It took Hunter S. Thompson seventeen years to work up the guts to kill himself, then it took him four days more. In his famous “Football Season Is Over” suicide note, he wrote “67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted.” He thought about it for about ninety-six hours, then he put the gun to his head. Readers, as I approach my fiftieth birthday I am starting to understand the appeal of that. You can feel the machine winding down inside you. Two weeks ago, at the inaugural event of an Ohio-wide pumptrack championship, my recently-turned-twelve-years-old son beat me in raw time, 58.17 seconds to 60.20 seconds. The hilarious part is that he came off the track absolutely furious with his performance, which nabbed him second place in the 11-13 category, while I finished my run thinking I’d perhaps ridden over my head just a bit. (For the record, I was the oldest rider at the race, and not the slowest, or even all that close to being the slowest.)
Faced with a future in which each day is a slightly lesser child of the day before, I can’t say I’m like 100% opposed to calling time on my own season, although I think I’d want to do it via a re-creation of the Snake River jump or something like that instead of just nipping off and shooting myself like the cow in a Douglas Adams book. Alas, I have a child to raise and a couple of novels to write. The former still requires a few years and the latter can’t start until I leave my current job. Nor can I expect a deus ex machina to pull my card for me; yeah, I’m a little overweight but I’m in remarkable health and I still exercise about 300-400 “intense” minutes a week with no trouble, according to my little Garmin fitness nanny.
This is what I don’t have: a plan to fill these years to come, or much motivation in one direction or another. Until I saw the above car at the Bonhams auction on Amelia Island this past week, and realized what I want to do.
I think I have about ten years before I start to fade as a daytime driver. My best night driving years are already behind me; the idea of setting a race-winning fast lap at 3AM through mystery dust clouds at Buttonwillow, as I did back in 2012 or thereabouts, already seems more like hopeful fiction than future possibility. When the sun is out, however, I think I can see and decide a little better than I did at thirty-five.
My Radical PR6 is still a work in progress, partially because there have been a few unexpected problems but largely because our priority in the household has been to get Danger Girl through a first-rate season in her completely rebuilt MX-5 Cup. That’s going very well and she actually beat me in the second race of last weekend’s SCCA Majors by 1.1 seconds at the line. (I was in the Neon, not the Radical or the Accord, obviously.) It still seems likely that I’ll take some laps in the PR6 before the end of the race season, particularly if I can lose the 10 or so further pounds I need to fit in the thing safely.
I know from experience that I have no trouble driving sports racers at about the appropriate pace and with some practice I’ll get better than that. The PR6 fits into SCCA’s P2 class, although it’s kind of a knife in a gunfight, so I can burn 100 or so hours in the pursuit of a few regional trophies.
Which takes me to the age of 55 or 56, at which point I’ll buy my last racecar. I think that car will be a Radical SR8. If you’re not familiar, it’s a little prototype-ish thing with a V-8 engine following the approximate bore and stroke of the Suzuki Hayabusa and cranking out about 400 horsepower to motivate 1300 pounds. It is about as fast as a Norma LMP3 race car. If LMP3 cars come down in price over the next five years I’d look at them, but in reality it will probably be the SR8 for me.
They aren’t that bad to buy, maybe seventy grand for a good one against an original retail price of twice that, but operating costs are about $2,500 an hour exclusive of tires and gas. Not a problem. I’ll sell some guitars, and I won’t be riding expensive mountain bikes any more at that point.
Just owning the car is no fun, you have to compete in it. So I’ll probably try to win the NASA Super Unlimited class. This was not that tough to do a few years ago but now the entry sheets are filled with ex-Flying-Lizard R8 LMS cars and stuff like that. It will be a challenge.
I’ll give myself until my sixtieth birthday to show some promise in the thing, at which point I’ll hand it all over to my son and tell him good luck. He will be twenty-two years old. We could be within a few years of seeing some grandchildren. It would be a good idea to stick around for them. Or maybe I won’t have lost as much daylight vision as I’m expecting to. There might be an enduro series out there in which I could run the Radical, albeit at mouth-watering cost.
And then there’s still maybe that novel to write. Updike had no trouble writing coherently at sixty, although Roth couldn’t quite manage it. I’ll write it with zero you-know-whats given. Tell all the stories, even the ones people think I don’t know. You can come to the assisted-living facility and serve me with your lawsuits if you like. I’ll have some spare time to read and respond, I think, after my shift at Wal-Mart. It could also be a good time to brush up on my Latin, so I can return to Commentarii de Bello Gallico, to enjoy the raw ego and polished steel of Caesar’s prose style. Get that done, and maybe I’ll see if I can improve some of Pope’s translations. By then, the grandchildren will want to hear stories, maybe not the kind I’ll have in my novel. Definitely want to be here for that.
You can’t hope that the years after fifty will be willful reiterations of the ones past. You can’t hope that you’ll magically repeat your successes of the racetrack, the bedroom, the bike park, the cocktail party. But I think Hunter S. missed out on an essential truth, namely: the existence of one season implies the potential of another, and you can’t know what it contains unless you bother to show up and see for yourself.
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