Every Car Has A Story: Author and Alpha Dog
A lifelong love of cars steers Garth Stein to a book and then a movie
By Matt Bell
June 23, 2022
Garth Stein is the author of several books, including the No. 1 “New York Times” bestselling novel, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” which spent more than three years on the bestselling list. It has been translated into 38 languages and has spawned a children’s book series, a theatrical adaptation by Seattle’s Book-It Rep, and a major motion picture starring Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried and Kevin Costner. Yet few people know one of the best automotive and human stories ever told was written by a Seattle resident. Here’s the person behind this great story, which brings together the dynamic of three things I love: cars, people and dogs.
What drove you to write this story? My first connection with dogs and cars was in Los Angeles as a child. I would watch races on a black-and-white Zenith TV with my dad and our dog, Muggs. As a 5-year old, I thought it was cool that our dog liked watching races, too. After moving back to Seattle from New York in 2001, my dad invited me to the track. He had a Porsche RS America we would take to Pacific Raceways (in Kent) and I got hooked. I started taking my family car — a Subaru WRX — to the track, and that’s where I met Don Kitch, who steered me to ProFormance Racing School. I raced for a few years until I realized the whole thing being “about the driver” is a bit of a fiction. I mean, in the Kentucky Derby you need a talented driver, yes. But you have to have a great horse for the talented jockey to ride. So, I had a setting: the racetrack. And I had a character — my friend and first driving coach, Kevin York, who inspired the character of Denny. And I had the voice, Enzo the dog. Because who better to tell a story about human relationships and race cars than a dog? They see everything. They say nothing. I wrote the first draft in four months and sent it to my agent and he said, “No one will read a book narrated by a dog.” I fired him and found a new agent.
What was your first car? A Peugeot 504. Sky blue. It had a four-speed manual transmission “on the tree” and I learned how to rev match the engine and shift without using the clutch. If you didn’t close the sunroof just so, your girlfriend was getting dripped on in the next rain.
What’s your favorite car to drive and why? A Spec Miata racecar, of course. It’s pure unadulterated fun. Before a race on the formation lap for the running start, the adrenaline you feel is incredible. The wail of the engines, revved up, poised to leap, the excited anticipation, the moment before the green flag drops. It’s a rush like nothing else.
What is your dream car? A De Tomaso Mangusta. My father gave me a die cast Corgi model when I was a kid. How niche is that? I was born in 1964. Only 401 Manugstas were produced between 1967 and 1971, and I had a Corgi, where the doors opened and the chassis came apart. I carried that car around with me everywhere. I gave it to my own kids to play with. I don’t know where it is now, though. Some cars are meant for collecting. Some are meant for driving, if you know what I mean.
What do you think of electric cars? Brilliant. Everything about electric cars is brilliant. Electric cars are correct for all the right reasons. But they have no soul. Electric cars are like wine bottles with screw tops. Where’s the romance? No, I want the experience. I want the ritual. I want to smell and touch and feel, you know, be human about it. Yes, of course, climate change, fossil fuels. We need to go electric. I get it. But I don’t have to like it, do I? Remember in “The Matrix,” when Cypher is eating the digital steak and saying, “I know this isn’t real, but I can’t tell the difference and I like it!” Here’s the thing. I can tell the difference. So, I’m sticking with Neo.
If you could have any car throughout history, what would it be? A 1974 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000, which I have. It’s the car I’ve always dreamed about, and so when I saw an opportunity to get mine, I acted. It’s a great car and I love it a lot. And it’s way more attainable than a De Tomaso.
What is your favorite feature? The feel of the gearbox. The vibrations that you become sensitive to when you’ve driven it for a while. Like you know when he’s cold and cranky, and you know when he’s lubed-up and happy. And when things are going well, you can imagine the invisible gears aligning for you; when you slide the shifter into the gate, it’s received as if it were an inevitable step in an infinite process. That’s what you get with an old car. It will tell you its stories if you aren’t in a hurry.
Any fun features or stories with the Alfa? Owning an Alfa is like being in a long-term relationship. You need to say less and listen more. You need to be gentle and kind and forgiving, even if you feel you’re not entirely responsible for the situation in which you find yourself. You need to stop trying to go so many places and be content being someplace. An old car talks to you about what it’s thinking and feeling, unlike modern cars with computers. The question is, do we have the patience to listen?
Is there a classic car from a movie or TV show you wish you could drive? The DeLorean from the movie “Back to the Future.” There was something so disruptive and extreme about the whole concept of the DeLorean on a socio-politico-economic level that I will always appreciate. I might even suggest that the DeLorean presaged the Tesla.
If you could introduce a new feature to a car, what would it be? One of those comic boxing gloves with the scissor arms that would punch people who run through stop signs while talking on their devices.