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Victor Morton leads a group of Shriners down Monmouth Street in Independence during the 2011 Monmouth-Independence Fourth of July Grand Parade.
July 17, 2012
POLK COUNTY -- When he unleashes the 5-horse-power beast that is his "other car" during parades, Shrine club member Victor Morton's attitude is akin to a vintage automobile owner, with him crossing his fingers for perfect conditions.
A flat, smooth route is desirable. Monmouth to Independence is a good example; Astoria, with its steeper streets, not so much, Morton said.
Dry weather means he doesn't have to bundle up. More importantly, the risk of sliding on wet pavement when trying to stop isn't as great.
"It poured in Newport about five years ago, I lost my brakes and crashed into a curb," Morton, an Independence resident, recalled. "My fez rolled off ... I had to be towed back to my truck, which inspired putting better brakes on the car."
Conditions be damned, however, if there are parade onlookers eager for entertainment.
Al Kader fez
"I wouldn't say we're the main event," said Greg Jenkins, another local Shriner. "But a lot of times we're put in the back of a procession so people will stay if they know we're there."
Think parade, large or small, and any number of enduring images come to mind. Few of them pique the amusement or curiosity of a caravan of Shriners zooming about in those peculiar little red cars.
Morton and Jenkins are part of the Renegades, a mini-auto team from the Lincoln County Shrine Club that's often showcased in events across the state. Of the 20 or so drivers, seven of them live in Polk County.
The group is nearing the climax of a parade season that runs almost every weekend from early May through the Oregon East-West Shrine Football Game in Baker City on Aug. 4. The Shriners will make a pit stop in Dallas next week for Summerfest.
"What I enjoy most is getting those kids who aren't smiling to smile," Morton said as he prepped his vehicle before the start of the Grand Parade on the Fourth of July in Monmouth. Morton has been driving for about a decade.
"I think we get more response from the kids because we're sitting close to the ground and are almost at eye level with them," he said.
How or when, exactly, full grown men in fezzes came to drive these tiny cars in the first place isn't an easy answer to find. Websites of some individual Shrine clubs from across the United States reveal that there were minicars in parades as far back as 50 years ago.
Lincoln County Shrine Club "Renegades" member Greg Jenkins poses at his home near Independence with some of the mini-autos he stores and maintains for the club's memebers.
The Lincoln County Shrine Club started its team in 1976, with go-carts built by members in Waldport. Over time, the familiar fiberglass Jeep bodies and other upgrades were added. In 1999, the Renegades created two "tow trucks" sporting dual wheels on rear axles.
"It's never our desire to have to get towed," Morton said. "But people seem to love seeing that."
An important question: "How do I get to drive one of those little cars?"
You have to be a member of a Masonic Lodge first. After attaining a certain status in that organization, you can become a Shriner. If an area Shrine club has a parade team of minicars, you just inquire about participating.
"That's it, actually," Jenkins said.
The tough part might be finding a club with minicars. Jenkins, a former Al Kader Shrine potentate who lives near Independence, said he knows of only two contingents besides the Renegades in Oregon.
While we're demystifying the process, as deft as the Shriners look driving in formation and cutting rapid figure eights, there's no drilling or practicing happening beforehand, Jenkins said.
"You just follow the guy in front of you," he said.
Lincoln County's cars boast Briggs & Stratton motors -- the kind you would find in a lawn mower. They can reach a top speed of about 25 to 30 miles per hour.
"We can't do that in a parade," Morton said.
It's also not easy keeping the cars running.
"It's not as intense as you would think, but we're always hunting for replacement components that are wearing out," Morton said. "These engines weren't meant to take this kind of abuse, we're always on and off the (gas) ... we're lucky some of the engines are still running at all."
Greg Armstrong, a Renegade from Waldport, noted that the tires are typically found on wheelbarrows or similar garden equipment.
Renegades members line up in formation before the start of the 2011 Monmouth-Independence Fourth of July Grand Parade.
"And they've all gone to bigger tires, so they're harder to find," Armstrong said.
Parade season means many miles logged for Renegades members as they must crisscross the state for events. Morton estimates he's logged almost 8,000 miles in his Ford Ranger, car loaded in the bed, during the last two years.
"We're using a trailer now to help move multiple cars," Morton said. "In this period of high gas prices, we're behind the times and we're trying to car pool to save money."
There are a number of ceremonial "units" that are associated with the Shriners that specialize in music for parades, or fundraising for regional Shriners hospitals. Fun was one motivator for Jenkins when he joined the Renegades 16 years ago. There's a personal reason, as well.
"My brother was a Shriners patient," Jenkins said. "He lost his legs in a farm accident during the 1960s.
"I'm always on the lookout for Shriners patients," he continued. "Every parade there's one, they'll come out and give you a hug."