DAVID PENA LIKES to drives fast. Pena, a mechanic, races a 1971 Lada VAZ-2101. It's the color of an orange Popsicle and has a spoiler on the back and a new four-cylinder Fiat engine under the hood. He is part of a small community of Cuban car aficionados and mechanics who are finding creative ways to soup up old cars for races, which the Cuban government recently began allowing for the first time since the early 1960s. (So far, drag races top out at 400 meters because of space and resource limitations.)
"They actually ran a lot of championships here before 1959," Pena says, sitting on a bench in his immaculate garage. "The way you mark history as before Christ and after Christ, here we mark history as before the triumph of the revolution and after the triumph of the revolution."
Where classic car restorers in the United States obsess over authenticity, Cuban mechanics are forced to stretch their imaginations. Less important than the make and model of a particular part is its availability -- and whether it works. That means a taxi might be a 1953 Buick Skylark with a Peugeot steering wheel. In the '70s and '80s, Soviet Ladas like Pena's were given as bonuses to good workers. They were prized for their gas mileage and because replacement parts were more readily available.
Pena's best friend, Fernando Barral, a mechanical engineer by trade, is another gearhead who flexes his ingenuity gene. He works on cars in his driveway, a makeshift garage filled with rusted tools and screws, nuts, and bolts stored in the bottoms of plastic bottles. Barral recently completed a 1932 Ford that had been in utter disrepair. By looking at photos and magazines, Barral restored the car without even knowing its exact model. When he couldn't find a part, he made it himself. Now, the Ford Roadster wins drag races, reaching speeds of more than 100 miles per hour from a dead stop in just 100 meters.
One of Barral's friendly competitors is Armando Munnet, who goes by "Speedy." A big man with close-cropped hair and chicken legs, his car suits him well: a matte black 1956 Crown Victoria the size of a parade float. Speedy is constantly at work on the Crown Vic. The engine is dying, but he hopes to squeeze a couple of races more out of it. As a cancer survivor, he sees the car as a trophy, racing as a fun bonus. He decorated it with skulls to remind him of his own mortality. "It's like the chassis of the human being," he says.