I have always loved cars. I remember when I was in about sixth grade, Dad bought a 1968 Mustang at a garage sale for him to take to and from his third shift factory job. I thought it was simply the coolest thing I had ever seen. I still love those early Mustangs (I even have a 1965 convertible today!).
That love affair with the aesthetics of the automobile evolved into a love of the mechanics and the thrill of driving. I began racing with Autocross in the late 1980s and continue racing to this day.
When will I have to stop Driving?
When the doctor told me I was living with Parkinson's in 2013, I was shocked. I clearly remember holding back tears and choking out "when will I have to stop driving?". I am sure that is not an unusual question, but I am guessing most 46 year olds aren't just referring to the convenience and independence that comes with driving, but mostly referring to when do I have to stop racing?
Since my diagnosis, I have tried very hard to live in the moment. I find it is extremely helpful not to get caught up in what might be. It may sound crazy, but I really don't spend any time worrying about what life will be like for me in 5, 10, 15 years.
Before you think I am in denial of the reality of my situation, I should clarify that I do think about the future from a practical standpoint (e.g., we built our forever home 5 years ago and it is on one level). I think about racing from a practical standpoint as well. I know I can't do it forever, and I know I have to be very honest with myself and be very conservative in deciding when to back down and/ or retire from racing. (I think it is important to note that I am not advocating racing, or driving for that matter as a way to help live better with Parkinson's. Driving is serious business and literally is a life and death consideration of whether or not you should be driving)
Even I have to admit, the next part does sound crazy at first glance ... living with Parkinson's has helped me better appreciate the days I have behind the wheel. It started pretty early in my post diagnosis world. I had decided to do the Bob Bondurant driving school in AZ. A big meeting for work popped up while I was scheduled to be at the driving school. The pre-diagnosis me would have cancelled the school and went to the meeting. I found myself getting someone to represent me in the meeting, so I could go to the school (that may not sound like much, but it was a huge step for me)!
I decided to make a concerted effort to accomplish a major goal this year, to have the fastest overall time at the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National Time Trials Tour event at GingerMan raceway in MI. I participated in the event last year and determined that with some effort, I could reasonably compete for the honor. Over the winter, I went about making some changes to the car (mostly creating more downforce while incurring less aerodynamic drag). This required selecting a new wing, designing a new mount and changing spring rates on the suspension.
At first, it seemed like the planets would not align for my 2021 goal. I had the transmission worked on to eliminate an issue from 2020. For my car, that means removing the entire engine in order to get at the transmission. It seemed to make a huge difference. That was the good news.
At my first track day (actually 3 days, including one true test and tune day with no specific times to be on the track), I was significantly down on power and it was not clear why. To make a long story short, my fuel injectors were clogged. I changed injectors and put in a new fuel filter system. I went to Road America a few weeks later. I managed to destroy my rear differential there. Got that fixed in record time and then went to my next track day (at the location where the time trial would take place) and lost third gear during the session. The good news, I ran more than 2.5 seconds faster on one lap even without the ability to be in a gear lower than 4h the entire lap ... VERY encouraging for my potential placing at the time trial!
The engine and transmission came out again. I eventually determined that the clutch master cylinder was likely the cause of the initial transmission problem. I was in good shape for the Time Trials! One final track day at Autobahn on July 12. Unfortunately, the car behaved as if the fuel injectors were clogged again. No time to fully diagnose before having to leave on July 16 for the Time Trials. I bought new injectors, removed the foam from the fuel cell (maybe it was deteriorating and clogging the injectors?) and headed to MI.
I was feeling confident with my chances, but also a little apprehensive that I would not have solved all my mechanical issues. The class I run in (Unlimited 1) is the fastest class at the Time Trials. The cars are all pretty unique and are hard to predict how quick they will be because there often is only one like it. It was shaping up to be a very large class (10 drivers) and there were several I knew nothing about, which makes for interesting competition.
I wish I could explain part of what is so appealing about being on the track. In some ways, it is like Parkinson's doesn't exist during that time. I am calm, I am in control, I am at peace. One of the fastest competitors there mentioned to me that he was watching one of my laps and noticed how "planted" my car appears to be on the track and how "uneventful" it appeared in the cockpit. He said all of my steering inputs appeared smooth and in control. This mostly due to the setup of the car, but it is also somewhat due to my driving. I was pleased with the unsolicited comment (and he has no idea I am living with PD).
That said, Parkinson's is very apparent during my time in the paddock managing fuel, tire pressure, changing tires, checking oil, chasing down misc issues that pop up, changing suspension or aero settings, etc. To be very frank, I am exhausted by the end of the day. My right arm becomes very sore from the constant clenching from my dystonia. It is also an interesting game to manage the "off" times that come with my meds. You want to time your doses to be at the highest level of L-dopa in your system when you are on the track so you are at your best performance. My off times during the day are not severe enough to create a safety issue, but if I was significantly "off" during a session on the track, I would come in early because I would not be able to turn my fastest laps.
I won't go into all the gory detail, but I set a time I was very happy with on Saturday PM (three timed sessions over 2 days - 1 Sat and 2 Sun). My time was slightly slower than my fastest, but good enough for 2nd place. As I mentioned, there were drivers I did not know ... one of them was going to be too much for me to catch. It looked like I was in a battle for second (my dream of first overall would have to wait). On Sunday AM, I ran ok, but fell into third by 0 .5 seconds (two combined session times). That meant I needed to have a run that is at least 0.5 seconds faster than the driver in second place. I needed to be focused!
On my first lap (3 laps in a session), I ran the lap of my life! I recorded a 132.8 (previous best was 1:34.4). I proved it was not a fluke by turning times of 1:33.1 and 1:33.4 for the session. I had now virtually secured second place!
It was very emotional when I saw my lap time on my dash! I wanted to punch my fist in the air, but I needed to run two more laps to see if maybe there was a little more time to be had. I celebrated back at my trailer, once I knew everyone else's times from the session.
(The podium for the overall champs)
(First SCCA national tour hardware for me)
(Saturday's 1:34.7 lap. Unfortunately, no video of Sunday's 1:32.8)
As I said, I am thankful where I am. I work hard at keeping Parkinson's at bay. I work hard at keeping my attitude in check. I work hard advocating for others living with Parkinson's. And I enjoy the moment. All of them are precious, especially those on the track!
And when the time comes to hang up the racing, I will know I enjoyed it while I could and I will be able to walk away with no regrets! That is all any of us can hope for in whatever we pursue in life.