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Athol Graham
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Man restores race car in father's honor

July 31st, 2010 @ 5:47pm
By Alex Cabrero

SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah man spent the past 27 years restoring the car his father was killed in while trying to reach 400 miles per hour on the Bonneville Salt Flats 50 years ago. Now, the car looks as fast as it ever did.

Butch Graham couldn't believe how many people were interested in his restored car Saturday afternoon.

"They've been coming out of the woodwork," said Butch. "I'm astounded at how much attention there has been."

The car, though, isn't just any car. It's the car Graham's father, Athol Graham, was killed in. "I wanted to restore it because I knew I couldn't do anything with it as it was," said Butch.

Fifty years ago this weekend, Salt Lake City mechanic and race car driver Athol Graham was at the Bonneville Salt Flats trying to go 400 miles an hour. He kissed his wife, Zeldine, got into the car and took off. As he was going faster and faster, a wheel came off the car, causing it to crash. Athol was killed.

"It's tough, but you always knew something could happen," said Zeldine Graham while looking at the restored car Saturday afternoon.

The family decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Athol's crash, along with Zeldine's birthday, with a large family reunion. To kick off the reunion, the family put the race car, named "The City of Salt Lake," on a trailer and towed it to a parking lot outside of the Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray.

More than a hundred people came to see the car. "Oh, that's great," said Zeldine. "I'm just tickled with all the people who showed up."

Butch says it's taken him 27 years to restore the car. "I started on it, then put it away, got married, had kids, and just never got back to it," he said.

However, with the 50th anniversary coming up, he figured he should get it done as the centerpiece for the family's reunion.

"It's real exciting for me to get it done," said Butch. "People have been showing up and talking and going, 'I remember all this like it was yesterday."

Graham was only three years old when his father died and doesn't really remember it. But his sister, who was six years old, does.

"We were with relatives in Arizona and my mom was at the Salt Flats with dad," said Lindi Mehr. "I remember having to come back home and everybody being really quiet and talking in whispers."

The Grahams lived in Salt Lake City, where Athol was a popular mechanic. "I remember somebody lifting me up so I could see him in his casket," said Mehr.

Lots of old-timers who came to see the car on Saturday say they remembered hearing about the crash. They also told the family stories they remember about Athol.

"I knew he made a big impact with a lot of people," said Mehr, "and I have had so many people come to me and say different things he did for them, kind things he did for them."

Zeldine says she just can't believe that old car is in front of her once again, looking as sharp and fast as it ever did. "I'm just really proud of Butch, and think he did a good job," she said.

The car doesn't have an engine in it now, but Butch says he may put one in it -- not to ever race it again, but just to start it up to hear what it sounds like.

"It's a beast," he said.


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