From the October 2017 issue
Yes, fine, I admit it: I stole the story before the rest of the staff even knew there was something to steal. The drive of the highly anticipated second-generation Ford Raptor, the truck the company had teased us with for nearly two years after its auto-show unveiling, was finally nearing. By the time anyone in the office knew that Ford would host a California media drive of the dust devil, I’d been working for months to avoid that event. Instead, I asked the company to arrange that the following items be delivered for me to a shabby parking lot in downtown Las Vegas: A $63,005 ruby-red Raptor, a regular 4×4 Ford F-150 to serve as a photographer’s platform/abuse taker, and a couple of spare wheels and tires.
Mind you, I could provide the company with no evidence of any personal experience driving quickly through the desert without killing man or machine. And Ford was only vaguely aware of my plan to follow the route of the early Mint 400 races.
What I didn’t tell Ford or my colleagues was that I had ulterior motives. Yes, beyond the opportunity to escape the world on the day after the presidential election. Beyond even the opportunity to pee in the desert, one of life’s underrated joys.
I had unfinished business dating back 23 years—or 33 years, if you want to be picky about it. And now, because my name is rendered above in a text size typically reserved for MEN WALK ON MOON headlines instead of the modest type of a byline, I’m going to tell you all about it.
I must have been about 12 when Uncle Doug brought to my childhood home enough old car magazines to construct a fort in my basement. My aunt was eager to declutter her house and he thought I might like them. He didn’t know the half of it. I buried myself in them, pored over them. From then on, I maintained a subscription to one or another car magazine until the time that I started writing for car magazines. He also didn’t know that he’d left a couple of nudie magazines in the stack. I liked those plenty, too.
Uncle Doug led the kind of life that could give a pre-teen boy hope that adulthood didn’t have to suck. It could be fun. It could be thrilling. He seemed so confident. He seemed so successful. He was funny. He would crack jokes around the dinner table at family gatherings about acid flashbacks (he graduated from high school in 1967). I knew even back then that he’d been sent to military school in Florida beginning in his middle school years. I could only imagine what ballsy, spectacularly cool things he must have done to end up there.
And always there were fast things. It started with a minibike and a go-kart that he would race around the circle drive of the family home. Once, another kid from the Detroit side of the municipal border near where he lived threatened to steal the go-kart. Doug said to him, “We could fight for it or we could take turns riding it instead.” They became lifelong friends and occasional business partners. He street-raced the ’67 Camaro he’d received for high-school graduation on Woodward and the then-desolate Telegraph Road in suburban Detroit. Through college he took to legally drag-racing one or another of his built Chevy Novas. Even while his business grew and he became a husband and father, he raced. Now short-track off-road races in Wisconsin. Somewhere in there he tried offshore boat racing but found land more to his liking.
By the time I’d become a young man and had recently lost my father, Uncle Doug was knee-deep in desert racing, driving Bugs and buggies throughout the Southwest and running the Baja 1000 at least a few times. It was at a family gathering that he asked if I wanted to co-drive with him at an upcoming race.
This was when I was too young to know that the answer should always be yes; that you should always do it, whatever it is. I did worse than decline the invitation. I let it just fade away as the weeks passed. I don’t know why. The offer never came again. And within a few years, Uncle Doug closed his business, retired early, and hung up his helmet. He was happy enough to attend NASCAR races with the friend who’d once tried to steal his go-kart, plus their acquaintances, team owners Bill and Gail Davis.
At a family Christmas party in 2005, he seemed intent on telling me that he enjoyed the car magazine that I’d helped launch with one Eddie Alterman and that he forgave me for preferring Formula 1 racing to NASCAR. Later, I would find out that when he said those things, he’d just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and that it had already spread to his liver. The doctor gave him three months. He took five.
During a break in photography of the Raptor, I told our photographer and art director that I needed a chance to just drive the truck on my own. Blasting along one of the old Mint 400 trails in this superior machine, I felt invincible. And I drove faster than I should have, leaving a dust storm in my wake, until I ran out of trail.