The author of The Art of Racing in the Rain didn’t show up to our meeting in a boring car. He couldn’t. After Garth Stein arrived, we shook hands and he motioned to the beautiful coupe behind him poking its nose out into the morning Washington sun. “It’s a 1974 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000, finished in Faggio,” he said. Not bad.
I first met the New York Times bestselling author (more than 156 weeks on the list!) at a book festival in North Carolina in 2015, and once I moved to his hometown of Seattle we struck up a friendship. I sat down with Garth at the Le May Automotive Museum recently to discuss his love of cars and all things automotive. His answers have been edited for brevity.
Naveed Jamali: In The Art of Racing in the Rain, the backdrop is racing—is the sport and hobby something you were always into?
Garth Stein: When I was a kid some of my earliest memories are of watching racing on Sunday morning with my dad and our dog. I was very much into the Formula One and Indianapolis 500 scene. Since I was 5 or 6 it made an impression.
The reason I was fascinated by open wheel racing is a practical one: because I grew up in rainy Seattle, we didn’t have NASCAR!
NJ: What kind of cars did you grow up with?
GS: (laughs) Well see I’m not a car purist. My first car was a Peugeot 504 with a manual on the steering column. It was the wackiest little car. From there I went to a VW Jetta. While I never looked at cars as just functional transportation, I was living in New York and didn’t have the cash, time or garage space to have something other than that.
NJ: When and how did the love of the sport translate into actual racing?
GS: When I was away in New York my dad got bitten by the Porsche bug bad and went through a series of Porsches that he brought to high performance driving events. But he never wanted to race, since that wasn’t his temperament. But he would always go to the track. So when I moved to Seattle in 2001 he said ‘you should come to the track with me.’ So I did.
NJ: So what was your first car that you consider not just another mode of transportation?
When I moved back to Seattle I bought a WRX and I figured it would be good in the rain with all-wheel drive. I also figured it would do well on the track.
NJ: Your foray into racing was with a WRX, how did it hold up?
GS: The WRX is a great car, of course, but it’s very heavy. It’s got little teeny brakes. In fact one time I burned through the brake pads and ended up welding the backing plates to the rotors and had to have the car towed off the track! I quickly realized that to make your car perform well on the track it cannot be a street car.
NJ: Eventually you also graduated from HPDEs to actual club racing, what was the process like and what did you race?
GS: I took a three-day racing school with Don Kitch at ProFormance and got my SCCA license. Since the Spec Miata racing program was just starting up, I decided that was the way to go. I bought a blue 1992 Miata and immediately turned it into a full racecar with a cage and proper suspension that you need for the spec class.
There’s so much adrenaline in a race, it’s insane! Especially Pacific Raceways, coming around turn 9 when everyone starts to get edgy. You drop a gear to second, so the sound is just incredible. The green flag drops, and everyone is starting to just squeeze into the first turn. A Spec Miata is a car, that if you can squeeze 111 horsepower out of, is both probably illegal and perfect. It’s a momentum car and requires a lot of technique. If you blow the turn, you can’t just stomp on it and make-up the time. You’re pedaling the car as fast as you can by the time you hit the end of the straight.
NJ: How did the Miata fare with you behind the wheel?
GS: It was a progression. I started off with driving my race car to the track with a trailer where I would put my toolbox and my race tires. That was okay for three races until I had an incident, and had to find a tow home. So I went and bought a used cargo van and trailer. Ok, now we’re getting serious. So I had the WRX, the Miata and a cargo van and trailer – it became a bit burdensome. But I was having so much fun.
Little known fact, in 2004 I was the points champion in the northwest region of Sports Car Club of America for spec Miata. Everyone went to race in the Oregon region and I attended every race in the Pacific Northwest! When they handed me the trophy they said “you showed up, you get the trophy!” But I certainly wasn’t the fastest, and I realized that if you wanted to be faster you had to devote everything to racing. Being consistently mid-pack led me to decide to maybe it was time to take a break from racing and come back later. O if I had only had clarity of thought and sold my car and got out somewhat intact.
NJ: What happened to the Miata?
GS: I went racing one rainy day in August, and the zebra got in with me! The zebra is a theme from The Art of Racing in the Rain about our self-made demons that follow us around. Anyway I was going down the straight at Pacific Raceway and hit some standing water, spun and hit the jersey barriers. I was fine but the car was destroyed. Afterwards I called my wife and said, “the good news is I’m fine but the bad news is the car is totaled.” She replied, “and the good news is you’re retired.”
NJ: The Art of Racing in the Rain has racing as a major backdrop,, how do people connected to racing react to the story?
GS: As you know Naveed writers aren’t famous. That generally holds true for me with one exception: racetracks. When I’m at a racing event I get people from spectators to corner workers who come up to me and want to share with me what The Art of Racing in the Rain meant to them.
Most all of them express how the story is something they can share with their family to help explain racing to the non-racer. It has become a way to bridge the two worlds.
In fact, I’ve heard from Phil Hill’s daughter who told me about how much she loved the book. But one of the best stories I have is the time Bob Bondurant invited me down to his school to do a bunch of stuff. Before I tell the story full disclaimer: while the story has a dog, Enzo, who is obsessed with racecars and eventually ends up in a racecar, I don’t advise it! So I get this email from Bob saying “I loved your book and I take my dog Rusty on the track with me all the time.”
NJ: Do you see dogs and racing as a natural fit?
GS: I had this idea for writing about a dog that wants to be reincarnated as a person, and since I was racing at the time, it just became this natural backdrop for the main theme of the story. Racing made sense because racers say things like “gotta tighten the nut behind the wheel” or “your car goes where your eyes go” – basically things that no human character can go around saying. But, if you have a dog saying “if you people could just act in life as you do on a racetrack you’d be better people,” then it works. All of it really becomes a metaphor for how to be a better person.
NJ: People love Enzo, do you have any plans to bring him back?
GS: Yes Enzo lives on! We have a series of children’s books, Little Enzo, where he lives perpetually as a puppy with Zoë as the little girl and Denny as the father. The first three books haven’t had any racing in them yet, but I’m excited that the next one has Enzo in the Fourth of July races.
NJ: So you’ve moved on from racing and now you have a beautiful Italian classic, can you tell us about your Alfa?
GS: 1974 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000 in Faggio that I bought in California in 2011 off eBay sight unseen. My oldest son was turning 16 and I knew we were going to tie up our other two cars. So this was bought to be sort of my daily driver. Once I got it I realized immediately that if you’re going to buy a 1974 GTV 2000 you’re also going to need a Vespa since it’s going to be in the shop a lot. And if you live in Seattle you’re going to need rain gear for that Vespa.
NJ: Do you see having a vintage car as a compromise, especially one that you drive on a regular basis?
GS: Besides that Vespa you also need AAA platinum coverage that will tow you up to 250 miles. Then, you also need to never drive that car more than 250 miles from home! Look the thing about my Alfa is that it has an aluminum block which means you need to warm it up. So if I’m taking my kid to school in the winter, I’ll start the car and let it warm up before I take it out. I love my kids, but, I’m not going to warp my block for them.
But that’s the magic about old cars; you need to slow everything down. In our life we’re so quick about everything. I mean internet everything and Amazon is delivering stuff with drones right into our hands. I mean we’re so fast-fast, everything right away at this instant.
So when I get into my Alfa I have to get myself settled. I have to roll down the windows because there is no air conditioning. I gotta get out and adjust the side mirrors because there is nothing electric about that. It’s got manual steering. You have to be willing to invest the time in slowing it down. Whenever I drive it I have to be in the here and now; when I drive it my awareness is totally different. It’s an oasis where nothing is certain—and that’s a rarity in this world.