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Pasco Tribune

Pasco man’s Corvette lies in sinkhole at Kentucky museum

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Published:   |   Updated: March 7, 2014 at 06:19 AM

LAND O’ LAKES — Even today, as his beloved “red lady” remains buried under tons of earth and concrete, Kevin Helmintoller doesn’t second-guess his decision last year to donate the 2001 Mallett Hammer Conversion Corvette to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky.

“No regrets,” the Land O’ Lakes father of three said.

So far museum officials have recovered five of the eight Corvettes swallowed by a massive sinkhole the morning of Feb. 12. Helmintoller, who traveled to the museum a few days after the sinkhole opened, said there’s still no sign of his.

“Mine would stand out, it’s torch red,” he said. “They have done scans, but nothing that shows the car,” he said. “It could be as deep as 60 feet.”

It’s a heartbreaking end to a car that brought him 13 years of joy. The Mallett Hammer Z06 wasn’t Helmintoller’s first Corvette — he’s owned nine since he bought his first one in 1996.

“As far as cars go, I don’t think there’s anything in the world that compares,” he said. “You hate to say you have favorites. The [2001] was my family favorite. My middle son called it the Rocket Ship.”

This time last year, he owned three Corvettes. He and his wife, Linda, sold the other two, and they’re currently waiting for a new Stingray.

“My garage is pretty barren right now,” he said.

When the Helmintollers heard about the museum’s plans to open a racetrack for its 20th anniversary this summer, they thought it would be a perfect destination for the modified race car, which is valued at $125,000. Museum officials planned to use his car to train other drivers, and he would have access to it to race any time he wanted.

The couple drove it to Kentucky a few days after Thanksgiving for the last time and turned the keys over to Executive Director Wendell Strode.

“The only time I shed tears was when I drove through the corridor into the museum,” he said. “The thing with Corvettes is you can pick it up at the museum and drive it right out of the lobby – I picked this one up there. We call it ‘exit alley.’ No one ever drives one in. So a part of me felt like I was going in the wrong direction.”

They never got to see the car on display in the world-famous Skydome. It was moved to the exhibit hall six weeks before the floor collapsed underneath it. Helmintoller said the museum’s archive director Betty Hardison called him that morning to explain what happened. “It was total disbelief,” he said. “I didn’t think it was a practical joke – Betty’s a very serious person.”

The Skydome’s webcam captured the catastrophe for the world to see. But then the power cuts off before Helmintoller’s car disappeared. The museum has insurance coverage for the damage to the cars and the structure, and Chevrolet will oversee the restoration of the cars.

The five recovered vehicles on display now include a 2009 ZR1 “Blue Devil,” a 1962 black convertible, a 1993 Ruby Red 40th Anniversary Corvette, a 1992 white one-millionth Corvette and a 1984 PPG Pace Car.

In a few weeks they hope to be adding the last three cars – the Mallett Hammer Z06, the 2009 white 1.5 millionth Corvette and 1993 ZR-1 Spyder – for visitors to see. Construction crews will continue the stabilization of the spire and walls of the sinkhole before attempting to vacuum out the dirt from around the remaining cars.

“I’ll definitely be there when they actually extract it,” Helmintoller said.

Museum spokeswoman Katie Frassinelli said the Spyder is partially visible, but the other two are completely buried. “We don’t know if they’re under one foot of dirt or 10 feet,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

lkinsler@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1852

Twitter @LKinslerTBO

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