From The Road

One day last year, I was en route to another big NASA Mid-Atlantic event at VIR to work and drive. I was in an even better mood than usual because I was headed there in the best street car I have ever owned, a 2004 BMW M3. I had the windows down and music cranked as the sun set in the distance. With the cruise control set at 8 mph over the limit and the E46’s glorious S54 humming along, I was doing more passing than being passed — until a red dot appeared in my mirrors.

Soon enough it was a bigger red blob with purple lights, and as it approached quickly, I realized it was a first-generation Mitsubishi Eclipse. It pulled up in the lane beside mine and slowed down to the speed I was going. I could see its lowered stance and big wheels and ground effects, but I could also hear it over the sound of my own car — and hear its soundtrack over my own, too. He didn’t stay there long, because he downshifted his automatic twice then stood on the loud pedal and … gradually buzzed away.

As we came to the first stoplight in the last town before VIR a short time later, I realized I should fuel up before getting to the track in case my car was needed as one of the pace cars the next day. So I pulled into a Shell station, and guess who was at the next set of pumps? Mr. Eclipse guy, who looked about 17 years old. Music still blaring, exhaust still humming loudly and all. Aren’t you supposed to turn your ignition off before putting gas in it?

“Hey man, cool car!” I said as loudly as I could without yelling.

He turned around briefly and gave me a meek thumbs-up. So I followed up.

“Why don’t you come to VIR this weekend to run that thing with NASA and have some fun?” I asked. He either didn’t hear, or he ignored me. Sixty seconds later, he was gone.

I was sort of bothered by being snubbed. Clearly, I was too old and not cool enough. But then I tried to put myself in his shoes, and remembered that I actually was in his shoes in the 1990s. Our cars back then were, of course, much better than DSMs — think nonturbo RX-7s and Sentra SE-Rs and CRX Si’s — but I’m sure our exhausts were too loud, and our music probably was, too, and we ignored all sorts of older guys in much faster cars at gas stations. Or did we? It was a different time back then, back when the new E36 M3 was one of the fastest cars on track, and people still talked in person instead of Facebooking. Sometimes I truly miss those days.

The moral of the story is that it never hurts to spread the word about NASA, especially with a young enthusiast. Sometimes it all starts with a quick conversation in a parking lot somewhere. I remember many years ago striking up a conversation at an autocross with a random fast driver nobody had ever heard of named “Chris Corbetti” or something like that — who ended up joining and taking over the nearest NASA region within a few years. If neither of us had attended that event, things might be very different today.

Sometimes you strike out, like I did with the Eclipse guy, but what did you lose by trying? Usually the hardest part is getting them to show up to the track, but once they do, they’re converted for life. That same kid in the Eclipse could someday be staring across a gas station lot in his pre-owned 2019 M3, at a kid in an old beater FR-S/BRZ or similar. So here’s to the next generation of NASA members and getting them involved —with whatever they choose to drive.