March 1989

American Driver

In memory of our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., Automobile Magazine editors are choosing our ten favorite American Driver columns and will be posting one each day over the next two weeks.

Mr. Dennis J. Walker writes from Vernon Hills, Illinois, to tell me that “many people” were laughing at me behind my back at the Monterey Historic Automobile Races because I was wearing a white suit with a black Cogito Ergo Zoom T-shirt, which, he suggested, made me “look like an aging cross between Raymond Loewy and Don Johnson.” He says his letter was inspired by my December column, wherein I suggested that we all celebrate Christmas at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, with the caveat that the cops would throw out anybody who didn’t subscribe to my own “infuriatingly arbitrary dress code.” He also suggested that I check out J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, and perhaps Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren as firms that might spruce up my wardrobe.

Well, first off, Mr. Walker, let me congratulate you on a finely tuned instinct for the jugular. Well-meant advice should always inflict a little pain on the recipient, and anyone who says that he writes “as a friend” to tell me about people who are laughing at me behind my back demonstrates sensitivity worthy of a career in TV journalism. I feel rather strongly that it is not fear of death that prevents most people from achieving everything they want in life but rather fear of looking ridiculous. Anybody who’s followed my adventures over the years knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that I’m not terribly concerned about looking ridiculous.

As to your suggestions about my wardrobe, a keen sartorial observer like yourself should have recognized that the white suit I was wearing at Laguna Seca was made for me by Brooks Brothers, and if you think people laughed at me in that, just imagine how they’d have reacted if I’d showed up in cutoffs and a tank top. I think Eddie Bauer does nice Ford trucks, and J. Crew – unless I am mistaken – sells bargain-priced Rugby shirts. As for Ralph Lauren, he has spent the past ten years creating a line of men’s clothes that look just like the ones I wear all the time. I appreciate your friendly concern, but I must point out that people have been laughing at me for years, sometimes behind my back, but in the case of my friends, generally right in my face.

Example: Doug Mahoney. Doug Mahoney got me into the retail end of the imported-car business in 1953 and got me into sports car racing more or less simultaneously. A couple of years later, I’d crashed badly and wound up with the face I now wear. The car I was supposed to drive in an endurance race at Elkhart Lake didn’t make it, and I’d flown all the way from California, so I went on to Michigan to see some old friends. When I went to Doug’s house, his wife took one look at me, then fled, weeping, and locked herself in the bathroom. Doug went to the door and said, “Come on out, Joyce. It’s just your pal David E. Same as he always was, but now he’s got something that character actors would give a lot to have. In this case, it’s one bedroom eye and one bathroom eye.”

(Two years ago I was interviewed and photographed by the New York Post. The next day some guy from the editorial department called me and said, “Have you seen the photographs that we took of you yesterday? I wish you could take a look at them before we go to press. There’s something wrong. In every one of them it looks like one of your eyes is bigger than the other.” I replied, “One of my eyes is bigger than the other.” The stricken voice at the other end said, “Oh, GOD, I’m sorry!”)

Example: Frank Winchell. Frank has been a friend of mine since 1962, when he was running Chevrolet R&D. In those days he was just beginning an involvement with automobile racing–most particularly with the Jim Hall/Hap Sharp Chapparal racing team–that would make him one of the great engineer-innovators in that sport. Once, on a bear-hunting expedition on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, I was criticizing Frank for hiding his light under a bushel. “Frank,” I grumbled, “you’re making a huge contribution to General Motors, but nobody knows your name. Every day they hire some new lightweight, make him a vice-president, and a week later he’s being presented on television as the greatest thing since the four-stroke engine. You need to come out and let the world know what you do.”

Frank said, “You may be right, but I’m not like you. You’re so damn sure of yourself, and you can talk to anybody. We’re down here for two hours, and you already know all these Indians by their first names. I can’t do that. I walk into a room full of people, and I fully expect everybody to turn around and say, “Who is that stupid sonuvabitch that just walked in?” I’ll tell you the goddam truth. If I looked like you, I wouldn’t be able to leave my house!”

It should be apparent, by now, that people laughing behind one’s back are the child’s play compared with the behavior of one’s friends. But nonetheless, Mr. Walker, your thoughtfulness in bringing this to my attention is sincerely appreciated. I’m just not sure that I can do anything about it. I’m not even sure that I want to.