Wake Up Time

Editor at large Sam Smith and his dad raced a 2002 together for years. After a decade off track, they brought that old 2002 back to life to race once again.

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Drew Bardana

THE ENGINE DIDN’T FIRE until noon on Friday. It was supposed to have lit off hours earlier, at a test day at Willow Springs raceway, north of Los Angeles. We were 190 miles south, in San Diego, at the race shop of my friend Mark Francis. I was so brain-blazingly tired, this seemed like a win anyway.

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My dad was standing nearby. The car was his. A 1969 BMW 2002 with a roll cage and SCCA stickers on the doors. It had last moved under its own power a decade ago, when my father and I were still club racing. We built the car together. After a few wallet-draining seasons, Dad took a break, mothballing the BMW. Madly in love with the sport, I spent the ensuing years chasing seat time elsewhere, anywhere, desperately. In poetic symmetry, my father is now not broke, and I am a journalist, which generally means the opposite.

The 2002 idled loudly, as race cars do.

“This is actually happening!” Dad yelled, over the noise. Like me, he is something of a romantic.

“I have to take a leak and my underwear hurts,” I yelled back, overwhelmed by the kind of sleep deprivation that makes you blurt out facts about your nether regions.

A lot of people wouldn’t go racing with their dad. A lot of people wouldn’t do car stuff with the guy who taught them to drive stick, at 16, by making them practice downshifts, stuck in their neighborhood, for days. (Details were important, he said. Being 16, I said nothing but pondered various unprintables.) But my father is eccentric and goofy and mine, and I like doing things with him, so we built a race car. Then and now.

Dad lives in Seattle, about a mile from my house. The BMW was in California because of Mark and our friends Carl Nelson and Ben Thongsai. Mark is a metalworker by day and a 2002 freak by night, which makes his shop a happy mix of weld bead and hoarded Germany. Ben and Carl are professional BMW mechanics nearby. That engine start was the tail of an all-nighter—24 hours of wrenching—and a few more days of work, waking up the car. All aimed at a vintage race at Willow, that weekend.

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It was a silly plan, born of ambition. Or maybe an ambitious plan, born of silliness. One Sunday a few months prior, while carrying a glass of bourbon large enough to make me sing Guns N’ Roses guitar solos at the dog, I had decided to clean my garage. In the process, I unearthed an old box of 2002 spares. Mistiness and calendar math ensued.

Carried away, I texted my father and told him that it was now my duty to help him race again, as he had helped me with everything. His response was roughly committal, and I was by then mysteriously low on bourbon, so I moved on to other emotional lodestones, like passing out on the couch.

Subsequent, more sober conversations raised issues. For one thing, the BMW was stored 2300 miles away, in Kentucky, where Dad lived when he hung up his helmet. There was also his fixed income, being retired. Sensing speed bumps, I flew out and towed the car to Seattle as a gift. Momentum seemed important, so a too-soon Willow race became deadline. Mark, Ben, and Carl were consulted; they offered to donate parts and labor, so we promptly towed the car to San Diego. Mark lent everything from a used race engine to an aluminum air dam fished out of a dumpster. Completion came down to the wire, because of course it did.

Racing started Saturday; we made the track late Friday. Surreality descended immediately. Dad and I fell into old habits, squabbling or grinning over race-car nonsense. And I found myself with the humbling task of coaching the guy who had always coached me, his track skills rusty after years away. It seemed important, a lot of talking, even by my motor-mouth standard. But he had questions, so we debriefed. Me, yapping constantly, as my father undoubtedly second-guessed teaching me to speak. Parenthood is weird.

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After qualifying, we met in the paddock. Quietly considering a machine we had now built twice. Years of low-rent racing had given the BMW a patina half charming, half rented mule. The rushed rebuild left no time for cosmetics. I wanted to take the 2002 home, wrap it in a blanket, feed it cocoa or something.

“You know,” I said, “I love this thing, but it’s shabbier than it was. Of our old standard. Bugs me.”

He was quiet for a moment.

“Yeah, it bothered me for a while, too. I think that’s why I let the car sit for so long.”

I felt too sheepish to reply. He put a hand on my shoulder. “But it’s better to be here than not, right? If we’d done one more thing at Mark’s, we wouldn’t have made it here in time. And then another season is gone, and another.”

His race ended early, after a bum engine breather puked oil into the cockpit. We deemed the whole mess a success anyway. The sole casualty of the weekend was a bend in that dumpster-fresh air dam, from a minor off in Willow’s decreasing-radius Turn 9. We easily bent it straight again, by hand, but the mounting flange remained a little wrinkly. Barely noticeable. Our little team dispersed, tackling the usual end-of-race cleanup.

Twenty minutes later, while zipping my luggage closed in the trailer, I heard a rhythmic tapping. I walked outside, following the sound. He was back, kneeling in front of the car, hammering the flange flat with a small mallet. Just soft little taps, nudging the metal back into place.

I watched for a bit. I may have taught my father a few things about driving that weekend. I learned more from him, though, as usual. We didn’t talk about any of it

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