One week after graduating college, I loaded my tool box, helmet and sleeping bag into what was effectively my entire net worth, a red and yellow 1957 Devin special. During my senior year of college, I was working as a part-time Ferrari mechanic. The man who owned the shop was kind enough to let me keep my Devin project car there and entrusted me enough to work on it over the nights and weekends while surrounded by the pride of Maranello and his sole source of income. Having been a spectator at races as a child and learning about racing history from my affinity for collecting old slot cars, I was absolutely determined to finish my very own sports racer and be the truest period-correct sportsman I could. My helmet was open-faced and my goggles were new old stock WWII Army Polaroids that I bought off of Ebay for $5. I packed them along with my Jimmy Clark gloves and the cream with red striped Dunlop driver’s suit that my grandfather gave me as a graduation present. Those S.U. carburetors and big cam took a little extra time on that crisp morning to warm up before we were off and sailing across country roads to my first road race; The Vintage Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio with the SVRA. I had the time of my life living beyond my own years that weekend and made many new friends. The car ran admirably and we finished well after many epic dices. Four days, later I bungee strapped my sleeping bag to my roll bar and drove home on a gorgeous sunny afternoon feeling as happy as anyone possibly could.
I can still remember the look of people smiling while shaking their heads in a mild state of amused confusion at the sight of a random kid (who was barely old enough to drink) driving a now half-century old, open top sports racer with the exhaust barking and cackling from toe-heel downshifting on the road, before turning into the track, and driving up to the pits. One man’s smile turned into a friendly chuckle when he asked me where I was going to paddock and for that matter, sleep. My reply was an equally big smile and a theatrical shoulder shrug. That was a special moment, because I was so happy to be racing an amazing car at a beautiful track that I didn’t care about such trivial details like sleep and food. Waking up at 3:00 am under a tool bench, being startled by a raccoon was less pleasant at the time, but gives me an equally big smile to think about today. Those memories are now 13-years old and for that entire time I have essentially been what was by a large margin the youngest person in vintage racing who didn’t come along with an older family member. This has been a long enough time that I have seen vintage racing evolve, markets change, and what was once a glorious field of 1950s sports racers dwindle to a sprinkling of expensive antiques stuck in with other run groups, or worse yet, collecting dust and forgotten.
Five years ago, I was working on a personal, prototype car concept and some manufacturing projects while maintaining racecars for clients. I remember vividly being at the shop alone one evening, simply standing in the middle and looking around when an idea came to me so hard that I may as well have been hit by lightning! In one instant, I remembered back to when I was a scraggly kid struggling in college. Not struggling with classes so much, but with life. I just wanted to actually do something. To create something of value, while being challenged and to see how far I could go. I wanted to grow, but it seemed everyone else was content with mindless partying or playing video games until the sun came up. My academic advisors were next to no help and it seemed the school was completely disconnected from the real world. My only saving grace was working as a bicycle mechanic during my freshman year and as a Ferrari mechanic my senior year. While looking back, and if I am to speak frankly, I desperately needed a mentor and some real leadership as a student, but there was none to be found. It was that evening while looking around in my shop that I realized after years of fighting to build something for myself after college that I was surrounded by a facility to create, advanced technologies reflected in cars from a century of racing history, and that I had the proverbial Rolodex full of incredible people with lifetimes of wisdom and experiences that they could share. I decided that from that moment on, I was going to use everything at my disposal to give the brightest young people the chance and opportunity I was never able to find. The opportunity to be part of a team, to have inspiration, as well as responsibility, to have access to incredible mentors, to learn how to think to solve problems and to see patterns and process, to show the world that they are capable of great things, to cultivate genuine leadership while kickstarting their own careers, and maybe, just maybe, a love for racing history. That was when “I” became “We” and the Genius Garage program was born.
Right now, Genius Garage is going into its fifth year and we are about to move into a dedicated building suited to our multiple programs. Beyond our collegiate car racing programs we also have a high-school level engineering program where we utilize a giant 8-lane 1/24th scale slot car track from the 1960s to let young people get away from a computer screen and to once again use their minds to design, create, tune and race model cars that teach all the same principals that go into full size cars. Next year, we are gearing up for an aerospace program where students will get to build their own airplane and are looking at doing a replica of a WWI fighter plane. Our Genius Garage students have stood on the podiums at Mid-Ohio and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they have been sent on trips to Germany to experience the Nürburgring, they have flown in a B17 bomber and Boeing Stearman’s from a grass airfield to experience history, they have driven and exhibited a priceless 1930s classic car, in period correct attire, at the Concours of America, they have written incredible papers on technology, history and world economy, they have taken field trips to NASA, Pratt and Miller, The National Museum of the Air Force, and they have learned from incredible mentors all along the way. Perhaps most incredibly of all, every single one of the thousands of hours people dedicated to make all of this possible has been strictly volunteer and without compensation and not one of our students has been charged even one dime to be part of the program.
Success in the social sector must be looked at differently than the for-profit world. Let’s look at this from three angles; education, industry and the vintage racing community. In the education world, students with a spark get the opportunity to apply their academic knowledge in a real world environment where they must work with different people to achieve a common goal while getting the positive attention of their industry and taking their resume’s from the bottom of a pile and sitting it on the top while they are still in school. Industry gets to help cultivate and hand pick the best young people that now know how to look around and hit the ground running while having the confidence to grow in any environment and follow through on a challenge. Vintage racing gains, because in one race that Genius Garage is part of the industry gets more young people to be an integral part of it than we do in a decade otherwise.
Young people will never get to experience what so many vintage racers did which made them fall in love with racing; the excitement of Bruce McLaren sideways in Turn 5 of Road America leading a Can-Am race, wild stories of Sir Stirling Moss’ conquests on and off the track, or the sight of a cowboy hat with the sound of a sucker car. These Genius Garage students, however, fall in love with something from another time, something that they have only gotten to see in books and video games, and they do so because it actually now means something to their life and their career. It just became real and they feel a sense of pride to be part of it. The fact that our alumni are now collecting their paychecks at places like Fiat Chrysler, Tesla Engineering Headquarters in Palo Alto, Goodyear, and even electric vehicle start-up companies helps prove that they will not only be the future leaders of industry, they are the future of our lovely little industry and sport, vintage racing.
Genius Garage is a 501(c)3 public educational charity and the concept is both scalable and repeatable. I foresee it is also the future evolution of what is considered a museum. No longer are artifacts stoic displays to a public who can only relate to them through a small sign or infinitely looped 2-minute educational video, but they are something that still has value to society. The youth of the community get to learn from them first hand, with the public getting the excitement of relating to them being in action once again. What we consider great history was made by people who long ago dedicated everything of their minds, their hearts, and their souls to achieve a common goal. Whether an artifact is a Can-Am car, a fighter plane, or even a steam locomotive they are the tangible manifestation of that great history which was created by incredible people. At Genius Garage our students get to learn not only from being hands on with incredible things, they get to learn from the incredible people who have a lifetime of wisdom and experiences to share. Vintage racecars are so much more than just an exciting machine. They posses a power to teach, to inspire, and to ensure the future health of industry, while bolstering our educational system from our public schools to our colleges and universities.
It is my hope that when you see a Genius Garage polo shirt walking around at a vintage race in the future you will help me welcome these incredible young people to our sport and industry. They are our future and they are just as excited to be part of this as I was some 13 years ago, when I was sleeping next to my 1957 Devin in the garage, under a tool bench, and while getting woken up by a raccoon. Fortunately though, Genius Garage has a pretty nice trailer now and there weren’t very many raccoons rummaging around our AirBNB at Indy this year. I was able to start Genius Garage, but it will take a community where people work together if we are to create a lasting legacy through the passion we all share for vintage racecars and vintage roadcars.