Garth Stein is a better driver than you. Really. In 2003, he won the SCCA Northwest points championship in his Spec Miata before a crash while driving in the rain, no less, ended those Senna dreams. The novel that sprang from those experiences is a lot like his little Miata: a bit cutesy on the outside but equipped with such a perfect balance of heart and engineering that you can’t help but go back for more. Maybe that’s why it’s been on the New York Times best-seller list for over 120 weeks and Patrick Dempsey, more race car driver than actor now, has picked it up for the big screen.
I should mention that the story is written from the perspective of a dog. But, so was White Fang and The Call of the Wild and I dare you to tell the old oyster pirate Jack London he wrote a kids books. Driven by his desire to be more than a dog, Enzo, the puppy protagonist in Racing in the Rain, is the perfect vehicle for Stein to explore racing, philosophy and humanity. Stein explains that Mongolians believe good dogs will be reincarnated as men when they’re ready. Enzo’s owner and semi-professional racing driver, Denny Swift, serves as a model human, whose skill at navigating obstacles on the racetrack translates well into real life where he battles for custody of his daughter, a dying wife and trumped-up rape charges. Denny’s racing mantras, like “the car goes where the eyes go,” and the intense, accurate driving scenes help the reader to learn along with Enzo that lessons learned from racing–courage and balance, for example–are just as applicable to life.
Stein’s writing is fresh, darkly comic and devoid of cynicism. His deep appreciation of cars and racing culture makes this a perfect choice for racing enthusiasts and car guys. More importantly, wives and girlfriends of car guys will gain a deeper understanding of what makes their significant other tick while enjoying a heartstring-tugging, Marley and Me meets Le Mans, high-revving good read.
Garth Stein pitted long enough to chat about the novel:
TTAC: A dog named Enzo?
Stein: I think that car people will get the connection, it may be a bit overdone if I had to explain Enzo Ferrari. When I first started writing the book, Enzo was Juan Pablo, after Juan Pablo Montoya, but clearly Enzo is the better name for a dog.
TTAC: Any stories about racing in the rain?
Stein: Only that I crashed my last race car during a downpour. If you’re in a race in the Northwest, you really need to be comfortable on a wet track, so that title, The Art of Racing in the Rain came from Don Kitch, Jr. who runs a race school out of Seattle.
TTAC: Have you raced at all the tracks mentioned in the book?
Stein: No, in fact, I met one of the owners of Thunderhill at a reading I did in Sacramento and he said, “Boy that was just great, you really know the track well.” I kind of bluffed because I’ve never driven Thunderhill. Basically, I studied some in-car camera footage from a buddy of mine who’s raced there several times and another friend lent me his track notes and I wrote the scene. I’ve always wanted to race there. A dream of mine is to race the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. I kind of had to bluff my way through that, and I guess it worked.
TTAC: What has Enzo learned that readers haven’t yet?
Stein: The whole Enzo philosophy, which is, “that which you manifest is before you,” means we have to take control of our destiny. If we allow other people to dictate where we are, we are no longer in control of what we’re doing. If we maintain control, at least we can pull out of the spins in life.
TTAC: Ayrton Senna plays a large role in Enzo’s spiritual development. Any insight there?
Stein: Senna was a very religious man, but this book was more of a universal spiritualism rather than a specific religion. People ask me if I’ve studied Zen Buddhism, the answer is no. When I was racing, my buddies and I would goof around that we could apply the same rules that we used on the racetrack to life. You know, “Don’t worry about something that’s already happened, you can’t change it. Only worry about the things in front of you that you can change.” If we do that in our daily lives, then we’ll be good fathers, husbands, etc. Really, that’s where Enzo came from.
TTAC: I see “Go Enzo” stickers plastered on race cars now.
Stein: It’s very popular with the racing crowd because I think a lot of club racers feel somewhat misunderstood by their friends and family. You know, “Why would you spend all of this time, energy and money to make this sport?” And I think this gives them a voice. You know, “Here, read this book. You’ll understand why.”
TTAC: How did your wife take it?
Stein: She laughed when she read the book. She said, “Oh, now I understand why you were doing all that racing; you were doing research.” Which is totally not the case. I was doing it for four years and then I wrote the book.
TTAC: You still racing?
Stein: I’m not racing currently, though I certainly enjoy it and hanging out with the racers. Talking shop and stuff like that. I was just at the Grand-Am Awards ceremony last month and I got to present an award to professional racers and team owners. It’s been a lot of fun. I mean, racing’s fun. There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of the green flag.