Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Automotive Racing Novel - Closing Speed - A 917 Adventure

Nick, the narrator of Closing Speed by Ted West, is a young American(outsider) thrust into a world that he doesn't fully understand(European Racing) and his experiences in this world with plenty of unwritten rules causes him to question(character growth) his original fascination with the sport he once unblinkingly loved.

In this regard, West's Nick brings to mind The Great Gatsby's narrator, also named Nick. West Egg, it seems, is not that different from a pit at the highest level of European racing. There are shady wealthy characters, myriad affairs and questionable motivations pushing the action forward in both novels.

Nick, West's Nick, finds himself fresh out of college and plucked from among all the aspirants to cover the 1970 European race calendar to bring back an unbiased view of the battles between Porsche's 917 and Ferrari's 512. Nick's beat is all of Europe. His transport, a new Jaguar XKE, on loan from the headquarters.

And it is in the descriptions of the off the track action that West shines. And it should, as this story is a fictionalized account of an assignment West actually carried out for Road & Track. Lucky Ted!

But, back to the novel. We, European racing fans, have all seen the mighty 917 on track. Watched the grainy film of it dicing with the Ferraris. We have seen the glossy coffee table books celebrating each as automotive porn, shot under flattering lights. But what we have not had access to is the stage that this automotive battle raged on. And West brings us this sprawling stage in jealousy inducing detail.

From the first few pages, I challenge any reader to not want to be in Nick's(West's) shoes as he parades up and down the pits. Chats with the drivers. Becomes a confidant of the driver's wives. Becomes their friend. Makes the transition from outsider, and to all appearances, into one of them. He becomes to the insiders, the racers, an insider as well. "You are one of us," says one of the drivers. But Nick himself, he knows he is never one of them. And it is this self realization that is an echo of Fitzgerald's Nick. This ability to know when one has spent time with people who live a life that is so focused on something destructive that the only sane course of action is to watch, record and report.

For the race enthusiast the details of accidents, passes, track conditions, track locations and tuning is mouth watering and achingly accurate. Remember, West was there. We are carried along as Porsche pushes relentless innovation to conquer the Ferraris. We understand the fleeting celebrity of the driver's who are the tools of the companies competing at this high, dangerous level because as one character notes, "there are no wars" to challenge young men.

I am not a big book reviewer, but when a novel comes out that treads in my wheelhouse of passions and pastimes, I wanted to give it a shot. So, I do not think the above is a typical review, by any means, but it should give a pastiche of what Closing Speed is all about. It is a great, fast-paced book perfect for eeking out a bit more automotive enjoyment this summer. Seriously, automotive non-fiction is great and informative, but only fiction can quicken the pulse as effectively as actually driving a car.


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