Driving back to my sister's from working a race over the past weekend saw me drive through the town of Benton Harbor, Michigan. That town holds a special place in my memory because 12 years ago that's the town I stayed at when I had a test in a Star Mazda race car at Gingerman Raceway. Before I get to that story I do have to say that one of the reasons why my diagnosis was so devastating in what I read about, "people with Asperger's will never have a job, will never have friends, and will never be happy" was amplified because of this test.
It was the summer of 2002 and after setting some of the quickest times ever at the Derek Daly Academy I got a test in a Star Mazda and this test would be at Gingerman Raceway. I had never heard of the track nor did I have access to a track map so when we got to the track early in the morning I was more than anxious to see the place. Not only that, but I had more excitement than I could relate to you on what type of thrill I was having thinking about buckling into a true race car.
Before I was let loose on the big track the team principal wanted me to get acquainted with the car and get used to the shifting with the Mazda rotary engine the car had. This also would be practice on downshifting which, I must admit, was my biggest weakness (don't get me started on how much I struggled with the 'heel-toe' downshift) so this practice on the tracks access roads (which is illustrated in the track map.)
It was finally time and the engine was fired and the thrill quickly turned into a fear as the car shook. "What am I doing?" I said to which no one could hear me because of the sound of the engine but I was having second thoughts. "This isn't for me, this is too loud and is shaking too much!" Reluctantly I stepped on the gas pedal and let the clutch out (thankfully, I didn't stall! That would've been a bad way to start this test hoping to impress the team) and off I went down the wrong way of the pits to shake down the car.
Speaking of shaking, the car shook as the rpm's came up and was much more than anything I have ever experienced. It was almost violent in nature and violent is the only way I can describe the sensation of putting the metal to the metal as the force made it hard to breath.
"I can't do this... I can't do this... What am I doing here? Racing isn't for me. I'm going to make a mockery of this!" is what I was saying and thinking constantly as I made my laps learning the car. "This is it... I'm just going to quit!" was a thought that kept flashing across my mind, but this test wasn't free and we drove a long way from home so quitting was something that I just couldn't do. I was sure, once I got to the big track, I was just going to bring shame to myself.
The time came and it was time to tackle the big track. Gingerman isn't the fastest of tracks, but going into the braking zone of turn 11 saw speeds near or just above 130mph so it's still plenty fast and plenty fast to quickly get into trouble. The team principal had taken me around in a van pointing out the nuances of the track, turn markers, and that two turn is the most aggravating corner in racing because no matter what you do you'll always feel you can take it faster. I found this out on my first flying lap and never fully figured that corner out.
My first session on track was exciting as all those feelings of doubt and fear, and the sensitivity to noise disappeared as it was just myself, the car, and the race track. I was taking it easy, or so I thought, and as I came by the start finish line I saw my dad give me the thumbs up. I didn't know what this meant because I was used to seeing this at the go kart races when I hit a new fast time so why was I seeing this now since I was just taking it easy.
20 minutes came and went and the checkered came out and into the pits I came and as I pulled under the awning and started to unbuckle I saw my dad smiling and the team principal walking over with a look of astonishment. I was unaware of this, but was quickly made aware of it that my times would have been good enough for pole on a regional race held there the previous weekend. And not only pole, but pole by over a second! In racing that is an eternity.
The 2nd session I went even faster and the speed I was showing was too much for the team principal as he got into his car and I noticed the blur of his sky blue and white car in my mirror but coming out of the final turn I saw a big brown cloud as he had buried his car in the gravel trap trying to keep up with me.
Once again I was seeing the thumbs up sign as I flashed by the finish line and as the session was over I pulled into the pits and once again my times were incredible. The third session, which was my fastest of them all, was just tenths of the track record!
The afternoon sessions weren't as fast as the tires I had, which were already used at the beginning of the day, started to have extreme fall off and then a wheel weight was thrown which made for a bumpy ride in the braking zones. All that aside, the morning had been incredible as I went faster than I ever could have imagined and I conquered all the fears and doubt I had had. The times I ran were without effort as I felt as if I wasn't even to the limit yet.
After the final session on track as the sun was now in the western part of the sky I drove really slow up the pits to the parking spot because I wanted to savor every second I had left in that car. I had no idea what the future had planned but I was in a state of complete satisfaction as I proved to myself that I was not just a good driver, but one with true talent. I parked the car and the team principal came over, and he had finally recovered his ego from his off into the gravel trap earlier in the day, and he said, "Aaron, no one should be that fast. The only way I can compare you to anyone is Kimi Raikkonen because he can just be fast without reason and that is you Aaron."
Other people had told me that I "had it" referring to talent, but this was the most open and direct I had ever heard. What did it mean? It meant that the team would be willing to take me on at, instead of an astronomical amount of money, an alarming high amount of money. Racing is about money and over the next few months there was no way to raise that and eventually time ticked away to a year, and then a year-and-a-half and I got my diagnosis and I gave up on everything.
It would have been one thing had I not been good, if everyone said, "Aaron, you're just not that talented" but instead I was compared to a future F1 World Champion. This added to my frustration and depression because, as I said, "there is no plan B" and why should there have been when I had the talent. In the end it all had to happen like this because if I had not been so close to making it, had I not been so good at driving, and had I not impressed so many people then I might not have been as devastated as I was and had I not been so devastated the process of writing and getting me to where I am today would not have happened. Would I change anything? There are times I see drivers at the top rung of the racing ladder and I envy the lifestyle, the fame, the money, but then I think, "Who are they truly helping?" Through all the odd turn of events in my life I ended up with not just job but a passion of the utmost importance. Had we go the money, had I started down the path of racing superstar, I may never have been diagnosed and at some point that would have caught up with me and on top of all that I would not be a public speaker and I would not have reached as many people on a personal level as I have. And to tell you the truth, I'm just getting started!