If you know me, you’ve seen that when I get around fast, cool cars I get a little…swoony. Good cars and the kind of men I like remind me of each other–powerful, dangerous, a little reckless, and addictively exhilarating. Most of my favorite lovers have been talented drivers with exceptional cars. In fact, my love for their cars usually outlasts the relationships, sadly. I still wear the key to a jet black 1965 Corvette Stingray as a necklace and have an erotic photo stash of a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO VIII that I briefly (and deliriously) had full access to. My GOD, 4-wheel-drive turbo is a magical and terrifying thing.
I’m not sure how I got this way about cars, but I remember when I was 5 I got a Big Wheel. It was my first race car and the start of my love affair with speed and freedom. Everyday after school I’d watch Speed Racer during my mom-prescribed 30-minute daily TV window and then go outside and tear up our dead-end street in New Jersey, while the normal girls played with dolls and jumped rope. At 12, I got my first 10-speed bike for Christmas. Having just had my mind blown and future substantially altered by Star Wars (and suffering from a hugely painful crush on Luke Skywalker), I dubbed the bike Millennium Falcon and spent hours coasting down the long, straight incline we lived on–often with closed eyes–imagining we were about to “punch it” into hyperdrive. (Later, my love for Luke would inspire me to sign up as an Air Force officer so I could fly jets. This didn’t work out, fortunately.)
When I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, my Gigi sold me her gorgeous, pea-green Chevy Malibu for $500. An automatic with a 350hp engine, it was soon to become the stuff of legend. Just as I’d terrorized the neighborhood with my Big Wheel, I now became known locally as “The Green Streak.” Already the victim of insomnia, I drove anywhere, anytime. I’d drive up the country road to my high school (one of the three I attended) in the middle of the night to smoke a few cigarettes and listen to Jim Morrison on the tape deck. The hood was so wide and long I could lay back against the windshield with my legs stretched out toward the headlights, staring up at the dark stars. The cooling engine kept me warm. I think that’s when cars started to become my best, most reliable friends.
Having been a pampered cream puff all its life, the Malibu quickly began to show signs of distress after a short time. Unexplained dings and dents showed up, a wire somewhere in the engine came loose and often had to be hurriedly reconnected at red lights, and sometimes empty beer cans mysteriously showed up in the trunk or under the front seats. Then there was the time I narrowly missed taking out my entire family on their way to my high school graduation. I’d forgotten my dress shoes (as usual) and was racing home on the old lake road shortcut to get them. I remember each of them–my little sister, my mom and stepfather, and my grandparents–with wide eyes and their mouths in little “o”s as we flashed within inches of each other, their monstrous Cadillac taking up more than its share of the narrow, twisty road. Fortunately, I had the road and all of its subtle contours memorized by that point. I still get flak about that little incident, as you might imagine.
My next car was my mom’s 5-speed Dodge Omni. Now you wouldn’t think a thing like that would scoot, but it did, and I fell in love with manual transmission. I’d sworn it off as an option after my dad, drunk off his ass on a Sunday afternoon, tried to teach me stick in his way-cool VW Scirocco. After 20 minutes of trying to extricate myself and the car from a snowbank on a deserted country lane, he finally identified the cause of my difficulty: I was trying to back up in third gear. Probably the smell of burning clutch finally alerted him. My not-drunk stepdad soon got me going again in the Omni, though, and I’ve never looked back.
The Omni was my first real sports car. My boyfriend at the time had a fierce red diesel VW Rabbit, and we started racing each other between our houses late at night so we could see headlights coming and get back in the right lane. He was pretty good, and encouraged me to take more chances. That wooded lake road became our (second) favorite thing to play at. One night the Omni’s muffler blew during one of our races and the suddenly colossal sound booming across the quiet New Jersey summer lake gave me vast respect for the amount of power that’s generated in car engines. Explosions! Awesome.
Other beloved car friends followed: a red 1984 Rabbit, a white 1986 VW Golf that I painted red with the money my Gigi left me, a monstrously powerful silver VW Golf VR6, and an Oxygen Blue 2007 Mini Cooper that I just entrusted to a new guardian this year. I cried when I sold each of them, and they’ll always have a place in my heart.
As a strong, lifelong empath, I’ve always known that cars (and treasured stuffed animals, rocks, useful tools, etc.) are living things. They have their own quirks, personalities, and strengths and weaknesses, just like we do. My mom still tells the story of when I was 3 and we got into a parking lot fender bender somewhere in the family Buick station wagon. I was vastly upset, knowing the car was hurt and pleading with everyone to help it. While filing a report at the local police station, my parents finally had to ask an officer to explain to me that cars aren’t alive and can’t get hurt. He dutifully told me so, but I knew he was lying or, more likely, just completely ignorant. I kept crying. Most people don’t see things clearly. That Buick had soothed my soul many times by singing “ooooooooommmmmm” in the backseat hump over its drive shaft, where I usually curled up in the footwell to listen. Ever since, I’ll choose engine hum over music anytime.
I moved out to California when I finished college, and was thrilled to discover the CalPoly Sports Car Club in the mid-90s. Sanctioned by the California Polytechnic Institute, where I would end up teaching my Human Being Training course many years later, these were my favorite humans that I’d met so far. They all knew that cars were people! They named their cars, talked to them, and treated them like valued family members–like me! Oh joy! My people.
Soon afterward, I did my first official race with the CPSCC, and it was an utter disaster. With an undiagnosed but incapacitating learning disability that had always kept me from remembering any sort of road instructions (where was the Google lady then?), I had often got inextricably lost when trying to find my way to new locations. It didn’t help at all that New Jersey, like most of the original US colonies, has roads that look like a can of worms on a map. Each road has at least 3 names, as in, “Oh, you’ll want to take 95, or wait, is it the Turnpike? to 287 and then make sure not to miss Exit 27 to Route 440, ’cause that’s actually the continuation of 95. [scratching head] No, hold on. You know what? Just make a right at this light here and then a few lefts, I think, and then right again at Dairy Queen. You can’t miss it!”
My teenage-hood was filled with such panicky encounters. In fact, the first time I got roaring drunk was the night I somehow managed to get myself home again after an aborted foray to my best friend’s birthday party in Summit, and asked my mom to take me to the party. She was really mad the whole time she drove me there (her job started early) and as we pulled up I practically rolled out of the moving car and ran into Scott’s house crying. That was also, perhaps not coincidentally, the night I received the worst hickey in recorded human history–dark purple from under one ear to the other. At 16, this was my first clue that I bruise like a peach and I ended up wearing turtlenecks for a week.
All this is by way of explaining why I failed so miserably at my first-ever autocross out in California. My CalPoly friends were not only gear heads. They were also, most of them, studying to be engineers. So these were very smart young people, who, it turned out, enjoyed more than anything creating really challenging courses for themselves to find their way through. So the fact that I could drive fast and corner well suddenly had very little value. My directional panic set in about 10 seconds into the course when I brought my red Golf to a humiliating full stop in the middle of everything. Extending a questioning, palm-up arm out the driver’s side window, I saw some course workers pointing the way.
I had, in fact, come face to face with what autocross newbies everywhere call The Sea of Cones. In my fevered mind, wasted on tunnel-vision adrenaline, all I could perceive was a random assortment of traffic cones stretched out nonsensically–diabolically–for acres around me on the airport tarmac. I managed to pick my way, slowly and incorrectly, to the finish line, trying to avoid all the course workers. The loudspeaker blared for everyone to hear “Car number 24, DNF.” As in, Did Not Finish. My friends came running up to me as I got the Golf back in line for another try. “What happened? Did you get lost? Oh no! Where did you get confused?” Dear God, where didn’t I? This was so much different than racing Franklin by the lake!
On my next run, driving a little angry from frustration, I fishtailed into the finish and the Golf’s floating left hindquarters took out the club’s timing equipment, bringing the whole event to a standstill for half an hour. This did not help my mood. My new friends laughed and said they’d all done it. But, they asked, how could they help? Was I having fun? No, I was not having fun! I encountered the Sea of Cones for my next 4 runs, with only one try reminding for the day.
Finally, I decided to relax. I didn’t know what else to do. Trying harder is always my go-to move when I’m fucking something up. I’m pretty sure I was a big, strong man in my last life/lives, so when I get in trouble I rely on muscle to power me through. Unfortunately, in this life, I’ve apparently chosen to be a dainty-framed woman who weighs 127 pounds soaking wet. Despite the efforts of several excellent martial arts teachers, when I get mad I tend to drop all technique and go with brute force. And…that may have once worked on the battlefield in 1582 or something, but it sure doesn’t now. At all.
So there I was, lined up for my last run. My car club friends were all watching, waving, and crossing their fingers for me while yelling last-minute instructions I couldn’t hear. I got the green flag and launched the Golf.
I’d love to report that I entered a mystical state of pure consciousness for the next 63 seconds, watching from on high as my de-minded body took control and got the best time of the day. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I found my way through the course using less muscle and letting the car dance under me the way it wanted to. I took a good 30 seconds off my previous times and was rewarded with a swarm of relieved, happy friends surrounding me when I got back to the parking lot. There were high fives and hugs for the slow kid and I finally fell in love with it all.
A dozen autocrosses, a few big track days, and years later, I’m still not great and I still prefer to carve alone or with a driver friend to push me on deserted country roads at night. My most recent autocross this month in a new-to-me 2013 Fiat Abarth, featuring straight pipes and turbo, was another Sea of Cones incident–again, until my last run–but there’s nothing like when you get it right. Your mind stops. Time slows waaaaaaay down. You’re looking at the next corner while you’re tearing through the current one, perfectly on balance. Effortless effort, or wu wei, as the Taoists call it.
Effortless effort. Actionless action. It’s tough to wrap our heads around these seemingly impenetrable paradoxes. But I’ve experienced the truth of these concepts in person thanks to the loves of my life, for whom I’m eternally grateful. Thanks to them, I’m gradually becoming more willing (really, able) to surrender to grace. My new little Gio may be a crazy Italian blunt-force instrument, but he could be my best teacher yet. At nearly 54, my inclination to use muscle has become a dangerous habit at best. Perhaps that’s why our bodies age, now that I think of it–to make damn sure we learn the much more advanced skill of surrender. In other words, the ecstatic cessation of striving. Yes, that’s where I’m headed. And Gio can get me there fast!
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