Referred to as "a hot rodder's hot rodder" and "Captain Fun," these names ﬁt Varni perfectly. Seeing a hot rod while riding the school bus was all it took. At 13, he bought his ﬁrst Model A for $45, money he earned by picking prunes and selling his train set. Learning as he went, by 1964, the roadster was nice enough for him to join the Bay Area Roadsters, and 50 years later, he's still a member. Following a stint in the service, he went to work for Goodies Speed Shop, rising to general manager of the entire chain. He has since successfully run a variety of businesses, from restaurants to rubbish. In the late 1960s, starting with a $25 frame and $100 body. he built a state-of-the-art '29 highboy roadster. After 20 years of being driven, it was rebuilt and named America's Most Beautiful Roadster in 1992. It has since been driven more than 50,000 miles. ln 1961, he went to Bonneville as a crew member. Again, that was all it took. In 1987, he realized his dream and qualified for the Bonneville 200 MPH Club at 225 mph in a '32 Ford street roadster backward! His small-block-powered 265mph belly tank was next, followed by his six cylinder streamliner that in 2012 set a still-standing class record. He has won at the Pebble Beach Concours and raced antique cars in France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Mexico, including six times in the Carrera Panamericana with his winning '55 Lincoln. Most recently, with wife Kathy, he won the four-week, 5,000-mile Classic Safari Challenge in South Africa - driving a '61 Falcon!
Beginning with a $45 Model A, Dennis Varni spent all his spare time and money learning about cars and ended up with this Olds-powered '31 roadster that earned him membership in the Bay Area Roadsters in 1964. He was so broke at his first car show that he swept the floors for meal money and slept in the local jail.
In 1961, Varni went to Bonneville as a crewmember on friend Mason Peters' little 241-cid Dodge Hemi-powered '32 five-window coupe. The very un-streamlined altered turned a speed of 122.78 mph on gas. Varni was hooked and vowed he would return with his own race car.
Debuted at the 1970 Roadster Roundup, the beautiful La France red '29 highboy roadster was the cover subject of the March 1971 issue of Rod & Custom magazine. Varni did it all himself except for painting, plating, and upholstery. Immediately after that, he put 20,000 miles on the clock, driving it to the Street Rod Nationals in Memphis, Tenn., and Detroit from his Los Gatos home.
Two years later, Rod&Custom wanted to do a tire test comparing 23 tires' performance on the same car. Knowing of Varni's hard driving habits (the article referred to the 20,000 miles as Varni miles!), he was invited to drive down the coast to the late, lamented Ontario Motor Speedway for the test. He eagerly agreed and before it was over went through a set of brakes and neany lunched the 327-cid chevy when oil left the pump pickup while turning tight donuts.
Due to business and family obligations, Varni didn't return to the Salt as a competitor until the 19805. Driving the Varni, Walsh, Walsh, &Cusack street roadster, Varni achieved his dream of joining the 200 MPH Club in 1987 with a speed of 225.012 mph. ln Varni style, he set one leg of the record while spinning backward through the traps. Also in Varni style, he had his driving shoes bronzed. The car was named one of the 75 Most Signiﬁcant Deuces in 2007.
With a growing need for speed, Varni acquired the former Markley Brothers belly tank lakester in 1990. With Bud and Cub Barnett, he lengthened and upgraded it to current safety standards. ln 1995, veteran Top Fuel driver Bud got airborne and crashed at more than 200 mph. Rebuilt, with a vertical stabilizer, added, Varni drove it more than 255 mph in 2007. The flamed push car is an '82 Cad funeral limo.
In the early 1990s, Varni completely rebuilt his '29 roadster; further detailing it to perfection. The new chassis was powered by a Barnett and Chrisman-built blown awk 406-cid aluminum block engine. Buttera detail bits and Boyd's paint helped make it America's Most Beautiful Roadster of 1992 and the subject of a third Rod&Custom Cover.
Never one to think of a car as a mere showpiece, Varni soon took off cross- country. Here, he ran down the highway with 1999 CHRR grand marshal Rich Guasco in Arizona. The license plates read AMBR 51 (Guascol and AMER 92 (Varni). At the L.A. Roadsters Father's Day show, he completely detailed the car but left the bugs on the radiator to prove it was driven.
Varni raced at the lndy 500 three times. This is the 1982 effort, With, from second from right, Varni, past honorees Andy Brizio and John Buttera, and Buttera's daughter Leigh. The BCV on their caps stands for Buttera, Capps, and Varni.
When you have as many friends as Varni and like a good time as much as he does, what better way to take your friends with you than a '36 Yellowstone bus (powered by a 454-ci big-block Chevy)?
Beginning in 1994, Varni and his Bay Area Roadsters buddy Dick DeLuna raced the Stinkin' Lincoln in the Mexican Road Race revival, winning their class in the seven-day event several times. Powered by a 317-Cid Ford Windsor with a Jerico four-speed, the two-ton sedan has been clocked at more than 152 mph. And don't target the power windows or the front loudspeakers playing mariachi music.
She's real ﬁne my 909. Crew chief Joe Casanova spent two years building the chassis of Vami's Speed Nymph streamliner. Powered by a Ryan Falconer GM DDHC turbocharged inline six, it broke the E/Blown Gas streamliner record at 334.250 mph Aug. 15, 2012, earning Varni 300 MPH Chapter membership. Most of the crew have been friends for decades.
In complete contrast to the streamliner is Varni's Pebble Beach Concours award-winning 1940 Alia Homen SC 2500 SS Graber Cabriolet. Of his eclectic car collection, Varni says, "l love 'em all for different reasons. And my favorite is the one l'm driving that day."
(above and below) Mercedes, Alta Romeo, Maserati, or Jag, Vami has driven and raced his cars as far away as Australia, Norway, and South Africa.
Interested in something different? Varni's latest is this '51 Studebaker phantom woody fastback complete with fuel-injected Edsel engine from the June 1959 cover of Hot Rod magazine.