Don Sherman salutes automotive journalism’s premier spymaster.
My father followed me into motorsport and never looked back
A father, mother, uncle, aunt, or sibling brings a kid to a race track, takes them for a ride in a classic, or lets them tag along to a local car show. Kid then falls hopelessly in love with all things automotive for the rest of their lives, trodding along a path alternating between ecstasy and heartbreak as they muddle their way through one of the most expensive hobbies ever conceived. Sound like a familiar car enthusiast origin story?
This is exactly how I indoctrinated in the ways of gas and chrome by my father, who brought up both sister and myself on a steady stream of car meets, Studebaker rides, and NASCAR races throughout the Northeast. Although I’ve shed my share of tears over expensive rust bucket projects gone wrong, my early exposure to automobiles bore a lot of fruit. Yes, it turned into a writing career, but more importantly, it’s been the source of an enduring passion that has remained steady for four decades and counting.
Better still, I’ve been able to return the favor and share the love. A little more than five years ago, I convinced my father to attend his very first high-performance driving event as a participant, rather than a spectator. Being behind the wheel became as addictive as sitting in the stands, and he is now my regular companion at tracks in New Hampshire, Quebec, Massachusetts, and Ontario each and every summer. We’ve even managed to tag in my sister, who now hones the art of the apex from behind the wheel of a Mazda Miata, perhaps the best learning tool for anyone hoping to improve their skills.
Although I had my time in a Miata (and miss it nearly every day after having lost the car in a flood), these days I’m walking a different path from the paddock to the starting grid. For four years now I’ve been campaigning a 1978 Datsun 280Z on the track. Fortunately, it’s managed to stay just on the right side of project hell.
My father is taking a totally different tack. He started his exploration of braking zones and back stretches from inside a 1989 Ford Mustang LX 5.0, but he’s upgraded to a 2005 Ford Mustang GT (and all of the mod-cons that come with the S197 platform) that suits him just fine. Fellow competitors who, spying us standing by the cars in the garage bay, regularly mistake the older car as belonging to the senior driver, and vice-versa. It’s fun to be a little subversive to people’s expectations.
That dynamic extends to our respective levels of seat time, as well. I’ve been involved in our time trials club of choice for considerably more years than my father has, and it surprises newcomers to find out that he followed me into the sport. Enthusiasm for road course driving is something that is more often passed down than handed up, but it has worked out beautifully for us.
Conventional wisdom says it is natural for a son to eventually surpass his father, whether it be in business, athletics, or any other field where the passage of time begins to tip the see-saw of achievement towards youth. In this case, however, it’s me who began with the advantage, having turned thousands of laps before my dad decided to join in on the fun. It’s the only thing in my life that I do better than he does, which means it’s my responsibility to balance the ledger in the other direction.
In the last year or so, I’ve watched my father slice seconds from his lap times at track after track, often moving up to within spitting distance of my own laps by the final session of the day. At our season-closing event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this fall, he not only posted a 1:21 to my 1:19 on the track’s ultra-quick south oval configuration, but on examining the data logger, his velocity through the oval was 20 percent better than mine, despite our entry speeds being identical. The line he was using was just much, much quicker than mine. While I may still have a slight on-track advantage, the scales are gradually tilting towards level.
For me, I also have to consider the off-track support inherent in running a vintage track car with the people you love right there beside you. Nothing can replace that, and you can’t quantify it with lap times. I’ve been able to drive what is in many ways a completely unreasonable, 41-year old track car because my father’s trailer is always there for me to limp back home if I need it. And boy, have I needed it after cracking rims, busting transmissions, and in one case, actually setting my car on fire during a lap. His much more responsible Mustang (and from time to time, my sister’s equally-reliable Miata) is also there waiting to be tagged in for co-driving duty; neither thoroughly modern machine complaining whatsoever about the extra stress of back-to-back sessions.
I’ve busted my ass out to the track on cloudy, damp mornings where the temperatures hovered just above freezing. I’ve endured diluvian days where I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face through the storm. And I did it not because I am a glutton for racing in the rain, but because it was worth it to spend that time there with my father. So what if we’re both hydroplaning through braking zones and eating soggy sandwiches under a leaky pop-up tent? Motorsport is the one thing in my life I consistently make time to do, and being able to share it with him makes me damn lucky.
I’m not sure if I can convince my father to keep crewing for me after he decides his driving days are in the rearview. As time passes, it gets harder being beat up by a bumpy track on a humid July afternoon, 300 miles from home, after having spent the night in one of the sketchy small town motels that dot the circuit. I know one day I’m going to show up at the track by myself, and have to tell everyone there who asks that my father’s light blue Mustang won’t be firing up that day.
I may have been the first out on the track, but the truth is I was never really alone. Right from the very beginning, this whole automotive adventure that’s given me almost everything that is good in my life was a gift from him. There’s no one for me to personally pass this obsession on to, and while that’s fine, it makes me wonder how much longer I’ll keep it up once he’s not out there with me. A passion shared is one whose kindling never fails to light. I’m not sure if I’ll have any fire left for those cold pre-dawn mornings alone. Especially if I keep checking my rearview mirror for a blue Mustang, inching ever closer to my bumper.