Driver

I wasn’t always Spider.

But I’ve always been a driver.

That doesn’t make me the best, or anything like it. There’s many out there who are better drivers than me. That’s not what I mean, and I don’t know if I can really say what I mean, except maybe by example.

It goes as far back in my memory as I can reach. At age five, directing cabbies to the hospital so my grandmother’s wrist could be set in plaster after she slipped in a supermarket and broke it. My parents were out of town, she was addled even then, so I had to tell the drivers where we were going, when to turn. Okay, so I might be a little pushy, still.

One of the first books I ever read, once we got past “Dick and Jane” (who were responsible for many of my character flaws, I’m afraid), was called “The Red Car.” It was about an MG TC that had to prove itself against big-motored Fords in the heyday of the American hot rod.

The type was large and there were pictures, but that was in grade school. Even with the pictures, I kept trying to imagine what a “drop dead” grill looked like. I could see the grill, but had no idea what “drop dead” could mean.

When they talked about the little car being faster in the corners and able to beat the big car, I was fascinated and read that part over and over. I have a soft spot for those MGs today.

I remember sitting beside my father, handling the steering wheel when we drove to my grandmother’s house after she was moved to Oregon when she was unable to care for herself. That may be the best memory I have of my father.

There were also terrifying rides from the Oregon Coast back to Portland, he’d be drunk and it would be raining hard and the windshield wipers barely able to move the smear. He’d take stupid chances around curves and over hills. From the back seat, I couldn’t bear to watch and I couldn’t look away. But maybe that’s as good a reason as any why driving fast is second nature to me.

In my early teens, and long before getting my driver’s license, I stole my father’s car whenever they left town, sometimes when they were just out on the town, sometimes while they were just asleep, often to drive to a girl’s house (the ladder to her room was far more risky).

I learned many things on those trips, including that it’s possible, with enough speed, to coast a car up a hill and into a carport with the motor off and not make any noise.

But you only get one chance.

Once an ex girlfriend and I, we’d both “moved on” but I was giving her a ride to someplace because she asked and sometimes, even after you’ve both moved on, there are dangerous echos of what brought you together in the first place, she and I were blasting down a dark and rainy road in my 1970 Mustang with a big motor, and I said “Let me know if you want me to slow down.”

“I’ve always felt safe driving with you. No one else since, but always with you,” she said, and that was just one more lesson about seeming to go slow while going real fast that she taught me.

In college, late at night and with someone I should not have been with, I chased a BMW 2002 while driving that same Mustang over the twisty La Honda Road between Palo Alto and the coast. I caught up with it on the straights but lost badly in the curves, and never saw that car once the road really rolled back on itself.

“Why can’t you catch him?” asked the girl in the right seat, and I learned another difference between driving and arriving.

I used to drive from Portland to L.A. in 13 hours, usually to see another girl. Yeah. Sometimes I took the desert route and came in through the Mojave. Sometimes I would drive back a few days later, but it usually took longer, maybe because I was leaving the girl, maybe because it always seemed to be uphill.

Those trips back always ended at sunrise. But in the middle of the night, at a certain level of fatigue, dark shapes seem to leap across the highway right in front of the car. I never hit one, but I’m not saying they weren’t real.

They scared me nearly to death. Maybe that’s why they were there.

I sold the Mustang before I went to Asia and bought a BMW when I got back.

When I was a waiter in Portland, and it snowed while I was at work, I used to take that old BMW (which became my first real race car 20 years later) to a Safeway parking lot at 2 a.m. and throw the car sideways, first one way and then the next, always trying to catch it before it went all the way around.

There’s a “point of no return” in every spin. But if you have the clutch in and the brakes on, once past that point you may be able to power out to a recovery, of sorts. Maybe, but not until it’s had at least one go around. Could be that was another life lesson, too.

When my uncle was on his deathbed, I left Bend, Oregon in a fast car at the same time my cousin left the east coast on a plane. We both landed in San Francisco seven hours later, five hours before my uncle, her dad, passed away. The main difference was that I drove everyone to where ever they had to be over the next few days. I was the driver. Just like always.

Driving was my escape, driving was my hobby, driving was what I did. I wanted to write a book about “Driver,” but not a race book and this isn’t it. That one is about someone who is always taking others through major life transitions.

I will drive the ashes of my uncle’s son to a lake in Montana near the Canadian border this summer. I was told it can be a bad road. I told them not to worry about that.

Every one of the other guys has their story, and they are at least as interesting, or more interesting, than mine. I think Cowboy had his racing license before he had a driver’s license. He’s on a first name basis with everyone who’s raced over the last several decades. Ceegar has stories that weave into the lives of famous people, and I’ve seen the first car Ceegar’s brother ever owned, brought back from Japan new about the time of the Viet Nam War, it was sold but now sits in Ceegar’s shop.

It can be hard to get the time of day, let alone a story, out of Beater, but he’s from New York. As tough as he is, you know there’s more than one story there. Canuck may not have a story yet, but he’s writing one.

Long before Merlin, as we were building the big black and yellow car, I had several goals in mind. I wanted it to handle as much like my full-race BMW as it could, and that car was a scalpel. I wanted it to be easy to look at. I wanted it to be reliable. I always wanted it to have enough, of whatever was needed.

That’s before I learned there’s never enough. But Merlin will find what’s there and make that usable. I think deep down, beneath his magic and his talent and his hard-nosed attitude about only doing it the right way, generally recognized as “his” way, the stay right-of-the-centerline way, I think Merlin’s world is animated, and he approaches his flowers and lawn and tomatoes with the same passion he brings to machines.

Maybe we will have “enough,” maybe at least a chance when Cowboy and Canuck show up in a month and a half at the big race in Seattle, with whatever monster’s they’ve cooked up over the winter. Ceegar and Beater have been busy in the last couple of weeks, I imagine, given that neither would be happy in fourth or fifth place. I saw the tires Beater had stashed in his trailer. Tires far too big to go on the car that he was driving last weekend.

That July race ought to be something.

A week after that, this circus might head off to Road America. It would be a lot of fun to see how we rubes from the Pacific Northwest stack up against the best in … America. I can’t really afford to go, but Cowboy is on me hard, saying it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, going there with these guys, these guys driving these cars. I would probably remember that race forever, long after I was unable to remember how much money I saved by not going.

But in the mean time, Spokane is coming up in a couple of weeks and the car isn’t quite ready and there’s other things to do.

Today I drove three hours from the desert in the middle of Oregon to a place just south of Portland where they have a world class kart track. A friend and I went around and around, 12 turns in a little over 2/3rds of a minute, around and around, finding the line, carrying momentum, balancing the Gs.

Because, as I told Merlin a couple of weeks ago, if his job is to refine the hardware, my job is to work on the wetware. No driver does it alone, but every driver is out there alone. I don’t want to be good, I want to be better. That’s what a driver does.

About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon
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