's people can do things that will make your head spin and your neck snap. His cars are so fast, they only need nicknames: Top Gun; Sledgehammer.

Callaway measures progress by tenths of a second in the quarter mile and success by torque ratings.

One of Callaway's modified Corvettes once did 254 mph. His customers lined up around the block for the chance to own one.

"Our mission is to make (a) car into the kind of car that somebody who really knows automobiles and really knows what they want would come to us for."

Callaway's mission with his engineering shop is to do what most manufacturers can't do, or what most people won't do. His idea is pretty simple:

"Something that looks good, sounds good and something that performs very well in the extreme." Extreme? That's what Callaway is all about. He doesn't mass produce. And his cars are not cheap. An "average" Corvette might go for $135,000. Everything is unique.

"The whole concept of a high-performance . . . is balance," he once said. "You can't produce a car with way too much horsepower and no brakes. No responsible manufacturer would do that."

How did Callaway end up trading in the golf life for one filled with snarling V-8 horsepower?

Born in November, 1947, Callaway grew in Darien, Conn. But he remembers that his love for cars began almost before he could walk.

"I think it was some kind of genetic disorder," he once said.

Callaway began racing go-karts by age 6 and progressed through the racing ranks, showing the kind of skill usually found in European drivers on European race tracks.

By 26, Callaway was a wining driver on the Sports Car Club of America circuit, but he couldn't get a permanent ride.

Determined to stay in automotive, he eventually went to the business side of the equation, working as a driving instructor for legendary racer Bob Bondurant. But Callaway quickly discovered that he couldn't push Bondurant's BMW 320i as much as he would have liked. So, he asked Bondurant for a BMW to work on on the side.

Callaway wanted to put his engine-building and chassis-tuning skills to good use. Armed with a few tools, he brought the BMW to the garage behind his house in Old Lyme, Conn., and went to work constructing and installing his first prototype turbocharger system.

As the story goes, Car & Driver magazine found out about the car and stopped by for a drive. The magazine raved about how much better that BMW felt. The world was reading . . . and Callaway was reeling: he didn't have the tools to fill all the orders.

However, as customer requests for the BMW kit rolled in, Callaway quickly adjusted and started building parts out of the garage, assembling components and meeting demand.

Callaway didn't know it at the time, but an empire was waiting just around the corner.

His name would quickly become synonymous with speed and flexibility, especially after he got into 'Vettes.

Callaway could take 1,400 pieces from 300 suppliers and assemble a twin-turbocharged Corvette. Or he could take one, cut down the windscreen, remove the side mirrors, add 18-inch wheels and a vibrant blue leather interior and 450 horsepower the way he did in 1991 at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

But nothing was bigger than the Sledgehammer. In the mid-1980s, this particular Corvette was an engineering wonder, a combination of full road equipment with a twin-turbocharged 880-horsepower engine that became the fastest street car in the world.

These days, Callaway is feverishly working on his next project, although it's tough to say what, exactly, it might be in the end.

But, it won't be a golf club.

Guaranteed.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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