Smithology: VOCs, and voices, from distant outposts

Share Leave comment
Smithology sam smith racing helmet paint
Sam Smith

Last year, some friends gave me a helmet.

At least, it felt like they gave me a helmet. What they really gave me was new paint on a helmet I already owned. My six-month-old Impact full-face, made new with shape and gloss, the gift not just pigment but labor and thought. I’d call out these folks by name—three friends in a restoration shop in Wisconsin—but they don’t care much for attention. If you’re curious, just picture a group of cheery Midwesterners who love New Glarus beer and believe the sun never sets on Road America. (For the record, those words could also be used to describe much of the great state of Wisconsin. Which is partially why I adore much of the great state of Wisconsin.)

The whole thing started over email, but time has fuzzed the how. I could ask my email server for details, but the specifics aren’t critical, and the story sits happier in memory as a feeling anyway. We were talking about one thing or another, and then it was helmets.

Do you do paint the things, I said? Turns out they did. We chatted about design; simple shapes and a few personally important colors seemed right. Plus my generic last name writ large, as if unique, because the idea made me laugh. I remember discussions of font, but also how responses grew less frequent when I asked about price. Weeks passed. An impasse was reached. One of the guys offered the work as a gift. It seemed right, he said, not explaining further; the shop just wanted to do it. I got the sense that the gesture meant something to them, and that I should accept it, and we should leave it at that.

Sheepishness in the face of generosity may be common, but it never feels normal. I struggled with the notion for a bit, then relented, mostly because my father told me I was being a doofus. And so my prime road-racing helmet went into a box. A UPS truck picked up that box at a local office and sent it to this country’s upper middle. A few months later, that same truck returned it to my porch.

Even taped up, the box reeked. That curious funk unique to paint booths and body shops, a combination of evaporating volatiles and 19th-century pharmacy. A whiff of curing paint hit the moment I opened the door. My throat went a little tight.

I’ve been club racing and driving on race tracks for almost 20 years, but a professionally painted helmet was long out of reach. My lids were always white and boring, stock models bought under thin budget. Fancy helmets are a paddock luxury, a custom-painted signifier of pro drivers and those fortunate amateurs who don’t wince at the cost of new tires.

Still, I wanted one. I put the occasional dollar aside for a bit. Years, really, because I have kids and a mortgage. So the money would build to a half-substantial figure, then get sucked into house repairs or an insurance copay or whatever. In retrospect, the idea of spending on something as frivolous as helmet paint never really felt right, even as the fund grew. Even when I finally convinced myself to divert the funds, pull the trigger, and begin making calls.

Then some nice people in Wisconsin, without knowing, just traded that whole chunk of weirdness for joy. Gifted at the right time, as if they knew.

Maybe I was light-headed from those fumes, but when I lifted that sucker from the box, I was reminded of families. The kind we are born with and the kind we find, and how each of those groups can start to feel like the other, if you’re lucky. I wonder sometimes if we’re gradually losing the instinct to be kind, the mental state that makes a certain sort of considerate behavior a form of default. If we have traded that for whatever currently passes for national discourse—knee-jerk yelling, the crossing of arms.

Similarly, I’ve been thinking about that helmet lately. What it meant to see it back on my front step.

It’s funny, how much the mail can bring. Some people send things to others as a matter of course. My wife mails out cards and notes almost weekly. My friend John Krewson ships used books to friends virtually as often. Before all this, before we were all cloistered at home for months, I wanted to do things like that but rarely made the time. Those gestures seem oddly more important now, a signal from outposts made suddenly more distant.

The majority of my helmets have been consigned to random storage, various bags or boxes, but the Wisconsin one lives in a cabinet on the far side of my office. Visible from my desk but rarely dwelled upon unless being packed for travel. Two nights ago, I caught sight of it while doing something else. Then I said to hell with it and cracked a bottle of wine and pulled my typewriter out from under my desk and wrote boozy, rambling letters to friends I haven’t seen in months or years. Boxes for porches, better late than never.

Helmets have a finite life. Their components age and oxidize in ways that reduce their effectiveness, until one day, you’re left with a lump of composite and fittings that won’t pass tech at any track in the country. At that point, most people toss the things. I tend to hang onto mine, for reasons I can’t quite explain, and this one probably won’t break that chain. Old plastic on a shelf means very little, in the grand scheme of things, but it can also mean entirely too much.

Share Leave comment
Read next Up next: Harley Earl’s GM styling team illustrated a pilot training manual in WWII—and it’s brilliant

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.