A Cancer Memorial on Wheels Makes a Stop in Agoura Hills

Patch.com September 30, 2011 ,
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John Nikas, a special guest at World Class Motoring’s Big Wednesday, stopped by with his vintage Austin-Healy 100. The car, barely working, made an impossible journey across the country to honor those affected by cancer.

By all reasonable expectations, the car should never have made it to the end of the driveway, let alone to the other side of the country and back.

The 60-year-old Austin-Healey, driven by John Nikas, was so rusted through that he was afraid to take the engine out for fear the car would fold in half. It went through a fresh change of oil every 200 miles. She had a six-inch hole in the firewall. Fuel pumps and starters fell off.  She caught fire more than once. Yet somehow, she completed an impossible journey.

But what was on the inside of the car was just as important as what was on the outside: about 2,300 signatures, each representing a story—a person—a life that has been turned upside down by cancer.

And Wednesday night at World Class Motoring in Agoura Hills was Nikas’ homecoming to Southern California, following his 7,241 mile, 19-state marathon.

He showed up as a special guest at “Big Wednesday,” where car owners proudly display their cars and swap stories from the road.

“Everybody comes in and tells stories about the road, and about their car,” said Eddie Kosakoski of World Class Motoring. “It’s part of what makes this place magical.”

The camaraderie and love of cars certainly buzzes excitedly in the air, but Nikas’s stories from the road was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening.

Stories from the road

A woman in Tennessee came up to him and wanted to sign the car, but as she got closer, she broke down in tears. When Nikas tried to comfort her to see what was wrong, she told him, “No, you don’t’ understand. My dad — his name’s already on the car.”

As it turns out, her brother had signed the car two states over. Out of about a thousand names on the car, she had gone to sign in the exact same spot that her brother had.

Had this been a highly publicized event or sponsored drive, the coincidence might have been less striking. But this was, to use Nikas’s word, completely “organic.”

“That’s the beauty of something like this,” said Nikas. “We didn’t start out with a press conference…We didn’t have a Facebook page until after I’d left. And we never stopped anywhere other than gas stations and rest stops. You couldn’t have planned this, you couldn’t have recreated it, you couldn’t have done any of that.”

The beginning

It all started with the car. Nikas’s friend, Mike Newsome, loaned him the car for the weekend on the condition that he could get it running. Newsome had picked it up for cheap on eBay, intending to restore it, but just never got around to it.

“It was hard to get it running, but we drove it up to Ventura for the Central Coast Car show, and it broke down four times on the way and three times on the way back,” said Nikas. “But when we got back, we got such a kick out of seeing it run that it just kind of made me happy.”

A couple of days later, Newsome called him and told him that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

“He’s just one of too many people I know that are sick and I just wanted to do something and I thought if he was thrilled to see it go to Ventura, maybe he’d be more thrilled to see it go across country,” Nikas said.

Steve Kingsbury, a friend of Nikas, was one of those who helped get the car running over the next eight days. “Every bolt that we touched was loose,” Kingsbury said, “and we couldn’t have touched them all. So there had to be a bunch of them loose.”

But, he spoke of the car like a trustworthy friend. “She never failed to start. Ever. Turn the key on, hit the ignition, she’ll start up,” said Kingsbury.

Nikas cut names in vinyl to put on the back of his car for those he knew who he had lost to cancer or had been in a fight with it. The journey started out as a personal one.

But then, as he left Huntington Beach, other folks started asking how they could get their names on the car. It was too late to cut vinyl, so someone ran to the store to buy a set of black Sharpie markers. And now the car is full names of those whom he has met along the way.

Nikas showed off the car and continued to rattle off touching stories.

The horse on the hood was sketched by a 15-year-old girl with cancer who flagged him down out of the back seat of a Chevy Lumina. She wrote, “Go with the wind” underneath.

The dashboard bears a picture of a woman who was lost to cancer. Her husband gave the picture to Nikas to take to California. He had promised to take her there but never could because the cancer acted too quickly.

“These signatures will see more places they’ve never been to before–more sunsets and sunrises; it’s amazing,” he said. “At the end of the day, cancer can only take your life. But it can’t take away the loved ones you’ve left behind. It can’t take away the impact you’ve left behind. It can’t touch any of that.”

Next, Nikas will be a special participant in the Mille Miglia North America, a tribute to the 1,000-mile vintage car drive in Italy.

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