This is America’s Most Badass Volvo Station Wagon, and It’s from Bernal Heights


This weekend, those grease-stained fathers from the Bernal Dads Racing team will depart Bernal Heights to compete at the Thunderhill Park Raceway in scenic Willows, California. That’s where they plan to race The Whale — their battle-scarred Volvo 240 station wagon — in yet another another absurdist 24 Hours of LeMons endurance race.

This represents the latest in a long series of comebacks for The Whale, which has suffered countless blows and indignities during its long racing career.

Indeed, this race car is so valiant, so unstoppable, so tolerant of abuse, and so much more nimble than you’d imagine any erstwhile family truckster to be that Bernalwood is hereby anointing The Whale as America’s Most Badass Volvo Station Wagon. And, just like you, The Whale calls Bernal Heights home.

Neighbor Brandon from Bernal Dads Racing makes the case for The Whale’s paramount badassitude:

Bernal Dads Racing has been circling West Coast race tracks for six-and-a-half years and 20 or so 24 Hours of LeMons races. The Whale, aka La Polpetta Svedese, aka a white 1985 Volvo 240 wagon rescued from Craigslist, has been our main ride for almost all of this storied racing career, taking the green flag in 17 of those 20 races. We later added a second car, a 1995 Miata with identity issues, to allow more Dads to race. But The Whale has always been the heart of our operation — and it remains so to this day.

The Whale is a survivor. We didn’t know this when we chose it; we just wanted a rear-wheel-drive car, and it seemed appropriate for a bunch of dads to race a family wagon optimized for hauling kids to soccer practice. So we bought one. Here’s how The Whale looked before we met… when it was just another suburban Volvo for sale on Craigslist:


Then came the race-prep, and the installation of a roll cage and racing seat, and the happy afterlife. Chloe’s Closet sponsored the back doors, and the Stray Bar (sniff) bought the hood:


In its second race, at the notorious Altamont Speedway, an overly ambitious competitor slammed into the front wheel, bending the strut so far that the tire rubbed against it. Once a spare was sourced from another team running a Volvo, it was back on the track in 30 minutes. This pattern has been repeated many, many times since: Race, wreck, repair, race more.

In a race at Sears Point, The Whale was T-boned so severely that the passenger side of the roll cage bent inward and the engine popped right off its mounts. Our resident Volvo expert eyeballed the motor mount dimensions, gave them to a machinist, and The Whale was back on track in short order. (The big dent on the passenger side remains to this day.)

Later, in red-and-white “Team Lettuce” livery, The Whale proved itself to be an adept competitor in fair weather …


… and foul:


At another Sears Point race, while finally in the lead of our class, the engine suffered a catastrophic loss of oil and total failure. This turned out to be the only race where The Whale failed to take the checkered flag at the end of the weekend.

At another race, the transmission gave up the ghost (also at Sears Point… hmmm), but Neighbor Ben, our resident Volvo whisperer, located a spare via a Volvo forum. We picked it up from a home in San Rafael, where the transmission had been used as a lawn ornament. After an overnight swap, The Whale was back on track the next day. That’s still the transmission we’re using.

The Whale has been through more fenders than we can count. Our hoods have not fared much better.

The Dads’ most recent LeMons race, last June at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in wilds of the Central Valley near Bakersfield, proved to be another classic Whale outing. This video pretty much sums up the weekend. Our fastest lap of the weekend was immediately followed by a very hard front-end collision (jump ahead to about 3:30 in the video) as our aspirations for race glory crashed to the ground:

Notice that despite the hard impact, The Whale started right back up again. The other car? It was pushed onto a trailer and carted home a few hours later.

Here’s another view of the crash, as seen from the front seat of the car that triggered the wreck. From this perspective, I like how it looks as if The Whale is eating the other car:

This is me, posing with The Whale after I brought it back in to the paddock:



After lots of banging of sledgehammers, jumping, and jacking, The Whale was back on track fifteen minutes later. The body was a mess, but the mechanicals were fine, the radiator was undamaged, and the front suspension even remained aligned. Then it was back to racing:


The Whale is a survivor. It’s been through vehicular combat. Then more vehicular combat. And then some more after that. And pretty much it does not give up.

Although there were a few more moments of drama, The Whale completed that last race despite all the damage and abuse it had sustained. Here’s how it looked a few weeks later, after we removed the bent sheet metal and rotten flesh:


Now, however, The Whale has received another new hood, a new bumper, a new grill, a new radiator housing, and yet another new fender… with a new shark-mouth painted by Bernalwood’s Cub Reporter:


Then we put it all back together, with more turning of bolts and banging of hammers. Here is what The Whale looks like now, as we head to the track this weekend:


Good as new!  Next stop: Thunderhill Raceway.

No matter what happens there, most of the Bernal Dads have already concluded that our kids’ first cars will be old Volvos.

For trackside updates on The Whale this weekend, check out the Bernal Dads Racing page on Facebook.

UPDATE: 15 September Wheeee! Here’s your post-race report: Last weekend at Thunderhill, The Whale did what the Whale does best… it just did not quit. The car was flawless all weekend, with no mechanical glitches.

LeMons at Thunderhill 2014

The humans who drove it were not so impeccable, however. In particular, your Bernalwood editor racked up some shameful penalties that proved very costly. Despite that — or, rather, despite me — the Bernal Dads still had an excellent weekend. The Whale not only finished the race, but it finished ninth in it’s class — its best finish ever. Here’s the team’s post-Thunderhill glamor photo:


PHOTOS: Telstar Logistics

11 thoughts on “This is America’s Most Badass Volvo Station Wagon, and It’s from Bernal Heights

  1. Nice! A whale of a tale, and finally, one with real bite. Thanks for sharing, and good luck this weekend.
    By the by… Neighbor Brandon, for realz, I hope you have a good chiropractor.

    • It looked much worse than it was! All that bent sheet metal absorbed almost all of the force. The only thing injured was my pride.

  2. Nice to see the long and storied history of The Whale – so far! – summarized and so nicely illustrated. Sorry I won’t be around this weekend to cheer it on to glory cruising the new 5 mile track configuration at Thunderhill…

  3. When I was a kid we crashed a 1985 Volvo 240 wagon just like The Whale into the side of a fire truck blazing through a red light. We all walked away completely unhurt. The car was “totaled” but we ended up getting it a new front end, and driving it about another 10 years. Those old Volvos are tanks!! Super happy to see this one kicking around Bernal!

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