By Matt Nauman, Knight-Ridder/Tribune
November 19, 1995
Dennis Varni lives life with abandon, but it's mostly not the reckless variety.
Oh, he has his moments such as when he's soaring across the Bonneville Salt Flats on his back in a car traveling at 225 miles per hour. Then there are times such as when he pushes a 1955 Lincoln--"a nothing car"-- named "Stinkin' Lincoln" around the back roads of Mexico in the 2,000-mile La Carrera Panamerica race. He was clocked at 152 m.p.h. A video lingers on the bloody faces of two drivers whose car plunged off a cliff. ("They were hurt, but they were OK.")
"He's a work-hard, play-hard guy," said Steve Moal, an Oakland hot-rod builder and friend.
Varni has such enthusiasm for speed and racing that it's easy to forget that his automotive accomplishments also reflect a passion for cars and car things that stand still.
His 1929 Ford Highboy roadster, a car he has owned for three decades, was picked as America's Most Beautiful Roadster at the Oakland show a few years back.
"It's a beautiful car," Moal said. "As hot rods go, it's one of the tops."
Varni, president and an owner of Green Valley Disposal, lives in a large Victorian house in Los Gatos, Calif. In back, there's a 3,500-square-foot, three-story garage that houses his collections. In it, there are a dozen or so vehicles, ranging from roadsters to race cars to motorcycles to a big bus that used to take tourists around Yellowstone.
In glass cases and on the walls of his study and along the wall of the room where the cars are stored, thousands of items reflect Varni's passions.
Just to name a few: oil cans and other car-care products from the past; knives shaped like cars; hood ornaments; maps; books; cookie jars shaped like cars; spark plugs; badges; playing cards; coin purses; car-shaped place-card holders for fancy dinners; St. Christopher medals with cars on them.
"It's like having my own private little museum," he said.
While others concentrate on one thing--a certain style of automotive art or a certain model of Jaguar, for instance--Varni feels no such constraint.
"I never want to be specialized because I get bored," he said. "I never want to stick with one thing."
So whether it's a Dino Ferrari or a car knife in an Iowa antique shop, Varni loves the hunt, the seek-and-find, the acquisition and the knowledge of ownership and the resulting admiration.
But his garage is getting full. Varni said he won't buy more cars. "If I get another car, I need to sell a car. I have to fit it into this room here. I'm a slave to these cars now. I don't mind it. I love it. But I can't be a slave anymore," he said.
The last car that he seriously worked on was a Ford Model T that he drove in the Great Race, from Canada to Mexico, last summer. Getting the car in shape took a lot out of Varni.
Still, that doesn't mean his plate is clean. When it comes to racing, he's just back from Bonneville. He took a race car created from the fuel tank of a World War II P-38 bomber that should enable him to top his best of 227 miles per hour. Ultimately, he said, he hopes to reach 270 m.p.h.
Previously, he joined the 200-m.p.h club in a roadster. It was a lifelong goal, he said, but once achieved, he started looking for something else, which led him to the belly-tank car.
On the Salts, he said, you go five miles in a minute and a half. And once you leave the starting area, it's just a driver and car. There are no spectators, no trees, no scenery.
"It's so exciting, a thrill," he said. "It's like landing on the moon. There's nothing out there."
In a second-floor room of his garage, there are eight unrestored Italian motorcycles. He bought them from a pilot who flew in Argentina and had collected hundreds of cycles. He went looking for a Maserati bike to match the Maserati car he's restoring and came back with eight cycles.
Still, restoring bikes is much easier than restoring a car. He can do three in a month. That way, he has more time for racing and his family.
His wife, Kathy, is partly responsible for his automotive obsession. She once let him take six months off work so he could complete a car. They have three daughters. One is a teacher. The other two are college students.
At 52, Varni remains car crazy. His races rarely result in anything more than a cigar and a T-shirt. Yet, he's planning the restoration of a '57 Maserati 200Si to race in the 1997 Mille Miglia race in Italy. To get that car, one of only 28 made, required Varni to sell five others.
He's regretting parting with his Isetta, a strange-looking machine that opens in front, and his woody.
He used to have a Mercedes sedan and a little Metropolitan. "I got in the Metropolitan every day because the Mercedes was black, and I didn't want to clean it and I worried somebody would nick it," he said. He would be driving to meetings in San Francisco in the Metropolitan with no air conditioning "beating my brains to death" while the Mercedes sat in his driveway.
Now, he drives a '32 Ford truck that's authentic on the outside but has modern touches such as air conditioning on the inside. He also has a Mercedes coupe that's a daily driver.
He compares his passion to that of the person who has to golf at every important course or visit every major league ballpark.