Shnay: Love of auto racing drives 50-year hobby

Citizen Journalist/

February 20, 2014 1:08PM

Southland resident Chuck Sabey with one of the many race car models he has built in pursuing his hobby for nearly 50 years. | Jerry Shnay/For Sun-Times Media

For Chuck Sabey, his love of racing cars began in May 1965 when his father, Richard, took his children to the time trials at the Indianapolis 500.

Whether it was the roar of the crowd, the thunderous sound made by the engines, the excitement of seeing the racers zooming around the 21/2-mile track at breakneck speeds or merely the flash and dazzle of it all, Sabey cannot say.

But from the time the Southland resident was 5 years old, he became attached to everything associated with the sport. Never a competitor on the track, he did the next best thing. He became a car builder. Well, sort of. Sabey began to construct models of those sleek race cars as a hobby that has continued for nearly 50 years.

“I would go ride my bike to Kresge’s in the Park Forest Plaza or Ace Hardware, Sports and Hobbies or even the old Osco drug store,” he recalled. “If I had $2 or $3 in my pocket, I would get a small kit model.”

Sabey began with bird models, branched out to airplanes but soon began assembling car models. It may have started as a pastime, but for the last half-century it has become his hobby as he tries to accurately reveal the minutest details of the finest race cars in the world.

Nuts must be chromed, valve covers depicted accurately, seat belts in place and, if needed, coolant hose straps added to the model.

Sabey, 54, the cultural arts supervisor for Freedom Hall in Park Forest, never stopped building models. Today, his home houses hundreds of model cars — from street wheels, drag strip racers and Indy cars to those sleek Formula One machines.

He doesn’t stop there. One of his displays is a large diorama of the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, including cars, race starters and ads surrounding the track to the various shades of newly mown grass on the infield.

Sabey took his time on his recent project, a glistening blue Matra Formula One car complete with red spark plug wires and gray fuel injectors. It may look flawless but not to Sabey’s meticulous eye.

He needed to paint a metallic gray strip on the side of the front spoiler, daubed each of the 12 exhaust pipes a certain shade of gray-white to reflect exhaust fumes and a thin silver strip of paint, about the size of a millimeter, was added to the cockpit windshield.

Sabey has three different shades of white paint in a desk whose drawers are cluttered with a dozen different files, paints, extra decals and parts.

The company that makes the tires for the Matra has its name embossed on the wheels in a certain shade of yellow, a tint that Sabey has. And then there was that sliver of a silver strip running along the windshield base or the way the seat belt was placed in the cockpit.

These are the details, details, details, not included in the model, that Sabey must create to make the car as true to life as possible, relying on photos that he takes at tracks he visits.

Sabey sells the best of his models at car shows and racing venues, but those profits are plowed back into his hobby.

Every now and then, “modeler’s block” gets to him, and “I need to walk away from what I’m doing” — refocusing on life with wife Nina and daughters Sophia and Hannah.

You can see Sabey’s talent for yourself by viewing his 15-minute video on YouTube, in which he takes you on a tour of his workbench and includes a tribute to his late father, a bomber pilot during World War II. More than 50 of his father’s model airplanes are also on display in the Sabey home.

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