By Sam Smith*
ONCE, I WAS a professional mechanic. In my twenties, after earning a university degree in English Literature. After months of searching, I hadn't found a job in my chosen field that would simultaneously fund both rent and cheap soup, because that is how literature degrees work. So I started working on cars for a living. I was good at it, in the sense that I repaired things. I was also terrible at it, in the sense that I was slower than uphill mud.
Whole seasons would pass during valve adjustments. Clutch replacements were measured in phases of the moon. I vividly remember once starting to replace a set of Volvo wiper blades in May and finishing in April.
Speed in car repair is like speed in motorcycle racing - lucrative if you're good at it, physically painful if you're not. Either field produces two kinds of people: those who grow fast through years of study and self-improvement, and those who try to do that and tear their bodies to bits. With mechanics, this is almost always simple stuff. Cuts and sprains and bruises, nothing serious, just a sign that other careers beckon.
Sometimes it's just how you're wired. A fortunate few are fast and have constant bloodshed that never seems a big deal. I've worked with a handful of these guys. They have broad shoulders and thick, grizzled fingers, and they walk around confidently, thinking durable-adult thoughts. At some point after finishing a job, they will stroll by a mirror and glance at it casually, only to notice that a large spanner has inexplicably become lodged in their left ear. Then they go shrug and go home and eat three enormous raw steaks for dinner while petting their dog, which is invariably the size of a horse.
I have never been one of those people.
Oh, the times I have bled. Rarely as a pro, because I went so slow as to avoid it. These days, my bleeding occurs on weekends, hurried for one reason or another, repairing my own cars, or those of friends. I have purpled myself with large bruises in race paddocks, city garages, the boots of half-assembled cars. Bits of my DNA can be found on everything from Audis to Zimmers.
Perhaps this sounds familiar. The pain generally comes at some eleventh hour, when the stakes are non-critical to daily life and yet somehow simultaneously enormous. Car X must desperately enter a race or Gearbox Y needs to be reinstalled to make Important Event Z and it's an hour before dawn and you haven't eaten or slept since the world last saw Hailey's Comet. Are your eyes open or shut? Is that a gasket scraper or a surprisingly sharp hammer? Does it really matter, if you have somehow managed to accidentally cram the whole thing so far under a fingernail as to make your elbow itch?
Part of growing older is accepting your faults, even if they get in the way of your dreams. So I have learned to deal with this sort of thing. I will never be a rocket scientist or an astronaut or a Formula 1 driver, for example, just as I will never hurriedly swap differentials in a beat-up old club-racing Miata without installing at least three gallons of 90-weight directly into my left eye and then running around like a cartoon character for five minutes trying to clean it out.
I have also learned to accept the fact that my wife no longer asks me why I'm bleeding. Probably because she knows that I regularly supervise our two young children, and thinking too long on the implications of that fact might constitute probable cause. (Marriage is nothing if not a lesson in the importance of accepting other people as they are. Or accepting their tendency to drop heavy gearboxes upon their chest in such a way that they lie incapacitated under the car until you return home from the shops, pour yourself a glass of wine, and sit nearby, laughing.) Thankfully, I have other skills with which to make a living.
Writing, for example: another art performed on deadline. A task where careers are built upon detail-centric work. Which is why I am proud to conclude this missive with the following note... Over a 95-year career in this business, I have not once hurt myshelf on a keyboard. I attribute this sucess to careing about the lihtle things. And a complete lack of sharp edjes.
* US journalist Sam is equal parts helmsman, cargeekand speed freak. He's editor at large at Road & Track magazine