“Well, I’ve done it now.”
These were the words from an ACC rival, a friend that I had come to know for 20 plus years since we met one another in Atlanta. If you knew John Snipes, a 1982 UNC grad, then that could mean just about anything.
My mind raced back to a time when we attended Steeplechase—a “who invited the horses” day at the races drunkfest about an hour outside of Atlanta. Snipes had secured the necessary libations, and ever the prankster, had dangled a prosthetic arm from the trunk of a friend’s Honda Accord. A foolish act that screamed Southern mafioso gumption and a determination that we could get away with and accomplish anything. Amidst horns honking from other cars, we stopped in traffic as the ol’ bladder came under fire. I hightailed it with difficulty into the woods as a friend of ours took pictures of my “sprint” with a high speed camera. It reeked of a bad crime show technique, shutter by shutter shots, but it was hilarious all the same. Then flashing blue lights appeared, and we were finally pulled over by a Forsyth County trooper. We feared the worst, as I scrambled to foist my jack and coke under the passenger seat.
The trooper knocked on the window. John hit the switch and the window came to a whining halt. Immediately, the officer’s stern look changed and a smile broke through and countered the rigid black sunglasses that he wore. Thankfully, he didn’t notice the contraband.
“I just wanted to stop and tell y’all something. That’s the funniest damn thing I’ve ever seen”.
So when I heard those initial words from my good friend, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He wouldn’t tell me what it was. He just said, “Take a trip to Hilly , Duke man, and see it for yourself. It will leave a mark”. So, I took off from my brick Duke enclave at West Village and headed up 147 to 85 and floored it when I spotted the Hillsborough exit.
The good Duke man (who was actually a UVA grad but raised to pull for both schools) had been weaned on the brilliance of Bill Murray/Vic Bubas/ Coach K and the mediocrity of Mike McGee proceeded to turn off Churton Street, and drive a little slower. The Duke man didn’t want to fall victim to one of Snipes’ infamous pranks. But what appeared next was the ultimate nod to fandom. John had purchased what he would later call “The Beast” a Carolina Blue hearse that would’ve made a smiling P.T. Barnum take a glorious dump. Without further intro, the Beast, the HEELRAISER, whatever you wish to call it.
And it was…a Beast. I couldn’t help but grin when I saw it. Every Duke fiber and impulse may have patterned me to look the other way, but I couldn’t. The onlookers that stared at us in Georgia would’ve been equally mystified by what appeared that day.
The idea for the HEELRAISER was hatched during a trip to Clemson’s Death Valley for a Clemson/South Carolina donnybrook. There was a Cockaboose, a train car that had become the envy of all tailgaters at that event. After returning to Atlanta, John purchased a hearse (just like that) and began to alter it pretty quickly. There were long, mostly fruitful discussions with designers and the occasional high gratuity to coax superstitious body mechanics to make some interior adjustments.
The HEELRAISER nods to UNC tradition—Andy Griffith, Charles Kuralt, and Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice each occupy a tinted window. The wheels have Carolina blue white walls, a ram hood ornament that lights up. But then there are the other touches. A wink to mild schaudenfreud. The bullseye target (attached to the back) that has a different victim every week. The tombstones with every ACC opponent. (How will that detail be affected with expansion? ) The fog machine that can be activated from the steering column. A tailpipe that can emit flames. The horn that could sound like a train in one moment, and a castrated gobbler the next.
And what the beast did more than anything was to forge ties with most folks and alienate a few. In that sense, it was one of the more democratic pieces of steel out there. The two of us—Kappa Sigma brothers from different schools– could skewer and talk shit about blown calls, missed field goals, etc. from Chapel Hill to Durham in this crazy blue steel contraption. Snipes wearing his trademark Carolina Blue crash helmet, and I sporting a #9 Thad Lewis jersey (White Thad), jawing back and forth. By extension, we could take (and have) a trip to a place like Blacksburg for a game and see the reactions of different rivals. During one instance, a man motioned to us near a crosswalk. With a Deliverance fueled accent he yipped “Y’all are gonna need a hearse after we get through with ya.” Yikes! Where’s Ol’Roy to toss a clown like that! There were wide eyed kids and the one adult that just stood there with his mouth open…in a traffic jam…taking a leak with the driver side door propped open. Seriously. At just about every juncture, there was a response. Some worth noting, but others not worth printing.
There would be other adventures for Snipes, like a trip to St. Louis for the Final Four. Other photo ops with the owner lying comfortably in the back as if he was headed to his final destination. And just last Saturday at the Miami game, he had a standoff with some overzealous UNC parking lot attendants who claim he was blocking access.
Part showman, yet all genuine—he has made his mark.