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Sunday, October 7, 2012

I think I'm a chump

I first met Roy Hopkins this summer at the Vintage races at Pittsburgh International Race Complex… the Western Pennsylvania road course formerly known as Beaverun. For folks that don’t know his name, I’ll give you a brief summary:

Roy has been around BMWs for pretty much forever. He’s a calm and polite fellow with a quiet sense of humor. He takes his driving seriously and he along with highly accomplished co-driver Adrienne Hughes have won the infamous Targa Newfoundland week-long rally 3 times… in a row. In a 1969 BMW. A BMW named “Woodstock”…A little car painted like a clown…on some "yet to be outlawed" home-made drugs. This rally is run through neighborhoods. Woods. Towns. and seemingly ALWAYS in the worst weather imaginable. Horizontal rain. Mud. Trees. Buildings. You get it all. They didn’t win this rally in the 70s, when that car was fresh and young, they won it after the car had sufficiently aged about 35 or 40 years, against cars costing 10 times as much and still under warranty from the dealer.

Pure. Crazy.

And Brilliant.             

I wandered up to where Roy and his crew were paddocked during the Pittsburgh race and introduced myself.

They had a problem.

One of their 2002s had shattered a water pump pulley, and the remaining day and following week of racing depended on it’s replacement. We made some calls, and then I suddenly realized I probably HAD the essential round thingy in my old BMW parts stash. I’m not a hoarder of such things, but the small stuff I try to hang on to. Pulleys tend to congregate among the aforementioned “small stuff”. Roy cruised the 11 miles up to my house and picked up the beastie, along with an extra fan belt. Karma was restored. 2002s got driven. And it was good.

Months later, I received an e mail from Roy, asking me if I’d be interested in some racing crew duties in Newfoundland or elsewhere. He and Adrienne were given the task of driving a new Fiat 500 Abarth for the event. Gawd that sounded like pure ass-kicking hilarity. Scorpion decals adorned their helmets, which whispered a statement of miniature Italian menace and intent to their already proven abilities.  Don’t know the name Carlo Abarth? Before you coo and gush over the new Fiat 500, you SHOULD. Abarth tuned Italia is the stuff of legend, during the 1950s- 1960s golden era of European racing and rallying. I couldn’t afford to take a week off work for the Canadian madness, but the Chump Car Racing series later in the season held some potential.

Yes, it’s really called the “Chump Car” series. A bunch of races held across the US at various road racing tracks involving cheap vehicles prepped for competition. It’s an attempt at making automobile racing affordable and accessible for those lacking limitless budgets…and for those saddled with shit box cars that still run. I’ve never liked the name “Chump Car”. I always thought there were other, far more descriptive and hilarious terms used for the vehicles and drivers involved. After a quick review of the term “chump” in my handy Random House dictionary (a 2000 page 14 lb tome of the English language, that’s been in my family’s possession since the 1970s) I stand corrected. Here, printed without express permission, is the definition of said “chump”:

chump: n. 1. informal: a blockhead or dolt. 2. a short thick piece of wood. 3. The thick or blunt end of anything. 4. slang: the head. 5. “off one’s chump” slang: crazy; mentally deranged

Now… this isn’t just any race of crazy people in rolling, overflowing toilets of grease and rust, mind you. This one qualifies as the longest endurance race in the US. It’s 25 hours, 25 minutes, and 25 seconds long. The goal is to complete the most laps in that given timeframe, without catching on fire, crashing, vomiting, or getting anybody pregnant. The cars must be valued at $500 and no more, however the money spent on safety equipment is unlimited. This means roll cages, quality helmets, fire-proof driving suits and gloves, and whatever improvements you can make to the car, generally based upon rusty crap you steal from other cars is allowed. If the car is too pretty however, you get laughed off the track. Oh, about the pregnant thing? I made that part up. I think.

Our car was to be a 1996-ish BMW 318i. A solid but wimpy-engined car with many podium finishes in previous races, and piloted by a group of 4 accomplished and highly skilled drivers to share the duties of driving it around and around for 25 hours in rain, dark, sun, mud, and spilled oil. This car is sort of red and a little green, and covered with the paint marker scrawlings of various children.

It’s affectionately known as “The Possum”. Because I have a few screws loose and a box of metric tools, I said yes.

Stay tuned for the results of our adventures!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Please wait...while we load your fantasy

     Ever wonder what the world would be like if car advertisements actually told the truth? I’m not talking about cars that will get you noticed by that hot gal at the Mall or impress the greasers at the scrap metal yard…..I’m talking about serious life changing attributes that automotive manufacturers want you to believe exist in the product they sell.

     Boiled down to it’s essential resin, the brain trusts that form high power automotive marketing groups sell one of two basic concepts: A) Excitement  B) Convenience. The ratio of each ebb and flow in any given product based upon in-depth research into our psyches.

Yes… they’re inside our heads.

     What they want….more than anything in this world, is to have you driving down the road in one of their products nestled comfortably in one of your innermost fantasies. This sounds a bit sinister and escapist but let me assure you it’s generally a harmless condition…for now. You want to be a race car driver, right? No. You want to be a supermodel. Either way, you want your every nuisance and need attended to by an ever-present and well appointed staff of minions. Speed minions, sound minions, comfort minions….an army of levers, pedals, buttons, and knobs capable of pleasing every sensory organ in your bod. With ever-increasing technological miracles (the likes of which will sweep us off into soft clouds of pink and powder blue cotton candy) the automotive industry is advancing toward an effortless, pre-controlled transportation experience. You’ll note that I’ve deliberately eliminated the word “driving” at this point. We have cars that automatically apply the brakes, throttle, adjust suspension angles, and periodically predict your next whim. At some point, we’ll be mere passengers. We already have heads-up displays that project data and images on to our windshields…a tool aimed at our fascination and susceptibility to optical illusion.

     Soon you’ll be able to look at your windshield and see the coastline of the Italian Riviera while on your way to Trader Joe’s, where the frozen prepared seafood selection awaits you. Your screaming kids in the back seat can be dialed and modulated into the sounds of an Italian V12 supermotor. That traffic jam ahead will be caused by screaming teenagers awaiting your autograph as you approach…not by some nitwit in an SUV trying to turn in the “no turning” lane.

     But what if I’m wrong? What if these things are eternally out of our reach as an inventive species? What if engineers, designers, and psychologists can’t actually produce the stimuli that we crave? I guess I’ll just await orders from the Mother Ship telling me what I really want…instead.


Friday, July 13, 2012

The Thrill of the Hunt!

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. The Great Lakes side of the state where winters batter and destroy all things steel and beautiful. It’s also a place where the act of hunting is more than a hobby, but a passion. A passion for sitting motionless for hours in a cold wet tree stand, rifle in hand….waiting. Hunting is a rite of passage among families and friends. A chance to get out of the house and walk for hours in mud, snow, rain, and frigid temperatures in pursuit of elusive furry wildlife…so you can kill it. It’s where men can be real men and women can re-enact their ancestors’ pioneer spirit. Where I went to grade school, the school districts learned long ago that NOBODY shows up on the first day of Buck season, so they invented a fake holiday to spare us the stink-eye our state administrators would give our pitiful school district’s attendance record.

I’m all for the consumption of meat - especially the cute animals with big doughy eyes and soft fur, but I’m happy to let others take care of the killin’ part of it. Me? I like to be warm and dry, except when it comes to hunting cars. I understand the thrill of the hunt. I appreciate the crucial aspects of timing. The strategy. The adrenaline of scoring a 10 pointer. The key is steering clear of those filled with tinworms. Since there’s no official “season” for car hunting, the diseased ones often make their way into my crosshairs. (note: animal hunting seasons generally occur after the weak and sickly members of a given species have since died of natural causes). ie: Elmer goes after Bugs in the springtime.)

I’m really bad with money. If you care about being financially stable and debt-free….stop reading now and go hug your spouse or make a healthy mortgage payment. I am, however exceptionally talented when it comes to buying old cars. Good ones. I have the gift.

And just what constitutes a “good” old car? It’s an elusive set of qualities but I’ll try to put a few of them in focus as best I can:

First off, you need to understand your own skill set. If you weigh 119lbs soaking wet, you don’t go hunting for 300lb black bears and try to drag them home by yourself. I’m a fairly patient and knowledgeable mechanic, so the nuts and bolts of decrepit old buggies don’t scare me too much. It’s the rust that I worry about, especially where I live. I can bring wrenches and floor jacks home on weekends, but I don’t have a welder or sheet metal forming tools in my basement. I haven’t figured out how to make a paint booth out of my guest bedroom either. Besides, THOSE kinds of tools get real REAL expensive. Fast. Then there’s that whole “learning how to use them” thing. Not for the faint of heart or butter fingered.

I have what probably equates to a third grade math level by modern standards, yet I find myself often tallying up all kinds of numbers in my head as I gaze upon a potential purchase. I repeat the following mantra and suggest you do the same: “How much can I sell the parts off of it, if it completely fills it’s britches with mechanical poo, in the first week of ownership?” I define this sullying of undergarments as mechanical failures of colossal proportions such as: 1. thrown connecting rods or heavy Viking ship like thumping from the engine 2. the infamous “fist full of neutral” transmission experience 3. Wiring filled with black gun powder that ignites when exposed to sunlight. Those aren’t deal killers, but they change the game dramatically and need to be considered seriously.

How practical is the purchase going to be? That one’s simple. It ISN’T. I don’t go out looking for old cars because I need one, anymore than a deer hunter needs to kill Bambi to feed his starving family. That’s not the point. If I really “needed” another car, I’d shop for one the same way people shop for household appliances or cereal. I’d read the reviews of one and check out the nutritional information on the other. It’s not about that with old cars. It’s about faith, which brings me to my next point.

In John Muir’s classic “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” book, he mentions taking the time to soak up a car’s “aura”. I call this ephemeral quality “heart”. Some cars have it, some don’t. Some cars tell you they only need one more chance to shine and be triumphantly resurrected, and beg for the chance to be saved. Others simply sigh and tell you “Save yourself…I’ve had a good life but I’m not worth it”. You need to trust that inner voice. The right old car will give you a sense of satisfaction and worth as you bring it back to it’s former glory. The wrong one will make you bitter and angry.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

“I want Rock N Roll but…I don’t want to deal with the hassle” – Superdrag

It’s called baggage…and I don’t want any. Not in my cars. Not in the cars upon which I labor. Baggage takes many forms, but it seems most commonly rooted in vanity and insecurity. 

Like someone afraid of heights that decides to parachute from an airplane….i’ve taken the plunge in facing down my own accumulated cargo. Knowingly. Thoughtfully. And with a little help from my friends.

Some of you have heard through various forms of electro-media about my rescue of a dilapidated 1972 BMW from a barn last spring. I’ve written a couple published articles about it, but never really came clean about the attraction or delight that this machine brought in to my life. In some ways, it was the answer to a very substantial and burning true desire: To have a vehicle that offers me the sounds, smells, and tactile highs of a truly connected sports car experience without the stress of cosmetic beauty or the shallow, often ego driven pursuit of perfection.

Simply stated: I wanted a tight, fast little shitbox I could bomb around in while having a riotously good goddamn time! Fuck. Yes.

Over the last 25+ years, I’ve owned about a dozen old BMW 2002s.  Nice ones, fast ones, ugly ones, rusty ones. All of them a total BLAST to drive down the road on a cool summer morning. What I really wanted this time, was a 2002 broken down in to it’s core elements. Steering wheel, shifter, suspension, engine noises, speed, heartiness. 

Paint? Who cares? As long as it runs like a scared bunny and handles like a go kart, I’m pretty much the proverbial pork source in dung heap.

What makes this vehicle for my affection so satisfying is that it exists on many levels.

1.   It is a vessel for karma. The car was given to me (after being parked behind a barn for 14 years) by a previous owner that was so thrilled to have it saved, that she paid for my license plates and insurance for 3 months, while I restored the mechanical gear on it. To this day she has never asked for a cent from me. It’s inaugural 7 hour drive to North Carolina for the annual Vintage BMW meet (a mere 8 weeks after I dragged it from the weeds!) was met with a standing ovation and cheers as I pulled in to the parking lot of the event hotel. It has nothing to do with how clean the carpet is. How smooth the body panels are, or how flawlessly polished the chrome is. it’s far deeper than that. It’s about having HEART.

2.   People on many occasions have somehow found my mailing address and sent me much needed spare parts for the rebuild of it’s key systems. Rarely if ever accepting money in return.

3.   The car makes others smile. That is probably what brings me the most satisfaction. Somehow all this positive energy is transferred through the thing. Crowds gather around it while I’m eating dinner in a restaurant. Crowds gather around it at car shows….at racetracks…at malls…at grocery stores. I’ve had “nice” old BMWs before, but this one garners more attention than any pristine or restored car I’ve ever driven. I’m not sure what that says about the car, me, or other humans. It goes back to something I’ve always said about art and writing:

If it’s real and sincere…your audience will KNOW it. If it’s bullshit or based on your desperate need to be noticed, you’ll lose their attention quickly. These are inherent qualities that somehow get integrated in to “objects” by those that touch them.

I’ve driven it countless miles in the last year. 

Really- I mean it! The odometer didn’t work for the first 14 months! I’ve bombed my way from Pittsburgh PA to Winston-Salem NC (thrice!), Hartford CT, Baltimore MD, Lexington OH, Lime Rock CT, Toronto Canada, and take her on daily high speed jaunts down I-79 to Pittsburgh every few days. I redline it weekly and she often hits triple digit speeds when conditions allow.

Her name: The F Bomb. A nod to the German automotive press’ reaction to these little rats back in 1968, in which they referred to this model as the “Flusternde Bombe” aka “Whispering Bomb”. You see, they were true giant killers in their time. You never saw ‘em coming…(and I’ll add David E Davis’ 1968 ‘Car and Driver’ comment here) ”…til they sucked your headlights out”.

I’d been hesitant and a bit lazy about mentioning the F Bomb on this blog until now. There’s so much to write that I often didn’t know where to begin. I’m going to work on that. Stay tuned! 

Photo Credit: The magnificent Mr Gary Streiner.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Today's uncomfortable shift from Driving to Dining.

It’s been months since I’ve written anything here because it’s winter….aka: the “Anti-Car” season. I’ve had little in the automotive world really rock my boat or get under my skin, so I’ll swing wide at another topic on which I have many strong, obnoxious opinions:


I’m not a “foodie” or a “Gourmand” or anything else so pretentious. I just goddamn LOVE food. All of it. All the time. Anywhere. I’ve spent enough time working behind the scenes in the food service industry to have some exposure to it’s nuts and bolts. No….I don’t watch the Food channel. Ever.  What follows is simply my own impression of a local eatery.

This week will mark my father’s 78th birthday and I decided to take him out for a fine dinner last night. The venue: “Brasserie 33” in Pittsburgh. As the name implies; it’s French. I loves me some French food.

The experience was jarring and disappointing from the very start to its rather fizzled FIN. What troubles me most is that I WANT this restaurant to do well. I want them to be the biggest thing since the Incline. I want them to THRIVE. And I know they can…..but there’s work to be done.

The food was reasonably good. The bread was some of the finest I have eaten in the United States. The staff was friendly… and that’s where the good stuff ended. It looked like it was their first day running a dining room. When the entrees average $24 to $32…I have certain rather reasonable expectations. It was a FAIL of Napoleonic proportions executed in a series of careless mistakes une demitasse. Inexcusable for a high end restaurant trying to survive in a city already saddled with the Nom “a culinary wasteland”.

1.   I attempted to make a reservation on-line via their website but noticed no confirmation or real time availability. Part of me was almost pleased with the lack of a slick, modern interface. This caused me some concern however, so I called them immediately afterward. I was told by a rather chatty employee that the owner isn’t very good at checking the incoming e mails for such things. She then proceeded to tell me about how a customer got extremely upset and caused a scene in the dining room the other night based upon this same issue. She asked me to provide my name, and upon hearing it, laughed out loud and said “ what? Wigwizer? That’s awesome”. I’ll admit it’s a weird last name, but REALLY honey….what if I was especially uptight about it, or a food critic? I would have hung up the phone, called your boss,  and had your ass in a sling toot sweet.

2.   Our reservation was for 7:30pm and I called at 7:20 to say we’d be about 7 minutes late. If they were busy, I couldn’t expect them to hold the table for us, so when we walked in, I wasn’t concerned. Like I said….I’ve BEEN in food service at restaurants of all levels of swank. I get it. Eye contact was avoided by the staff, until I walked up to a group of them and introduced ourselves as the 7:30 pair. We were told (presumably by the same person that took my reservation) that other members of the dining room staff don’t often honor reservations and that they have interpersonal / personnel problems with that rather frequently. We were offered a seat at the bar and drinks “on her”. In a moment of empathy for ANYONE that works in a kitchen environment, I almost said “No, don’t sweat it”. “I know how hard it is to hustle in this business” I thought. As it turned out: they weren’t.

3.   While seated at the bar, I watched a lumbering 250lb dining room employee arrange a pair of tables…over and over…and over again as if he’d never set up a dining room table before. He’d move a salt shaker….then stare at it like a stunned moose…then pick up a fork and slide it over…then stare at the table again. This went on for over 10 minutes. If there’s ONE thing I know about restaurant work, it’s that ECONOMY of MOTION is ESSENTIAL. For Christ’s sake Bluto…at least PRETEND to know what you’re doing and act with some fucking purpose! It was like watching a car wreck (note automotive content here!) He wore jeans and an untucked blue shirt and looked like he had just woken up on the couch at a friend’s house. The rest of the staff wore tidy and typical black and white attire…and I saw no other shirt tails.

4.   We were seated at a nice little table and handed single page menus. Mine was singed from a close encounter from a candle I assume.

5.   We were served food that was good. Very good in fact, but my father had a bowl of clams swimming in a fantastic broth…and there was no bread. I’ve been around enough Europeans to now that bread is as important as a napkin or utensils on a tablecloth. I asked for some bread for the table and was handed a basket with four (yes: FOUR) 10mm thick slices of bread that each approximated the diameter of a poker chip. I will add here again, that it was some of the finest bread I have eaten in North America. It was tremendous. I asked for another basket of the stuff and also if it had been made “in house”. Our server didn’t know.

What? Who HIRES these people?

6.   At the end of the meal, we ordered the requisite cups of Espresso and received one with thumbnail sized chips in the rim, no spoons, no sugar.

I will repeat my Mantra: I want this restaurant to do well. I want the owner to make bags and bags of cash. I want the food and service to be superb, cost be damned! I could overlook each and every one of the above flaws had the entrees been $16-20….but it you want to charge $30 a plate for your food, you simply MUST hire PROFESSIONALS to move it around the joint. You don’t allow them to discuss internal problems, confrontations, unprofessional behavior, or puke their personal problems on your clientele. You throw out chipped cups and burned menus…or at LEAST you NOTICE them.

To our server’s credit, she DID, at some rather extra effort provide my dad with a nice plastic storage container with which he could take his broth home. **ALL** of the staff were friendly and courteous to us. Often smiling and even putting a hand on my dad’s shoulder…which he so loved. I could tell.

Monsieur Hickey, if you want your business to succeed among folks with deep pockets and a taste for things NOT Primanti, you must school your staff in being professional and knowledgeable about the product they serve in your name.