Rallycrossing My Way To Better Mental Health

Photo: Jacob Herrman

In 2018, I basically stopped writing. Not for any sort of grand purpose, but just because life outside of the glowing boxes got a little too real. A series of dizzy spells, near constant headaches, and one pretty sizeable black-out at the gym led to a string of doctors, tests, and listening to other people describe my own behavior to me. Fun fact: girlfriends don’t like it when they get phone calls telling them that their monogamy buddy was just unconscious on the floor for thirty seconds. Bonus fun fact: my hair still looked great.

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, but not a normal, fun one. More like one that some tweakers built in the woods. Maybe you’ll make it, maybe your brain will turn into a pink smear. What started as a suspected blood sugar issue soon ballooned into a neurologist, multiple rounds of different medications, and multiple brain scans.

After the first neurologist visit, the doctor proclaimed he was “95% sure” that it would turn out to be something minor, but recommended an MRI and an EEG just to be on the safe side, and to rule out any major issues. Now, you may look at that sentence, and think that sounds pretty good. I did not. I don’t handle doctors well at the best of times, so the prospect of letting them peek around inside my brain to possibly tell me that there was something seriously wrong (beyond the obvious) made me an incoherent mess.

This led to a series of some incredibly difficult conversations that I’d prefer to never go through again. First and foremost, my girlfriend and I got to start the discussion about what our gameplan was if it turned out to be a worst case scenario. Have you ever seriously asked someone if they’d still love you if you had a brain tumor and lost your mind? It’s as much fun as you’d think. Then I got to talk to my boss about the fact that I needed to take time off work to go get my brain looked at, because nobody knew what was wrong with me.

If you’ve never had an MRI, it goes like this: put a trashcan on your head, and crawl inside a 56k modem. Then stay there for half an hour and try to not shit yourself in terror. I’ve never really considered myself claustrophobic, but that machine proved me wrong. Thanks, science! The EEG, on the other hand, is pretty mild. You get a bunch of stuff glued to your head, and then take a nap.

The call came back that the MRI looked 100% fine, and I was all gravy. But when the EEG came back, they asked me to come into the office to discuss the results in person. There’s certain times in life when you know a conversation isn’t going to go well. When you get called to the principal’s office. When your girlfriend texts “we need to talk”. When your neurologist won’t tell you the results of your tests over the phone.

The phrases “abnormal EEG” and “possible micro-seizures” were uttered in that meeting. Which, in the scheme of possible causes, seizures aren’t the worst, but they’re still less than ideal. Since then, the seizures have been pretty much ruled out, although I still have to see an epilepsy specialist in a few months. So we’re on a new medication to see if that cuts down on the random icepicks in my temple, and my eyeballs losing the ability to focus.

Adding that to your old, run-of-the-mill, every day, boring Fails depression, and ye old motivation took what can be best described as “a drop in the shitter”.

Oh, I also bought a house that was built when the Ottoman Empire was still around.

Photo: Fails

In the midst of all of that, I decided to start competing in SCCA Rallycross in a basically bone stock Mini Cooper S with 130,000 miles on the clock, because I’m a man who revels in terrible vehicular decisions, with vehicles wildly unsuited for the task. Remind me to tell you about the time I decided to ride a naked sportbike (different than riding a sportbike naked) from Kansas City to Denver in the middle of the night.

Well, OK, I entered two rallycross events, if you can call that competing. In my first event, I think I came in dead last. The second time out, I was solid upper middle of the pack. 11th out of 26th.

For 2019, the goal is to run the entire season.

If you’re not familiar with it, I bet you can figure out the gist of what rallycross is, just based on the name. It’s a mixture of autocross, and rally. You lay out a course with cones, and run one at a time, against the clock. But instead of being in a parking lot, you’re in a field, or sometimes in the infield of a dirt track. Also, instead of just going for best overall lap time, your lap times in rallycross are cumulative. That means you add them all together at the end. So it’s all about keeping your averages low. One bad run can ruin your entire day.

Now, because I’m still an angsty My Chemical Romance Fan at heart, there is a deep seated core of self-loathing that motivates a large percentage of my actions. I started going to the gym because I hated how I looked and felt. I started leatherworking because I hated how my brain felt without a project.

But racing…racing felt different.

With rallycross, there has been no motivating factor beyond “this seems fun”. It wasn’t to make me feel better about myself, or to make a name for myself, or to get anything thing out of it. I could just go, and drive, and stop worrying so goddamn much. I’ve learned over the last few years that all of my hobbies revolve around activities that allow me to turn off my brain for a few moments. Focusing on a singular task drowns out all of the background noise for a while. Usually, this lasts a few minutes at a time, but a day in the dirt overwhelms me so much with a barrage of “don’t fuck this up” and “stop being so weird, and talk to people like a normal human being”, that I forget the rest of the world for a while. Combine that with the fact that literally every single human being I’ve met at an event has been more accommodating of my stupidity than they should ever be expected to be.

My memory is atrocious, which may or may not have anything to do with the other neurological issues. Brains are neat, you guys. But part of that is that I have to concentrate incredibly hard on remembering the course at the beginning of the day. As the day progresses, and the line gets worn in, it gets easier, and the muscle memory starts to kick in, but first run of the day, especially if I’m in the first run group…whew. You might want to take a step back. My first ever run I totally missed a gate, and got slapped with a ten second penalty. When you run cumulative times, there’s no real coming back from that.

Now, I know everyone will say I should do autocross, because that’s where Minis live, and I did that once. But rallycross is just such a hilarious, brain-pummeling giggle-fest that other driving seems tame. Everyone with a wheel and a keyboard likes to rant about “on the limit” driving, but in rallycross, you sail right past the limit, hopefully sideways, and banging off the rev limiter.

Photo: Christopher Tracy

Things are always the most exciting when you’re right on the edge of what you can control. Sure, some of the all-wheel drive fully prepped cars on their rally tires have a shocking amount of grip, but for me, running on just normal all-season tires in the dirt, traction is a vague suggestion. Everything becomes a balancing act. All of the racing concepts you read about become painfully clear once you remove grip. Carry too much speed into the corner? You’ll plow wide. Lift off the throttle, and you’ll feel the nose start to tuck back in. Brake hard with the wheel turned? You’re now fully sideways.

I also maintain that rallycross has real world advantages. I don’t mean that I’ve learned all sorts of fancy footwork racin’ skills, far from it. It’s just that it broadens your comfort level when the conditions get sub-standard on the road. In snowy conditions, the majority of issues I see from people are that they just straight up panic the second they lose traction at all. Either that, or they’re unable to recognize when they’re losing it. Rallycross has made me infinitely more comfortable with traveling in a less than straight line. As long as the front wheels are pointed in the general direction I’m aiming for, everything will probably work out alright in the end. Just use light hands, modulate the throttle, and make plenty of sound effects. Sound effects make you drive better, that’s just science.

Even working the course, which in autocross was a thrilling mixture of tedium and boredom, warms my bitter old heart in rallycross. I’ve seen a dented up Camry with 300,000 miles that had two modes: full throttle, and parked. It could punt a row of cones like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve seen a Crown Victoria, in full “To Protect and Swerve” livery go through a chicane at full opposite lock, with maybe a foot of clearance off each bumper. I’ve seen a Hyundai Genesis that was so loud that it Slap-Chopped my innards. In the midst of all that, is one tiny Cooper S, being driven by a man who has no clue what he’s doing, or how he got there.

So if you’re in the Kansas City area for some reason (barbecue? meth? barbecued meth?) and wind up in a field with a bunch of rowdy sports cars, come say hi. I’ll be the tattooed guy in the tiny car, just enjoying life.

Photo: Jacob Herrman

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