GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
There’s a Chevy Camaro on base that you can't miss. Rows of shark teeth branch away from the fender of the front tires. Angry eyes glare back. A cartoon flying tiger trails on the car doors. The low rumble and gunmetal gray glory accentuate the blazing red hood, sizzling under the Texas sun.
Tech. Sgt. Stephen Strong, 315th Training Squadron instructor, shares how the design of the Camaro came to be and what he plans to do next at Goodfellow Air Force Base.
Roughly two years ago, Strong dreamed of being a pilot. He had everything lined up for Officer Training School, even a flight physical. But the sequestration hit, and put his application on hold. Strong decided to focus his passion for planes in a new direction, and make a little more money for his family on the side, by learning to paint cars.
"I had to rethink where my Air Force career was going to go," said Strong. "So, I started painting cars."
Strong began his own business painting cars while working normal duty hours for the 614th Air and Space Operations Center out of Vandenburg Air Force Base, California.
"I was already working 40 to 50 hours a week for the Air Force," said Strong. "I'd eat dinner, kiss my son goodnight and work in the garage five to six more hours. I ended up working another 20 to 30 hours a week."
While teaching himself to paint cars, Strong found a type of paint that he could spray on as a thin coating and peel off like plastic, giving him the idea that he could create any paint job he wanted and could quickly alter.
"The second car I ever painted was this one," said Strong about his Camaro. "I was walking out of the headquarters building for the 14th Air Force and there was a 1940's P-40 Warhawk on static display. I was looking at it and I thought this would be a really cool idea to do the teeth design."
For Strong, the P-40 Warhawk inspired the design of his car with its inspirational history. He explained how the car's design was based off the original planes used by the American Volunteer Group, The Flying Tigers Association, led by Gen. Claire Lee Chennault in the 1940’s.
The design for the flying tiger insignia was designed by the Walt Disney organization in Hollywood and proved to have an impact on the morale of both sides in the World War II Burma campaign, as annotated by General Chennault.
"At the request of the China Defense Supplies in Washington, the Walt Disney organization in Hollywood designed our insignia consisting of a winged tiger flying through a large V for victory," said Gen. Chennault in his official results of the Burma Campaign. "In the Burma campaign the main brunt of the fighting was borne by the P-40 squadrons of the American Volunteer Group. They were first in the field with pilots well trained, and good fighting equipment. The great majority of enemy aircraft destroyed in Burma fell to their guns. Their gallantry won the admiration of both services."
The design of the planes boosted morale in a time where Japanese planes were more sophisticated than American aircraft. For Strong, having that similar design on his car served to express his Air Force pride and it did not go unrecognized.
"Once it was finished, it became famous almost overnight," said Strong. "I was offered to bring my car to exotic car shows with some 200 Ferraris and Lamborghinis. My car was the only domestic vehicle present."
It took Strong 30 hours to complete the design of his vehicle and he's kept it for years. However, he intends to peel off the history of that design and start over again with a new way to express his skills. He plans to design his car over again for his son.
"It's a way I can express myself," said Strong. "A vehicle doesn't have to be the standard vehicle; it can become your canvas. I think it'd be really cool for my son if he could say his dad drives Lightning McQueen. I’m not sure yet. But, whatever I choose, it will definitely be noticeable."