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A Christmas Letter to My Younger Self

25 Dec 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Seems like it’s all the rage these days, especially among sports stars and rock 'n' rollers – of which I am neither – to offer up a little something called “Letter to My Younger Self,” in which one shares the wisdom of a lifetime with one’s childhood self. So here’s mine, with a Christmas twist.

PhilMerry Christmas 1970, my little friend. I’m you, 45 years from now. I know, impossible, right? That surfer long hair you’ll be growing soon is mostly gone, and I have grandkids as old as you, but, yup, I’m you, and I have to tell you that life is pretty grand at 55, so hang in there.

I know it has been a rough couple of years, kid. You lost your dad about a year ago, bringing a two-year, two-continent custody fight between your mom and dad to a sad end. You’re back home in Southern California, in your old bed, with your old friends, your old school, your old life, and a new “dad.” He’s OK, especially for an ex-Marine – but ease up on those “bald” jokes; payback will be a bear from your own kids in about 40 years -- and your mom seems happy enough, so you're happy, too, but I know you’re still looking for something else.

And guess what, bucko? Something pretty magical is about to happen. You’ve always played with toy cars. In England, where you lived for two years with your dad, that meant Matchbook and Corgi cars, but in the good ol’ USA, that means Hot Wheels. And boy, does Santa have something cool under the tree for you. I won’t spoil it for you, so run over there and unwrap a few presents. I’ll wait.

Hot WheelsYou’re back? Good. I know, I know. What’s a Funny Car, right? And who are these guys with animal nicknames? The Snake? The Mongoose? What is this, The Jungle Book?

No, little Mowgli, those are race cars – really, really fast race cars – and they’re about to change your life. Yeah, go ahead, lift up the body. The bare necessities, right? That glob of misshapen chrome, that’s the engine. It sings the kind of tune old Baloo can only dream of. You watch the TV commercials and are enthralled. Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen become your heroes almost overnight.

Guess what, kid -- in about a dozen years, you’re not only going to get to meet both of them, but they will talk to you. That “Snake” guy, he’s going to be a little bit of a Grumpy Gus, but that’s just him, at least for now. He’ll age like fine wine. “The Mongoose,” he’s quite the fun-loving character. Complete opposites. Someday, kid, they’re going to be great friends of yours. “Mongoose” will call you all the time to make sure you know the latest news. You’ll even get invited to “the Snake’s” house. I know. Crazy, right?

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

PDAIn a few months – on July 24, 1971 -- your parents are going to take you to the Happiest Place on Earth. No, it’s not Disneyland. It’s a place called Orange County Int’l Raceway, and there your dreams will come alive.

The burnout smoke boiling off the rear tires and billowing into the night sky. The snorting and snarling call-and-response ritual of dry hops. The anticipation hanging as heavy as the burnout smoke as the drivers stage. The thump in your chest as the cars launch that reaches from the racetrack all the way to your spot midway up the spectator-side bleachers. You will be mesmerized and somehow know that you have found “it.”

You’ll be taken back several more times to OCIR and to Irwindale Raceway, which compared to palatial OCIR is a rock quarry, but the magic is the same. For some unfathomable reason that will haunt you the rest of your days, even though it’s closer to your home than OCIR or Irwindale, your parents won’t take you to Lions Drag Strip, and before long, there won’t be a Lions to take you to. See if you can fix this oversight before it’s too late because you'll end up writing about the place for 30 years.

Before long, you’ll discover car magazines, and the money that used to go to Hot Wheels will go to purchasing shiny new copies of Drag Racing USA, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Popular Hot Rodding, Car Craft, and Hot Rod, over whose pages you will obsess. You will memorize winners and cars and photos and arcane facts; you won’t know why you’re obsessed with that, but be glad that you are. Guys like Steve Reyes, Jim Kelly, Jere Alhadeff, Jon Asher, Bob McClurg, and Tim Marshall will be your guide to far-off exotic tracks, and you’ll marvel at how anyone could possibly be so lucky to travel around the country covering drag races for a living.

This may sound a bit goofy, but you will emulate their stories, writing up accounts of the 64-car Hot Wheels battles that take place weekly in your bedroom, and you’ll discover that, hey, I think I can do this. You’ll start reading other things, trying to find a voice.

Paper
You won't be the high school quarterback, but you will be able to do this.

Then, one magical day, you’ll accidentally discover your stepfather’s stash of Playboy magazines, and as you thumb through them (for the articles, of course), you’ll read a very funny story by a man named Dan Greenburg. You will never forget this name, and he will become your non-drag-racing hero. You will go to the library and check out all of his books and marvel at his ability to tell a story, and you will decide that, yes, I think I would like to be a writer. And guess what, my little friend? Years later, you will send him a fan letter, and eventually, you will become friends with him, too, and although you won’t get to go to his house, he will – gasp -- ask you to read some of his in-progress manuscripts and ask your advice about key plot elements. He will include you in his acknowledgements for that book, and it will feel almost as good as if Prudhomme asked you for tune-up advice.

No matter what you think you’re good at in school right now, writing will be your thing. You’re going to ace all of those writing classes and receive a lot of encouragement and guidance from some very helpful teachers. But, hey, don’t forget to work hard on that math stuff. You’ll need it later in life, believe me, especially that decimal stuff with tenths and hundredths and thousandths.

Sure, you’re going to play sports in school, too, but, sorry pal, you’re not going to be very good, but you will learn invaluable lessons about teamwork and camaraderie and, yes, leadership that will follow you the rest of your days. Embrace those lessons, and they will embrace you throughout your life. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

As you work your way through high school, you’ll meet a guy. Actually, you’ll meet him because of the 1970s fad, the CB radio. He goes by the handle of “Blue Streak,” for his awesomely fast Chevy Monza. (You, of course, will be “Drag Man.”) He’s pretty much your complete opposite -- you’re the blue-collar kid with the shaggy hair and the sprouting mustache, and he’s the clean-cut, well-off kid from the other side of the tracks with the fancy name of Courtland Van Tune, but you and Van will quickly bond over fast cars, Jefferson Starship, “cruising for babes,” and the love of the written word. You'll burn through countless tanks of gas to be part of the scene at popular places like Van Nuys Blvd. and at clandestine car clashes on Pershing Drive behind the L.A. Airport. You’ll collaborate on a goofy little newsletter for the CB club you both belong to and will become lifelong best friends. He’s your brother from another mother. Later, your busy lives and careers will mean you see each other less and less frequently, and I hope you can do a better job than I did in cutting the distance.

Caddy
Two guys, a girl, and a borrowed Cadillac. What could possibly go wrong? You, left, Van, and longtime friend Shelley.

Van will actually beat you to becoming a real writer for a real car magazine, but he’ll open some doors for you to follow. Freelance gigs mostly, short car features for some second-tier magazines, but you’ll hone your skills. Later, when he goes to work in the big time at Popular Hot Rodding, Van will meet a guy named Cam Benty, who used to work at a magazine that you buy every week at Super Shops. It’s called National Dragster.

In early 1982, Cam will tell Van that he heard that National Dragster is looking for a writer. This is a key juncture in your life, so pay attention. Compared to where you’re working, the pay will be lousy. The commute will be hellish. Eventually, you’ll have to move. This will cost you your live-in girlfriend. It will be scary. But do it. For heaven’s sake, apply for the job.

Prepare yourself. You’ll be hauled into a conference room at NHRA headquarters in North Hollywood and face a jury that includes the small National Dragster staff and – oh my gawd, I can’t believe it’s him – Wally Parks. They will grill you about your writing ability and your knowledge of the sport’s history, but you will have the answers because they have been there for a decade just waiting for this moment. You will be offered the job -- $15,000 a year, about 10K less than you’re already making as a facility maintenance handyman where your stepdad works in machine maintenance – but you will say yes, and it will be the smartest decision you’ll ever make.

The staff will be wonderful and welcoming. Leslie Lovett, the photo editor, will introduce you to all of his racer friends at tracks across the country, and they will welcome you, too, because Leslie has blessed you. He will teach you how to compose and shoot photos. He will entrust you with one of his precious Nikon cameras.

ND staff
National Dragster staff, circa 1983

You will meet and work with a lovable array of people. The word-savvy hippie who gifts you with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a bible for writers. The former editor of Drag Racing USA who becomes your boss and thinks you should lead the magazine, and then makes it happen. The “burned-out loony” who’s a walking encyclopedia of drag racing. The grizzled newspaper veteran. The skirt-chasing ad salesman. The wacky but lovable art director. You will owe so much to all of them, so enjoy them while they’re still alive, because one by one, many of them will be taken from your world.

Those early days will be a trial by fire because the staff is so small, but hang in there. You will write stories until your fingers are numb and be charged with sorting through hundreds of submissions from track reporters across the country, and you will learn how to turn other people’s coal into diamonds. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open and be a sponge. Learn everything you can about everything there is to learn, and then keep reaching. Amazing new technology will keep coming. There will be something called the Internet and phones so small you can carry them in your pocket. But you will stay on top of all of it so that even when you’re my age, you won’t be that old dog who can’t learn new tricks. Because there are always new tricks.

Life at National Dragster is so amazing that you’ll stay there for decades, and you will love almost every second of it. As you drive to work each day, you will look at other people drudgingly on the way to their 9-to-5 jobs and pity them because you can’t wait to slide behind your desk and wonder what the day will hold and for that magic moment when your fingers touch the keyboard and the creation process begins. The work will be incredibly tough sometimes -- crushing deadlines, red-eye flights, lost luggage, missing hotel reservations – but incredibly rewarding.

You will drive an actual race car on an actual racetrack and do it well enough to earn an NHRA competition license. You will write openly and self-deprecatingly about that adventure in National Dragster, and people will never forget it. In some ways, it will come to define you. The people crazy brave enough to let you drive their race car – the Mazi family – will become like a second family. You will not be able to thank them enough, but try anyway.

Opel
See this wild piece of ill-handling, supercharged machinery? You're going to drive it someday.

You’re going to get to meet another of your future heroes, rock 'n' roll icon Bruce Springsteen, on his home turf one year at the Summernationals in New Jersey. You’ll chat him up just enough to let him know you’re a fan, but you’ll resist the temptation to tell him you own all of his records and can recite every word of every song and hum the notes of every saxophone solo. You’ll play the professional journalist and pose him for a photo with another member of the NHRA staff and not ask for one with you in it. You will regret this. Deeply.

Eventually, you will meet many of your boyhood heroes, become good friends with some, and, because of your respect for their accomplishments and sacrifices, many will embrace you as one of their own. This may seem so silly to you as you read this at age 10, but this acceptance will become one of your most treasured “possessions.”

family
The wife, two of the three children, grandkids, and son-in-law. You did good, kid.

You'll get married -- girls don't really have cooties -- and raise three wonderful children, each with their own wonderful qualities. One of your daughters will share your love for words, the other your love of adventure. Just as you inherited your dad's love for soccer, your son will embrace your love of hockey, and you will play together on the same team for years (he's pretty good, you're still pretty average; sorry), just as you wished you could have with our dad. Family is everything; I know you got off to a bit of a rocky start, but it all works out in the end.

Some final words of advice from your future: When they offer typing class in school, take it, so you don’t spend your days pecking with index fingers alone. You may be blindingly fast with two fingers, but still. Take the class. Don’t accept that invitation to hang out with that kid at school who just got out of juvie and has a six-pack of Schlitz Malt Liquor and a grudge against the world. Don't use the neighbor kids as substitutes for cars as you leap over them on your bike after seeing the Evel Knievel movie. Learn to play the guitar so one day you can master “Hotel California” on something other than the air. 

And don’t street race.

Merry Christmas, kid,

Your future self