Before a trans-Atlantic flight, John Doonan, Mazda North American Operations’ Motorsports Director, picked up Garth Stein’s best-selling novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” in the airport and finished it before the plane touched down in Europe. Upon landing, Doonan phoned back to headquarters to tell his colleagues about the fantastic book he had just read, and recommended everyone read it.
Mazdaspeed Communications Officer Dean Case was one of those colleagues. After reading it — and appreciating the accuracy of the racing details in the book — he thought, “This guy’s either a racer or did a tremendous amount of research.” So he got in touch with Stein, who told him, “Everything I learned about racing I learned in a Miata.”
A few weeks later, Case put Stein and automotive journalist Sam Moses, author of a nonfiction book, “Fast Guys, Rich Guys and Idiots” and had them face off in a Playboy MX-5 Cup race. Fiction vs. nonfiction, if you will. You will learn the details of that “battle of the scribes” later and, as racers, will appreciate the reasons given for who won or lost.
Case tried to get another Mazda racer, a little-known driver named Patrick Dempsey, to read “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” adding that it might make for a good movie adaptation. Dempsey dismissed it as a “dog movie,” and said he didn’t want to do a dog movie.
Then he read it.
The rest of the story, much like the fates of the book’s lead characters Enzo the dog and his owner Denny Swift, is waiting to become history. Universal Studios owns the movie rights to the book, which just marked its third year on the New York Times Best Seller list. A screenplay is in the works and production likely will begin soon on a film that could be in theaters by 2014. That might seem like a long way off, but Speed News recently had the opportunity to check in with Garth Stein from his Seattle home, learn some of the nuances of the book, the status of the film and, of course, to talk about his affinity for racing in the rain. And dogs.
Speed News: You said racing in the rain comes down to timing and balance. Is that a metaphor for life that you intended people to get from the book or just something some people might get from deconstructing it?
Garth Stein: They’re one in the same. That clearly is a metaphor that Enzo wants to put out there. He sees a correlation. If you’re going to be successful on a racetrack, especially on a wet track, timing and balance are things you have to pay attention to, and it’s the same way that people living the rest of their lives, or at least in the way he sees Denny, living his life, waiting for the proper opportunity, being patient and always keeping one’s balance.
I don’t think there’s much beyond that. It’s Enzo’s metaphor, I guess.
SN: My wife loved the book, which she got from a woman she works with, and neither of them are into racing or automobiles. Why do you think “The Art of Racing in the Rain” has been so successful outside the racing community?
Stein: I think that it’s not about racing. It has racing as a backdrop, so it’s really the story of a soul endeavoring to better himself. Enzo is trying to achieve a goal. He has a dream, and he needs to live his life a certain way and make certain sacrifices to achieve that dream. And that’s a universal story. That I set it in the world of automotive racing, I think, is a good backdrop, for me, for my purposes, but the heart of the book, I think, is what people are really attracted to.
SN: It felt like Enzo had a lot to teach humans about intuition and being aware of their surroundings. What were the lessons he was supposed to teach us, intentional or otherwise?
Stein: This is sort of a pet peeve question of mine, because I believe it’s not for me to answer. Writing a book is creating a dialog. It’s starting a dialog between a writer and a reader. Each reader is going to interpret that book through his own values and experiences and ideas. So each reader will take something different away from the book depending on how they plug into it.
I have my ideas in my head, but I can’t follow the book around, reading over everyone’s shoulder and pointing to the page and saying, “What I meant here was this.” And so in a sense I really do have to let it go. That being said, I have three sons and I write with them in mind in a sense. If they read this, will they get something out of it that will be of value to them as they grow up? A “teach your children well” sort of thing.
So I do have that, but I prefer not to comment. That’s why I always say no comment, because I really think that’s kind of the point. It’s an individual experience, and that’s what makes reading unique in the arts. Well, not unique, but it makes it special, at least for me, for the art form, that it is this conversation and a dialog that happens between the reader and the writer.
SN: Was the book or its message received as you wanted it to be, or has the public reshaped it in ways you had never imagined, or at the very least found surprising?
Stein: By and large, the response has been what I had hoped, what I had expected, in terms of people walking away from the book, looking at it favorably. They see this metaphor and how it does transfer to their own lives. I get emails from people all the time, saying just that. “I was in a bad spot in my life, and I read your book and it made me step back and re-evaluate.”
It’s every writer’s dream to touch a reader, just one reader. And so if you can do that on the scale that I’ve been able to do it with my book, it’s a dream come true.
Everything’s been going great, just as I had hoped. My imagination’s pretty wild, so it’s all good.
SN: Did you even think the book would take off the way it has? Obviously, you hoped it would do well, but it became a best seller.
Stein: We just celebrated our third year on the New York Times Best Seller list. Someone once asked me, “Is it successful beyond your wildest dreams?”
No, my dreams get pretty wild. This is a goal. This is what we want to do. No writer is out there spending two or three or four years writing a book and then a year getting it prepped for publication, hoping that it just doesn’t sell very well. The aim is to reach people. I remember reading an early draft of it, and giving it to my wife, who is my first reader and I said, “Here, take a look at this.”
She read it, and she put it down and she said “You know, Enzo’s going to go around the world.” So I guess I had a sense early on that there was something special about the character of Enzo and the message.
SN: In the book, Denny Swift worked as a service adviser at a high-end German auto shop. Have you ever worked in the automotive industry, or have you always been a writer?
Stein: No, I haven’t, but the character of Denny is loosely based on this friend of mine, Kevin York, who for many years worked at Car Tender, which is an all BMW and Mercedes-Benz place up by capitol hill here in Seattle. Kevin worked behind the counter and he’s a racer, and he has a family, and he had to balance all these things, and he was always trying to get onto the racetrack. That was his mission. So I saw how he had to work to balance — and that’s part of the balance thing again — all these elements of his life. That’s a great character.
I’ve known the guys. It’s the place I’ve been going to for the 12 years I’ve been in Seattle, and my father started with them with his cars when they first opened 30 years ago or whenever it was. I’m very good friends with the owners, and I have a little Alfa Romeo that’s spent a couple of months there right now.
SN: In the book, Denny eventually was “drafted” to drive an F1 car for Ferrari, in which he wins the championship, despite being older than a typical F1 driver. At the time, it seemed far-fetched, but after watching Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher in recent years, it looks as if you knew something the rest of us did not. How did you pull that off?
Stein: That’s a good question. The thing about this book, when I was writing, I knew one thing about it. At heart, it’s a fable. It’s a story that’s seen through an animal’s eyes, but sheds light on the human condition. So, technically it’s a fable, and a fable is just another form of fairy tale. So I knew right away what the ending of the book was going to be. The wishes of the characters come true.
Now, there may be sacrifices along the way that have to get made, but they will achieve their goals. If Denny wants to be a racing champion, it could only be the highest racing champion ever, of Formula 1, not just a lower racing tier. I wanted him to win the whole thing, the biggest thing ever. I knew that was going to be a little far-fetched for a guy of his age.
Yes, there is precedence in, of course, Juan Manuel Fangio. Juan, when he was, I think, what, about 45 or 46 he won his fifth title? That was a different time, though. They didn’t have electronic clutches in those days, and I know that the Formula 1 world is very much geared toward the younger set. But I thought if I do it properly, people are going to believe it. The racing purists out there are going to give me a little bit of a break on that.
It’s almost incredible that a 37 year old will step on the Formula 1 racing circuit and, in his rookie year, win the championship. But, you know, why not? It’s a fairy tale.
SN: We understand that a movie is in the works. What is the current status of it?
Stein: Universal Studios is making it, with Patrick Dempsey to play Denny. They have a script written by a guy named Mark Bomback. He’s written several screenplays. It’s under way.
They don’t keep me very involved in the process. At all. Mostly because they’re probably afraid I’m not going to like it, and I’ll say something. I understand that they have to change it, due to the different medium. They have to do that. I have nothing to do with the adaptation of the screenplay. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s their thing, and I have faith that Patrick is going to do a good job. He’s a superlative racecar driver. He’s a very nice guy. I’m friendly with him over the past three years. He’s the guy for the job.
SN: What kind of creative control will you have in the production of the movie?
Stein: They’ve given me drafts of the script to read, and I give my comments. Whether they throw those comments in the garbage or take them into account, I don’t know. To some degree, they want my blessing, I think? They want me to be happy, which is very nice, and I’m going to be happy, no matter what. The book is the book, for me. If the movie turns out to be great, I … I’ll be first on line, honestly. I want to watch it in a cineplex with my three sons, get a big tub of popcorn and kick back. I’m looking forward to it.
SN: Do you have any idea of when we could expect the movie to hit theaters?
Stein: Ehhhh, no. If they pushed the button on it, then, theoretically, I don’t know. They can’t start this fall. It’s too late, so they’re going to have to start in the spring, so 2014 I guess?
I don’t really have any input on any of that stuff, but I would really, just for fun, I’d like to be one of the guys working in the garage, or have a little cameo changing a tire or holding a fuel bottle or something like that.
SN: The book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is a length where some details might not make it into the movie. Any thoughts on what those elements might be?
Stein: No, and this is why I have nothing to do with this screenplay. If you asked me to adapt it into a screenplay, you might as well ask me to adapt it into a haiku, because so much would have to be changed. It’s a different medium, and I’d want to keep everything. Things are going to have to be changed. Things are going to have to be condensed. I hope they make sure that the humor stays in. I hope they make sure the spiritual message stays in. I don’t want it to just become a book about a guy with his dog. It’s a book about a nearly human soul who wants to become reincarnated as human.
He has a big dream, this dog, and Denny also has a dream to become a world champion. So I hope it retains the feeling of the book in those regards.
SN: It seems you give dogs a lot of credit about what they understand about us. You’re a dog owner. How much of that is based on your experience with dogs, and how much do you really believe they understand about us, and how much of that was created?
Stein: Remember that Enzo is a special dog. He has a nearly human soul. He’s essentially a human soul trapped in a dog’s body, if you will. So I was working with that character as opposed to trying to personify all dogs. I was trying to make a very specific character. So that dog was allowed to have certain insights just to make it work. One of the things I wanted, the dog has to have this desire to be reincarnated as a person, but how did he get this information, that it was possible?
So I thought he had to see this documentary that I saw many, many years ago about Mongolia and about dogs being reincarnated. So I said, “Oh, OK, he watches TV.” But why would he watch TV? Well, his master leaves the TV on for him when he goes to work during the day. Oh, OK, that makes sense. I thought, you know what? If you’re sitting there watching TV all day long, and you really don’t get out much other than that, you have a certain twisted view about things. And there’s where a lot of the humor came out of. Enzo with the monkey theory: that man isn’t evolved from monkeys; he evolved from dogs. These sorts of things came from this character being locked inside all day and watching episodes of The Discovery Channel.
SN: OK, enough about books and movies, let’s talk about racing. How and when did you get into cars?
Stein: As a kid, I always would watch racing with my father. He was very into cars. He was a member of the Porsche Club. He did lapping days constantly. I moved to New York for school and I stayed there for 18 years. And when you live in New York City, there’s not a whole lot of opportunity to get out on the track. In fact, I didn’t even own a car for most of that time.
When I moved back Seattle in 2001, my father said, “Hey, you should come down to the track and do some lapping.” So I went down. He was in his Porsche, and I was in my Subaru. I went down to Pacific Raceway and lapped with Proformance Racing, which is the racing school that runs out of Pacific.
I did a few lapping days and I really enjoyed it. Don Kitch convinced me to sign up for the competition license class, and I did. They had Miatas there to teach licensing, and I got my racing license. Then I needed a car to race. Go ahead. I’ll let you ask me what kind of car that was.
SN: OK, what kind of car did you decide to go racing with?
Stein: I didn’t have a whole lot of money and there was this new class that was starting up. It was a spec class and people were pretty friendly about it, and pretty open about helping each other. So I got myself a Miata and converted it into a Spec Miata with the help of some racing friends, and I started racing Spec Miata.
SN: What kinds of cars have you owned?
Stein: I had a Subaru WRX. My first car was a 1972 Peugeot 504 with a manual transmission, but the stick was on the steering column, which is really weird. I’d never seen like that before or since. Right now, I’m driving an Audi S4 wagon. Oh, one of my favorite cars ever was a Mazda RX-8. It was just so much fun to drive. I loved that car, but then my wife and I had a third kid and she made me get rid of it. Just this spring, I got myself a 1974 Alfa GTV. But it’s spent the past summer at Car Tender. I knew that was going to happen. Don’t worry.
SN: Most people don’t like racing in the rain, but you do. Why?
Stein: If you live in the Northwest, you have to be comfortable on a wet track or else you should move to Texas, really. Sometimes when we had national races up here, with out-of-region drivers, people would be sitting out practice sessions because it was raining. We’d all laugh. We’d say, “Boy, you’re not going to get much track time this weekend because it’s going to be raining all weekend.”
It’s something many people are afraid of, but you just have to deal with it. If you allow yourself to be afraid, obviously, it’s going to affect your driving. But if you just take it as another condition of what’s going on and eliminate the fear part of it, it’s just a different set of skills you develop, you work on and you practice and you get good at.
SN: What do you think is key to enjoying racing in the rain?
Stein: Racing is an interesting sport. True, we’re racing against other cars out there. It is a competition, it really is, at the end of the day. But it’s also an internal competition. When you’re a driver and you get in the car, you’re isolated. You’re by yourself. It’s you and the car. Maybe you have a spotter telling you things in your ear, but really it is a singular and solitary sport, but what makes it to fun to race in the rain is another element of the mental game.
So you have to have confidence, ability and skills. For me, because I’m a writer, I’m solitary by nature, so I guess in that sense, racing in the rain is sort of suited to my personality.
SN: What helped you most when learning to master a wet track?
Stein: The real trick is when you’re going through the kink at Pacific Raceways, never think that water is going to be in the same place twice. If you know anybody who has crashed in the kink at Pacific Raceways, they will agree with that. I promise you.
When you go to your first racing school, they tell you the throttle and the brake are not on/off switches. They’re not 100 percent on, 100 percent off. You have to be able to be gentle with them. That’s the crucial part of racing in the rain. Any sudden, quick movement will be magnified and you’ll start going backward, and that’s not cool. So that’s where the balance, and that’s where the anticipation and the patience, those words that Enzo keeps saying, that’s where they come into it.
Don Kitch would have us out there on just lapping days, and he’d say, “Look it’s raining too hard to use the track effectively. Let’s go out into Turn 8 and we’re just going to loop it.” It’s a big festival turn, so you can just do a giant circle. He’d say, “I want the car loose. I want to see the rear end coming out, and I want you to get used to driving it around this turn with your rear end hanging out, so you know what it feels like and you’re not afraid of it.”
That’s the sort of thing, is getting to know the feeling of the car, and how the car responds. Then you say, “OK, I’m driving the car. The car’s not driving me. I’m going to make these things happen.” So I think that’s really the key.
SN: What year, and at what age did you begin racing in Spec Miata?
Stein: In 2002. I think I was 37 or 38.
SN: Did you do any kind of racing as a kid, or was racing kind of like teaching an old dog new tricks?
Stein: No, no. I raced bicycles through college. So, I raced, but not cars.
SN: Road racing bicycles?
Stein: Yes, road racing. Tour de France kind of stuff. I did some track racing with bicycles too, which is a ton of fun, on a velodrome. I loved that.
SN: That’s interesting. What kinds of parallels or comparison/contrasts can you draw between racing bicycles and cars?
Stein: It’s the same concept. Obviously, how you take a turn. Entrances and exits and apexes are all the same. When you’re riding in a pack, the sound is different. The air is different. The proximity is so close. You really have to be aware of who’s next to you and who’s in front of you, if someone is getting squirrely or someone’s going to try to a flyer and might lose a little control. It’s racing. You have to be aware of who’s around you. This is what Enzo says in the book.
When you go out on a race track with your car, there is no judge at the end of the day ruling on who’s fault it was. You have damage on your car, you pay for it. Someone else has damage on his car, he pays for it. That’s it. So therefore you have to be aware that just because you’re right or just because you’re faster than the person driving next to you doesn’t mean you’re not going to have damage to your car at the end of the turn.
So just give that person some space. Pass him in the next turn. Pass him in the next straightaway. That message, I think, does apply to bicycle racing, for sure, but also to life.
It should apply out on the highway. I wish it did, because a lot of people are teaching people a lot of lessons about freeways. If they had to pay for their own damage, and didn’t have insurance, I guarantee you they would not be driving that car like that.
SN: Why did you choose to race in Spec Miata, and what kinds of things did you discover after you had gotten into the car and found just how much there is to that very simple little machine?
Stein: As I’ve said to Dean Case many times, “Everything I learned about racing, I learned in a Miata.” He loves that line.
The thing is it’s a momentum car. It’s not a horsepower car. I had an argument with a guy, well, not an argument, but a heated discussion with a guy telling me how to drive through turns 4 and 5 in Seattle. OK, you do this, and you do this and you do that, and he looked at me and said, “Just drive down the middle and put your foot in it when you get to the end.” I was like, “You’re driving a Porsche. I’m driving a Miata. I can’t do that. If I stop pedaling, I lose half a track if I blow this turn. You can screw up a turn and just put your foot in it and you’re up to speed.”
So you do have to take much more care with a lower-horsepower car, but a car that can go through those turns that much quicker. I think that makes it an interesting challenge, and that’s why I really enjoyed the class.
Look, we all know it’s changed over the years since when I was racing. When I left, sort of when people were buying $8,000 engines, and I’m sure they’re paying more for them nowadays, the purity of it when I was doing it was something that was really genuine.
I’m looking at your questions, so I’m going to answer your next question right now (What is your fondest memory of racing a Spec Miata?).
I was down in Portland, and one of the guys who I raced with, Jim Boemler, his engine blew up on Saturday. It was only in qualifying. He said, “Aw, geez, my weekend is done.”
Well, Ken Sutherland, who was one of the two fastest guys at that time … he said, “Well, I have another engine at home.” He lived in Beaverton or right around there. He said, “Do you want it?” Jim’s like, “Well, OK, how do we do it?”
We pushed his car into his trailer, about eight guys took it over to Ken Sutherland’s house, ordered a few pizzas, and in the course of six hours, we dropped his engine, put Ken’s in, got the car running, got it back to the track on Sunday morning. Jim got to race. At the end of the day, he said to Ken, “I really like your engine. Can I buy it from you?”
Ken said, “There’s no way I’m selling you that engine. That is a loaner only. That is my favorite engine.” So he took his engine back. But the point is that the camaraderie was really terrific. It really impressed me that they were such great and gracious and generous people.
SN: I’m sorry to bring this up, but you wrecked in the rain, which is why you “retired” from racing. What happened?
Stein: It was in August. We had a lot of rain earlier. The track was very wet. I was taking it easy because I thought, “I don’t want to crash my car.” It was about 10 laps into the race, so it was pretty far into the race, and nothing happened. I was going through “the kink.”
There’s an area at Pacific where you come off Turn 9 and onto the straightaway. It used to push out onto a dirty drag strip, but the drag strip guys hated the road racers on their part of the course, so they changed the course. They broke their straightaway into two pieces. So you start out on one straight and then there’s a real kink and you pull back onto the end of the straightaway.
In that kink, where they repaved it, they did it a little unevenly, and so water collects there, but it moves throughout your race. I had been doing really well through there and I was doing well in the race, and I had taken the kink now nine times and my car just snapped around. And there was nothing to do. You know, in a spin, both feet in. Well, it doesn’t really help very much. I was heading backward down the second part of the straight, and I remember thinking, “You know, if I’m lined up just right, I’m going to get all the way to the infield at the end and have no problem at all. The grass will stop me.”
A second later I hit the concrete barriers, and just spun it and basically destroyed every panel on the car. Wheels were broken off. It was a real, real bad situation.
That’s when I got out. They helped me out of the car and I went through medical and I got through OK. Then I called up my wife and I said, “Honey, the good news is I’m OK. The bad news is I’ve destroyed my car.” And she said, “And the good news is you’re retired.”
And that’s how I retired from racing.
SN: You raced an MX-5 Cup car against Sam Moses. Tell us about how that went, and if there any other kinds of racing series you would like to try?
Stein: I would love to keep racing. What I really want to do is the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. That’s my big dream. Part of the problem is I’m so competitive that I want to do well, and in order to do well, you have to race a lot. You have to get up to race speed. You can’t just walk onto a track in a car after two years of not doing any racing and expect to be up at speed.
To do that, I’d want to take a summer and prepare and race a full series and that sort of thing, and I don’t have time to do that right now. Hopefully I will have time to.
I had fun at the MX-5 thing. Sam is a good guy. I do believe that I had an inferior car. I will blame it on the fact that he had data, and I didn’t have data in my car. There were a few interesting situations, but it was all in good fun. My line is, there were 24 cars in the race and I finished 22nd, and I’d like to thank those two other cars for crashing so I could pass them.
I’d like to do better the next time. We’ll see. Dean keeps saying they’re going to get me out in another MX-5, so we’ll see if that happens.
SN: What was the single greatest piece of racing advice you ever got, and why?
Stein: Right off the top of my head, a really good piece of racing advice from Don Kitch was, “You’re not going to be on ESPN tonight, so don’t crash.” So that was helpful.
SN: Describe one of your “light bulb” moments in the car, when something came to you that you never expected.
Stein: I was working with a driving instructor at Pacific Raceways, and we were on the back side, so were going through Turn 5B. This is early on, so I had only been lapping. I had never raced before. This was before my competition class.
He said, “You’re doing great.” I was very quick out there. Of course, it was very early on, so I was very proud of myself. He said, “You know you can take that turn faster.” So we do another lap and he says, “You can take that turn faster.” I said, “No, no, no,” and this went on for four or five laps. Finally, we’re going through that section one last time, and just before we get to the section, he reaches over across the seat and he puts his hand on my right knee and he shoves it down and he holds it there. And I’m like, “What?!” and we are flying through this turn. Then suddenly he lets up on it. I brake and turn and he turns to me and says, “That’s how fast you can take this turn.”
I’m sure Kitch would cringe at that story, but the truth of the matter is that was a golden moment where you realize the limitations of the driver are greater than the limitations of the car.
SN: What was your greatest racing moment, that one highest of highs during your racing career?
Stein: I won a couple of races. That was nice. I think, though, it would have to be my very first race.
It was down at Portland, and everyone was looking to the fast guys to see what tires they were going to run. It was kind of a slightly rainy weekend, but it wasn’t full-out rain, so everybody had two dries and two wets on.
We were waiting to see where the fast guys were going to go, and everybody went dry. We get out there and as we’re doing a pace lap, we’re coming around to the green flag … and we could see this wall of rain just starting at Turn 4 and moving toward us. And the green flag goes, we all go into this thing. Not only was this my first race, I had never raced in that kind of nonvisibility. I don’t know if you have raced in that kind of rain, where you just pray and keep your foot down till you see red lights in front of you and that’s when you start to brake. You can’t see the track. You can’t see cars. You can’t see anything. We went into that turn, and cars — I have the video of it somewhere — cars were spinning off this way and that way, going off and I, somehow, tiptoed through that turn.
The east half of the track was completely dry. We ran around and we’d go through that rainstorm again and then back. So half the track was wet and half was dry, and it changed through the course of the race, and I finished third or fourth place because I stayed on the track.
So I guess I would have to say my proudest moment was saying I went into a race that you would be thinking I would be the first one off the track, and stayed on it and finished very well.
SN: I understand you’re writing a new book. What can you tell us about that?
Stein: It has no dog and no racecars.
SN: Well, assuming we didn’t read the last book for the dog and the racecars, we read it for the story. …
Stein: There is a big expectation for dogs and racecars of me now. No, I’m writing a multigenerational family saga that deals with a logging family, a very wealthy and prestigious logging family in the Northwest. It’s sort of a modern-day ghost story, so there are spirits and ghosts haunting the house and climbing trees that are 400 feet high. They live out on the Olympic Peninsula and in Seattle and Portland in 1890 and all that kind of stuff.
SN: That’s a fairly large departure from, well, everything you’ve ever done. How did you get there?
Stein: It’s based on certain characters in history, but it’s all fiction. I borrow some from some great figures, the Weyerhauser family, obviously, and big foresters from the turn of the century. I definitely draw upon history, but my books all are different from the last one.
There is a sort of that spiritual element and that’s something that remains consistent throughout all the books. This will be my fourth book I’m working on right now. The spiritual element stays constant, so for me it’s very similar in that sense, but it’s a very different setup and a very different background.