It's a good thing there's a statute of limitations on speeding tickets, or a lot of us would still be making license plates to pay for the crime of being young and felony-stupid.

Chuck Klein would pay more than most. In the summer of 1960, he felt compelled to defend the honor of his new factory-fresh Corvette when challenged by a friend driving a modified 1957 Chevy. In those years, the Colt .45 was the weapon of choice on TV Westerns such as "Johnny Ring' and "Tombstone Territory." But showdowns were more civilized in the parking lot of a Bond Hill White Castle. They chose dueling V-8s in the middle of Reading Road, at more than 100 mph.

Flashing high-beams, the Corvette and the 1957 Chevy flew through a red light at Langdon Farm Road where their headlights bounced off the reflective decals of a squad car waiting at the light. The cop hit his "gumball" and siren, and the chase was on. You can almost hear Jan and Dean singing, "Won't come back from Dead Man's Curve."

Klein had just graduated from Woodward High School. His 18th birthday present from his father was every teen's dream "” a white 'Vette. "It was a 283 with three deuces and heavy-duty suspension," he recalls. (Translated to English: three two-barrel carburetors feeding high-octane to what was then a very hot V-8 with nearly 300 cubic inches of displacement.)

He installed a switch on the dash to turn off one or both taillights, which helped him escape that night through the winding streets of Amberley Village. "The cops would be looking for a car with both taillights lit and they would go right past me," he says with a smile.

Klein and his drag-racing delinquent friends called themselves "The Knights of the 20th Century," in the time-honored tradition of grandiose high school kids who long to belong to something. They had super-keen jackets and their own honor code: Always stop for a stranded motorist to show that hot-rodders were not just the asphalt outlaws described by the Coasters in the 1958 hit "Yakety Yak." ("You tell your hoodlum friends outside; you ain't got time to take no ride.")

Klein adds a detail that lights up another smile: The girls were impressed. After all, the Knights had the baddest cars in town and their own drag strip to prove it.

The strip was near the Beechmont Viaduct, east of Lunken Airport, bordered by a squiggly spur of the Little Miami River. But time has not been kind. The strip opened in 1957 and only lasted through a few model years. It's now as lost as a mythical Amazon El Dorado, concealed by a jungle of creeping honeysuckle and crumbling cement blocks.

"I put the roof on myself," Klein says, pointing to a square-ish structure, probably restrooms, now roofless and missing walls. "We built the fence, the stands," he says, waving an arm at the tangled vines and muddy deer tracks that have overrun the SOTA drag strip.

That's Southern Ohio Timing Association. It sounds official. Almost innocent. Like watch collectors, or the math club. Not troublemakers like Klein, who once blew up a lawnmower blending homemade racing gas from naphtha, benzene and methane.

"We used it in Spider's mom's '58 Merc. We won the race, but she had to have a valve job done under warranty because the dealer couldn't understand how a new car could burn out its valves so soon."

Klein has written a couple of books about the era: "Circa 1957" and "The Way it Was." As we wander the overgrown river-flooded jungle, dodging deer ticks and mud pits, his stories brought those summer nights alive again. I could almost smell the Brylcreem and burning rubber. "I could not make up stuff better than what really happened," he says.

Finally, we stumble onto a half-mile path through the woods that could maybe, possibly have been the paved strip where valves, tires and teen dreams vaporized in blue smoke. Now it's used for more basic horsepower: The Cincinnati Police Mounted Patrol exercises and trains there.

Klein still looks like a Knight of the 20th Century "” swept-back hair, dark jeans, black jacket. He drives a cherry 1972 El Camino that cost as much as a new Ford 150 pickup. Hmmm"¢new pickup or ancient El Camino with a 350 crate engine? Anybody with a checkbook and a pulse can drive a Ford pickup. It takes a special person to adopt a rare relic from the 1970s. A car guy.

Celebrity designer Ralph Lauren is a car guy, too, according to the Wall Street Journal, which showed him posing in designer (of course) sunglasses and leather pants next to his Bugatti Atlantic, which was being shown at the Louvre in Paris for the "L'art de l'Automobile: Chefs-d'Oeuvre de la Collection Ralph Lauren." (Translated to English: "Car Show for Car Guys Who Don't Have a Neighborhood Sonic."

"One thing I am utterly positive about is that he's a serious car guy," reporter Dan Neil claims. The evidence? When one of his exotic cars that cost more than all the cheese in France makes an odd noise, he tells his restoration artist, "Something in this car is a little off song."

And, danged if Ralph isn't occasionally right.

Then again, any shade-tree grease monkey knows there is always something out of tune in a car more than 20 years old. Especially if it has been wheel-chaired on trailers and sleeps in an assisted-living garage where mechanical arthritis makes seals and parts decay nearly as fast as Detroit.

But yes, it takes all kinds of car guys to make the wheels spin. Some write a check, and some scar their knuckles. Some ogle automotive "works of art" in museums, and some get grease under their thumbnails adjusting carbs at the Tastee-Freeze.

To me, it's the difference between a Playboy centerfold and the girl you took to the prom and married. One is impossibly airbrushed perfect. The other is a real woman.

It's also the difference between the Ault Park Concours d'Elegance, and the spontaneous gathering at my neighborhood Mulberry Kroger parking lot on summer Friday nights. It's just not summer in Ohio without spontaneous car shows and cruise-ins breaking out like poison ivy.

At the Concours this year, I enjoyed strolling through the spotless vintage Jaguars and Ferraris. There was a Hollywood-gorgeous 1930-something Packard convertible, in cloud white. I could picture it parked at the Pearly Gates with vanity plates: "St. Pete." I also saw a 1969 Olds 442 that was more perfect than the day it rolled off the assembly line in Lansing, probably on an afternoon while I was skipping class, smoking in the East Lansing High School parking lot a few miles away, wishing I could own one.

The Olds was an immaculate conception, untouched by human hands. Then it hit me like a stoplight fender bender: Something this valuable is probably never driven. Concours winners ride in enclosed trailers and go home to pristine climate-controlled garages that are probably cleaner than the operating room where the owner's trust fund was surgically removed. It reminds me of Aunt Shirley's plastic-wrapped furniture or the kid who kept his Matchbox cars sealed in their packages.

"We need both kinds of collectors," Klein insists. And the hot-rod Knight is right. Both have been down the restoration river of no return. For some, it's the place where price prohibits ever again touching a road with uncovered gravel trucks and texting teen drivers. For others, it's the rust-cancer diagnosis that signals a project so far underwater the Titanic looks like best- of-show at Pebble Beach. Even the best restoration is like running a marathon: it's debilitating, grueling, and you're sure you will never finish. The worst are like running for president: extravagant spending, impossible hours, and you still can wind up as lost and deranged as Al Gore.

So preservationists who absorb the sticker shock of frame-off restorations must have a reserved parking space in car-guy heaven.

And for those of us who love to pull a wrench, who think "before" pictures get more beautiful with each skinned knuckle on the way to "after" "” well, heaven is here on earth when you finally get your car out on a color-splashed, fall country road or cruise into a neon-lit summer drive-in.

It's something to do with the mystical, magical, magnetic attraction of cars.

They are more than machines.

It's as obvious as the prong-horned chrome badge on a 1964 Impala SS: Cars are the genetic descendants of the antelopes and gazelles that were drawn by cave painters. They are the Holy Grail in our quest for godlike power, speed and beauty. If God made us "a little lower than the angels," cars are a testament to our yearning to fly.

As soon as man harnessed the first four-legged Mustang, he found new frontiers to explore and has measured everything since by horsepower.

Look at the lines of the most beautiful automobiles "” Jaguar XKE, Corvette, AC Cobra, any Porsche: Those curves over the rear wheels are bunched muscles, gathering to leap. And when those exotic beasts redline, we can hear the shrieks and growls of a mythical jungle, where Thunderbirds, Cougars, Stingrays and Barracudas are still red in tooth and claw.

Cavemen and car guys agree: It's a very good thing that there's no statute of limitations on the dream to go faster