‘Sophie’s Choice’ becomes celebrity choice at Reno’s Hot August Nights
Special to The Union
The story of 9-year-old Sophie Link and her ’72 Ford Bronco could have been a Hallmark movie, except it really happened.
It’s not “based on a true story,” it is a true story. Her father, John Link, is chief mechanic for her Bronco, but he readily admits that it is her car.
The tale of how it became her Bronco is poignant, yet uplifting.
John and Sophie had commuted from Grass Valley over the pass three different days for this year’s Hot August Nights (or HAN, as it’s known) in Reno, braving 40-degree weather at the summit and almost freezing to death in a Bronco with only a windshield and no other windows.
By the third day, Aug. 8, Sophie wanted to keep warm at home and John almost didn’t go. But a buddy of John’s persuaded him to make one last trip across the pass to HAN.
When they got there, they decided to use the pass John had bought for the event and park in one of the Celebrity Choice Show and Shine competition parking lots.
Although John had no illusions about winning a competition against the gleaming, high-dollar rods and customs, it was in a convenient location. Just so Sophie’s Bronco would look its best in such fancy company, he cleaned it up and wiped it down.
Then he and his friend went to the Big Boy Toy Store held in the 55,000-square-foot Reno Events Center.
John described the store as, “Huge, with stuff we don’t really need.”
He’d been there about 20 minutes and just started looking around when his cellphone rang. He noticed it was from the 775 area code when he answered it.
The caller identified himself as Tony Marini, executive director of Hot August Nights.
“I thought it was one of my idiot friends playing a joke,” John recalled. “I said, ‘Sure.’”
“No, really, I’m Tony Marini. Do you own a ’72 Bronco?”
“‘Yes.’ I was getting a little nervous.”
“Are you still in town?”
“Yes.” I was getting more nervous, “Is there a problem?”
“You need to get back to it right now.”
“Is there something wrong? What happened to it?”
“There’s something wrong. You need to get back to it right now.”
John disconnected and headed back to the Bronco at a run. Although there were crowds everywhere, John’s a big guy and he got through them quickly. In his mind, he imagined the worst.
“It’s been T-boned in the parking lot or someone stole it,” he thought.
When he got to the Bronco, he saw a number of Hot August Night golf carts and “a bunch of guys in Hot August Nights garb, golf shirts and stuff.”
A man came up to him and introduced himself as Tony.
“What’s wrong with the Bronco?” John asked.
“Nothing. I just wanted you back here as soon as possible and didn’t want you dilly-dallying. You just won the President’s Award.”
John was so concerned about the Bronco that it didn’t register.
“But what’s wrong with the Bronco?”
Tony was laughing. “Dude, you just won the President’s Award.”
Then the nickel dropped. John was stunned. “Are you crazy? There are cars worth hundreds of thousands here with Billet aluminum, all kinds of chrome and fancy paint jobs.”
“There are hot rods, rat rods and drag cars here, but we want something that will blow people away,” Tony said. “Everyone who drives by it looks at your Bronco. There are always people standing around, gawking. This is what Hot August Nights is all about.”
It was no wonder that John was stunned to receive the award.
Heather Libretti, marketing and public relations manager for HAN, described the President’s Award, or Celebrity Choice, as “a coveted award that has been around since our first year … This is a personal preference competition, there is no criteria; judges select their winner based on a desire to own that particular vehicle, had their first date in it, first kiss, learned to drive in it, because of the story or just because of the beauty and splendor of a particular vehicle.”
Tony said that he knew Sophie’s Bronco was going to be his choice when he got within five feet of it. When he got closer, checking out the workmanship on custom-built chrome-molly suspension, the 347 CID stroker motor and the body modifications, he was blown away. That was what he wanted.
When John showed up and heard the news of the award, Tony said, “John’s bottom lip began to quiver.”
Then John told them the story of the Bronco, his son, Dustin, and his daughter, Sophie, who had made the car her own.
Tony had read the Wheels article from The Union that John had “under glass” in front of the Bronco when he showed it, but hearing the story from John himself touched him and HAN President Michael Smart so much that, in Tony’s words, “There were three big guys blubbering.”
Here is a condensed version of the original Wheels article:
Ten years ago, John Link and son Dustin (nicknamed Dust) decided to build a four-wheel-drive rock-crawler as a father-son project. John let Dustin choose the vehicle and he opted for an early Ford Bronco. The one they found in their price range was in very, very rough condition. They set to work, stripping it down to bare metal, installing all new running gear, replacing some body panels and modifying others. Since John had no fancy shop with a car lift, all of the work was done in what John termed “ranch style, with 99 percent of the work done in the driveway.”
It was running and drivable, “about 85 percent done,” when Dustin tragically and unexpectedly passed away in January of 2008 at the age of 16 years old.
Without his partner on the project, John lost all interest in the Bronco. It sat in the driveway for about a year, with nothing more done on it. Then friends of Dustin came by and persuaded him to finish the Bronco in Dustin’s memory. With their encouragement and help, he finished the job. But then someone else took possession of the Bronco: Sophie.
Then only seven years old, Sophie decided that they needed to enter the Bronco in a car show. But their rock-crawler was built for ruggedness, not for show. It didn’t have fancy paint or a shiny Billet-aluminum accessorized engine.
He told her, “If we go with the Bronco, they’re going to throw rocks and tomatoes ’cause it (the car show) is for hot rods.”
But Sophie wouldn’t take no for an answer. “She worked on me for three weeks and I caved. It was one of the most wonderful things I’ve done. She worked her butt off (getting the Bronco ready). My son would have loved it. It was like passing the torch.”
In a Hallmark moment, they won first place in their category and have since won two more firsts at other shows. But for Sophie, that wasn’t what it was about.
“Winning an award or not winning an award doesn’t matter to Sophie,” said John. It’s the fun of having her Bronco in a show.
“She’s taken ownership and does a tremendous amount of work getting the Bronco ready for these shows.”
Since that article, the Bronco has had a few changes. One is that John installed a new, more powerful engine. But another change is even more important.
“Sophie wanted to pinstripe it. She’s big on recycling and earned money doing it to do it,” John said. “But I felt the body was too rough and needed smoothing first. Other Roadents (fellow Roadents Car Club members) said, ‘Don’t touch it. It’s the way it was when Dustin last worked on it.’”
So John went ahead with the pinstriping and added a logo based on one Dust had planned for joint business efforts under the name of Fat Rat Kustoms.
It was to be a character based on “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink from the ’60s. But Sophie and Tiffany (Sophie’s mother) convinced John to have the rat look like the star of Ratatouille.
The rat is holding a wrench that has dates 7/26/91 on one end and 1/23/08 at the other, memorializing Dust’s short life. So, in one sense, Dust was there with the Bronco to receive the President’s Award.
After getting the news of the award, John called Sophie and told her.
“I thought it was very cool,” Sophie recalled. “But I didn’t think he was serious.”
Then Sophie handed the phone to Tiffany.
“It took 20 minutes to convince her it was real,” John remembered. “She asked if I’d been drinking.”
But fame comes with a price. They and the Bronco had to be back there on Sunday morning. That meant driving the open Bronco across the pass again in not-quite-freezing weather, which they did at 5:30 a.m. But it was worth it.
First came a breakfast at the Bonanza Casino for all the top winners at Hot August nights. Then they were escorted by Reno PD cars and motorcycles with red lights flashing to the awards ceremony, where Sophie received the ribbon and trophy for her winning Bronco.
Finally, they formed up with other winners to lead the closing parade. The parade progressed so slowly that John and Tiffany let Sophie hop in the Bronco’s bed, standing right behind the cab. There, John said, “She did the ‘Queen’s wave’ as we drove down Virginia street.”
“I’ve never been in a parade,” Sophie said. “It was very cool.”
But is this the end of this Hallmark story? Maybe not. When asked about what comes next for her Bronco, she responded, “I’m not sure, but it’ll be great.”
And, no doubt, it will be.
Ron Cherry writes a weekly “Wheels” column for The Union, which can be found on page B5 in today’s edition. His three books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. For information, go to http://www.rlcherry.com.
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