I'm going to be writing, hopefully on a weekly basis, on whatever happens to be piquing my interest at that exact moment. I don't really... research my subjects. I just sort of... do it. That's the ticket. Formula 1, racing in general, cars in whatever context, culture, what have you. For our first getting to know you get-together, I thought I'd just jump into the deep end and reveal the dark trauma that molded me into the person I am today.
When I was 13 years old my dad would let me drive the family Taurus around our neighborhood. It was sparsely populated, thankfully, and he was always in the passenger seat offering sage advice and keeping me calm. This was your basic stop, go, turn training. We'd later get into what to do if you hydroplane, to always brake before the turn and how to take a constant radius corner. These were just the basics. To make a long story short, pulling into the driveway one Sunday afternoon I over-accelerated trying to get over the concrete lip at the threshold of the garage and smashed through the living room wall. It was weeks before I could even come near the driver's seat, and shame of shames, I was almost 17 before I got my driving license. I did not like cars very much, and I certainly didn't take much joy in driving them.
Leap forward about 20 years, and suddenly you find someone not just obsessed with cars and car culture, but racing and racing history. Yes, I was late to the party. I don't think I can admit to becoming a full-blown fan of F1 until 2003, when I was in grad school in Leeds, England and Sunday mornings were spent in our subarctic kitchen with a pot of coffee and a wool blanket, watching the race on the ITV network on a 15" unlicensed television. The fact I was there, in a country where racing mattered, was my motivation. That and to have a thing in common with something that resembled an avid group of race fanatics at the university. Instant friends (quick aside - I'd find myself defending NASCAR with disturbingly frequency). Pair that newfound fandom with Top Gear, at that point in only its third series after its 2002 rebirth, and I was well and truly becoming a fan not just of racing, but of the cult of cars.
For real perspective though, you have to move backward a bit further, to the year 2000. I'd just bought a red 1995 Acura Integra GS-R. For several weeks it had sat in front of an accountant's office on my drive home from work. Should I mention my car at the time was a Pontiac Sunfire GT? No one should ever mention the Pontiac Sunfire... I drove the car, loved the car, wanted the car, but decided to think about it. And think about it. Almost too long, as when I actually did call the seller to commit to purchase, he was on his way to a dealer to liquidate it. To this day, my favorite car. I fell into the online communities for Honda owners, which at the time was the official manufacturer of the fast and furious lifestyle. Medieval times. I slowly and tastefully upgraded certain components. The suspension was upgraded to Type R spec bits, wheels were changed for lighter alloys, tires upgraded to Dunlop SP8000s, intake/header/exhaut also upgraded to Japanese Type R parts. The car also came with a Dinan chip upgrade. Dinan is a BMW aftermarket specialist, and the Integra chip was an odd duck one-off. It raised the red line and remapped the fuel delivery for more power. It was magic.
The car was just meant for autocrossing. I went to a driving school, taught by my old Cub Scout leader who happened to be a master mechanic and drove an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite Mark II with a Mazda b13 two rotor, twin turbo motor. He was nationally ranked in the Solo II series. I got Henry Watts' seminal work "Secrets of Solo Racing" and studied it like a textbook. I raced around cones in empty parking lots on Saturday mornings. I got faster and more comfortable making inputs. I began to understand the physics that occurred between the tires and the road. I finally loved racing, but more importantly, I loved driving. Unfortunately, in Central Arkansas, without cable, and in pre-household Internet days, my F1 consumption was limited to magazines and a few rudimentary Web sites. What we did have in abundance were back roads, and at the time $1 gallon gasoline. So I drove.
As a pitiful aside to the Integra story, it died in early 2002. I was driving to Arlington, Texas to interview a crew who had allegedly transformed the Pontiac Aztec into something that didn't incite villagers to scream Kill it with fire! Some oil on the 635 in light rain, cars spinning, me going head to head at 65 MPH with an F350 duallie. I had a couple of cracked ribs, the car was dead. It saved my life. I still have the shift knob on my bookshelf.
For a little more context, I went to school at Baylor University. I was a journalism student and deeply involved with the student newspaper. Several of us were car enthusiasts. My knowledge came mainly from the issues of Car & Driver and Motor Trend my dad collected during my formative years. I certainly wasn't a fanatic or even particularly knowledgeable. The internal workings of an engine were as mysterious as girls, but just like girls, I knew they were interesting. At least one of my classmates has since gone on to become a very well-known automotive writer, and several others have taken up residency in the world of automotive journalism. I realized too late that was a valid career option - I still had it in my head record labels were signing great unheard rock bands and it was my destiny to play bass guitar for a living. In a band that wore capes. And wrote rock operas. Needless to say, I chose poorly. I did however have an in as a freelancer, and worked up a respectable portfolio of pieces, mainly for industry trade publications, eventually blogging and even writing features for a few prominent automotive sites. Hence the Aztec cover story. My proudest literary achievement however is my Starred Commenter status on Jalopnik. The pinnacle.
Leaping backward one more time, my dad liked cars. He wasn't a car nut, but he held a slightly higher than average interest in automobiles and racing. The coffee table was perpetually covered with car magazines and he'd frequently wax nostalgic about his '71 Monte Carlo SS and the time he drove from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Dallas in under three hours. The Indy 500 was an annual ritual at my house. He was a particular fan of the Andretti family and Bobby Rahal. I can vividly recall hauling out my arsenal of Legos and building an entire field of open-wheeled cars to race and crash around the living room. On rare occasions, the whiskered antenna on the roof of our house would pick up a Formula 1 race. My dad didn't miss those. He'd tell me This is the best racing. I wasn't convinced. But there's no crashing (well, not enough to my mind, at least)! That's why it's the best. He explained these drivers in their seemingly slower-than-Nascar machines, with odd names like Piquet, Prost and Lauda, were the best in the world, bar none. I recall thinking it was boring. They slowed down to take corners. They didn't deliberately smash one another into walls. There were no fireworks or explosions or Survivor playing Eye of the Tiger in the midfield.
I think I get it now. Formula 1. At least I hope I do. I understand the beauty of the sport. The trauma. The perfection. It was a maturity and experience issue for me. A lot of factors had to come into play to awaken that appreciation. Not to say F1 can't be appreciated on a purely visceral level. It's fast and noisy and dramatic and sometimes gaudy and always glamorous. It just seems for a lot of people, for the true fans, it's the summation of their interest in all of those things and then some. I'll get more into all that jazz in a later blog.
For now, I just wanted to introduce myself... validate my credentials so to speak. I'm also an Austinite. I work here. I own a house here. My wife teaches here. We're going to raise our children here. I play in a band here. It's where I'm going to live. If I honestly thought the F1 project was going to be detrimental to any of those admittedly selfish quality of life standards I mentioned, then I don't think I'd support it. I'd still be a fan and I'd still support a race in the States.
But that's not the case. When the facility opens it's going to be a true asset to the city, the region, the state and the nation. Think Road Atlanta or VIR, Buttonwillow or even Laguna Seca... but better. World class racing, and not just F1. LeMans and GT races, sports car series, amateur series. It'll generate revenue for the city and county. It'll bring prestige on the international stage. It could help with workforce recruitment or even entice international companies to open up shop here. Supposition, but as long as we avoid the tarpit public/private funding fiasco that has recently consumed the Nurburgring in Germany, I can't see how it would fail to be a positive for the entire community. You don't have to like Brooklyn hipster indie rock to appreciate, as a resident of Austin, the benefits of South by Southwest or Austin City Limits Festival. Austin is a weird, diverse place. Old school Texas, Cosmic Cowboys and modern, high-tech international business hub. We're lucky to live here and I genuinely believe we're lucky to have this F1 project taking root. Give it time, and give the (potential) fans time. It will be awesome.