Thursday, January 12, 2012

Almost Famous

Almost Famous
–why I love cars and what I’ve done about it for most of my life

It must be in my blood. That’s really what I think it ultimately boils down to. Either that or the car business itself has a sci-fi type of attraction that keeps drawing me back to it. Looking into the evidence further though I think it’s a combination of genetics and conditioning. Whatever it is, over the last nearly eighteen years I have come full circle in my work life and realized that I’m probably where I belong (or at least where I belong for now), read the story below to find out the details.

As a kid I was fascinated with cars. I can remember from a very young age sitting out in front of our house with my older brother Dan and naming the cars as they went by. By “young age” I don’t mean seven or eight, I’m thinking more like four or five at the oldest. I had a fascination from early on with cars and with anything that had wheels and moved.
I can remember some of my favorite toys being Hot Wheels cars, rolling them across the kitchen floor to “race” them, or constructing plastic tracks for a similar purpose. The Transformers cartoons was probably my favorite cartoon as well. It featured action hero robots that turned into cars, how cool was that, the cars saved people and turned into robots, and shot lasers and blew stuff up five days a week on afternoon prime time for kids TV. For a car obsessed kid, it didn’t get much better.

Another memory that comes to mind was probably sometime between the ages of six and eight being asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I can remember very plainly stating that I wanted to work with my dad. My dad at that time was the service manager for a local Ford dealer. As is common with most boys I looked up to my father, he was my hero, the one who scared off monsters under the bed, took me to work with him on occasion and knew everything there was to know about anything.

Dad had a “demo” car as a job perk, which was often a station wagon or later a minivan because there were a lot of us kids to haul around every weekend (demo meaning demonstration model). Demos used to be more common than they are today in the car business, dealers would often give managers and some other employees(usually salesmen) a new vehicle to drive for a few thousand miles each month to get some new iron out on the roads. This was also a great way to show friends, neighbors, etc what came from where you work. So a new car every month appealed to me, something new to look at, explore and appreciate in the driveway.  

At such a young age I was also able to visit my dad at work on a somewhat regular basis, occasionally he would stop by his office on a Saturday to take care of something or grab some paperwork often bringing my younger brother David and me along. I had a firsthand look at the inner workings of a dealership at a very impressionable age. Looking back now on those memories it seems very surreal, and maybe that was part of the appeal when I was so young. The sounds of tools clanking and ratcheting, the hissing of compressed air, the shining new cars, the smell of wax and glass cleaner, the crazy greasy guys in the back fixing cars and the sharply dressed smooth talking men up front selling them. There were glossy books with pictures of the newest models and “technology” for me to flip through as well. To me it was always a picture too of people working together for a common cause, when customers came in to the shop to either buy a new car or get their car serviced or repaired, someone was there with a smile to help them. When everything was finished there was often a handshake and a smile. That at least is how it appeared from child’s perspective.

It didn’t help much that my older brother Dan began working at the car dealership as soon as he was old enough either. Dan was a car nut already and I would say between him and dad largely responsible for my interest in cars in general. From my perspective as a young boy it just seemed like this was the place to be, working at the dealership was doing something important. Cars were the coolest thing I knew of, so what could possibly be better than working around them.

At the ripe old age of 14 I was going to work with my dad at the dealership during the summers. I would help take out trash, file paperwork for him, organize and clean various things. I was paying my dues so to speak. At 15 I was at the dealership several days a week cleaning cars all summer. I think as a teenager I really began getting a closer look at the real world of the car business. I loved cleaning the cars though, getting new cars ready for delivery/customer pickup or to go on the showroom floor, or detailing a used unit to be put on the lot, it was hot, dirty, sweaty work, perfect for a teenage boy obsessed with cars. 

I remember that particular summer hearing from my dad “Son, don’t get into this business”, he was at the time half joking and half serious. Much like any work situation, where there are individuals there is eventually bound to be drama between them. Conflicts of one sort or another probably occurred more often than I was aware and as a manager he sometimes had to deal with these issues. That summer some of the shine on the car business might have dulled a bit and I was no longer sure working around cars in this setting was what I wanted to do. In the meantime it was work and it paid and I got to be around all those cool cars so I didn’t mind.

I spent the summer that I was 16 again washing cars. That summer was even better, I had a license, I could now drive the cars that I was being paid to clean, now I got paid to drive them, put gas in them and organize them on the lot. Less enthused about being in the heat I spent as much time as possible tidying up the cars that were on the showroom floor. That job though was something that we rotated each day, since you could literally spend at least a half hour basking in the air conditioning while you were cleaning those cars we took turns everyday on who cleaned the showroom cars.

Like many teenage boys I became increasingly obsessed with how cars worked. I had built and still did build model cars, I had a clear model engine that I could move by hand. Keep in mind at this point in time computer animation was still in its infancy, Jurassic Park had been the high point of CGI to that day and the internet was still a dark and mysterious place that was not so easily navigated. Much of what I read in magazines was left to my imagination to visualize with only a few usually very grainy black and white photos to help.

I read nearly everything I could get my hands on about cars, various car magazines with reviews, magazines about hot rods and how to modify your cars to go faster or look cooler. I can’t count the number of car stereos and stereo components I installed not only in my own car but in my friend’s cars as well. I detailed a few cars for friend’s parents on the side and even did a little side maintenance work for some of them. Much to my dad’s chagrin I did or attempted to do a lot of maintenance or repair work on my own cars, changing spark plugs, changing engine oil, I was still a bit intimidated in doing anything more extensive but that was changing. . I was able to get a fairly good grasp on most concepts though, probably better than most people my age at the time. That technical mindedness has continued to be useful nearly every day of my adult life. 

During this same time in my life I met Tom Milazzo. Tom and I were both bored in Chemistry class and the teacher had the misfortune of sitting us next to each other. Not knowing, but quickly discovering it we were both car nuts, particularly Mustangs. There really is no way I can calculate the amount of hours I spent with Tom during my last two years of high school. Working on our cars, reading magazines or cruising around. Lifelong friends are hard to find, but Tom and I still swing wrenches together on each other’s cars over sixteen years later. 

At this point in my teenage years I also loved to write, what a great thing I thought it would be to combine my love of writing and cars with a job in the car magazine business, writing for a publication. I didn’t realize it at the time but my opportunity to do this was just a few short years away.

Much like the weather, the many pastimes of teenage boys (and my wife tells me grown men as well) can change quickly. By my senior year of high school I was looking at going into computers and technology over working with cars. After spending nearly every summer at the dealership working in some capacity the car business itself had further tarnished in my eyes.  The world of technology was changing rapidly and PC’s because they had become so much cheaper were finally in wide proliferation, the internet was about to explode and change the world forever. I thought that computers were my golden ticket to the good life so that’s where I focused a lot of my attention at school. I figured I could get into computers, make a bigger paycheck than in the car business and fund my car hobby/addiction without working in the car business. At the time I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained in my DNA cars really were. I had also not yet experienced the mystical car business vortex.

A year after graduating high school I landed a job with a local company working the helpdesk for their IT department. It was good money for a guy who wasn’t even 19 yet and the benefits offered by that fortune 500 company were substantial to say the least. 

November 1998, me with my 1986 Mustang. I miss that car like an old friend
In nearly all of my free time I was working on my own Mustang that I had bought at the end of my senior year of high school. I raced that car almost weekly (sometimes twice weekly). I had also started and was working on a web site that featured write ups and photos about local Mustangs from the track and their owners. I was writing about cars and racing one in my spare time. The internet was still pretty green in the automotive journalism area so I was having a good time and a little success as I created a nice niche for myself.

In the fall of 1998 a new drag racing organization the NMRA (National Mustang Racers Association) came to Beech Bend Raceway in Bowling Green, KY. I headed to the event with my brother Dan who was the track Chaplin for Beech Bend through a program called RFC (Racers For Christ). Taking my camera along I shot race coverage of the event and rushed home Sunday night to get my film developed and post the story to my little web site. By Monday morning I had the first online version of the race coverage anywhere. Apparently I drew more attention than I realized when I received an e-mail from the then head of the NMRA, James Lawrence asking me to call him about my coverage. Keep in mind these were the days before digital photography was widespread, internet coverage of events of any kind and live streaming were nearly nonexistent or seldom lived up to their hype, after all it was 1998. 

Through that phone call with James I developed a relationship with the NMRA that lasted for about five years. James asked me to check in once a month, let him know my thoughts on both the local and national scenes with concern to drag racing and Mustangs, racing trends and the performance industry. The NMRA was going through its early development phases and obviously they wanted to establish as many links around the country as they could (keep in mind that no one had ever thought of something like facebook or myspace at this point). That winter during a regularly scheduled phone call with James I received an invitation from him to talk with the then editor of NMRA’s monthly magazine Race Pages, Rob Kinnan and become a regular freelance contributor. 

That moment changed the way I viewed and participated in racing forever. Rob Kinnan to me was a giant of the car magazine industry. He had begun his career at Hot Rod Magazine, served as editor at 5.0 Mustang Magazine, both of which I read feverishly on a monthly basis, he had only left that job to purse a then better opportunity with the NMRA and subsequently the parent company they formed ProMedia.

This situation at the time was ideal for me. I had switched full time jobs to work for the IT department at KY Lottery. This job required that I work 12 hour shifts but in a two week pay period (14 days) I only worked 7 days and still made a full time salary (this was due to the number of hours worked). With my typically cooperative schedule at KY Lottery I was able to travel to NMRA events around the country on my weekend’s off. I was able to checkout a lot of cool cars and trucks, watch tons of great racing, get to know some of the racers and people I had only ever read about in magazines as well as meet all kinds of new and interesting people. If that wasn’t enough of a benefit I could often find enough material for freelance articles that I typically covered at least what it cost me to go to the events from my stories being published in Race Pages.

I contributed anywhere from one to four articles in nearly every issue of Race Pages for over three years. I also changed the way they dealt with photography. I bought an Olympus digital camera (I believe an E-10 was the model). It was a 4.5 Megapixel camera at a time when most digital cameras from a retail store were 1 or 1.5MP at the most. I worked with my local camera dealer and a few friends at how to correctly process digital images for print. Through my work I was able to convince NMRA and ProMedia to allow me to stop submitting film or slides and start sending work in on disc. Before I ended my freelance career with ProMedia and NMRA they were no longer accepting film or slides and instead had made the transition to all digital photography. I’d like to think I get a little credit for starting that trend.

During my freelance time with ProMedia they had also started a second magazine. There was a time when I contributed a large amount of content to it as well as Race Pages. Rob Kinnan called me on the phone one day; overwhelmed with his workload he was offering me the position of editor at this new magazine. Rob and the chiefs had met and decided Rob needed less work load, (I can hardly imagine being editor of two magazines at once). There was a hitch though; the job would require me to move to California, thousands of miles away from most of my friends, all of my family and a stable job. The pay would not be enough either for me to support myself and live on my own. Having no connections in the area near where I would be working and having no means to move on my own, I had to decline the offer. I did counter offer to do the work from where I lived, since most of it required traveling to races by car or plane, or dealing with freelance writers on the phone as well as a lot of work that would be completed on the computer. The in house staff needed someone present in the flesh though and we had not yet reached the age of telecommuting that we live in today where this might have been possible. 

My childhood friend who has known me the longest, Kelly, once remarked that the entire experience that I had as a freelancer reminded her of the movie “Almost Famous”. In some ways I might agree, a young guy from a small town gets to rub elbows, hangout and travel with some of his childhood heroes, while getting an inside glimpse at an industry he’s fascinated with and write about the experiences. With the exception of falling in love I think we have many of the key plot points from that movie (though I will admit to being infatuated with several girls that I met along the way during that time).

A few years into the freelance endeavor I decided to attempt taking my writing and photography skills into a full time career. I started my own business and spent the next year traveling the country to various racing events including NMRA both selling my photos to racers and fans as well as working on freelance articles. Unfortunately this was not an optimal full time career and between mistakes made on my part and a lack of sales I had to cease operations in late 2003 and close the company up for good in 2004. Having left KY Lottery nearly two years prior I was jobless for the first time in my entire adult life.

It would seem though that the mystical vortex of the car business would open up again and suck me back in. In January of 2004 I received an opportunity to work at the same dealer group as my dad. Byerly Nissan needed a person to serve as both service adviser and a parts truck driver. I could fit both ends, I knew enough about cars, the car business and how they worked to be a service adviser, I was good with people (which was a big plus) and I could “sell” work to customers that their cars needed. I had a clean driving record too so I could fill the second part of this dual role. My dad was the service manager for Byerly Ford located in the building next door, I was finally about to do what I said I’d wanted to do as a little kid, work with my dad, for real, as an adult.

I stayed at Byerly for about a year and a half eventually becoming solely the full time service adviser for the Nissan dealership(they needed me more on the service lane than in the parts truck so a new driver was hired). Driving to Dixie Highway from Crestwood each day, leaving at 6:30 in the morning and not getting home until 7:00 or later each night was wearing on me though. I found a job with an independent shop closer to home and left the dealership. I stayed in that next job for a little over a year, then I was made aware of a better opportunity at Pro-Tech, and I jumped on it. 

So today here I am, still in the car business. I’m the shop manager, service adviser, office manager, tech guy, whatever hat I need to wear today guy. Mostly I’m the manager/service adviser. I work for two very good owners who do a very good job not only taking care of customers and running an honest business but also at taking care of their employees (I’ve been here for over five years now). Like any job I have days where I go home and wonder if it’s really what I should be doing with my life, but those days when things click and go like they should, when everything falls into place and all the pieces work together like the gears of a clock, I know I’m where I belong, and doing what I’m meant to do (at least for now).

I will say that I sometimes miss traveling to the races, seeing all the action, the smell of tire smoke and racing fuel, standing on the starting line and feeling my chest shake from the sound of the engines, and meeting all those interesting people. Camping with the Dedpedal Racing guys, hanging out with the ProMedia staff, heading up to Indy to see my friend Jason McGrane and his now wife Audri. Riding with Beefcake in his latest toy and being the seat of the pants dyno in the passenger’s seat somewhere on an interstate in the Tri-State area. Spending the night on the couch at Ian and Sherrie Mullane’s hosue so Ian and I can leave early the next morning to drive all day heading to the next big event. Sitting in the race control tower and talking with Mike Galimi, Dr Meyer, Cindy Edwards and others during bad weather. Strange hotel rooms, late nights at the track, sleeping in my truck or in my photo trailer a tent or a friend’s RV and long hours on the road. That stuff was for the young single me. Married now, with a house, a nearly 50 hour a week job and trying to start family I have little time for those particular adventures. I do make it to about one NMRA event each year, and Sydney and I occasionally go to the local drag strip to watch or participate in some racing. During the summers we try to hit some local car cruises and shows when time allows. I still talk with a lot of the friends I made in the racing world, and I read about it online or in print, though I don’t follow the race results like I once did. I’d love to write some articles here and there but I have little inside info these days, my finger no longer on the pulse of the racing world like those glory days so long ago.

My current toy, a modified 1998 Mustang GT
You could say I’ve come full circle in 18 years. These days writing this blog, swinging wrenches on my own Mustang and my friend’s cars during some of my leisure time seems to be my two best creative outlets. Cars will always fascinate me and I’ll always have something in the garage to tinker with, change and modify. I will also continue to use this blog as a creative outlet for the part of me that enjoys writing. That for now is more than good enough.

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