A completely natural and appropriate question at this point would be, “Why the hell did a neurosurgeon get behind the wheel of a racecar in the first place?” And it is, in fact, the same question I ask myself often. After all, being a racecar driver wasn’t what I originally set out to be. But it turns out that racing is yet another “test” I’ve subjected myself to—including more than a few that, in retrospect, were unnecessary. Years of high school and college football (including being on a Harvard team that never lost to Yale) resulted in numerous dislocations and breaks, but those had far less impact than the psychological challenges that I experienced in the process. As a twenty-year-old college student, I joined the Marines, escaping Officer’s Candidate School at Quantico with an honorable discharge and a great deal of respect for short but nasty drill sergeants. I survived my collegiate pre-med experience despite my chemistry professor’s distaste of all things athletic, and my med school experience was an out-of-focus blur. Internship and my subsequent neurosurgery residency training were grueling endurance runs, harsh but unforgettable; I emerged from both in one piece, and stronger for it. In fact, whether it was heliboarding in British Columbia, surfing big waves in Portugal, or lugging an M-16 through the Virginia mud, I’ve walked away mostly intact from more than a few tests over the years. But nothing, not one of those other activities and challenges consumed me with the intensity and thrill that racing would.
But that doesn’t answer the question. To do that, I need to start at the beginning: Christmas 1969.
My brother and I sat side by side at the top of the stairs, impatiently waiting for the “OK” from our parents. We had awakened before dawn, and whispered to each other excitedly as we waited for light to come through the windows. After two unsuccessful trips into my parent’s bedroom, we finally convinced my mom to get out of bed, put on her nightgown, and elbow my dad awake.
“You boys can go and sit on the steps, but don’t go downstairs until your dad’s up and everybody’s ready.”
Rick and I nodded eagerly, and got into position on the stairs, sitting as far down as we dared without spoiling the view into the living room. I risked a quick look around the edge of the wall, and spotted something bright yellow, alongside the many wrapped presents under the Christmas tree. “Hey, no peeking!” my younger brother scolded. “Mom said we have to wait!”
“Shhh, I wasn’t peeking, but there’s something down there….”
Moments later, my four older sisters were gathered on the stairs behind us, with my mom close behind. As the youngest, Rick and I got prime positions at the front of the pack, but collectively, the six Lowe kids vibrated with a single energy as we waited for my dad to emerge and Christmas to officially begin.
After what felt like forever, my dad appeared at the top of the steps, and before he could finish saying “OK, you can go down now,” Rick and I were tearing down the stairs at full speed. Rick pretty much dove into the pile of presents, and I made a beeline straight for the toy I had only glimpsed a few minutes before.
It was, without a doubt, the greatest Christmas present ever. Sitting off to one side of the Lowe family tree that morning was a fully-assembled Johnny Lightning L.M. 500 Race Set. Easily the coolest gift a six-year-old race fan could possibly receive back then, the toy was manufactured by Topper, a small New Jersey company that competed directly with the likes of Mattel’s Hot Wheels. In a stroke of marketing genius or just plain luck, Topper would later sponsor Al Unser, who promptly won both the 1970 and ’71 Indianapolis 500. But a full five months before that, Johnny Lightning became a fixture in the Lowe household when Bob Lowe picked out the perfect gift for his sons. And, knowing his overeager boys well enough, my dad had taken time away from his other Santa duties to get it up and running so that my brother and I could begin racing moments after we arrived on the scene that morning.