Ricky Ray admits his first car was a bit unusual.
The new Toronto Argonauts quarterback, who starts the season tonight against his former team in Edmonton, got a Nissan pickup from his parents when he was 17. But it wasn’t just any old Nissan pickup.
“My dad bought it from some guy who had cut the top off and made it into a convertible, and it was three different colours,” the two-time Grey Cup champ says, chuckling over the mash-up. “On the hood, he had made little spots where he wanted parts of the engine coming out.”
“(It was) pretty rugged,” he admits. “So we went to the junkyard and got a roof for it and we had someone weld that on, and then we got a new hood for it and painted it white.”
Ray was born in the small town of Happy Camp, Calif., near the Oregon border — Bigfoot Country as its known (the town parade featured Bigfoot in a cage throwing candy) — and grew up in Redding, Calif.
With no public transit to speak of, he used the pickup to get to school and his many athletic events and practices.
Ray, who paid for part of the paint and the new hood, pitched in with whatever he could. But he had to pray it didn’t rain.
“When it rained, water would get in through the vents on the hood into the carburetor and it would flood the carburetor and it wouldn’t start,” he explains.
“Whenever it was raining, I would take the floor mat from the driver’s side and cover the vent so water wouldn’t get in there. It was a work in progress, but it all came together and ended up being a good car for me.”
Ray, whose father worked for the local lumber mills, is the third of six kids. Ferrying their brood around town was something of a logistical nightmare, often resulting in long waits for the kids.
“I was frustrated always waiting for a ride, or trying to ask for a ride,” he recalls. “So when I finally got my licence — not having to wait, I could determine when I went — was just a great feeling.”
The 6-foot-2 quarterback, who has thrown for more than 40,000 yards in the CFL, signed a $4.35 million contract with the Argos in December. With Toronto hosting the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup this fall, the team is looking for a quick turnaround after four dismal seasons in a row.
Ray, who attended Sacramento State University, first tried his luck in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers. When that didn’t work out, he moved to arena football and he and his wife (high-school sweetheart Allyson) were finally able to buy their own car.
Hand-me-downs from relatives had served them well (Ray particularly enjoyed driving his wife’s Mazda Miata in college, despite his cramped legs) but the time had come to buy their own set of wheels.
“When you’re first starting out, you usually get a cheap car that maybe doesn’t look the best or have the most options, but it gets you from Point A to Point B,” says the 32-year old, whose nickname “Frito-Ray” came from briefly driving a Frito-Lay delivery truck. “As you get a bit older (and get) a little more money, you get some things that are a little nicer.”
Buying a 2000 four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer in 2001 has proven to be a solid choice. In fact, he’s still driving it (there’s also a 2007 Chevy Tahoe in the garage).
Travelling between their two homes with their 14-month-old daughter means comfortable long-haul drives are important, and driving on Canadian roads necessitated only minor changes.
“You got to get used to how fast kilometers are,” he says. “I find the speed limits, especially around Edmonton, were a little slower than back home. On the freeway, it’s the same.”
“The biggest adjustment is, being from northern California, we don’t get a lot of snow, but we get a lot of rain. So when it did get snowy and cold and icy on the streets, you had to pay attention a little bit more.”
Despite having the perfect moniker for NASCAR, Ray’s no speed demon; especially on the drive that brought him to Toronto. That’s because he took his other set of wheels: a motor home.
On his wife’s suggestion, they traded their camp trailer for an RV and, towing the Explorer, took a week to drive from California to Ontario.
“I found it a little bit easier than pulling a trailer,” Ray says. “You just learn to stay out of everybody’s way.”