Sam Smith would rather not talk about Sam Smith, but we asked him to talk about Sam Smith anyway: A story by Sam Smith
Hi. I’m Sam. I’m new here, your friendly neighborhood editor-at-large. A silly media term that basically means I’m a roving editor and writer, chasing the interesting. I come here from Road & Track, where I worked for eight years—first as executive editor, then editor-at-large and feature writer. Working with a crack staff, I helped land a National Magazine Award nomination—a first for any car magazine—and wrote a monthly column. Before that, I was a freelancer, traveling the world for outlets like The New York Times, Wired, Esquire, Jalopnik, 000, and the BMW CCA’s Roundel.
Hagerty’s Assistant To The Director Of First Drafts, Jack Baruth, asked me to write an intro post. Which would be fine, except I am terrible at talking about myself and hate it to boot, so bear with me. (An exhaustive examination of Sam’s previous work shows this to be unlikely — JB)
You’re not supposed to start these things with career, but my job grew from obsession. Too many cars and too much travel and racing, but also nowhere near enough. Curiosity has long kept me looking out the window then traipsing off to find answers to one question or another. So let’s just go with randomly arranged biographical points in the first person:
I grew up in a restoration shop. My dad worked on British and German stuff for a living, dabbling in race cars. We were and are a family of oddballs, in regards to both people and machinery. Dad was a former flight instructor and professional pilot; cars just came naturally. I fell into club racing through him, then found a career writing. A high-school counselor told me to chase what I loved. I loved storytelling and reading and history and thinking about the future. He looked at me funny when I said that.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Um… yeah? Why?”
“Well, you’ll never make much money. Probably not have much in the way of job security. But every day will be different. You’ll learn a lot, constantly, and get to ask a lot of questions. Possibly while wondering what happens tomorrow.”
I thought for a moment.
“So this is supposed to make me not want to do this?”
He laughed. Then he stopped, suddenly.
“Are you really sure you want to be a writer? It only works if you can’t imagine doing anything else.”
My turn to think for a moment.
“There are other jobs?”
He shook his head and signed off on my transcript. Everything since has been a wonder.
Cars. Always cars, but also motorcycles, but also cars. Mostly because of what the machines let you do, but also the art and engineering and people they represent. I learned to drive quickly in the SCCA and through BMW CCA track days. (I assume that with this sentence Sam means it didn’t take him a long time to learn how to drive, as opposed that he learned how to drive rapidly in these organizations, since I handily outpaced his best lap during our last West Coast race together. I did this at four in the morning, with one headlight, while listening to “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” in a set of squirreled-away Noble in-ear monitors. Sam always claims to be faster than I am, when in fact he is only lighter — JB) Generally in converted street cars without much power, where a light touch and slow hands are mandatory. I came to love vintage iron for the exact opposite reason I love modern cars—the old stuff needs delicate aggression, instead of aggressive delicacy. I developed an odd affinity for carburetors and finicky mechanical fuel injection, in love with the ideas we use and cast off.
I have a club-racing license. And a dormant FIA Historic license, and too many other dormant racing licenses to count, including a card that once allowed me to drive in the Baja 1000, even though I never did, we just traipsed around the peninsula in a van following a race car that my friends and I built with its primary driver. And then, when it broke for the fifth or twentieth time and became obviously unable to finish, we found our way to a tiny beach town on the Sea of Cortez and drank with the ex-mayor, because the ex-mayor ran the liquor store, and we walked in there needing mezcal, and his face lit up, and that’s how Baja works.
I was, for a time after college, the world’s slowest professional mechanic. Call me a sap and a romantic, but I love wrenching too much to be quick at it. I also diagnose about as well as a soporific turtle, so it’s probably for the best. (Mom always said I was better at talking than getting things done, anyway.)
I have two daughters, ages 4 and 6. One is a moody artist and the other is a mugging spaz. My wife says they are both almost entirely me, except when they are not annoying, and that’s when they are her. She may be wrong, but I doubt it.
My garage currently plays host to a 2001 Acura Integra Type R, a 1990 Chevy pickup I bought before we moved out of Seattle, and a 1975 BMW R90S motorcycle. Somewhere in Chicago storage lies the shell of my 1965 BMW 1800ti, a car I will one day revive and turn into a fire-breathing rat. I keep trying to figure out how I can squeeze a new Caterham into the household budget, because I owned one once and have never gotten over it. (I’m pretty sure he could trade that highly-appreciated Acura for a Caterham — JB) I owned more than 40 cars before the age of 35 and miss each of them a little. The job means I have lived in ten houses and almost as many cities over the last decade and a half.
The R&T gig was a highlight of my life. One of those impossible dreams that somehow comes true. Over eight years, I had the privilege of helping build an institution that had warped my brain since childhood. I tested every significant new production car, from Fords to Ferraris, pulled off some extraordinarily dumb stunts, and drove to the Arctic Circle in a Jeep with no doors, simply to see how cold it got. I have somehow been lucky enough to track-test both an ex-Le Mans McLaren F1 GTR and Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo Tipo B Grand Prix car.
But most important, I got to meet and talk to and ask questions of my heroes, from F1 drivers to quiet genius engineers. They made me want to be better at thinking and wishing and doing.
And driving. The warm art of making a cold machine dance. (This is a family magazine, Sam — JB) I like my racing cars refined and pretty, or old and brutal, or both, and I’m one of those odd people who half prefer it when a car slides too much to be final-tenth fast, because sliding makes me laugh. This is an odd contradiction to the other, more obsessive half of my personality, which has flirted with lap records. (If you want to see a lap record, Sam, I have a pair of them framed in my office — JB) Far as I can tell, those two voices in my head don’t get along and never will. Maybe this is good? There’s a lot of yelling, between my ears.
Above all, I love stories. How we move and become who we are, the decisions we make when things go badly or well. How we need other people. And optimism. I cannot get enough of motorcycles. Or my idiot dog. How Northern California smells on a spring morning (I used to live there and miss it every day) or East Tennessee smells every month of the year. (I live there now, just outside Knoxville, and feel lucky, because the driving gets no better.)
I’m happy to be here. I’m pretty sure we all value the same stuff, when it comes to machinery, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading these words. You can find me on these pages, in both long-form and short, starting next week. (More long than short, if I know this guy — JB)
It should be fun. Miles to go. Come with. Can’t wait. (Me either — JB)