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A red LeMans and a Golden Ticket

Eli DeWitt’s custom ’67 earns berth in Vegas builders’ show Purchased in 2010, he didn’t drive it until 2017

SOLON– He’s got a Golden Ticket.
Eli DeWitt’s custom 1967 Pontiac LeMans is going to the big show.
DeWitt, a 2014 Solon High School graduate, won a regional qualifier in the Young Guns division of the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Battle of the Builders, and heads to Las Vegas in November to compete nationally.
He’ll face about three-dozen other entrants age 18-27 in the Young Guns division, created to spotlight up-and-coming industry talent.
With his Golden Ticket, DeWitt receives expenses-paid air and hotel accommodations for two, as well as passes to the show at the convention center.
“It’s just going to be a great opportunity to open some doors and meet some new people with some big companies,” he observed.
DeWitt, 24, purchased the LeMans, his first car, in 2010, but didn’t drive it until his custom rebuild was completed in the summer of 2017.
“I had it completely blown apart,” he recalled. “It was a full-rotisserie flame-off restoration. Every nut, bolt, screw has been out of it.”
He bought the car from a neighbor, the original owner.
DeWitt and his father got it running and put in a new gas tank.
“And then it snowballed from there,” Eli explained.
He inherited his interest in cars from his dad, who had attended college in the automotive field before entering law enforcement.
“I don’t know if I really had a choice, it’s just been always a thing,” he said. “That’s pretty much what I have been around my whole life.”
Eli grew up in a rural Solon setting, where his parents Ron and Belinda had added a mechanic’s shop.
He and his dad built model cars together before he was old enough to work in the shop, and when he was able to buy the LeMans, the shop is where it ended up.
The LeMans was in in pretty good shape for the year, he said. Some rust, dings and dents. “For a ’67, I’ve seen worse.”
He and his dad didn’t start taking it apart until 2011. When the car was nearly ready to paint, Eli was able to take it to college, where he painted and finished bodywork.
After graduating from Solon, he attended Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge to obtain his Associate in Applied Science degrees in the three-year automotive restoration and collision program.
“And that’s when stuff really started to cook on it, because I could spend all day every day on it instead of a couple hours here, a couple hours there,” DeWitt said. “Believe it or not, it’s kind of hard to work on a car on Saturday after you’ve played football Friday night. That’s the last thing that was on my mind, was to go down to the shop and sand.”
At college, he could apply the skills he was learning toward the LeMans.
The car later returned with Eli to his parents’ home, where the assembly process started.
Although he worked in Solon at Resto Rides for a while, DeWitt is now employed with McGrath Collision, on the north side of Cedar Rapids.
“Until I can man up and find my own place,” he observed. “I want to build my own name. I don’t want to work for somebody my whole life.”
He currently resides north of Ely, in close proximity to his parents’ shop, with his wife of almost two years, Kelsey.
The two met through their family.
Kelsey, originally from Mount Pleasant, works at Amy Becker Photography in Solon.
“She got drug into the car world,” Eli explained.
DeWitt estimated he has over 1,000 man-hours into the rebuild.
The LeMans had its original motor, an overhead cam, inline-six, but he wanted something big and loud, so he took a 400 from a 1974 Catalina.
His boss at Resto Rides, Ed Beranek, walked him through the process of taking the engine apart and putting it back together.
“I just wanted to do it because it was my car and that way I could say I did it,” he said. “So he sat in his chair and told me exactly what to do and I did it.”
Body-wise, DeWitt did quite a bit of metal work to the trunk floor and patches in the main floor under the seats, and spent a lot of time fitting the pieces together.
“I needed it to be as spot-on as I could get,” he stated. “I strived for perfection when I was doing it, even though nothing’s every perfect, but you have to try and make it as close to perfect as you can.”
Wet sanding and buffing alone was 100 hours of work.
“You look into it and you should be able to see your reflection on it just like looking into a mirror,” he noted. “Everybody can go and put a huge motor in something, but how clean the car is and how it looks are what I look at. Engine people look at the motors, but I’m a body guy, so I like to look at the fit, the finish, the paint.”
The interior, with the exception of the carpet and the headliner, is original. Once a year, DeWitt would take it all out and clean and condition it.
He didn’t want chrome, so one custom touch is painted trim.
“I actually ground all the chrome off and did all my body work and painted it to match the wheels,” he explained. “That way, it would be kind of a one-off type deal.”
He and Kelsey enjoy attending car shows, watching to see if people pick up on the subtle touch.
They started showing the LeMans in 2017, maybe three shows a year, and put about 500 miles on it.
A favorite is at Hopkinton, “A tiny, tiny town with a big car show,” which drew close to 600 vehicles this year.
Eli obtained his Golden Ticket by winning SEMA’s Young Guns eight-state regional originally scheduled for Michigan June 28. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition was judged virtually by four former winners or shop owners.
Learning he had won was “awesome news,” he said. “Of course, me, two hours later, after it all wore off, I’m like so now what do I have to do, what’s the next thing to take this one step further, to make this nicer?’”
The LeMans is considered a “resto-mod” for the SEMA show, restored pretty much back to factory but with modifications like disc brakes, new rims and tires, upgraded suspension and motor.
DeWitt knows he’s up against the best in the country.
“It’ll be people looking at the same quality, comparing it to a half-million-dollar one-off build,” he remarked. “So I need to make sure my stuff is as clean and as good as I can get it.”
SEMA hosts 10 regional events awarding 10 Golden Tickets, but the second- and third-place winners are placed in a pool for a limited number of additional spaces. He expects to face as many as 40 other entrants in November inside the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Judges will select an initial group of 10 finalists.
“If I make that, then I’ll be ecstatic,” DeWitt said. “I’ve kind of already won, you know, just getting this whole free trip out there and getting my car showed out there.”
During his sophomore year at college in 2016, he won a SEMA scholarship and was given passes to the show that year, where he saw the quality his car needed to be.
“Having it all come together is pretty cool,” he noted. “Yes, I do want to make it to the top 10 because that would be even better, but just getting there in general is a huge win for me.”
The LeMans is currently tucked away under a car cover in the garage.
“The only way it’s coming out is to put it in the trailer,” he promised.
A transport truck will deliver the car to a plane “and hopefully we’ll meet it out there,” he said.