“Jake, I will be attending but will not be able to bring the Mercedes because the plates have expired. Please give me a call. Thank you very much for organizing this and inviting me. Best, Rob”
The email came on Thursday evening after I invited my old roommate Henry’s father, Rob, to Katie’s Cars & Coffee a few days prior. Naturally, I picked up the phone.
Before I get into the past few days, let’s go back to this time last year.
Friday, August 5, 2016
“Alright man, have fun – see you Sunday.”
My roommate Henry had come home from work as I was loading up my trailer, headed about an hour south of our rented townhouse in Alexandria to the newly-opened Dominion Raceway. I was helping out as an instructor for TrackDaze’s annual Dub Deliverance event, and bringing my E36 M3 along so I could give a few friends rides on Sunday.
With those couple of words, he and I parted company and I set off behind the wheel of my F150 as he parked his yellow Honda S2000 in the driveway. My side of our two-car garage was empty; his was occupied per usual with his beloved 1991 Mercedes Benz 560 SEC AMG.
I got to Dominion, saw some friends for dinner, and passed out in my hotel room.
Saturday, August 6, 2016
While I was standing at our trackside all-hands meeting, Henry was waking up early to head to one of his favorite weekend get-togethers, Katie’s Cars & Coffee in Great Falls. He normally took the Mercedes, but on this day, took the Honda instead.
I had a great day instructing two students, one in a red Jetta GLI and the other in a new, gray GTI. They both learned a lot and progressed quickly throughout the day. The track went cold around 5:30 PM, and around 6:00, the phone calls started rolling in. It was then that I learned that Henry never made it to Cars & Coffee that morning. He lost control of the S2000, left the road, got airborne, and came to rest in an older couple’s front yard on Walker Road. He did not survive the impact.
The news was almost too much to process at first. I spoke to a few other friends to share it with them. I called my parents, who were enjoying a weekend with their friends at Smith Mountain Lake. I called my boss and told him I couldn’t come in on Monday. And then I came back to the track Sunday morning, because Henry would have given me shit for leaving early.
The Past Year
The first weeks were a whirlwind of activity, between packing his things, getting them to storage, meeting his family and helping with funeral preparation, and figuring out my own, new living situation.
Henry’s dad Rob and brother Joe came over almost immediately. The biggest item in question was his Mercedes. They asked that I drive it a bit and write down any work it would need. I put a couple hundred miles on it, shined it up and put a fresh tank of 93 octane in before handing it off to Joe for the weekend of the 12th.
I was on an endurance race team the weekend of Henry’s funeral, and his dad and brother insisted I go and race as originally planned. So, I did. We put a little sticker on the trunk of the racecar, and another on my helmet, keeping him in our collective thoughts at VIR. Joe met up with many of Henry’s friends, and they took a group drive to Cars & Coffee before attending the service later that Saturday.
I went to the Outer Banks with friends a few weeks later. Henry had recently replaced the exhaust on the S2000, and I was now left with a stock header-back exhaust in our basement. Someone in Richmond bought it, and I delivered it on the way to the beach. Wanting to take my convertible, I put the ragtop down and stuffed the exhaust in the front passenger seat, securing it to the rear headrests with a ratchet strap. Henry would’ve approved.
In the months following, I moved out of our townhouse, replaced the convertible that never made it home from the Outer Banks, and kept up with my social life. Henry was on my mind frequently, but in a more passive way. I made a resolution that 2017 would be A Better Year, Dammit, and it was looking up.
Eleven Months and 20-Something Days Later
As the anniversary neared, I wanted to do something. I figured the bare minimum would be getting a few friends together at Katie’s. Aaron, Matt and I agreed that we’d all be there. And then with a little push, I was encouraged to make a Facebook event and send a few emails.
That reply from Rob hit my inbox last Thursday around 8:30 PM. I called him almost immediately. He wanted to get Henry’s SEC to the show, but it had a dead battery and expired tags. “Forget about the tags, I’ll bring a battery and we’ll get it going.”
Rob emailed me again Friday morning, asking that I buy two batteries so we could get his matching, white 560 SEC running as well. I left work early, stopped by AutoZone, and headed to his apartment in DC. The two SECs were parked next to each other. Neither of them had been started in a year. We worked on Henry’s AMG first.
The battery dropped right in, Rob handed me the keys and said “well, I think you deserve to do the honors.” I slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key. It cranked hard and fired on the first try. A few minutes later, we had both cars idling in the parking garage. I parked my E46 and with Rob’s blessing, took Henry’s car out of the parking garage, headed back to Alexandria – driving on the same tank of 93 octane I put in it a year earlier.
My first stop was a (touchless, I promise) car wash, to knock the dust off of the car. Some time with bottles of quick detailer and glass cleaner had it looking pristine again. The weather was perfect and I took it for a short drive around town, stopping for photos at Mercedes Benz of Alexandria right as the odometer rolled over 30,000 miles.
Saturday morning came all too early, but we headed out at 5:50 AM, with the Benz’s long nose pointed toward Great Falls. As we rounded the corner of the shopping center, windows down and that big V8 burbling at idle speeds, I was amazed to see the crowd that had gathered. And I think most of them were surprised to see the car that showed up.
I’d been nervous about this whole get-together, figuring it could be incredibly difficult. It was exactly the opposite. With zero humidity and sunny weather, a crowd of friends and family shared countless memories and laughs. It truly felt like a small weight lifted after all this time.
Rob encouraged me to keep the SEC for the day, so I did, and we had some adventures. It ran flawlessly all day long, and Henry would have loved hearing about all of the head nods and “hey man, nice car!” shouts I got driving around Alexandria and DC. I finally dropped the car off around 7 PM before heading to a BBQ with my friend Mark.
I called it a night around 10:15 and headed home in the E46, top down and music playing per usual. As I got on I-395 South leaving DC, I passed a silver BMW 318ti with M-Contour wheels, angel-eye headlights and HIDs. Some young guy with dark hair was driving it. Henry’s daily driver before the Honda was, you guessed it, a silver 318ti that matched the description above. The ti and I parted ways around Arlington after sharing a throttle blip or two, and it was the perfect sight after such a long and picturesque day.
As I sit in a coffee shop in Clarendon today, composing all of these thoughts, I definitely feel like a corner has been turned. The car community is made up of all types of enthusiasts. Henry and I could not have been less alike in our car-specific interests, but we bonded over the general idea of beautiful lines, raucous engines and the emotion that comes with the act of driving. I have long held the belief that “car people are good people,” and yesterday only further proved that point.
It is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t “get it” why driving can generate such emotion, using words. They have to experience jumping curbs in the Uphill Esses of VIR on a ride-along, or the “shove” that comes with a full-throttle upshift from 1st to 2nd gear in a 25-year-old AMG-tuned Mercedes, or the sound of a Honda V6 behind your head gulping air at 8,000 rpm, or countless other “moments.” And then, they get it a bit more.
Everyone who came out yesterday “gets it.” While we all continue to miss our friend, we will also continue to have those moments of “getting it” and smile, thinking about what we shared with Henry in the past.
To those who helped box Henry’s things, load several U-Hauls, unload several U-Hauls, shuttle cars around the area, offered ears and advice and shoulders, shared some beers, asked how things were going, and provided encouragement along this last year’s journey – thank you. It has meant so much.