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Helena woman still behind the wheel at 90


HELENA — The insatiable love for speed is a condition not suited for everyone.

Some prefer not to feel their knuckles turn white as their fingertips grip into the leather of a steering wheel. They fear that moment when all four tires slide over asphalt, letting the driver know they are fractions of a second and millimeters of a turn of the wheel from losing control.

Perhaps they'd just rather not let the rush of wind ruin their perfectly coiffed hair.

hoto/Independent Record, Dylan Brown

90-year-old Eleanor Villa, with Dave Gustafson, comes up a steep incline opposite of the Elk Range outside Jefferson City, Mont., on April 26 in her new off-road vehicle. Sharp as a tack, with strong enough eyesight and a longtime love for all engines that rumble _ they have to have enough horses to sound like a cavalry charge — Villa won't be caught crocheting any time soon.

Eleanor Villa has never been one of those people.

The petite 90-year-old prefers to see the world in fast forward, only glimpses of the scenery as she drives by. Sharp as a tack, with strong enough eyesight and a longtime love for all engines that rumble — they have to have enough horses to sound like a cavalry charge — she won't be caught crocheting any time soon.

But you could catch a glimpse of her riding her side-by-side four-wheeler to the top of a mountain, traversing the rocky terrain in her new favorite toy. And when she passes you by, it will be hard to forget the words etched on the back of the yellow and black Can-Am Commander X: "Go Granny Go."

"Going out and riding, I just love it," Villa said during an interview at her family's home south of Jefferson City. "I really can't specifically say why."

AP Photo/Independent Record, Dylan Brown

Eleanor Villa rallies up a steep incline to enjoy the view off of a peak on her son's 50-acre plot of land outside of Jefferson City on Tuesday. Sharp as a tack, with strong enough eyesight and a longtime love for all engines that rumble — they have to have enough horses to sound like a cavalry charge — Villa won't be caught crocheting any time soon.

Watch her shuffle to the family garage then ditch her cane as she climbs up a pair of steps into the side of the vehicle and it becomes a little more obvious. She might have slowed down, but the world of sports cars, speed boats and all-terrain vehicles hasn't. And she loves keeping up.

That's why her son, Art Villa, can't help but allow her in the driver's seat. Soon after age finally kept her from kicking a leg over the seat of the old family four-wheeler, she saw Art and his wife, Marie, riding around on their new side-by-side.

She just had to have one.

"Mom, these things are pretty powerful," said Art, trying to dissuade her but likely making things worse.

"I don't care, I want you to order one for me," she said.

So, her son set out finding the same model. His was only the fourth sold in the state. Hers would be the eighth.

Ordering it through One Way Marine and with the help of Mergenthaler Transfer and Storage — Art's the vice president of safety and compliance — they were able to rush order one month ahead of schedule and had it ready last week.

"It was kind of a joint effort to get this thing to my mother," he said.

And it is completely cranked out. Its 85-horsepower engine and incredibly smooth suspension allows her to roll over stones the size of bowling balls with ease. Art also paid a friend to install a radio so his mother can hear her tunes.

When her son tells her to take it easy on the gas pedal, Eleanor likes to respond dismissively: "It has brakes."

For now, Art doesn't need to worry much. His mother is still getting comfortable with it, still testing it out with slow drives down the dirt road that leads up to their house or to the gazebo at the top of the hill.

"Knowing my mom, she would have a tendency to take some time to get used to it, then she would kind of go 'I wonder how fast this thing will go,'" he said. "She could no doubt get herself in trouble."

"Heavily insured," is Art's mantra. He repeats it time and again when he sees her back down the driveway or climb along the barbed-wire fence that lines their 50-plus-acre property.

But while he knows a vehicle can be replaced, his mother can't. She's more than a parent. She's also a best friend and part of the nucleus at the family home.

When the Villas moved to Montana seven years ago, Eleanor moved into the bottom level of the house. A live-in butler, Dave Gustafson, who joined them 2 ½ years ago, will ride shotgun with Eleanor, helping guide her four-wheeler over terrain.

"I'm not afraid, she's a good driver," Gustafson said.

After all, Eleanor's been doing it for decades.

As her two sons grew older, the stay-at-home mom and wife to a successful real estate investor began taking up their hobbies to be closer to them.

She raced motorcycles along the beachfronts of Southern California ("I won sometimes, I was ahead of the boys," she remarked), and rode in her husband's racing boats.

Art remembers when he was a teenager in the 1960s and his mother climbed onto a motorcycle for the first time.

"She's not real cautious, and she wasn't real good riding the motorcycle the first time," he said. "We ran chase for her."

That meant keeping up to make sure she was OK and stopping traffic when need be.

"It's kind of like 'you need to crawl before you walk,'" he said. "And she was like 'I'm going to run.'"

He's been watching out for her ever since, moving her into his home after his father passed away 18 years ago, and compares his experiences with her to that of watching over a 15-year-old.

Of course, Eleanor's hobbies would make most of the boys jealous. She shoots .22-caliber rifles not far from the house ("We finally had to take the handgun away," Art remarked), races souped-up remote control cars around her patio and spends hours watching Formula 1 racing.

She's caught the Long Beach Grand Prix in person, and, when they get a chance, Art plans to take her to a monster truck rally to see the famous Gravedigger (she has an RC car in its likeness) in action.

"She loves Montana. She loves the change of seasons and she's very active," Art said. "She and her dog, Spike (a Yorkshire Terrier), are regulars on the pontoon boat in the summer time with us. She goes fishing.

"I should be so lucky at 90 years old."

"When I first got here, they told me 'Oh, people shouldn't do those things,'" Eleanor said. "And I said 'I like it, and I'm going to do it. '"

And while she might have traded her old hunting grounds along Rodeo Drive for a state filled with rodeos, she still has a taste for the finer things. For Art's 60th birthday, she bought him a brand-new 740-horsepower Shelby Mustang — "so I can ride in it," she explained — and surprised her granddaughter with a new Corvette when she turned 16, despite Art's initial disapproval.

No matter the gift, it will usually fit to one specific parameter.

"She likes things that go fast," Art said. "One of the things that gives me the greatest amount of joy is that she's willing to try anything and has this incorrigible desire.

"She's a hell of a lot of fun."

"The one thing I'm afraid of is my son's going to stop me," Eleanor said from her driver's seat as her tiny hands cranked the steering wheel on her four-wheeler.

"It's a little hard," she said of muscling the vehicle around the turn. "But you go faster, and it's a little easier."

Kind of like getting old.



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