Photos by Shawn Michener
Sometimes a feature story tends to just write itself. During the interview with Walter and Alex Cheney about the Black Widow, we found the story was best told by a recent conversation with them about how the Black Widow came about. So we’re just going to step out of the way and let them tell it in their words.
Alex: I was in the service from 1980 to 1988. While serving, I broke my back in three places. My whole left side got crushed. My head got crushed. I had severe brain injury. Any disabled veteran knows the hardest part is downtime. That's when your mind goes crazy.
For those of us who are a 100 percent disabled, that's what kills us. When the government says, you can't work, you have to sit home ‘’’ that's where your mind goes back to where you don't want it to go. (So after leaving the military) I was helping my brother in this industry. We were truck pulling. The three of us (brothers). I was helping them, because I had the new Nissan truck. I was just driving stuff back and forth.
Well, they were all picking on me because I was driving a Nissan. So, I said: "You flip the money for me to enter, I'll pull it." (They did.) And I won first place. (So Alex started truck pulling for not only his own mental stability, but to show others who experienced the same things from their military service that life can be good and you can still do things with your life.)
It's been amazing. And this is what it's all about. It's about reaching out to people, little people. Not the ones (whose families) have money and they can go out and buy them everything they need. You know what I mean? The average private that makes $3000 a month, can't work, so he can't build his income, like me. I am 100 percent disabled, the government won't allow me to work. How can I build my income for my family?
Walt: You can hardly stand up here all day. It's terrible, he was in such bad shape yesterday we had to send him home. He's stubborn as a mule, you know, his back's all swelled up. But he's thickheaded. So here he is, the military mindset, you know, "I can do what you can do."
Alex: But that's what keeps me alive. So this is what gets me up every morning. It's a drive for me. It's a big drive. But if I can help one of my brothers, I don't care what branch of service you're in. We're all in it for one reason, to save our country. So I don't (care) if you're from the Air Force, the Marines, that don't mean nothing to me. If you're in the service and you're disabled, that's all. That's all I need. You need help? Come talk to me. Because it just doesn't help you. It helps me.
Walt: I never realized, even when Al first came home, (the mental challenges he faced). He acts normal. He tries to live as normal as he can. We knew he was in pain, his back was a mess. We knew he went through a lot of stuff, but, I never realized that PTSD was a real thing.
As we got older, I matured, I was a young kid when he returned, but I started realizing, "Joe, his memory's not the best." I cut him no slack. I'd pick on him all the time. But I realize, he's got a hard time remembering some things, or he will get depressed, have days that aren’t the best. And it's a reality thing.
Now I'm mature enough to see these issues are real. And they're life-altering to the point where each day 22 people are dying from this, taking their lives, our disabled vets.
Alex: I got out in '88. Yet I still get up at 3-4 a.m. each day; even last night, as I was having problems, and woke up two or three times talking to myself in a cold sweat. But I've learned how to deal with it throughout those years. So I've had a lot of years to deal with it. They didn't know what PTSD was when I got out. They didn't know anything about the brain. So I had to learn how to deal with this myself. When I got out, the (government) just gave you a piece of paper that said see you later. Have a nice day.
So, if I can explain to these kids how I learned to cope with it. Because, the biggest thing is with a lot of these guys I talk to, they're going to a therapist. The army says, we need you to see a therapist. Therapist is this age.
And they want me to spill my guts on how I feel, so that they can fix it. How are they going to fix it when they have no idea what I've been through?
Walt: Yeah, and that's why I think it's so special about the Wounded Warrior program, because they're other veterans that have been through and are still coping, you know, have learned how to deal with the issues, that are helping each other.
Alex: I can help one person with what I'm doing, then that gives me an amazing feeling of satisfaction. And it's not about me. It's about putting a smile on that soldier's face.
Walt: So, when Al came onboard (the Venom Race Team), and I realize that I now have a purpose … it's not about how fast can we go, or what record can we hold. That has taken such a back seat because I'm meeting these guys, come up in wheelchairs, disabled veterans. And the more I meet people, the more it puts the racing in the backseat. And it's like, wow, what we're doing is really important.
Let's face it, racing is cool, but how important is a race game? You know, they have their place but it's not like the world's going to stop if they stop. We have something now that means something. I'm good at talking; I'm good at doing at working on the trucks; I'm good with my hands. But now it all has a direction. I think it's kind of ironic that he's gone through what he has to finally give me a direction to say, this is where we're going with this.
Our mom died in 2014, from cancer. (Just before here death) My whole family was by her bedside and I had a pull the next day. She told me to go to the pull. I said, "Mom, I don't want to leave. I am going to stay by your bedside.” At that time she wasn't on morphine yet. She was still pretty coherent. Her last words to me were, "Go win me the first place trophy." The last words I ever heard from my mom.
Alex: And you don't argue with our mother.
Walt: Not with mom. So, I tell her love her, gave her a kiss and left to drive two-and-a-half-hours south to the pull. We got down there, and mom was fine, we were supposed to pull that morning. Nothing went right. Like, all morning long I was texting my brothers, "What's going on? How's mom doing?"
"Mom's fine. Mom's fine. How are you doing?"
I'm like, "It's not good. Track's terrible, we haven't been up yet." I was supposed to be the first class of the day. So we were in and out. I'm thinking we'll be done by 10:30 a.m., back home by noon.
Well, noon rolls around. My brother calls me, "How you doing?"
I'm like, "Same thing, we're still waiting."
He goes like, "Well, hurry up if you can. We don't know how long Mom's going hang on." She was getting worse. So, this goes on, like, 2-3 p.m. rolls around and I'm still not up, we're getting really close now, the track's fixed, we're getting ready to go out. Almost ready to get the truck started up and line up, and he goes, "How did you do?"
And I'm like, "Almost up, we're almost ready to line up."
And he goes, "Well, you have to win." I'm like, "We're trying, we're trying."
He's like, "Mom's died." So, I'm in the truck, I'm a mess, and he's like, "Well, you have to do it for mom."
Winning a truck pull is not easy. And when you're running the truck that we have, my Nissan, it was not really expected to win. So, I get lined up and I watched the first truck go, and it were great pass. I watched the second truck go, it made a really nice pass. Then it was my turn, up. So I'm sitting in my truck, I remember sitting in it, and I going, "Alright, mom. Let's do this." And I hooked up and I was thinking the whole time, do I shift? Do I not shift? Cause truck pulling, either you leave it in first, with our truck, or you can take second and go. So, I'm going to shift. Keep in mind, if I shift my truck into second, it stays in second. Once you take second, it's going to die there.
So, I'm shifting. I take off, I go down the track, I shift and the truck starts to slow down, and I don't know why, but I jammed it back into first … it downshifts immediately. I screamed another 15 feet. I park, and the guy that went second comes up and says, "Oh man, that was an awesome pull, I got you by a couple feet but you did great."
So I knew I didn't win. So I'm heart broke, but, you know, whatever. It's truck pulling, you can't keep promises to everybody. So the next truck comes. Awesome truck, Ford, big block, comes down the track, makes it like a truck length, blows the driveshaft right out of it. So I'm like, there's one down. There's like four left to go.
So there’s another Ford comes up; beautiful Ford truck. Goes down the track and doesn't even move the sled. It sheers the driveshaft right out. I'm like, what's going on? Right? Crazy, emotional, goose bumps. I'm like, man, I may actually get like third or fourth, you know? Next truck comes up, makes it three lengths down the track, blows the dry shaft. That's three in a row. I'm like, no way did this just happened.
So now I know I got at least a third. I'm going to bring something home for Mom. At that moment the guy that was ahead of me comes running over and says, "Hey, you got me by six inches. You're winning."
I'm like, "No way. This is not happening." Right? So, now I'm down to one truck left to go. One truck separates me from winning this for my mom or taking second, which, it is what it is. I can't control it. He comes down the track. I beat him by two feet. We wound up winning the event for my Mom.
Alex: We've been together since.
Walt: But it really takes that selflessness, that it's not about me, it's not about him, it's not about the race team. Yeah, it's cool we pull, but really what it's about is cancer awareness, the Wounded Warrior program, you know, that there's so much of that out there. I want to know their story … because I know what we went through. It's heart wrenching for us.
Alex: It will always be on the back of my truck. That's for me and my warrior family. That's my mom. You'll always see those two on this truck. How's that for a story?
Walt: So we know, every battle we go into, I use the word battle cause of him, but we go into a truck show, or we go into a race, we never expect to win. And it's not about winning. It's about what can be, how good can we do, as far as competition and getting our word out, and being known. It's all about exposure.
Alex: And it's our sponsors.
Walt: We found out the week we were leaving that our tire sponsor, his tires were around $800. They delivered them. And I called John at Rouse Tires Vermont. I said, "John, what do we owe you for the tires?" And he goes, "Don't you worry about it." He goes, "We'll take care of it."
Alex: People don't realize that although we have sponsors for some of our products, everything else comes out of what little we make.
Walt: The truck looks a lot flashier than what our level is. It's like EGR, they send us flairs for free. They're $500 flairs but they're not going to make or break anything. We love EGR. Also, Open Wide Performance just gave Al a controller for his airbags.
So now, Al can lower or raise the bags where before it was so hard for him to get out and run the airbags because they were all manual. So, you know, all the guys, whether they're on our truck or on our website, everybody's been so personal. But like anything else in racing, there's no money in it. Nobody says, here's a $1,000, good luck on your season. No, it's usually a discount on a product or a product for free. It takes every one of them to make it possible.
We can work as hard as we can but without the exposure, without features or articles or things, that show our sponsors we're doing what we're supposed to do, it ends.
Alex: This has been a hard road for both of us, actually, all three of us. Our other brother is just now getting into it because he's like us. And we don't compete against each other. We don't believe in it. He bought the same truck, but gas.
Walt: So, if we race somewhere together, he's never going to be against any of us. It makes no sense to do that. The (worst) part about racing is that you have to compete against people. You know? It's not like you can just show up and everyone can just enjoy what you've built. It's always, who can win? Who can lose? So, to keep sponsors, no one wants to be part of a tenth place finisher. That's kind of the downside to it.
Alex: Now the story about this truck is awesome. A year before this truck come out, we got with the dealer and he wrote down what I was looking for. Because we decided that I wanted one, and I wanted it black. Leather interior, but I didn't want the heated seat because it was too expensive. So I needed the navigation because we planned on traveling. So finally, a year later, they started coming out.
Walt: So dealers are finally getting the NXDs—one here, one in Texas, one in Michigan.
Alex: So my dealer calls me up, says, ""We got a blue one in Plattsburgh, which is three hours away. Did you want a blue one?" I said I want black, but I want the first XD that come in so we can start what we're doing. It is diesel. It had the GPS, but it had cloth seats. I don't care about that. I’ll take it.
So it's supposed to be there Wednesday morning. Well, They call Wednesday as say: We got a black XD sitting here. We don't know where it came from. To this day, the owner has no idea where it came from.
Walt: They sent her the wrong truck.
Alex: They sent the wrong truck. It just showed up. But it was the exact truck that was on my list. How amazing is that? Everything was exactly what I wanted. This truck will never leave me. It was meant to be.
Walt: It's like some of those hunting or fishing stories you tell your buddy, but unless your buddy was there, he's like, really? That really happened? I'm telling you, that's how it happened. I don't know why or how, but this is the truck Al always wanted. And, what, a couple weeks later, all paperwork was done, he owned it. And here we've been ever since. Fifty some thousand miles on it in two years, and pretty much pushed every limit it has.
Calmini 7.5-inch Lift (to be installed)
Rouse Tire 35-inch Mud Claw tires
Rough Country Steering Stabilizer
Hellwig rear sway bar
Hellwig rear air bags
Mag-Hytec Rear Diff cover
CFT performance full 4-inch stainless exhaust with custom 6-inch Tip
CFT EGR delete kit
CFT Custom Charged Tubes
CFT Custom Oil Catch can
CFT Custom Intake tube
Pre-cool Silicone coolant hoses
Pre-cool oil catch can silicone hoses
Off-road Gorilla Battery hold-downs
Steel City Paracord Custom grab handles
Venom Racing Custom front bumper
BVC Graphics Custom Wrap
EGR Products Fender flares and vent visors
Evans Waterless Coolant
HPP Custom Soft Tuning
Titan Fuel Tanks 50 gallon tank
Custom Powder Kcin Coatings of Illinois
Rough Country Traction Bars