Most of the stuff that happens in the world of cars and hot rodding is not just the handiwork of one person. Normally, it’s at least two people who have designed, created, or fabricated something cool or memorable. Basically, the sidekick is an integral part of this world we love to hang in and around.
I’ve always relished the role of sidekick. Whether it was working with my dad as a kid or working as a “color guy” on a two-man announcing crew, the role of sidekick always felt comfy for me. Make no mistake about it, there’s not one drop of shame in the role. There are guys who have made successful livings as sidekicks, and they’re laughing their way to the bank, even today.
When I first started to actively pursue this wacky world of automotive journalism in college, my wife was my sidekick, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. She accompanied me to far-off racetracks in exotic destinations like Ohio, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. We’d pile into my pickup truck on a Thursday night and drive all night to get to a race. She’d read a book or take the truck around to see what the local area was like while I was at the track. Come Sunday afternoon, we’d pack up, drive all night and try to make it back in time for classes on Monday morning. In hindsight, I needed a sidekick back then, just someone to spur me on when it seemed everything I was doing was a waste of time. We did have our moments though, like the time I decided we’d head to a road race and camp out … in March … in New England. It was misery and there was no denying it, but we stayed long enough to get the job done. Without knowing that someone, anyone, had my back, I don’t think I’d have ever gotten that plane off the ground.
With the addition of the two boys to our family I’ve gone from sidekick to front man in a lot of ways. I guess it’s a natural progression, and frankly, it’s a pretty cool feeling to teach my son Tom things like how to identify tractors by their color, how to tell the difference between a big- and small-block Chevy, and how to operate a fork. He’s my oldest sidekick and has been an ever-present companion on many adventures and gearheaded missions over the last decade. My younger son Jack is effectively Tom’s sidekick and the two of them get along like peas on a pod. It is a fun dynamic to watch, especially when scrappy Jack feels that his older brother has wronged him. The fur flies occasionally but that’s the nature of brotherhood. I look forward to the days when both of the boys are old enough to be active participants, and not just along for the ride on our adventures.
The true sidekick is a perfect foil for the lead man. Smokey Yunick had Ralph Johnson, John Force had Austin Coil, and Don Garlits had T.C. Lemons. The main factor in all those relationships is that both parties are very comfortable with where they are. There’s no power struggle or animosity. It’s a realization that the mojo is working and there’s no reason to screw around with that kind of cosmic gearhead goodness. While the shortsighted people of the world fail to realize this, looking at just the tandems above should tip you off to the fact that while one guy may get the immediate headlines, both of them end up at hero level. Ralph Johnson invented the Holley double-pumper for Pete’s sake. He’s not hurting when it comes to gearhead immortality and neither is Austin Coil!
Today’s social media-driven culture means that many people relish their ability to steal nanoseconds of “spotlight” whenever they have a chance to do it, no matter the cost. Their ego drives them so strongly to blurt something out first, proclaim something first, take credit for something first, and basically play the role of hero that they’ll go so far as to alienate the very people that helped them succeed. I personally love to see people get ahead, achieve goals, and make things happen but not without taking everyone that helped along for the ride as well.
Lots of people have trouble playing “second fiddle” as the old expression goes. I think that’s their loss because they are excluding themselves from opportunities and experiences that they otherwise could be involved in. Part of being involved with a team is sharing in the success, even if it’s just between two people. Look at the competitors on Drag Week. Lots of the racers travel with their right-hand man, or to overuse the term, their sidekick. They confront challenges together, solve problems together, and ultimately succeed or fail together. It’s yet another neat factor that makes that event so special.
You never outgrow the role either. When I am at the track with my dad (which is not nearly often enough anymore), it feels the same as it did when I was 17, and frankly I love it. There’s security in those feelings and a happiness of knowing your role and your job.
Never let your ego get in the way of a good time or memorable opportunity. Take whatever role you can to be involved. Who knows, you may just relish it for the rest of your life.