We strive to remove bias from our reviews here at Motor1, but in rare circumstances such as these, it is impossible. I'll do my best for about one sentence though. Here it goes:

Objectively, this is a book.

Subjectively, this is a great book, a must-read anthology from one of the best automotive writers in the business, our friend Sam Smith.

It's called Smithology: Thoughts, Travels, and Semi-Plausible Car Writings. You can buy it right here on Amazon in paperback or on your Kindle. 

If you love cars and haven't read Sam's writing, I promise you'll love this book. If you love cars and are familiar with Sam's work for Road & Track, Hagerty, Esquire, and The New York Times, you've probably already got a copy sitting on your bedside table. (Please listen to Sam's fantastic racing/car dork podcast, too, called It's Not the Car).

Smith Headshot (1)

In an email to Motor1, Sam laid out a primer on the book:

"My book is an anthology, a curation of some of my favorite stories from the last 20 years. It's divided into five themed sections, with an introductory and lightly biographical essay (a new piece of writing) opening each section. The excerpt I've prepared for The Motorsport Network comes from the second of those essays. The complete version heads a section titled 'The Machines.'"

In keeping with his modesty, Sam's own pitch email sells his writing short. Smith is one of the few modern car writers with real voice to his writing. He's produced an enviable collection of travel stories, columns, and musings. One time he drove an F1 car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I watched him do it. My heart still smarts with jealousy. Then there's Sam's dispatches from the bajillion other cool things he's driven.

Smith Helmet + Formula Ford

This is one thick mother of a book, with more than 400 pages of new, original writing, mixed in with a selection of his favorites from magazines and the web.

What follows is the aforementioned excerpt from Smithology, provided by The Sam Himself. It's a bit about the time he crashed a Ford GT. If you enjoy the passage, please give the book a shot. You won't find many car writers who bleed as much passion, humor, and humanity onto the page as Sam. 

We cannot talk about machines and my life without addressing the time I did something galactically dumb in what was then one of the hottest cars on the planet. 

When it was over, when I was back at the office—when I knew for certain I was about to lose the job I had chased for most of my life—my phone rang. I picked it up, wincing.

Wrong number. Tension bled from my shoulders. Then one of the magazine’s senior editors stuck his head in the door.

“Jean’s back. At her desk.” 

My heart tried to climb through my ears.

Seconds later, I was standing in front of my boss, a tall and imposing woman who had worked in our industry since before I was born. She looked up from her computer, unblinking, and pointed at a chair. As one might when a 26-year-old individual in your employ has, on an otherwise quiet weekday afternoon, thrown a hand-built, 500-hp vehicle into a ditch.

“What the f*** happened,” she said. Not a question.

I took a breath, sat down, and began to talk. I said too much; she listened and said nothing. When I finished, the silence held for a bit.

I was getting fired; I knew that. I had never been fired. I hadn’t even had another desk job. I had been in that office less than 12 months and come there directly from slinging oil filters and floor mats at the parts counter of a Chicago Jaguar dealer. I spent a moment wondering if that dealer would take me back, tried to recall the part number for an XJ8 filter, realized I couldn’t, broke out in cold sweat.

Jean leaned forward, glaring across the desk. I was, she said, a tremendous pain in the ass. My choices that day had locked her into a string of phone calls, insurance discussions, hard looks at budgets. And that, she added, wasn’t even counting the reputation hit once word got out. 

I sank into my chair. She aimed a finger at my chest—what was I thinking? Who could be so stupid? You think you can drive, that doesn’t matter, the industry has puked out thousands better. 

A deliberate sigh, another pointed finger. “You have potential. But don’t think I’m doing this because I want to.”

I blinked.

“Let me be perfectly clear: The only reason you still have a job”— the word hung in the air for a second—“is because you can write.” 

I still had a job. 

I still had a job? 

I looked up from my lap. “Uh, thank y—”

“Don’t thank me. Don’t even apologize. This is f***ing unacceptable.”

Like an idiot, I repeated myself. 

“I told you,” she spat back, “do not fucking thank me. Or forget.”

In that exact instant, I wanted nothing more than a stout whack of amnesia. 

“Now get out.”

Day’s events aside, I wasn’t a complete fool, so I did.

**

For reasons that seemed entirely sensible at the time and now strike as anything but, I had, that morning, asked to borrow a brand-new, $150,000 Ford GT from the magazine’s test fleet.

Resistance was met. I was one of just a few staffers with a competition license, but I was also young. Be careful, they said. Of course, I said.

And yet.

At that point in history, the test fleet of a large American car magazine was essentially a rotating library of sheetmetal. At Automobile magazine, where I worked, that library was catalogued at the front of the office, on a wide dry-erase board divided into a grid of models and dates, which cars were set to arrive or depart and when. That board turned over constantly, new vehicles coming and going nearly every day, generally on loan from their manufacturers in hope of coverage.

This system applied to everything on the market, literally every make and model on sale. Moreover, every car that hit that board was factory-fresh, mileage in the low four figures at most. Keys were released to the staff through an opaque calculus that prioritized editorial need, i.e., who had been assigned to test, review, write about, or photograph what. Once those concerns had been addressed, a car was essentially up for grabs, circulated among editors by seniority for the remainder of its one- or two-week loan. The only exceptions to the process were limited-production exotics like Ferraris and Lamborghinis. The loan agreements for those rarities were generally more restrictive—mileage caps to preserve resale value, insurance mandates on driver age, and so on.

If the whole arrangement sounds like a dream, that’s because it was. And in some cases, how it remains. Large test fleets, or rather, publications large enough to need them, are now rare, but a few outlets still work this way today.

The industry has changed in other ways, of course. Since 2012, for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has mandated that every new passenger vehicle sold in America feature, as standard, a complex suite of software and hardware designed to keep tires on the road after a loss of driver control. Those systems are generally referred to as electronic stability control, or ESC for short.

Which brings us back to that ditch.

ESC first appeared on a production car, a Mercedes-Benz, in 1995. Ten years later, the technology had saved countless lives but remained far from ubiquitous. The 2005–2006 Ford GT, for example, did not offer stability control. That fact is relevant only because I would have turned that system off, had it been present. Which is itself relevant only because a person does not do that sort of thing in a mid-engine supercar they have just met unless they are halfway decent at the wheel, monumentally stupid, or, in my case, both.

The Ford was not a thing to suffer fools. What it was, was a 44-inch-tall, V-8-powered tribute to the period in the 1960s when Henry Ford II spent half the money in creation to land his company a series of overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A coworker came with me. We left the office like adults and drove sedately to the far side of town, where we drove like dickheads. Maybe 30 minutes later, wanting to be responsible, we reversed course and headed back. The freeway was quickest. I was convinced of much. On the left-turn entry to a long and straight on-ramp, I hucked the Ford into a tidy drift. A stab of throttle and a flick of the wheel, the rear tires spit loose, then more throttle for balance.

The V-8 hosed out noise; the coworker howled. “You’re an animal!”

Growing up, I did not make friends easily. I was a quiet kid, racked with insecurity. By 26, however, I had spent a few years in sanctioned road racing, liked sliding cars and was comfortable doing it. And at that wheel, for a heartbeat, I was smug.

The catch, with being smug: If you don’t think about the consequences, it feels great.

A millisecond later, a voice upstairs reminded me I had always been good at this. I grew greedy, indulged the voice, flicked the steering opposite. My right foot added volume, turned that first bursting drift into a longer, paint-laying slither up the ramp.

The young human brain can be so eager to reveal its roots as a pile of monkey parts. Time slowed to a crawl. One more, I thought—a snap decision, the Ford still greasing up the ramp sideways, what could it hurt?

A lot, as it turns out."

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