I’ve just returned from a rewarding father-son trip to Death Valley, one of the largest, yet least-visited national parks in the lower 48. Born on the East Coast, I’m not really enthusiastic about deserts. Though I’ve lived out West for nearly 20 years now, deserts are still a bit foreign to me, and the idea of living in one is even stranger still.
That might be the reason I’ve been fascinated with Death Valley. There are deserts the world over, but Death Valley is an other-wordly experience, haunting even. If your vehicle broke down on a back road in the middle of, say, Illinois or Kentucky or Kansas, you could walk to safety if no one showed up to help. If the same thing were to happen in Death Valley, walking to safety isn’t an option. It’s so empty, vast and barren, and surrounded by landscapes only slightly less barren and vast and empty.
I mention breakdowns because the last time we took a family road trip in my truck to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., it broke down on the last leg from Bishop to Mammoth. The No. 1 injector harness connector failed and the truck went into limp mode. We made it to Mammoth and found a way to enjoy our vacation in a rental car. Suffice it to say when my son and I stared into the parched emptiness between Ridgecrest, Calif., and the 5,000-foot mountain range we had to climb before we could descend into Death Valley, my mind wandered to that breakdown in Mammoth.
Turns out there was no need for worry. The truck had been repaired with GM parts properly according to the technical service bulletin, and I had towed my racecar to and from many tracks in the two years since, but it reminded me of the leaps of faith we take when we rely on our equipment to do what we ask of it.
Racing, Time Trial and HPDE leap to mind immediately, of course. We NASA drivers take production cars, some with more than 100,000 miles on them, and put them on track to wring every last bit of performance out of them. In so doing, we are in many ways taking a leap of faith, betting the entirety of our well being on the tightness of a collection of nuts and bolts. We also place immeasurable faith in the drivers around us. No wonder it feels so good to pull off track when everything has gone to plan.
It happens when we dismantle large assemblies on our cars, put them back together and then jump in them to drive the daylights out of them. It happens when people entrust builders with their cars for repairs or full conversions to racing, ripping out all those OEM safety systems with hundreds of hours of R&D behind them and replacing them with aftermarket equipment.
Outside of racing, people are taking leaps of faith every day in other forms. People have children, which is a testament of their faith in the future. We rely on traffic lights, traffic laws and the attentiveness of others so that we can safely drive our kids to school or to the grocery store or to ballet and taekwondo lessons.
I’m biased, of course, but I think we NASA drivers are plenty faithful. Why else would we show up at the track month after month to place our faith in our equipment and our peers’ driving to have our kind of fun?
We’re not the bravest of the brave in that respect, I don’t think. Deep sea divers have to have a lot of faith in their equipment. The slightest failure and it’s lights out, and an ugly exit at that. Mountaineers vertical camping on the side of a cliff face have extraordinary faith in their Portaledge and their pitons. Bungee jumping, parachuting, hang gliding, BASE jumping, light aircraft. The list goes on.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about leaps of faith without thinking of the Apollo astronauts who took that “giant leap for mankind” onto the moon. I can only imagine what they were thinking. “Man, I hope this lunar lander has enough thrust to get us back to the command module.” “I hope they got the math right and we meet up with the command module.” “I hope this circuit breaker goes back in.” “I hope we don’t burn up on re-entry.” “I hope they can find us when we splash down.” “I hope this capsule floats.”
As our trip to Death Valley unfolded, my fears of mechanical failure subsided as the Duramax 6.6 clattered and hummed as reliably as ever. My faith had been restored.
Ultimately, I think what we do shows we have as much faith in ourselves and our fellow NASA drivers as we do in our equipment. If you think about it long enough, those are pretty lofty ideals, and it’s warmly reaffirming. And if you’re driving for hours through empty desert, you have plenty of time to think about it.