LAKELAND, Fla. (01-14-2017) — Ben Labaree, 74, and his wife, Sandy, have toured the United States with the Corvettes Conquer Cancer program since 1998.
The idea of Corvettes Conquer Cancer, according to a brochure Labaree distributed, came from his wife, Sandy — who was a survivor of three unrelated cancers since 1974.
“In 1998, Sandy started the program after finding out she was diagnosed again in 97,” Labaree said. “She was a volunteer for the American Cancer Society the entire time, and she held every volunteer position within the organization and eventually moved up to chairman of the board. Throughout her lifetime with the American Cancer Society, she was an advocate in helping to raise money for cancer treatment programs.”
The mission for Corvette’s Conquer Cancer has been to raise money for the American Cancer Society by traveling and speaking at Corvette-related events, while distributing cancer information to raise awareness for cancer recovery programs.
Labaree said on March 6, 2000, Sandy passed away at 53, after living with cancer for half of her life. Over the years, the Alabama native became more devoted to his wife’s cause upon learning about his diagnosis of prostate cancer in the summer of 2015. The program’s website said Labaree’s diagnosis was based on a “routine PSA test and subsequent biopsy” at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, where Labaree recovered from his cancer in August.
Labaree is one of many people who attended the Winter Wonder Car & Truck Show at the Sun’ n Fun airstrip in Lakeland, Florida for the local attraction of vintage motor vehicles. The event was open for people of all ages, both for car and non car enthusiasts, to make communal connections with one another in a family-friendly environment.
The Winter Wonder Car Show is an annual event that is sponsored by the Central Florida Street Rod Association — an organization created in 1989 as a means to form a family-oriented group of car enthusiasts who socially interact, and support groups who share general enjoyment for street rods. The car show also featured two Corvette shows and a Swap Meet event, all held at the Sun’ n Fun facility with music, food, games, and vintage cars competing for awards in 13 trophy classes.
The colorful display of cars at the event were like art displays at an art museum, where each array of vintage automobiles were the paintings on mother nature’s canvas. The Saturday morning weather also provided a pleasant setting — with sunny, clear skies granting airplanes at the airstrip access to travel the skies and humidity averaging as high as 78 degrees.
Conversations among car fanatics can also be heard throughout the Sun’ n Fun facility, discussions ranging from older car owners remembering the first car they purchased in their youth, to the first production of Chevrolet Corvettes sold on the showroom floor nationwide.
Of the hundreds of cars featured at the event, was a 2004 Ford Mustang GT Convertible, owned by Bob Burke. Casually sitting in his outdoor chair with his wife, Burke said his favorite activity at the venue is the social interaction among car enthusiasts.
“The comradery here is amazing,” Burke said. “I am a member of the Mustang Club in Lakeland, so it is great to be out here with all the Corvette guys, Mustang guys, and especially the Chrysler guys who get together to talk about car while creating a communal bond with one another.”
The collection of vintage cars at the facility Burke said, reminds him of the era of “The Horsepower Wars.” This was a period of time in the 20th Century that documented the rise and fall of American muscle cars in the car market, which led to the establishment of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Oil Crisis of 1973.
“Way back in the late 60s and 70s, that was the top of the line for American muscle cars,” Burke said. “Now the big three automakers are all coming out with cars that can produce up to 600 to 700 horsepower that are under warranty, which come straight from the factory.”
According to an infographic from autoinsurance.org, from 1980 to 2004, average horsepower increased by 80 percent, which led to Congress giving the EPA power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — drawing a final curtain on The Horsepower Wars.
For Burke, he said the essential theme of the Winter Wonder Car Show, or any car show, is about creating a family-oriented environment that brings communities closer together.
“I have been going to these shows for a long time, and whether you are a Chevy or Ford guy, having an appreciation for all makes and models shows respect for others,” Burke said. “For the most part, all the guys with their vintage cars will talk for an hour about cars and their performance on the road. That is what cars shows are all about.”
Journeying through the grass parking lot of street rods, Ocala resident, Mike Cobine, 62, was passing through one of the swap meet huts, browsing for Chevrolet Corvette parts of all models, wearing a Bridgestone ball cap and a plain white shirt. His favorite feature at the Winter Wonder Car Show is the fact that the event is also runned by the National Corvette Restorers Society while working in conjunction with the CFSRA.
“It is a wide open area with a lot of swap meet areas to buy car parts,” Cobine said. “It is a great show, especially for a Corvette guy like me browsing for Corvette parts. I own two Corvettes: a ‘68 and a ‘63 model, and I buy a lot of parts for the ‘63 at most swap meets.”
Not only is the Ocala resident a car show goer, Cobine has a storied history of competitive motor racing in the Sports Car Club of America, a career he remembers like it was yesterday.
“SCCA racing is divided into two groups for road racing: Club Racing and Pro Racing,” Cobine said. “Club Racing is the amateur status group I competed in, and not professional. There may be pros racing, I raced in this group just for the fun of winning trophies, not for money.”
Cobine traveled across the United States in the SCCA from 1988 to 1997, from the high banks of Daytona International Speedway to Watkins Glen International, competing in seven to eight groups of cars.
“Before that, I ran autocrosses, hillclimbs, and high speed events from 1976 to 1988,” Cobine said. “Some were SCCA, some were other groups. By a quirk, I was the 1988 Florida B-Prepared State Autocross Champion.”
Throughout his motor racing career, Cobine said has made a lot of friends with other racing drivers.
“I was friends with Can Am racers Dick Durant and Bob Klempel in the same local sports car club with them in the ’70s and all,” Cobine said. “I’ve been to Dick’s home many times. Dick was very good friends with John Martin, so I met John a few times.”
Cobine even met famous racing drivers such as Paul Newman, Mario Andretti, David Hobbs, and others.
“Newman was simply a racer like everyone else,” Cobine said. “In 1983, we were coming out of the pits at Road Atlanta together and discussing the weather. I told him to run the slicks, as we had just spent our last $400 cash on rains for our E/Prod TR-3, so there was no way it would rain on our race and his race was after ours.”
Now retired from competition, Cobine said he is grateful and privileged to have driven various types of race cars in his career.
“While my car was a Corvette, and I raced it from 1988 to 1994, the most intriguing cars I raced were the F440 and F500,” Cobine said. “These were formula cars with a 500cc Rotax engine and continuously variable transmission. You put them on like a glove and they acted like an extension of your body.”
On the track, Cobine said the F440 and F500 were fun machinery to drive.
“They weren’t as fast as many, but they simply didn’t have to slow down except at places like the old hairpin at Sebring International Raceway,” Cobine said. “So lap times were great.”
Outside the Sun’ n Fun airplane hangars, near FAA Production Studios, a 45-year-old collector car restoration business was showcasing two replica Corvette racecars to promote their enterprise: A red 1967 L88 #88, and a blue ‘69 ZL1 #69 race car.
The mastermind behind these replicated, race-built sports cars is the founder of Fabulous Restorations Inc. — George Haddad, 64, a native from Detroit, Michigan and a 44-year Florida resident.
“Fabulous Restorations is an American business based in Fort Lauderdale, which devotes its efforts to restoring vintage cars and muscle cars, mostly from General Motors,” Haddad said. “It is a business that has been active for 45 years. We restore a lot of GM cars of all makes, especially Corvettes, which we have been restoring a lot of those particular cars.”
Like many fans of the Corvettes at the car show, Haddad has always been admirer of the American GM sports car, especially a fan of American cars.
Whether Haddad and his team is restoring a 1954 Chevrolet Corvette C1, or a ‘70 Chevrolet Corvette 454, — Fabulous Restorations has built a diverse group of American cars of all makes and models.
For Haddad, he loves every make and model car.
“After so many years of being in business, and a Vette fan since 1968, they are all my favorites,” Haddad said. “We do business with Corvette fans and owners in restoring these cars. I love every single one of them.”
As for the sale of these cars?
“These cars are basically not built for sale,” Haddad said. “We mainly just build and restore them to their original design, except if someone comes and offers the right amount of money to buy these Corvettes. Bottom line, a lot of these cars are my customers cars who come in and say they want their Vette to be built this way, and they pay us to do it.”
While attending Macomb Community College to try an earn an architecture degree, Haddad worked for Chrysler’s Lynch Road Assembly Plant, learning first-hand experience of automotive assembly. According to Haddad’s online bio at fabulousrestorations.com, Haddad said he then found a niche in collector car restoration and charted a course to South Florida where Haddad opened Fabulous Finishes in 1974.
“When I first started the business, I never did it to get rich or become a famous television celebrity,” Haddad said. “I did it because I am a car guy, and I have a passion for working on cars. Though the money is important because it helps you to afford the cost of doing these projects, which is an enlightening realization to have on the realities of life.”
Haddad’s brief online bio also said the company began as as body work business specializing in Corvette painting and refinishing, body repair, structural analysis, fiberglass repair and reconditioning.
After 45 years of business operations, Haddad said earning a living from his passion projects is difficult work, as well as complicated and time consuming.
Nevertheless, Haddad’s passion still burns as bright as the sun.
Walking toward the Fabulous Restorations display area, New York native and long time friend of Haddad, Gene Palladino, 74, arrived to network with other Corvette owners and enthusiasts, greeting Haddad with a handshake and complementing his success.
A native from New York, and a resident of Pace, Florida — Palladino said he loves the vintage automotive environment as much as Haddad, which is a common interest they both have shared since 1980.
“We have not worked together on cars,” Palladino said. “It was his shop, and he had his employees. I worked for Eastern Airlines as an aircraft mechanic and spent off time with George and other friends around other Corvettes.”
Though Haddad’s success did not go unnoticed by Palladino.
“If you look up ‘Corvette’ in the dictionary, you’ll see George’s name in it,” Palladino said, 74, jokingly. “That just shows how great of a man he is, and I am not saying that to blow smoke.”
Labaree said he also enjoys attending the Winter Wonder Car Show to hang out with other car enthusiasts, as well as with non car fanatics who attend for the appreciation of vintage motor vehicles from the 20th Century.
What Labaree and his wife share is a common love for Corvettes. In his wife’s online bio on corvettesconquercancer.com, Sandy’s first Corvette was a 1963 Corvette convertible which she purchased on “June 7, 1977.”
After only 21 years, Labaree said he and his wife sold the 63 convertible and bought a“slightly used” 6-speed paddle shift automatic ‘97 Corvette “C5” in ‘98. Since then, the C5 has been the primary touring car for Corvettes Conquer Cancer.
Over the course of 17 years, Labaree and the red Corvette have continued life out on the open road.
“We went through 48 states in that car,” Labaraee said, showing pictures of the C5’s on his mobile phone from the website. “It was a very special car.”
On corvettesconquercancer.com, Labaree moved to “Decatur Alabama in 2009 and had covered 250,000 miles in the 2006 by the end of the 2016 season.”
A car devoted to long travels versus occasional joyriding on a racetrack — the Corvette C5 Labaree said, is a traveler.
“I took a video on my phone at that time, while I was driving the C5 on the road,” Labaraee said, uploading the video from his phone. “As I was driving, the car had a total of 249,999 original miles and suddenly, the odometer averaged to exactly 250,000 miles. The car don’t look like it has 250,000 miles, but they were great miles nevertheless.”