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INL project manager makes car restoration a family affair


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Steve and Darcie Martinson are all smiles as they pose in front of their beautiful finished product. | Courtesy photo

INL project managers face intriguing technical challenges every day on the job; one would think they’d want to rest up in their hours off. However, for Project Manager Steve Martinson and his wife, industrial engineer Darcie Martinson, this isn’t the case. They spent many of their days off in the past few years working on a monumental project: building their very own 1968 Chevy C-10 pickup.

“Darcie and I both like cars that go fast,” Steve Martinson explained. “Our son, Robert, had a dream to build a ’68 Chevrolet short box pickup, which inspired this project. His uncle had one that looked similar. We decided we wanted to build something high-performance and one day show it.”

Robert Martinson was born with muscular dystrophy and was confined to a wheelchair by the time he was twelve years old. He wasn’t able to participate in every aspect of the construction process, but, in his father’s words, “he always had the really neat design ideas.” Sadly, Robert Martinson passed away in 2017, but his memory lives on in the pickup and his parents’ fond memories of the many hours they spent working on it together as a family, including his sisters and brothers-in-law.

Hoods up! The Martinson family shows off their car’s engine at the SEMA show in Las Vegas. | Courtesy photo

“The body and paint of the vehicle alone required about a thousand hours of labor,” Steve Martinson said. “We basically built the vehicle twice. We mocked it up fully once in primer, took the whole truck apart, painted it and reassembled it.”

After six years and over two thousand hours of labor, the masterpiece was finally completed. About $40,000 in financial contribution came from Robert Martinson’s own pocket, as this had always been a big dream of his. Once a year, Las Vegas hosts the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association (SEMA) show, and the Martinson family car was entered in the 2015 event.

“We competed in what is called the Battle of the Builders,” Steve Martinson explained. The body style of the truck is very popular among hot-rodders; it features a beautiful hickory wood bed, a massive 572-cubic-inch engine and a mirror blue finish. Even though the Martinson pickup didn’t make it into the SEMA finals, it received substantial praise and excellent press. The truck was even featured in a couple of magazines including Street Rod Life, and was used by Wilwood Brakes in their national advertising campaign. “It has been really rewarding to receive that kind of press,” Steve Martinson said.

Steve Martinson has found that his work building cars relates very closely to his work as a project manager. As he said, “In both areas, you have these difficult technical challenges. At the beginning, you figure out your design, your project scope, and then you lay it all out and get to work. It’s the same process and order for building this pickup as it was for my most recent project for Westinghouse, related to uranium-silicide fuel pellet production.”

The Martinson family car shows off its glossy, mirrored blue finish. | Courtesy photo

Both Steve and Darcie Martinson have been interested in cars from a young age. Darcie Martinson grew up on a wheat farm in Northeast Montana, so she was no stranger to hard work. Steve Martinson began developing his passion for vehicle design and engineering at 12 years old, when he started building engines and circle track cars at a service station owned by his friend’s father. He and a customer, with an engine provided by Steve Martinson, are currently working on a racecar designed to set a Bonneville Salt Flats land speed record. Their first effort came close to breaking the record, but unfortunately they blew out a tire and will have to try again later this year.

As for the Martinson family pickup, it has continued to stun audiences wherever it goes. Before Robert Martinson passed away, his parents asked if he would like them to keep the pickup, and he said he would. The pickup has continued to win multiple Best of Show awards, sometimes competing against as many as 300 other vehicles. The Martinsons are happy to be able to keep Robert’s dream alive. A tenacious, intelligent young man, he never gave up despite his difficult circumstances. The truck was not Robert Martinson’s only major success; he graduated with honors from high school, received a bachelor’s degree in computer science at age 20, and spurred the creation of Thunder Custom Auto with his family.

Steve Martinson hopes that the truck will serve as a reminder of Robert’s strength and motivation, a lasting legacy of his dreams and determination. Though he is no longer with them, his presence lives on in the truck, a manifestation of his inspirational life and admirable character. “It’s bittersweet to continue showing his pickup,” Steve Martinson remarked, “but we do it because it’s so great to see the joy that Robert’s truck design brings to other people.”