By Matt Caulder
Published in News on July 23, 2014 1:46 PM
Jerry and Zephyr Cazeault go for a spin in a car he customized for his granddaughter. The little girl has always loved cars.
Zephyr watches her grandfather check the oil level in the car.
Jerry Cazeault knew the day Zephyr was born he could never let anything happen to her.
"She only weighed a pound when she got here," Cazeault said. "In 19 weeks, she weighed three and a half pounds."
She was born three months premature and came into this world in a struggle for her life.
But her health troubles didn't stop when she left the hospital.
Not long after heading home, Zephyr, now 9, was back again with a heart problem.
She suffered from Tetralogy of Fallot, or blue baby syndrome, a disorder weakening the walls of her heart that caused her to undergo open heart surgery at just a year old.
"After what she has been through, I can't ever let anything happen to her," Cazeault said. "She has already been through so much."
While Zephyr was recovering, Cazeault had the idea to put his time into something constructive.
Even as a baby, Zephyr was mesmerized by the cars cruising around in the movie of the same name so Cazeault set out to make Zephyr a race car of her own.
He began redoing his own vehicle, a 1971 Chevrolet Nova, as Lightning McQueen, Zephyr's favorite car.
A close second is Mater, the rusty old tow truck.
Had Mater edged out Lightning for the lead, Cazeault might have been shopping for a tow truck or adding a wrecker to his old Chevy.
It took Cazeault a couple of years to finish before showing Zephyr the car when she was three.
He gave the car a whole new paint job, a medley of "Cars" decals as well as other stickers and even a race track in the back seat.
"I couldn't remember that because I was a baby," Zephyr said. "I think I remember when I was four."
Zephyr and Cazeault travel around together to car shows, parades and he also drops her off at school at Meadow Lane Elementary in the race car.
"My friends loved it at school," Zephyr said. "They ask if that is really my daddy."
Zephyr calls Cazeault "Daddy" but in reality, he is her grandfather.
Her father was never in the picture, so she and her mother lived with Cazeault and his wife from the start.
Cazeault's drive to protect her only strengthened two years ago after Zephyr's mother dropped her off at school and left for good.
Cazeault said she left a note for him saying she was taking off to Florida.
"I can't let nothing happen to her," he said. "She's here. It's a challenge, but we made it so far."
Cazeault said it was hard for Zephyr to accept that her mother was gone at first.
"She realizes she not here anymore now," he said. "Before, she would cry all the time. She's been real happy now for about six to eight months."
He has had no word from her since she left.
Cazeault filed a missing persons report on his daughter but nothing turned up.
He said that he didn't know what he would do if his daughter ever came back now.
But Zephyr doesn't just look at the car Cazeault painted up like a race car.
She drives -- in the back yard.
Whether in her go-cart or in the Nova, Zephyr is like her idol, Danica Patrick, taking the turns with speed and precision.
"I had to put up the cones so she wouldn't hit the fence or the house," Cazeault said. "She will slide around those turns."
In the Nova, she sits up in Cazeault's lap and steers the car around the back yard, preparing for the day when Lightning passes to her.
"This will be her car," Cazeault said. "We'll paint it up like it is supposed to look for her. It'll be classic. I told her this would be her car."
From time to time Zephyr gets a mind to try and drive the car herself now.
"No. No. Lightning would be in a million pieces," Cazeault said.
She will have to wait seven more years for that.
But when he does pass along the Nova to her it's okay, he has another one waiting to be cranked up out back.