Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Financial counseling


Original photo which included that white space: Bonhams
It's one thing to note the current insanity in the alternate universe of collector cars right now; it's another to try and make some sense of what's really going on and where this whole hot mess is going. And doing any of this requires a steady commitment to seek a sort of Truth and not just throw up your hands in frustration (or just throw up) and go find out what's happening at the community theater or something.

I've paid attention to a few of these cycles, all of which were reflections of certain market conditions that grew into speculative rushes and eventually collapsed as such things are wont to do. This time, though I'm really wondering what is going on. This is way too big and has gone on too long and makes increasingly little sense. Emerging market players? Tax dodges? Has market inertia just become a perpetual motion machine?

I think one fundamental market condition underpins a lot of the general runup lately: there is (technical term here) fuck-all else that makes a lot of sense in the current investment sphere right now, especially if your idea of "makes sense" is "consistent 10+% annual returns." But really, unless you're in it for the long haul with green energy or biotech or something else on the relative margins, the opportunity to play pump-and-dump games is slim pickings right now. Indices may be posting record highs, but it's a broad situation; there's no hot sector right now. (Bo-ring.)

So we go to collectibles, especially ones as approachable and media-friendly and well-documented (sort of, occasionally subject to inaccuracy and outright fraud) as cars. And who can argue with the appeal? Sure, if you've got the funds, go right ahead and pick up a Gullwing or Carrera RS or something else that looks pretty and costs something respectable. Have some fun, impress your friends with arcane facts. Next year it'll be up God knows how much.
$4.2 million worth of alloy-bodied 300SL. Photo: Gooding & Company
Of course, the fun part happens when all those obvious cases - the Gullwings, the Carrera RSs, the Daytonas and Cobras and Miuras - have all been worked up into low Earth orbit and people, especially people of variable morals, start scrounging around for the Next Big Thing that will take the market by storm and earn unspeakable returns for the prescient, and isn't that you, my dear favored client?

And with that we're off, and the greedy go after what most collectors would consider the bottom-feeders of the classic marques and crank up the hype. We don't need to discuss what's happened to the market values of E30 M3s and 901-chassis 911s. Anything with a Ferrari badge is again being grabbed like a free margarita. If it can be tangentially linked to something great, it becomes great by association and is therefore so much more valuable.

And what happens after all the investment-grade-by-association games get played? Two things: First, everyone becomes an expert and automotive "investment" advice starts to get batted around in certain circles like fantasy sports hunches. Second, everyone goes scurrying into the shady corners to find potential gems - or at least chunks of glass that can be polished up and offered to the market in some form, hopefully before the whole sector craters.

We are now very deeply situated in that last part. Everyone is offering next-big-thing advice, and everyone is casting about for something that just might catch fire in the market. It's now gotten to the point where quasi-respectable sources are putting a "buy" rating on such moaning dogs as the Jaguar XJ-S (among other debatable cases, here) and the Chrysler/Maserati TC (Hemmings this month, God help their credibility).

Joe Kennedy knew that it was time to run from the stock market in 1929 when he was getting investment tips from his shoe-shine boy. If an amateur blogger can be considered to be at about that same position on the food chain in an era when it is somehow cool to wear sneakers with a suit, then I suppose it's my turn, no?

So, without further ado, I present the SoM MarketMotion℠ Hot List. Standard classic-car investment rules: car should be over about twenty years old, it should have some sort of important associations or history or ability to somehow further abuse the word 'iconic,' and be completely and oh-so-unfairly overlooked (so far) by well-informed collectors (read: speculators). Make notes, check that savings account balance, get in now before the rest of the market gets a clue.

Alfa Romeo 75/Milano
Photo: Wikipedia
Anything with an Italian nameplate is on a Mille Miglia-grade run right now, including the 75's esteemed predecessors like the Giulietta and GTV. This one has all the right ingredients to earn its due as an iconic part of Italian motoring: a snarling V-6 powering the right pair of wheels, a chassis developed by the people who basically invented Grand Touring, avant-garde styling. (So just like a Stratos, really. Have you seen prices on those lately?)

1987-1995 BMW 7-Series (E32)
Photo: Wikipedia
One of the most historically significant cars of the past few decades, the E32 (protip: always use BMW's in-house chassis code to boost your credibility) was the first car that took the Best Car In The World fight straight to Mercedes. Timeless styling and state-of-the-art tech were standard across the range; the 750iL featured an iconic V-12 and is the MarketMotion℠ pick for best market return potential in this line.

Saturn S-Series
Photo: ibid.
Child of the kind of radical project only General Motors could think to do, the Saturns were nothing less than a leap away from Standard Detroit thinking and towards the zeitgeist at the heart of the Nineties: earnestness. In its pleasant unpretentious good cheer and usability and happy-vibe sensibilities (no dealer bickering! no parking lot dings!) the Saturn SL sedan is as iconically a part of the Nineties as the Mustang was for the Sixties and the BMW 3-Series for the Eighties.

Renault Alliance
Photo: Wiki...wait, are you even reading this?
The tragic total absence of French cars from the American marketplace has provoked a deep reassessment of some of the most iconic nameplates in automotive history. While the Peugeot 505 has started to find an appreciative audience among the nation's influential younger-and-hipper set and the Renault 5/LeCar continues to move into the space occupied by the beloved Citroën 2V, the MarketMotion℠ experts believe that the time has come for the undervalued Alliance. Winner of numerous awards in its day, available as a (potentially much more valuable) convertible, still usable on a regular basis: the Alliance has all the makings of an everyday appreciating classic.

Triumph Spitfire
Call your Mom. Buy some flowers for your girlfriend.
As the prices of such iconic machines as the Jaguar E-Type and MG TC continue to climb, there is every reason to expect the lovely Spitfire to quickly follow suit. Proven a consistent race winner, that graceful sheet metal and minimalist cockpit speak to a lost era of pure motoring pleasure. Abundant available parts and club support mean that this investment won't be an overnight flash-and-crash, either.

Remember, the market is moving faster than a comp Daytona these days. Don't let the opportunity to be part of this fantastic investment opportunity pass you by.

(Disclaimer: All opinions, news, analysis, prices or other information contained on this website are provided as general market commentary and does not constitute investment advice, nor a solicitation or recommendation for you to buy or sell, as if you haven't figured that out already. Past results are not indicative of future returns. Your mileage may vary. Take any of this seriously and try to call me on it and any institution with the balls to call itself a court will laugh you into exile. Donations willingly accepted. You have something hanging out of your nose.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Alchemy

All renderings: Nissan USA
So apparently the US branch of Nissan's NISMO division have been running some kind of fantasy "mashup" thought experiment (way to be only about three years behind the cultural curve, guys) for a few months: pick one NISMO model and one current Nissan production car and describe how you'd blend them to create a sort of fantasy hybrid (no, not that kind) - sort of a bench racer's pick-and-choose game with more professional illustrations.

I suppose I can grouse about the options available; Nissan's entire lineup is biased heavily towards "competent mainstream" right now and is more than a bit short on inspiration. That said, sometimes the sum is greater than the parts.

The first "#mashup" release was a blend of Maxima and GT-R, which ends up looking a bit bulky but not without some meaningful appeal:

All renderings: Nissan USA
Basically a muscled-up Maxima. Okay, about what you'd expect but still compelling.

The second release - part 370Z, part Sentra - is...oh, dear God.

If this actually existed it would be the most exciting product launch of the year, by several quanta, and immediately one of the most desirable products offered by a major manufacturer.

If only.

Curious thoughts: is this some kind of product-planning experiment? An unusual consumer clinic? Just a silly Facebook game? I'm inclined to not take this too seriously, unfortunately, but at the same time that Z/Sentra (Zen-tra?) is the sort of thing you can't help but want on sight.

Yes, performance cars with extra seats have rarely hit that best-of-both-worlds ideal and instead have usually been a kind of automotive black sheep: not hardcore enough but not accommodating enough, either. At best you get the better ponycars or the GT-R; at worst, pretentiously-equipped two-door sedans with miserable ride characteristics.

But I never want the manufacturers to give up on the idea. Especially if it looks this promising.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Our Time In Eden

Photo by the author.
So we've gone and done it, trading the concrete canyons and subways for gorges and rivers. We've left New York City and followed Wonderful One's academic/career ambitions two hundred and forty miles to the northwest to Ithaca, where we've been settling into the new reality of life in a small college town.

It's nice so far, if slightly slow and maybe not as culturally vibrant as I had hoped. The Commons is a construction zone. We've had lots of rain. I'm still recovering from the extraordinary stress of my first year of teaching (read: regular afternoon naps). Plus there's the usual sense of dislocation and need to set up some sense of security and comfort that comes with a new move, especially with moving in together for really the first time, especially given that neither of us are anything like 24-hour party people. But it's going mostly well. Lots of hiking, lots of walking around town, just getting a feel for this often deeply beautiful area.

I do miss some things about New York City. However, I have yet to miss the MTA. We have the Passat, which does its runabout duties with dignity and aplomb if slightly high fuel consumption. (Hills.) Wonderful One bought a bicycle, an inexpensive Raleigh which is perfect for the laid-back pace here. (Managing the 21 speeds and lack of coaster brake - she hasn't really been on a bike since a childhood on some simple Soviet-era creation - has required some practice.) I'll need something else soon as well. (Hills again. Just try getting a singlespeed up State Street.)

As far as the local vehicle scene goes, it basically fits your stereotypes of a typical Northeastern college town and then some: lots of Volvos, lots of Subarus, lots of hybrids, a spread of everything else. Not many sports cars, which is probably a reflection of both the harsh reality of winter here and some vestiges of an old Yankee modest-pragmatist mindset that still seems to exist locally. Despite having two of the most expensive colleges in America on its hills, this is in most ways a typical upstate New York town, maybe with a bit more hippie color.

It's also where I came into this world not quite forty-one years ago, which gives being here a certain charm for me.

But yeah, car culture is not a visible part of life here. Maybe a hobby thing tucked in a garage here and there, but rarely on display - something interesting or charmingly eccentric every two or three days, but this is neither a classic car mecca nor home to the kind of high rollers that ruled much of Manhattan. It's not that kind of place. Which is kind of a shame, because the roads are simply wonderful: classic two-lanes strewn through the hills like an unraveling dream. Even in the Passat they are an ongoing joy.

Watkins Glen is about twenty miles west of here. The SCCA regionals were run there the weekend after we arrived (really awful timing on my part), NASCAR weekend coming up, the vintage celebration is around Labor Day.

Have to see how the job situation works out as I pore over classifieds and assess the parking situation. Still hoping for something better suited for those back roads soon.

More to follow now that I have time for this all again, thankfully.

*

Other recent notes:

Sure, I go racing and I have an existential crisis. Raphael, Bard of Baja Bugs, goes racing and he wins in his class. Life just ain't fair, man. (Dude: High-five.)

See also Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg and Mercedes in general. Lewis has always been a bit of a drama queen, but really, how does Nico make it look so easy? Although having the season's crushingly dominant car definitely helps.

Peace be with James Garner, who went from a role in a flawed but still thrilling Hollywood epic to being a serious and involved gearhead and race-team leader in the twilight of the gentlemen-racer era. By all reports he lived well. We should all be so fortunate and civilized.
Via Autoweek.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rashomon is my co-driver

 
Lou with his future F1 star. Photo: Claudia Guerra

Note: Lou was originally going to add a comment to the original telling of our mutual tale of woe and frustrating handling detailing his perspective, but it grew until it deserved to be its own thing. As I'm settling into a new existence - details to follow - here's the take from the more competent side of the whole operation.

I've been a fan of all sorts of motorsports since I was quite young, probably not even in my teens. Being that I was born a poor boy from Brooklyn, the odds of actually doing it were slim to none. As I got older, the opportunity to drive go-karts for fun presented itself when a friend of mine from work told me that his boss owned a go kart track in Long Island and that he did an arrive and drive rental sort of thing. We had raced electric indoor go karts a couple of times before that. It was an invitation I could not refuse. Before then my racing experience had been limited to 30 or so laps in an SCCA Spec Racer Ford as part of a travelling racing type school - that and the Indycars at Action Park way back when.

The day we went to the track, there was some sort of event and they would only be able to let us on track for a few quick sessions in between heats and only in the concession karts. (Just how "concession" these karts were I would be made aware of later). I remember driving pretty much all day without much issue, being fairly competent and getting the measure of my friend who was a motorsports fan like me. Anyway, it was a blast and right before I left a gentleman came up to our group and asked if we might be interested in endurance karting.

Fast forward 15 years.....
 
I had been wanting to do an endurance karting event for so long after that day but, of course life got in the way. Well, life and laziness. My friend moved away and had kids and I didn't know of anyone else that might be interested. Until I got to know Patrick..

I texted my buddy in January and asked if he would be interested and thankfully he said yes. I was looking forward to the race but I really wasn't doing anything to prepare myself for the experience. I did a few laps in a single seater and a half day driving school in CTS-V at Monticello the year before so I figured I couldn't be that rusty. Mistake number one.

I went on a diet two weeks before the race. I figured the lighter I was the better. I haven't been able to work out since before my son was born so dieting was really the only way I could get down to a reasonable weight. I had gotten heaver and needed motivation. I figured the race would do the trick. This would turn out to be mistake number two.
 
Doing what research I could, I find a GoPro video that someone from Classic Car Club had posted to YouTube from the previous year's race. I watched it and the course layout seems pretty straight forward. Pretty easy actually. Believe it or not, this would be mistake number three. More on that in a bit.

OK, race day is here and I'm ready to go, I lost around what I wanted to weight wise and I was pumped. I dust off my gear, load up the family into the truck and meet Patrick at the track. 

Since the pit strategy was completely left up to us and there would be no refueling I figured I would let Patrick go first in practice since he has less experience than I had, then I would take over and qualify. I thought if my times were slower than his we could switch back out. I planned to take the race start.

They give us the pit stop procedure and we do a track walk which I listened to our guide's advise intently. Right as he's done, he mentions that it's possible to take the entire track flat out...Mistake number three. 

Practice is about to start, we agree on a pit sign and an acknowledge sign from whomever is driving. Patrick sets off and I patiently wait my turn. Since I wasn't driving, I watch but I don't really see what's happening on track. I could see that Patrick was having trouble in one of the corners but I don't really know what's going on at this point. I've completely lost track of time. Next thing I know, Patrick is in and it's time for me to get in....

First impression, holy cow this little thing is a rocket! It's seriously like a tiny muscle car. The little karts I had driven previously were nothing like this. I warm up a bit on the first out lap, second lap I'm pushing hard. Too hard as it would turn out. I try to take turn one flat out. Heavy understeer, the hell? Well that was unexpected. Maybe the tires are a bit cold. I take it easy through turn two, the mini corkscrew which leads to a tight little right hander at the bottom. Understeer there too. Three is a left hander that could be flat but my line was all screwed up because of the understeer I was fighting in the corner before. Flatfooted all the way around to the last corner before the front straight. Track is so bumpy that my left foot is actually coming off the brake when hitting on particular nasty bump. This happens to me pretty much every lap till race's end. That last corner I can take flat no problem. By the third or fourth lap, my arms are starting to tire out and I'm sucking wind big time. This is no good, I've only been out a few laps. The last corner in particular seems to be a neck stretcher. I manage to set a decent time but I'm seriously winded. Seems that going on a diet that tends to make you physically weaker right before a race, is a very bad idea.

I was so worn out from qualy that I can't take the race start. I tell Patrick he's starting the race.
 
I watch the start and try to figure out what I'm doing wrong and maybe share the info with Patrick. We also devise another pit signal. Driver raises his hand when he's coming in the next lap. These things are taking a lot out of me. More than I ever experienced before. 

A couple of things are bugging me:

The guy on the track walk said it's possible to take the whole track flat out, why the hell can't I seem to?? Anytime I try the kart doesn't hold it's line and wants to understeer on corner exit.

I realize the track video I saw was filmed with a camera that was doing a remarkable job of flattening everything out. Corners didn't seem as tight as they actually are and the corkscrew's elevation change didn't seem to exist. Watching the video messed me up because it made me think I knew what I had to do to go fast instead of building speed on my own. Basically, I punched myself out. I pushed too hard and ended up fighting the kart instead of conserving energy.Anyway no matter, I'll do better next stint. One of the staff asks me what it's like out there. I said I can't get my body to do what my brain is telling it to or something to that effect.

I start talking to one of the other drivers. I tell him I'm having a bit of trouble at the corkscrew. He tells me people do that corner all sorts of ways. What works for him is to lift and coast down then brake hard and pitch the kart into the corner at the bottom. Gotta try that.

Wait, did we just get the meatball flag? I go over with my helmet on just in case but my teammate heads back out and stays out for a while while I regain my composure.

I signal for Patrick to come in. It's my turn again. I'm tired but still enthusiastic. Driver change complete and I take off. I promptly lose control of the kart at pit exit which leads to the corkscrew. It was a slide that I half caught. Embarrassing but nevermind, I'm pointed straight. I'm still trying stubbornly to take turn one flat out. There is simply no way. I give up and stomp on the brakes hard before turning in. That did the trick, gotta try to tell Patrick when we switch out again.

 I'm getting a bit more comfortable, let's try something out at the corkscrew. If coasting down, braking at the bottom and pitching into the corner is working maybe I can stay flat at the start of the downhill corner, get to about halfway down the corkscrew then brake less hard and apex early into the corner at the bottom. So I try it the next lap. 

I get to my braking point stomped the brakes and whoooaaa!!!! It was like hitting the banana peel in Mario Kart. I honestly don't know how many times I spun but it was at least a 360. I'm pointed the right way more or less so I keep going. Probably didn't even lose much time, it all happened so fast. Won't be trying that shit again. As I circulate my body and my mind have totally disconnected and not in a good way. I'm getting so weary that I'm not able to think straight. I'm grunting going into corners and my hands are very sore to the point that I'm letting go of the wheel when I can. Time to come back in and hand over to Patrick. 

I get out and try to tell Patrick about braking into one. He doesn't hear me and I give up on trying to exchange information. A third driver might not have been a bad idea. Also, I blew the pit in stopping point. Heat of battle, I suppose. Truth is, I just plain forgot. Brain and body aren't on speaking terms right now. I check the times and walk over to our chair.

I try to rest up for the next stint. I had already given up on racing anyone. It was simply survival. In the words of Ayrton Senna "Once you are in it, you're in it". Well we were knee deep in it. I'm watching Patrick circulate and at some point I can see him slowing down. " Driving tired" I called it. Crap he's coming back in!

I get my helmet on as quick as I take over the kart. There's not much time left so I figure we'll stop as many times as we have to. I head out and stay out of everyone's way as best as I can. I'm my rush to get my helmet on, I didn't get it down low enough on my head so my view isn't ideal. Awesome.

The stint was uneventful actually but at time time it felt like I was playing in the Superbowl as the ball I was getting so beat up. I request a stop and come back in and switch after a handful of laps. Jeez I've had it. My fitness level is between a joke and just plain sad. Less than half an hour to go. I know I can't leave him in that long. I gather as much strength as I can muster. I need to get back into the gym badly. That and give up cigarettes completely. 

Last pit stop, I call my buddy in and take over for the last 10 minutes or so. At this point, I just relax, don't push as hard and try to drive on autopilot. I turn our fastest race lap in the process. Son of a ....

Race is over. Cool down lap, high fives to the corner workers. I'm sure they enjoyed the entertainment our shenanigans provided them. We stay to collect our medal for third in class and take our well deserved, good natured ridicule. Glad I'm out of the kart and not dead. I now completely understand this picture...
Not us, thankfully, even though it felt like that. (Nigel Mansell on a rough day in Dallas in 1984.)
It takes me a few days but I'm finally able to decipher was i was doing wrong and what areas I need to improve. I'm not even all that concerned with winning. I just want to improve. Truth be told, I'm pissed. I knew what to do but I didn't execute. I want another shot at it. Till next year...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Circuitous reasoning

Event photos by the author and Claudia Guerra.
On certain rare occasions one gets to fulfill a lifetime's longings, finds a way to step into the manifestation of a dream and experience some fleeting but perfect moment of actualization - one single point in one day in one existence where known reality leaves off and that which has always been desired becomes whole and the conscious world shifts into something transcendent, magical, almost divine.

This is not about one of those times.

>>>>>>>>>>

Note (6/17/14): since this originally went up I've not only gone through my usual obsessive tweaking process but heard back from the story's other major protagonist about a few incorrect recollections. This is now more or less the definitive agreed version.

 >>>>>>>>>>

It all started, like so many noble efforts in this day and age, with a text message back in January from a friend asking if I was up for an endurance karting event at Lime Rock.

First, the friend. I've known Lou for about seven years, since I had a temp stint at the desk of one of the NYU residence halls where he would occasionally stop in as part of his duties with the campus safety patrol. Lou is the most immersed and devoted racing fan I have ever met; he makes me look like the guy who sort of knows that something happens in Indiana at the end of May every year. He drives a Corvette Z06 with the armrest lid signed by Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell and Franck Freon (but still missing Chris Kniefel), volunteers at Lime Rock, stands in line for autographs, has built a racing-game seat setup out of PVC tubing, is as deeply informed as he is fiercely opinionated...I mean, he even named his son Sebastian after you-know-who.

Second, racing itself. Like just about every other good and proper automotive enthusiast, I regard racing as something close to a spiritual event. Racing bestows legitimacy. It separates proper drivers from wannabes and proper manufacturers from charlatans. It's also been one of those things that's always managed to be somewhere out of reach for me despite my serious, if not obsessive, enthusiasm and longings (mostly cost of racing school and car prep, etc.). How close had I come? I was the class of the field at a tiny track at some upstate New York amusement park when I was there with my cousins one day in 1987, running karts with all the competition attitude of a dump truck; I'd attended the high-performance driving school that Bertil Roos runs at Pocono back in 1990 right after I got my license; I'd done a track day at Monticello a few years ago at an event put on by Lexus [sic]; I'd...yeah, that's about it. So if I wasn't an absolute naif, close enough.

And no longer really relevant because hey! Here we go! Opportunity is making a weird noise on my iPhone and to dismiss it would be somewhere between a tragedy and a crime. Let's do this. Right?

Besides, in spite of the Corvette and his anorak tendencies, Lou was on about the same level as I was experience-wise - he'd tried some karting back about the time we met, if not earlier - so that made some kind of odd sense. Add in my creeping sense of advancing age and a concurrent sense of regret about too often missing out on [insert random hedonistic pleasure here] and the stage was pretty much set.

And there's the whole attitude that goes with karting that is so irresistible. It's such a pure form of motor racing. A kart is so childishly simple. Most of the great drivers of all time got their start in karts, so they do not lack for legitimacy, and what better way to get a sense of The Real Thing without a massive financial commitment or need to play against other priorities? It's such the perfect balance between lighthearted fun and rousing competition. So momentum gathered and a sense of commitment grew as the weather warmed. The race, a one-and-a-half-hour enduro, would be on May 17. I had two goals: Don't finish last and don't embarrass myself.

>>>>>>>>>>

We return to the experience issue, or - really - the lack of experience issue. If I was going to make anything approaching a good showing I needed to get a feel for the peculiar nature of a kart.

By happy coincidence Wonderful One had signed us up for some Groupon special at the Grand Prix New York indoor kart track up in Westchester some while ago; we'd never gone up for it and the package deal had expired, but the amount she'd paid was still valid. So two weeks before the race I drove up to Mt. Kisco by myself to get some seat time.

Spending some time reading my cherished copy of Piero Taruffi's "The Technique of Motor Racing" as I lay in bed for a few nights before that Saturday was appropriate. Having lunch at Burger King before I went up maybe wasn't as appropriate, but no big deal.

Showed up, got registered, the Groupon was $1.75 short of what I needed for two race sessions. Perfect. Attentively sat through the rules-and-regs video, decided I didn't need a driving suit given that I was wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, took a helmet and mini-balaclava/hairnet and a support collar, and gridded with a guy and girl who had apparently decided this would be an interesting date. Good for them, but I had more serious matters on the mind.

In a more reasonable world and a more serious setting I would have taken some time to learn the track and get a feel for the kart, but in this environment the whole idea was much more like hit it/hang on/just go. Which I did.

Running on an indoor track was strange, or at least being on a track that tight and with walls coming up into your face that quickly was strange. And they did come up quickly; even with the modest outputs of the motor I was flinging myself around at a manic pace. And the steering was ridiculously quick and the handling was twitchy and the left-foot brakes were weird at first and OH MY GOD I'M RACING AND THIS IS AMAZING.

Spun once.

Finished the session. The guy had won by dint of not spinning or whatever, but I had been closing. Got up, unbuckled my helmet, took a long breath. My hands were shaking. I tapped out a message to Lou on my phone; I could barely hit the screen correctly.

Walked around a bit to cool off, then got set for my second session - running against another boy/girl couple. I essentially ignored them during the race unless I was passing them. By now I was starting to get a feel for everything; the left-foot braking came more naturally, I could catch a really sweet flow out of the first hairpin if I set it up right, I would whomp down through the tight downhill right-hander and run a wide-open drift along the back, just feeling the rear end slide oh-so-wonderfully as I traced an expanding arc. Passed both of my competitors at least a few times. Didn't spin. Felt like a demigod.

After I'd parked and handed back my helmet, I needed some time. I walked a slow lap of the parking lot, the smell of ozone from a nearby storm in the air, single random raindrops plunking against my head. I felt disconnected somehow, removed to a different plane.

My senses eventually dialed back down to reality, or at least close enough to let me drive home in relative safety. For the first few miles the Passat felt like it had a suspension made solely of rubber.

Okay, so I had done all of twenty laps of a track the size of a basketball court against nonexistent competition, but something fantastic had happened. Okay, I was well off the absolute lap record, but the timing system placed me in the top 15% of track history. For a first-time drive in a new vehicle at a new course, I was pretty happy with that result.

This had worked. This had proven something. I felt that much closer to ready.

Or so I thought.

>>>>>>>>>>

Race day came two weeks later, in the midst of an extraordinarily stressful month in what has been an extraordinarily stressful year. Sensibly, Lou slotted us into the last race session of the day with the other mostly less-experienced types when he did the initial setup. I filled out my online application and paid the fee that Thursday night. We were Team Via dell'Acqua, in honor of the downtown Water Street location of that old NYU residence hall. Since it was his idea in the first place, I put Lou in as team captain.

I'm sure that Fernando Alonso's personal chef advises him against having a cheeseburger and lots of beer the night before a race. (Maybe Kimi Räikkönen does that.) I'm also sure that Fernando's weekdays don't involve teaching math in Harlem to eighty shrieking seventh graders, so I'll ask for a pass here even if it didn't exactly set me up to be in prime shape the next day. Such is the amateur-racing lifestyle.

Saturday morning. Slogged through a mess of city traffic, then finally hit clear roads on the way up to Lime Rock. Stopped at Burger King for lunch again. Hey, it worked the first time....

Got to the track about halfway through the second of the three enduros, met up with Lou and his family, Claudia and Sebastian, who had driven up in their Expedition. After a solid round of "Whooooah, this is actually happening!", I turned my attention to what was happening on the track, trying to get a feel for the line and maybe braking points on the parts I could see. Obvious stuff.
Weather was just about perfect: partly cloudy, temps in the low 70s or so, perfectly dry. A familiar-looking BMW E30 M3 in the parking zone indicated that some of the Classic Car Club crew were on hand; indeed, they had multiple entries, and Harper was setting up for one of his stints when I see him.

We checked in and sensibly chose to be classified with the rest of the newbs. The admins set everything up on the laptops, making sure that all payments and releases and whatnot were in order. We then stepped on a slightly battered digital bathroom scale and weighed in.

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Please understand something: I am not fat. I am big. There is a distinct difference between these two approaches to body size. Yes, I have an irritatingly durable paunch on my midsection. (You can shut up about the beer and cheeseburger.) I am also exactly six feet tall, have a size 7 7/8 head, run a 36-inch sleeve, and my feet require either a size 14 or 15 depending on shoe type. My legs are built to haul my mass up the mountains we climb in summer and pedal a singlespeed over the Queensborough Bridge. When I try on shirts, it tends to be the chest and shoulders much more than the middle that define my size and limit my options. I am a big guy, I come from two families of big guys, and even if I pursue a radical fitness program I'll always be more linebacker than marathoner. It's who I am, and so be it.

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The scale says 253. Sigh.

I am apparently the heaviest person in the race by some margin, and that margin is apparently between Lou and me. There's one other (legitimately fat) guy walking around who probably clears 200, but the other racers are consistently somewhere between fit and willowy. Team Via dell'Acqua is the obvious Big Dude squad. So it goes. Other drivers will have to carry ballast; I look at the list of weights by driver, half-jokingly hoping to see my name with a negative number.

Back to the Passat for a drink of water and a change of footwear, going from low-top Chuck Taylors to Nike running shoes which somehow seem more appropriate. While I'm doing this, of course, everyone else is starting the track walk. I thankfully catch up without missing much. We are led around the course by a rail-thin old-timer who probably knows every square inch of Lime Rock by heart and clearly expects his audience to have at least a passable idea about what they are doing on a race track. I listen intently, but a fair bit of the guidance on braking points and corner exit geometry is lost to the brisk wind. Regardless, we thoughtfully follow the course and I try to match what I'm hearing with what I saw in the prior race. Back at the start we listen to rules about driver changes and stop procedures and flags. We all understand.
The track, via Google Maps (annotated by the author)
Time to suit up. Lou had brought some gear: helmet, gloves, driving shoes. I had opted not to bring my vintage-2000ish Shoei motorcycle helmet and bike gloves and decided that those Nike running shoes would be the most appropriate footwear choice from what I had available. (Other options: Doc Martens boots, loafers, dress lace-ups, sandals, bedroom slippers. Size fifteen racing shoes - or something like them - are not a major priority for most companies.) Happily, the folks that run the show understand that we don't all have a compelling reason to own a Nomex suit and offer a very reasonable gear-rental sideline. I am assigned a suit and helmet and support collar. The helmet isn't terribly comfortable, but it fits well enough. The suit stays together with Velcro instead of a zipper. The suit's left ankle cuff Velcro strip is long gone, so I sneak a length of tape from a roll on a table and quietly tape the cuff together. It all works.

I chose a pair of red XXL gloves that fit nicely until someone said, yeah, those look exactly like the gloves I wanted once because that's what Greg Moore wore. Observation: Racing is nothing if not a hotbed of superstitions. Maybe it doesn't really matter, but an association with a driver killed on the track is not a favorable association. I nod, wait until the guy leaves, then discreetly toss the gloves back into the box and find a pair of slightly smaller but not red gloves.

It's not melodrama to say that putting on that suit felt special. Finally, finally, even though it's only karts but finally here I am in Nomex and a helmet and I'm about to go honest-to-God racing.

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A few notes on our rides:

For someone who has grown up learning about automotive engineering, a kart is a rather peculiar beast. There is no suspension. There is one disc brake, acting on the rear and operated by the driver's left foot; there is no front brake. The driver's right foot works the throttle of (in this case) a 10-hp 270cc Honda powerplant. Said motor spins a truly solid rear axle - no differential - through a centrifugal clutch and motorcycle-style chain. Steering is about half a turn lock-to-lock. Tires are slicks and can almost be called cute.
Photo: http://uk.dino.dk/
The karts run by Endurance Karting are built by a company called Dino, based in Denmark, and are about the size of a card table. The gas tank is between the driver's knees. There are no seatbelts. There is a substantial double loop of tubing that runs the perimeter of the car. The weight of the kart is apparently a Danish state secret, but I find it hard to believe that it's more than 150 pounds - and it's possibly a good bit less. Driver weight is therefore a very significant competitive factor.

Emphasis also on that braking setup. One of the big intentions for that practice session at GPNY was to get a feel for the left-foot brake. I had adapted pretty quickly up there and felt at least reasonably confident. Same with the twitchy, borderline unstable handling. That said, driving a kart will forever be more than a bit weird just because of the controls. (And this isn't even thinking about what's required of a shifter kart.)

Actually, it's more than just a bit weird in general.

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We are assigned kart number 23. Practice time. Lou lets me go first. First impression: Dammit, is this thing too small?

It is. Or I'm too big. My back and backside do not slot neatly into the narrow plastic-shell seat. My running shoes are too big against the pedals, which are about two inches too close for my liking. The seat does not adjust. My hands aren't rubbing against my knees, but it's close. Grumble.

The marshal waves, and I scoot onto the track. Second impression: Oh dear holy God what have I gotten myself into here?

The karts looked composed and even sort of slow when I was watching them earlier. Driving one is something else entirely and verges on being terrifying. The sensation of speed is overwhelming. The brakes are clumsy and awkward and downright nasty. I very quickly drop the idea of following anything that resembles the racing line and just hold on for dear life.

I cannot get this thing to handle right. It doesn't take long to realize that all my extra body weight is a severe problem. The kart refuses to turn in past a certain limit; it's not even understeer so much as it is obstinacy. Rear grip gives up early. I am swinging at apexes with all the accuracy of a five-year-old attacking a piñata. Mix that in with the demonic brakes and the pounding I'm taking through the tires and frame and the moral imperative to go at least reasonably fast in traffic and I am absolutely lost.

I think I made it through one lap before I spun. I don't think I made it through another complete lap before doing it again at about the same place. Somehow I am getting the kart very unbalanced and unhappy exiting the 180° first turn before I hit the mini-Corkscrew, or else I'm braking too hard before that downhill twist, or else I'm just busily proving to everyone that I'm utterly inept. They send me into the pits for a quick consultation to make sure I'm aware of what I'm doing out there. Yes, I know.

After a handful of laps I pull into the driver-change zone to hand it off to Lou. I am badly shaken. I try to collect my thoughts, recall how I got everything to work at GPNY, struggle to reconsider my lines and braking and everything. I watch the other drivers go through everything with a fluidity and control that suddenly seems beyond my understanding.

Lou seems much more at home. Even if he's not running near the front he looks reasonably smooth and balanced. He posts a fair pole time; we're well back but won't start last.

Don't finish last and don't embarrass myself.

We will be required to stop and change drivers about five times. We work out some driver-change signaling and he tells me to take the start. I squeeze myself into the kart again and we grid on the short back straight before the downhill (a setup devised to help the heavier drivers, ironically). A pause, a wave, and we are underway.

I am making a complete hash of things almost from go. Despite timing the start well I am slow off the line; I am trying to find something of a line while not getting tangled up with traffic; I am sliding all over the place, killing unspeakable amounts of momentum. I don't know how long it takes me to spin again, but it's not long. And then I do it again, pulling a truly grand loop into the weeds. The kart high-centers before I can get back on track, and I humiliatingly need to get up and out while they push the kart back on track. Into the pits to check for damage. At least it counts for one of our mandatory pit stops.

I wrestle around for a while until Lou signals. Once more around and I pull in. Between the squeeze and my state of shock I can barely get up. He takes off and I go search for my water bottle.

I know he doesn't want to stay out for too long; he's been concerned about his arm muscles. Turns out he does a pretty good stint.

By the time we motion to do another change I have at least calmed down a bit. I go out for a while, still fighting against the kart's trickery and my clumsiness, but at least I'm getting a slightly better idea about how to handle certain parts of the track.

I have to enter the long left-hand Turn One fairly slow and wide to avoid spinning at the exit. I really have to slow it down before going through the mini-Corkscrew, turning in at the top at a jogging pace and riding gravity downward as I squeeze on the gas (while everyone else swoops around in a clean double-apex arc). Long sweeping left again past a tire barrier then foot hard against the tubing past the trees, another left-hand sweeper switching to a right then left again uphill to the start line. I am drifting through these three, especially the first one, yelling at myself in my helmet to keep holding the slide and hang on. It's not a very pretty drift, either. This is not Fangio in his 250F at the Nürburgring in 1957 chasing immortality; this is a bulky math teacher in a wheeled card table with a big lawn mower engine going sideways, and I can hear the revs drop and speed scrub off as the tires slide. At least by now I am starting to catch the kart before it spins (mostly). I have completely given up on being competitive and am just trying to keep my speed up and not be an obstacle for the guys who are legitimately racing.
After God knows how long I see the sign and come in. Turns out that it wasn't Lou giving the sign, though, and it takes him a minute to get his helmet on. If we were anywhere close to competitive the pit stop would have been disastrous, but it really just sort of fits in with how it's all going instead.

I rest, watch him circulate, check my dismal lap times, drink some water. By now I am deeply discouraged and frustrated.

Early in my next stint, about an hour in overall, I notice an entirely unexpected problem: my hands are really starting to ache badly. I did not - could not - anticipate the effects of gripping the wheel so tightly while thrashing around the often-patchy surface and hopping some of the curbs, especially at the bottom of the downhill. I try to flex them once in a while when I get a few seconds of straight travel, usually on the front straight, but the constant turning and hammering are taking a toll.

I feel it in my stomach, as well. I'm not sure if it's because I'm breathing the exhaust fumes of the droning motors of everyone who is passing me (repeatedly) or because of how my internal organs are getting jounced around, or some combination of the two plus my pronounced disgust at the incompetence I am so clearly displaying. By now the don't finish last/don't embarrass myself credo has been completely abandoned; right now I just basically want to make it to the end, as much for Lou's sake as anything. I keep plugging along, still fussing with my lines, still trying to get some sort of smooth BANG!!! son of a BITCH someone hit me dead center from behind. I roar in pain as number 15 and someone else come around; I think someone half-waves at me, but I'm too busy with the kart to notice and too pissed to really care. I feel it in my lower back for a while, but eventually it fades in the midst of the constant pounding and hard work.

Lou (it was really him this time) eventually signals me in again with a bit more than half an hour to go; he says he saw how I was starting to slow down through the second half between the trees and the start line. He's right. I'm finding it hard to keep the speed up. I am really getting tired; not only am I dealing with my hands and stomach and growing antipathy, but I'm physically wearing down by now.

At this point I'm basically done. I don't want to get back out there. I pull off my gloves and flex my hands, wander around a bit in a daze. Claudia and Sebastian went for a ride to calm him down and will be back later. I finish my bottle of water. I look at the race every once in a while just out of habit - almost a sort of mental muscle memory - and try to cut through the waves of frustration and disgust that are massing in my consciousness like thunderheads. There is a sort of loathing building up, a reckoning of what a terrible ambition this may have been, how this great culture of racing and speed has all of a sudden proven to be so painful and demeaning and oh Christ Lou's giving me the sign that he's coming in and here we go again. I fumble with my gloves and the support collar and strap my helmet on as he pulls in. A slow switch - we are both wearing down bad - and I go out.

I am resigned to ending this thing with as much dignity as I possibly have left. So much for not finishing last; we are laughably far behind - seventeen laps? Something like ten behind the next-to-last kart? I dutifully work my way around, trying desperately to keep my speed up at least to the point where I'm not a hazard.

Lou recovers to the point where he can take the final stint, so we do one last swap and he runs out the last few minutes. Finally the clock clicks past an hour and a half, they wave the checkered flag and after a cooldown lap he parks. We are done.

I help Lou get out of the kart and we basically collapse towards each other to keep standing up. We are both exhausted. I am also emotionally crushed.

How can something that has always been so fantastic and meaningful prove to be such a disaster?

Eventually my head clears and we talk it out a bit. I feel like I've let him down. He is just glad it's over; his extraordinary grace and generosity as a teammate has never flagged for a moment. We are both somehow repulsed by the idea of competitive driving at that point.

I slowly peel out of my suit and leave it and my helmet and collar and gloves with the rest of the used rental gear. Lou keeps his on for a bit, goes back over to the kart to get some pictures with Sebastian. I wait until he gets out, then quietly apologize to number 23 for how it had to suffer through such a day.

The overall race winner was a Central Casting version of an up-and-coming racing star: late teens or early twenties, trim, confident. The series leader at that point was a gray-haired veteran. We are actually classified third in our class and pick up our bronze medals amidst some polite and well-earned chuckling while I remember when someone said, sure, we can definitely win the race if everyone else drops out.

I slump down in the driver's seat of the Passat, slip back into my Chuck Taylors (which probably would have worked better than the running shoes) and slowly roll out of Lime Rock. I am fastidiously sticking to posted speed limits, if going even that fast. I stop across from a farm and watch the animals for a while. I turn on some quiet music.

When I get onto the highway, I do something I haven't done in probably eight years: I accelerate up to the posted speed limit, get the car stabilized, and click the cruise control on.

I wake up the next morning feeling like I spent the hour and a half in a cement mixer.

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It takes a while to come to terms with what happened. Eventually I start to make sense of it all: how being as heavy as I am was a grotesque disadvantage that ruined the kart's handling, how expecting to hop in and at least hold my own against unknown and more experienced competition was first-order hubris, how driving something as eccentric as a kart definitely requires its own skills and driving anything competitively takes serious talent and cojones.

With time the frustration fades, the pain is slowly forgotten. I can start to follow race results without a dose of regret or too much distance. I can accept what has happened without feeling like something in my life is deeply wrong.

But for now, to the side. Too much else going on, and I need to be in a better place - certainly physically, perhaps mentally - if I'm ever to even entertain the idea of racing again. For now, this is something best left to others.

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For now.