Hot rods with heart: Midwest car shows help Hannah and other children

Hot rods with heart: Midwest car shows help Hannah and other children

John and Kim Wells didn't plan to become car-show promoters, but many families are glad they did

Vintage Torque Fest

The grounds of the Dubuque County Fairgrounds hosted over 1,000 registered participants and thousands more in spectators for Vintage Torque Fest 2018

John Wells’ first memories about cars include riding on the tiny console of his dad’s 1964 Chevrolet Corvette when he was 4 or 5 years old. “My dad was a trader,” Wells explained, “so we always had different vehicles around because he loved buying and selling.” 

However, the Corvette stuck in Wells’ mind. 

Cars led to comic books and the art they inspired and, in the aftermath of a family health crisis, to promoting Midwestern car shows for charity.

Like any kid growing up around cars, Wells was always curious and drawn to anything different when it came to the car culture. 

John Wells and his father’s ’64 Corvette | Wells family photo

“I really loved the Ed Roth ‘low brow’ art,” he said, and like a lot of kids got interested in all sorts of comic books. “In junior high I’d hang out at the 7-Eleven store to gawk at the comics and everything changed for me one time when the guy who handled changing out the display on a regular basis gave me a pile of comics he had just removed and replaced. I was hooked.”

Wells took that stash and began trading with his friends, along the way picking up additional inventory. A lifestyle was born.  Like all collectors, he became an expert, buying and selling and finding he could support himself and eventually a wife with his knowledge of the comic culture.

“An offshoot of that interest included the Ed Roth style art,” he explained of how he began collecting traditional and custom hot rod artwork influenced by the likes of Robert Williams and Von Dutch. “That art just set the tone for me and I think a lot of it is the do-it-yourself ethic that flows from the hot rod culture.”

This 1955 Chevy gasser was spotless and drew lots of attention at the show | Tommy Shaw photo

Wells was regularly selling his “cool stuff” at various car shows and other events around the country in the late 1990s, including various Good Guys events, when he began attending the Kowtown Custom Greaserama in the early 2000s hosted by the Los Punk Rods, a car club that put a lot of emphasis on traditional and custom rods, ’50s style rock and roll music and the art of just having fun.

Greaserama showed me the craftsmanship and incredible talent represented within the traditional hot rod culture. So I got drawn in, literally, to a lifestyle I knew little about, but quickly realized how passionate the participants were to all things ‘hot rod’.”

Life has a funny way of turning fortunes and misfortunes into ideas and efforts that are rarely planned. Wells met his future wife, Kim, while still in high school and the two married and traveled to fulfill individual quests for education and building their life together.

“Kim and I spent some time on the West Coast and managed to do well, but the Midwest was calling us home and we made the decision to get closer to family.”

Noel Mauer of the Slo-Pokes Car Club in Dubuque showed this immaculate ’32 roadster | Tommy Shaw photo

The Wells had a daughter and the family was living in the Quad Cities (the four-city metropolis shared by Iowa and Illinois) when Kim became pregnant for a second time in 2006. The couple went for a routine checkup at 22 weeks expecting to hear and see positive news via the routine ultrasound.

“We were excited to see if we could learn if it was a boy or girl,” John said. “Everything was going well, and we had no idea how that simple procedure would forever change our lives.”

That day the couple was working with a very experienced diagnostic imaging sonographer who admits taking every one of these “routine” examinations very seriously. The typical ultrasound or sonogram involves swabbing the mother’s tummy with goop and moving a small paddle around the area to allow an image to be seen on a small computer screen of the fetus growing inside. 

But as the technician studied the images little more than the size of an orange, she noticed something so tiny that few in her profession might have spotted. On the baby’s heart, which was about the size of a grape, she saw a tiny white spot  that made her pause. Not wanting to alarm the couple, she took her image to a pediatric cardiologist.

“When the doctor pulled out this big plastic heart to show us how it is supposed to work, we knew it was serious,” John recalled.

The doctor carefully detailed what is known as a hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or HLH, a condition where a smaller than normal aortic valve causes the left ventricle to expand to the point where it collapses. 

“We were devastated, of course,” said John. The doctor offered three options for the couple because this was a defect that was considered uncorrectable. 

“I remember him saying we could terminate the pregnancy, go to full term knowing the child would not survive or we could travel to Boston where a very rare procedure could be performed that might save the baby’s life.”

“Anyone that knows Kim and I know we are very determined and forthright in everything we do,” John said. “We looked at each other and immediately said ‘we’re going to Boston’.” 

Ford track racer | Tommy Shaw photo

The couple had no idea how they would handle the expense, which was expected to be considerable, but no other options were even considered.

At Children’s Hospital in Boston, the Wells meet a team of 22 doctors, nurses and specialists who had performed the procedure just 42 times before.

“Essentially the process involved pushing a long needle through Kim’s side, into her womb, through the baby’s chest and perform a tiny version of what most of us know is an angioplasty where a small balloon is used to open an artery,” John said.

The surgery was a success and Kim and John were back home one week after the discovery of the defect. Fifteen weeks later, Hannah Wells was born, healthy and happy though she is still faced with future surgeries and the heart will need that defective valve replaced. 

“You wouldn’t know it today,” says John of his 11-year-old daughter.

Dirt drags provide thrills and add yet another entertainment option for spectators | Eric Kriesant photo

So where does this all lead when it comes to promoting car events? John and Kim were faced with numerous challenges when it came to Hannah, not the least of which was the daunting task of covering medical expenses which skyrocketed when the special procedure was put into play.

“I had been attending some of the regional car events and really felt a traditional rod show, oriented to some old-fashioned family entertainment, would somehow fly,” John said. “I had no experience with promoting a show but had gotten to know the Los Punk Rods club and watched their success in Kansas City and also had been in contact with the Cheaters Car Club in Milwaukee ,which had also been staging successful events in that area of the country.

Wells managed to put together some seed money and rented the fairgrounds in Farley, Iowa, in 2009 to produce the first Vintage Torque Fest, a gathering of all things hot rod and customs. The mix of traditional rods, vintage customs, rock and roll bands, classic motorcycles, mini-bikes and hot rod art attracted 350 vehicles and thousands of spectators. 

Customized ‘shoebox’ Ford | Tommy Shaw photo

The art auction raises money | Tommy Shaw photo

But the primary difference for this show and what keeps many coming back year after year is the non-profit Helping Hannah’s Heart Foundation (501{c}3) the Wells family set up to benefit the families of other children experiencing the same health struggles.

“We’ve set up the shows so Helping Hannah’s Heart Foundation receives all proceeds from gate receipts, show entries and food/concessions,” Wells said, “with proceeds from art auctions going to help the Hannah Wells Medical Trust, which is used to stay current with Hannah’s medical treatments and builds the funds needed for her eventual major surgery.” 

The art auctions happen at each event and have taken on many forms. Some have included some of the best pinstripe artists in the country, while others have invited artists to paint metal skull panels, Tiki, Rat Fink, surf boards, 32 Grills, surf crosses, helmets and gas pumps. Each year touches on a different theme or shape and automotive artists all over the country contribute their work.

Attending a John and Kim Wells-produced show is like finding a hot rod festival where you get to feel and see the traditional hot rod lifestyle all in a friendly, family oriented environment. As many attendees will tell you, if you get bored, you’re either dead or you’ve gone to the wrong place. 

In addition to Vintage Torque Fest, which typically helps kick off the car enthusiast season in the Midwest, the Wells clan produces Retro Rewind, an indoor show in Dubuque, Iowa, that helps kill the winter blahs in early January, and the season-ending Iron Invasion in Woodstock, Illinois, in October. All three events are based on the same premise… fun with cars, a variety of entertainment meant for the entire family and fundraising to help children with congenital heart issues.

The festivals have included all types of entertainment, from rockabilly bands to dirt drags, pinup competitions, vintage movie showings, mini bike races, back road country cruises and, of course, lots of hot rods, customs and vintage cycles.

The Wells family: John, Hannah, Kim and Madison

Torque Fest beneficiary this year is Wyatt Gentry, who has undergone three open-heart surgeries but helps his Dad with his car projects

Each year the events “adopt” a family that has a child suffering with heart defects with proceeds directed to them. 

“We know what they are experiencing,” John said.

So far, the events have raised over $40,000 for families and the hope is that $100,000 can be raised in future years.

John Wells shrugs when asked how long he thinks these events will go into the future. Each year they each grow in popularity (this year’s Vintage Torque Fest drew over 1,000 registrants) and the demographic seems to point to a younger audience that truly loves the atmosphere and is willing to travel with family to enjoy the entire weekend.

“We do this without sponsors,” said John, “though we would welcome to have them become part of the events.” 

The couple, along with their daughters, work all year at organizing and promoting the three events and depend on a large group of volunteers who come in to corral vehicles, provide setup and oversee entertainment.

Judging by the enthusiastic responses via social media following any of these events, it appears John and Kim Wells and family will be busy for the foreseeable future. 

“We love and believe in the efforts of all of our Motor Family,” said John. “And as family members we hope our Motor Family will continue to stand for change in our world and always keep things positive.”

Jim Volgarino
CONTRIBUTOR
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