The Unfair Advantage: – 40 years later
Susan and I had a pleasant chat at the Northwest Historic sports car races with a man who owns a specialty motor books store in Portland. I have a lot of such books that have value. Once it appeared from our casual conversation that mine are worth well north of a $1,000 to a book store owner who will re-sell them at a profit, my thinking intensified quite a bit.
Neither of my adult children or Susan are anywhere near the diseased petrol-head maniac I am, and I do not want to grow old disgracefully and then leave one more odious chore – getting rid of old car books. Selling them now would clear up book shelf space, which we always need, and the money would not hurt. Since we will be in Portland this fall to watch our son compete in the Portland marathon again, this seems like a perfect storm of opportunity. Load the big car with books, sell on Saturday, race watch on Sunday, and return home with some money.
So far I’ve sent the gentleman 33 pictures of my “collection.” A second part of my master plan is to read, for the last time, some of the favorites. One of the best is The Unfair Advantage.
Most books about car and motorcycle racers are not very good as books, no matter how enjoyable they are to read. Books in the racer’s own words are usually worse. This one was different. Authored by Mark Donahue, with a little editing help, it chronicles his racing career as he rose from small sports cars to success in Trans-Am, Indy cars, Formula cars – pretty much everything he turned to. The book was published in 1975, and mine is a first edition.
When I read the book in 1975 it made a very powerful impact. I thought about my response to it for weeks. I read it again in the past two days and it made a powerful impact for the second time, but a totally different impact. Since the book has been sitting quietly on a shelf in my home for almost 40 years, it has not changed a whit. But obviously – I have.
In 1975 I was a rabid fan of all forms of racing, but especially of the Trans-Am road race series for “muscle cars” that was by then past its prime, and the Can-Am series of road races for “run-what-you-brung” monsters that was about to end. In both cases the demise of the series was due to many factors, but key was the dominance of Mark Donahue in both, as the lead driver of Penske racing.
In those days my view of racing (and almost everything else) was extremely romantic. The best looking car should win. The Penske cars were always the best looking, so it was only natural that they won so much. The reality, of course, was that they were the best looking cars because they had received the most development and had the most money spent on them. The Sunoco blue paint jobs were gorgeous, but the real beauty was in the handling and braking systems underneath, which Donahue had been tirelessly pursuing with the zeal of an engineer never satisfied.
The first time I read the book I felt sorry for Donahue. I admired him so much, and yet it seemed to me that he’d attained all this success and had never really enjoyed any of it. By the time dinner was done after one race he was already thinking about the next race and the next car and what could be done to improve performance.
This time through the book I realized that he was enjoying it mightily, but not in a way that I could comprehend in 1975. That was before I served two years as president of the district teachers’ union, before I had a lot of success in coaching, and before I learned a different way to appreciate success.
I was president (1976-1978) during a very tumultuous time. The first strike vote, the first contract, the second strike vote, the first actual strike, three different superintendents, one building that burned down, and, just as I left office, the 2nd strike.
Through all of that I had an inordinate amount of success. Teacher pay in the district went up 25% on two years. True, inflation was on a rampage, but the gains in teacher job conditions and contract rights went much further than the money. I received a lot of credit in those years for things I actually had not done, but I also found that I had a real ability to find people in the teacher ranks who wanted to be involved and then to slot them in to the correct role for each person.
Just a couple of years earlier I’d been playing on a very good rec league basketball team. We won easily most of the time, but when things were tight Glen would call a time-out and explain how we were to get the ball to him. If we got him the ball he knew he could score. I wondered at the time how he knew this, because he could indeed score. I was fairly good, but when I took a shot there was a fair chance of it going in, but I never “knew” it.
During the teacher strikes I always knew what was going to happen two or more days before it did. I knew what the district was going to do, and I knew what the teachers would want and how they would react. I had received a lot of training by then, plus enormous assistance from others, but later I realized that basketball was Glenn’s game and being the president of a union about to be on strike, on strike, or in recovery mode after, was evidently my game.
A few years later I noticed the same thing in my coaching. I had tremendous success with some girls who were stellar athletes in basketball. I knew what would happen at almost every turn, and usually controlled the score of both teams by the careful deployment of subs. And yet, almost the same athletes would turn out for volleyball the next season with nowhere near the same success. I “got” basketball coaching, while volleyball seemed an impenetrable mystery.
With those experiences, I could now see that Mark Donahue was enjoying his success, but did not need to talk about it much. Because he expected it. I was initially surprised when my teams won championships by how calm I was. No jumping around or screaming, just quiet acceptance of what I expected to happen. Same with the union success. When things work out as you expected them to, what else is needed?
The first time I read the book I was surprised he did not talk more about winning. Reading it almost 40 years later, it was shocking to see how rare those wins were. Almost every week there was a wreck, or a parts failure, or some other calamity. With all of the Penske dominance, most of the time they failed. How did I miss that in 1975?
I also failed to note, the first time around, that Mark Donahue’s true joy came from developing the car. That was his true passion, and his genius. That is what he really loved. Once he had succeeded there, the car would win – because it was the best car.
He also crashed – a lot. Evidently in my zeal to see racing as the pristine slow motion poetry of noise and speed that I wanted, I simply skimmed over the crashes, and the injuries. Now that I have endured unfortunate incidents myself, the anguish and pain came through the pages to me.
The final chapter of the book is now a horror story. Donahue retired at the end of the 1973 season, and the last chapter deals with retirement. This resonated with me a lot.
For most of us, our adult public life consists of being labeled as a something. You are an engineer or a teacher or a vice president of finance or whatever. You may have a rich inner and/or other life as an expert in a field of your own choice, of course. The famous American poet Wallace Stevens spent his life as an administrator for an insurance company. Hopefully, the career tags applied to you by others are ones you take pride in.
Once you retire, you have to deal with being a “nothing.” Your kids are grown, so you are no longer a “parent” in the same sense of the word. You do not have a job, and “retiree” does not make anyone snap to attention. You have to deal with that.
Much worse if you’re a person like Donahue; famous all over the world, with thousands of people rooting for you and waiting for your next move. At the end of the book he had decided to go back to racing, and to give Formula One a shot. He admitted to being out of shape and to having lost his racing touch, but committed himself to the training and development needed for the task.
He was killed shortly thereafter in a Formula One practice incident when a tire failed. That had not happened when I first read the book, but it was agony to read his words. Kind of like reading or watching a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” if you know the play. You want to grab the two main characters and force them to sit down and talk for ten minutes over a cup of coffee. There are so many alternative solutions available to them with just a modicum of thought. Same for Donahue.
Same for me. Now I understand better the occasional spasms I have when I come across a job opening. My first thought is “I could do that.” Then I ponder the various changes we would have to make for me to make it happen. Usually, an hour or two later comes the rational concepts of either “Wait a minute. I do not want to do that job,” or – “I would really not be very good at it now.”
Now I wonder what other books I read years ago would affect me differently. When I was about ten I read a book called Clear the Decks. It tells you something that I can recall the title a half a century later. It was novel of a young man on a US warship during the Revolutionary War. I think I checked it out of the library at least four times. Finally my mother asked me why I was reading the same book again. I had no other answer than I liked it – which was good enough for her.
How would I react to it now? Perhaps I shall see.
In just a few days I will be off on a motorcycle ride back to Minnetonka, Minnesota, where I grew up. I left in 1969, and have not been back at all except for a few days, and that was in 1977. I think I know what it will be like and how I will react to my visit.
There is a very good chance I am wrong.
Copyright 2014 David Preston