To all the cars I’ve crashed before
“I never hurt anyone else and I never put a car on its back.” In the prime of his powers as an author and raconteur, Gordon Baxter would often close a recitation of misdeeds both automotive and romantic by issuing that disclaimer. It has a certain elegance, a gentlemanly sang-froid, just the right touch to leaven an otherwise troublesome tale. I will admit to having said it over and over again myself, right up to the day when it no longer applied. That was also the day that I met a certain Mr. Stubbs—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me start with the introductions: You are one of Hagerty’s many valued readers. Thank you for being here. I’m one of Hagerty’s less famous writers, having bounced around the business everywhere from my most recent home at Road & Track to various part-time gigs at the Turbo Diesel Registry, Watch Journal, and BMX Today. This is my weekly column, yclept “Avoidable Contact” because I expect to spend it stirring up unnecessary trouble.
At this point I’m supposed to recite my resume, so here goes: I am a National Auto Sport Association (NASA) Great Lakes Regional Champion. I was also the vice-president of my eighth-grade class, playing the dutiful but dissipated Mark Antony to a fearsome Caesar of a young lady named Annamaria Cennamo. These are my two favorite accomplishments and we’ve just covered them both in all the requisite detail, so let’s skip ahead to the slightly more entertaining stories of bent metal and shattered fiberglass.
We will begin in November 1988. My father had managed to exceed even my arrogant expectations by providing a gray-on-silver 1984 Datsun 200SX five-speed hatchback. On my first unsupervised night in the car I tried “powersliding” it around a corner—we would call that “drifting” now—and came face-to-face with a parked Nissan Stanza sedan at approximately 50 mph. That was all she wrote for the little Datsun. The ancient Greeks believed that parents had the right to slay their own children out of hand until they reached voting age. Thankfully, Dad played baseball in college instead of studying the classics.
Having oversteered myself into trouble, the next logical step was to understeer my way into disaster, which I did in 1999 behind the wheel of a brand-new Royal Green Passat 1.8t stick-shift. It was my first day at a new job. I took an off-ramp too fast and skipped the Volkswagen’s nose over a curb, bending the sophisticated multi-link front suspension into a pair of metal pretzels. My boss was in the front seat; he was horrified.
The lone fellow sitting in back was an IBM consultant from Georgia. He owned a Testarossa and liked to drink before noon. “That. Was. FANTASTIC!” he exclaimed, opening the rear door forcefully and directly into the telephone pole I’d just narrowly missed. A few years later, perhaps through the indirect assistance of that delightful man, I landed a consulting gig of my own with IBM, which enabled me to replace the single Passat with twin Phaetons. What’s the moral of our story? Only this: not every transgression is fully punished, at least not until your $88,000 Phaeton has recorded its 34th consecutive day in dealer service.
Fast forward nine years. I’m driving my 1995 Dodge Neon ACR down the back straight at Mid-Ohio at about 103 mph, attempting to move from fourth to third place in a regional NASA event. I’d just passed a fellow whom I considered my personal nemesis; we’d collided in the previous year’s NASA National Championship and I’d been disciplined for… you guessed it… avoidable contact. Now it was his turn to return the favor. He tapped my right rear fender and spun me into the Armco. When the impact came, it was so loud I heard it in my tongue, if that makes any sense. Unfortunately for my adversary, he didn’t get his wheel unwound quickly enough after spinning me, and he struck the outside wall at full speed. I left on the wrecker; he left in the LifeFlight.
In 2012, I took an assignment to evaluate a brand-new kit car at Gingerman Raceway. The morning temperature was five degrees below freezing, so I exited pit lane in second gear and entered Turn One at approximately 30 mph. It was still too fast. The little two-seater did a half-gainer and I prepared to exit the track backwards on the right side. “At least I won’t hurt the car,” I thought, right before the edge of the inside curb caught the splitter and caused the entire fiberglass front clip to explode in a cloud of gel-coated shards.
Five years and one month ago, I was driving my 2009 Town Car down a winding country road with my four-year-old son in the back seat and a beautiful young woman from Albuquerque riding next to me on what was our eighth date in three months. I caught some glare ice on the top of a cresting right-hander. The big Lincoln snapped left and right in furious succession as I twisted the wheel just a quarter-second behind the tail’s oscillations. I finally caught the slide, 800 feet after it had begun, and brought the car to a halt sideways in the middle of the road, at which time we were struck on the passenger side by a Hyundai traveling at freeway speed. My son was completely uninjured, although his window shattered and the B-pillar was bent past his toes. I cracked nine bones in total and had my internal bleeding cauterized later that day by a very precise laser which reduced my favorite—and, it must be admitted, only—spleen down to a vestigial organ which I then named Mr. Stubbs.
My distaff passenger was the unlucky one. She was folded up in the twisted metal of the roof and doors. First they cut her out, then they cut her up—more than a dozen times in the space of two years. I cannot tell you what she endured. That is her story to tell. I can only say that she did, in fact, endure it all—including me. In that frozen space of difficult time, I made two separate and distinct proposals to her, proceeding cautiously but with the inexorable patience of water dripping on sandstone. The first one was conventional enough. She accepted, and we spoke our vows in the casual but earnest manner of second weddings everywhere.
The second proposal was not so obvious, combining as it did a little bit of Marlowe and a little bit of Montoya: Come race with me and be my love. Her first day on track was at a Cadillac V-Series event at COTA. The following year, she bought a metallic-blue MX-5 Cup Car and named it “Marilyn.” In 2017, she earned her SCCA license. This year, she had her maiden wins in both SCCA STL and NASA ST5.
Charlie Chaplin said that nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles. I think of that when I think of my wife, whom we call Danger Girl nowadays, and her determination to heal herself behind the wheel. When I arrived here at Hagerty, I was told that we are on a mission to save driving. To preserve it for future generations. We are on a mission to save that ability to heal ourselves. To pay that gift forward. I take that mission almost as seriously as I took my duties as the eighth-grade vice-president at St. Agatha School. Which means I take it very seriously indeed. Naturally, I’ll need your help. Let’s save driving, and let’s do it together.