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"Wheels" columnist Royal Ford explains his lifelong car passion that began with Faulkner and frozen ponds
Give me chaos theory. If a loon flaps its wings on the cove outside my New Hampshire home, will a storm change course over Russia?
I don’t know. But chaos theory may explain how I got lucky enough to do this job I love, driving cars all over the world and writing about them for GlobalPost.
My wing-flap smelled of gasoline when, as a 12-year-old boy, I was skidding cars around wet fields behind my childhood home in the Granite State, and on frozen ponds where ice is thick and counter-steer reigns.
And sure enough, years later, I was spitting dirt and rocks on the famed Baja run in Mexico, one of many wild rides of a kid-grown-up, a disciplined, safe but very fast-driving adult who has thrilled to the sound of screaming tires on Germany's deadly “Nurburgring;” the sizzling smoothness on the Autodromo do Estoril in Portugal; and the steadiness of a Porsche at 175-miles-per hour on the shifting sands of Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
I've got a lot more driving in me, and we'll be sharing it.
First, we'll blame this new beat, this column, on Faulkner, fuel, and my father.
I grew up in a home where stock cars and Harleys — all in various states of rebuild or teardown — sometimes pocked the back fields, sprouting a metallic crop for the harvesting. My father, Newt, used to roll stock cars over in the back yard just to test the roll cages.
These may have been rough vehicles, but in them, I was taught at an early age to appreciate the grace of the dance that proper braking and proper use of the throttle for steering, can bring to even the slipperiest of dance floors.
But I also grew up under the tutelage of a father who knew not only speed, steering, and stability, but also Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and anything he could get his hands on to read. Read everything, he told me. And so I did.
Newt was a tosser of hides in a tannery, a Boston and Maine Railroad worker, a cutter of curbs in a granite quarry, a superb carpenter, and a racer of cars.
Writing, he said, was a craft. No different than framing a house, or cutting the proper curb, once you had the plans in mind and the right tools in hand.
It’s the same with testing cars: a craft with science, physics, careful on-road evlauation, and, when I get lucky, the sense of the far edge of speed tossed in.
And so I grew up learning to drive. But I also traveled, through the magic of books, the roads of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, the bleak streets of Henry James' London, the seemingly ceaseless yet inevitably terminal path of Kerouac on the road.
I love writing and I love cars. (Here is my latest dispatch on the North American Auto Show in Detroit.)
That's why I hope that, as we travel the world together in what is destined to become a crucible of global car culture, industry, taste, and environmental challenges, we can appreciate the automobile — for its malleable art forms, its promise, and its threat.
Cars, to me, are every bit as much art as film, music, painting, sculpture, or literary history. I love them for their science — their tactile grab in a tight corner, their art — Italian sculpture, Swedish cold solidity radiating warmth, American big steel bravado. The English promise of leathered elegance, and German precision.
Yes, Royal Ford’s my real name, so don't email me asking where Royal Ford is located so you can buy your next Explorer. And no, I'm not related to THE FAMILY. Car testing in my Ford family meant a Sunday outing deep into the woods to see how far a 50s-era, rear-wheel-drive Chevy could go before it got stuck.
We’d watch my father race, roll over and over on bad weekends, slip slide and slam his way to wins on others. And we’d often roll home late of a weekend night, brothers and sisters spread and stacked throughout the family car towing Newt’s race car, from some country track.
Those were the lessons in my father’s classroom. And they were just as important as the great professors I had at the University of New Hampshire, and some superb editors and writers who helped me through the years at The Boston Globe where I worked for 30 years before taking a buyout last year and joining GlobalPost. I see the Internet as tomorrow's fast track, and I want to drive it.
Life's lessons have taught me to draw plans, find the pieces, set the tone, invoke the voice, and assemble all — just like the intricate, tight, strong welding of a stock car's rollover cage, or the framing of a house.
But besides this magical treat of writing wisdom, what I learned growing up — and later in training with professional race car drivers and off-road specialists — transferred to the job I continue for you now: Test some cars and write about them; find the best roads to drive that the world has to offer; pass on the tactile fantasy that most will never experience of driving a fast or technical car on a fabled track or off-road course.
My training has served me well. Those frozen spins on lakes helped later in driving Porsches on ice in the Yukon. Driving the backroads of New Hampshire (okay, some of them not really roads) readied me to flog down the Baja racecourse in Mexico. Driving in demolition derbies at state fairs taught me what to expect at impact and to appreciate all that is safe in today's cars.
And that speed is a science, cars are an ever-evolving wonder, even as they challenge our resources, and spread in a litmus bleed through global culture, economy, and environment.
But no matter what I drive, or where, I will forever appreciate that cars are our utility, our culture, our challenge, and our art.
So let's get out there on drives all over the world and celebrate this art. Somebody's got to write about it. And as the flap of a loon wing would have it, it turns out it’s me.