When I was little, I loved race cars. I never missed a Memorial Day broadcast of the Indianapolis 500, heard Chris Economaki in my sleep and thought of Watkins Glen as a dream world where everyone drove Formula 1 cars to work, weaving their way through the streets at unsafe speeds. I imagined a day I’d drive like Jackie Stewart, shifting gears, revving my engine and blasting down the road. This dream died slowly, year after year, as the steady parade of family cars in our driveway mocked my hopes for something better. There is no faster way to neuter a young man’s primal urge to go fast than teaching him to drive in an ‘82 Chevy Malibu wagon; I wanted to be Bo or Luke Duke and ended up more like Driving Miss Daisy.
Since earning my license, I’ve opted for safe cars with tame engines and great gas mileage, rejecting the idea that driving could be more than getting from A to B. I’ve never learned to operate anything other than an automatic, owning cars where turning the key, pressing the gas and choosing either the Jefferson Starship or the Wang Chung CD were my only concerns. This fact raises hackles in those who swear by the manual transmission. “Any guy who can’t drive a stick shift is instantly unattractive to me,” a freckled female friend said to me in college. Upon learning I couldn’t drive a standard, my sister exclaimed, “You don’t know how to drive a manual transmission?” uttered with the inflection of someone saying, “You don’t brush your teeth?”
But a man can change, and I found just the person to help me. Like a prophet emerging from the smoke of a thousand screeching custom tires, a savior has arisen. Carmine Tomas, a man who bleeds motor oil, a man who once burst into tears at the New York City Auto Show’s Ferrari booth, a man who drives fast, fancy cars with passion unmatched, offers to teach me the lost art of the manual transmission.
We agree to meet in an abandoned parking lot on the outskirts of town. Carmine advises me to, “Wear thin-soled shoes to maximize your sense of the pedals. No man clogs.” His advice is unnecessary – if I know anything, it’s not to show up for male-type stuff in clogs. But then again, the first car I bought was a Subaru station wagon, so he has a point.
Carmine arrives in a slick white 2012 VW Golf R with fancy tires, and we begin. “Patience is the key,” he says as he points me to the passenger seat. Like a shaman of the stick shift, Carmine preaches as he drives. “I see this as a societal issue. We live in an age of automation, where everything’s done for us. Driving a car like this is one of the few ways to interact with something mechanical. You’re about 15 to 20 years too late for this lesson because the manual transmission is disappearing. We need to save the manuals!” he shouts, and for a moment I’m not sure he remembers I’m in the car. I say nothing and watch his feet and hands as we zip through the parking lot.
This mystic of the manual transmission is like my spirit animal, but instead of a hawk or majestic elk, Carmine is my Spirit Dude, a man who drives loud cars, grows a thick mustache overnight and cooks a Chicken Marsala so tasty you’ll curse the mere existence of the Olive Garden as a blight upon humanity. Brother Carmine continues. “We’re a few years away from a driverless car,” he says with real contempt, looking genuinely forlorn at the thought of Americans completely disengaged from the road. “Driving a manual car allows us to transcend the everyday experience. And it’s really (adjective redacted) fun,” he says as he parks and hands me the key.
I get in the driver’s seat and Carmine instructs, explaining, “You’ll learn to feather the clutch,” and “Feel for those engagement points,” reminding me about the interplay between the pedals, telling me to “listen to the car.” But feathers and listening skills mean as much as the resale value of a ’74 Pinto if I can’t get this car into first gear. “You want to be as smooth as possible. Give it some gas,” he says as we start moving. Slowly but surely, with my Spirit Dude coaching me, I learn first gear into second, second into third, third into fourth. The car responds to my movements, and we zoom around the empty spaces.
A bit later, Carmine points me to his secret race track, a quarter-mile straightaway far from any homes, a place where he’s been known to “exercise” his automobiles. We head to this undisclosed section of an unnamed part of the state, and I drive that VW like I’m Steve McQueen in Le Mans. First into second then to third and fourth and then, to both our surprises, I slide the gear into fifth, my feet and hands working together as the pistons fire. I downshift into neutral as we reach the stop sign. “And you haven’t stalled once!” Carmine exclaims. Just then, my confidence overflows, and I stall the car. Ten feet later I stall again, but Carmine mentors me back to success.
We’re off into traffic, taking three long loops through neighborhoods, my shifting getting smoother by the quarter mile. I stall three more times trying to get the clutch-gas equation down as impatient drivers wait behind me, but on the whole, I nail it.
Minutes later we’re in Carmine’s garage as his sons stand watching. “Mr. O’Shea did a great job.” He turns to me and says, “I trust you – you could drive the kids anywhere in my car.” The boys wince slightly and slowly back away unconvinced as Carmine leads me to a beautiful black car in his barn. “This is a 1988 BMW M5 with a motorsport-derived, hand-built inline 6, custom wheels, lowered suspension, and tuned exhaust,” he says. The only words I can conjure are “shiny,” “cool” and “boxy.” Carmine even talks prettier than I do.
He takes the wheel, and we drive to the secret straightaway where he shows me what controlled powerful driving is really like. My torso slams flat against the seat as Carmine shifts with deftness, the car’s engine responding, the tires hugging the pavement as we defy local speed ordinances. He demonstrates something called “throttle blipping” as well as a maneuver where he uses his right foot on both the brake and gas at the same time. “This is what we call ‘heel-toe’ driving,” he shouts above the engine’s sultry din. “You blip the throttle so the revs will match where the car wants to be in second gear. You want to get the car to the limit of adhesion, so I do the heel-toe for smoothness.” I think he’s speaking in tongues, but like any decent convert, I sit, listen and nod.
I’m rewarded with the keys, and I put my lessons into action, driving that car well enough to make Jackie Stewart’s tartan angel wings flutter in approval. I cruise around the parking lot islands, shifting from gear to gear seamlessly. For a few minutes I’m one with the car. I don’t hear Carmine’s encouragement, just the engine and my body in sync, the memory of an ’82 automatic Malibu fading further and further in my memory. I get it now, and Carmine’s right - we need to save the manuals. Anyone want to buy an ’06 Volvo wagon? I’ll throw in a Wang Chung CD for free.