As a teenager, Tom Minnella was a gearhead and grease monkey. He spent his summer afternoons tinkering under the hood of his muscle cars and his nights looking for a race. Minnella's spare money went to carburetors and crankshafts.
Today, Minnella is a branch manager with InterSecurities in Dallas, responsible for supervising 50 brokers and his own book of business. He has matured since those high school days and so have his automotive tastes.
Every few months, Minnella dusts off his 1995 Dodge Viper RT10, drives it onto a trailer and heads for the racetrack, where he competes against other amateur drivers in races that can reach speeds of 180 miles an hour.
He's had success on the track. Minnella finished second in his class of modified Vipers during a "Viper Days" race held in September at Putnam Park in Greencastle, Ind. In August, he attended the Viper Owners Invitational in St. Louis, where he examined prototypes of future Viper models, mingled with other car owners and placed seventh in the race that followed.
And in June, Minnella finished in first place during the Viper Days race held at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Mich.
"The primary purpose of Viper Days is for us to improve our driving capabilities and to get the most out of our cars, because we can't do that on the road," Minnella says. "Plus, we meet other good people and raise a lot of money for charity."
In 1999, the events raised $75,000 for Camp Courageous, a camp in Iowa for kids with birth defects and illnesses, according to Viper Days founder Skip Thomas. Viper Days consists of 15 races held in locations across the country where amateurs push the limits of their vehicles on private racetracks.
Although the races spotlight Dodge Vipers, drivers like Minnella compete against a variety of other powerful cars, such as Corvettes, Porsches, Ferraris and BMWs. But Minnella's not interested in any of those roadsters. He is a Viper loyalist and a card-carrying member of the Viper Club of America.
"Corvette used to always say it was the only true American sports car," he says. "Well, we've dispelled that myth. Vipers haven't lost a Viper Days race in several years against the Corvettes and Porsches."
These days, Minnella doesn't get under the hood as much as he did in high school. In fact, he has a pit crew tend to his car when he races. But Minnella still spends a good chunk of his spare change pursuing his driving passion. His Viper cost him about $85,000, and he put another $65,000 into it, adding muscle to the 600-horsepower engine that propels it to victory.
His Viper is one of only 20 manufactured with the emerald green exterior, tan interior, side exhaust pipe, removable windows and two removable tops (both hard and soft tops).
"It's awesome," Minnella says with all the pride of a father describing his newborn baby. "It's beautiful."