Once in a while I get a great idea. Neurons fire, concepts unfold and bits of ragged memory congeal into a tangible, cohesive thought. One involved a running aid, a compression/rebound device fitted to the legs and feet. It was a bow-type thing that would compress at each step and then release that energy on the next stride. I built a prototype from old ski boots and a decommissioned crossbow. But work, children and life in general conspired against its completion. Later, several variations on this theme surfaced-mass-produced and marketed to the 'extreme sports' crowd. You can find them as Powerisers, PowerStilts or Powerjumperz; expect to pay about 300 bucks a pair.
I have a knack for nearly inventing stuff. If I had invented, say, the automatic transmission, variable cam timing or direct fuel injection, perhaps my fortunes would be different. Or would I still have been late to the party? Are ideas just floating about like cosmic moths? Turn on the porch light and there's a chance one may fly up your nose? What do you do: blast it out in a Kleenex or let it stay a while and take root? I'm certain everyone gets one or two grand notions in a lifetime. It's a rule or something.
A few weeks ago, I met an actual genius, a lightning rod for great ideas. We were just finishing up on The Road, our 14-mile-long test track in the San Bernardino foothills. In the calm, the tink-tink-tink from $200K-worth of cars sounded like silver spoons on champagne glasses. Then, in the distance, we heard an engine on the edge of madness, rev limiter popping. It had to be a stuck throttle-no one drives that hard that long and lives to tell about it.
Except for this dude. When he finally rounded the corner, his mostly black E36 M3 was on the verge of seizure. Smoke was coming from the brake rotors and the entire car appeared to be melting. The air was perfumed with all manner of burnt materials: oil, rubber, plastic and a hint of human hair.
"Oh man... I didn't think I'd catch you," the Dude said breathlessly. "I heard someone up here had a new 335i. I wanted to check it out before it split."
Dude had seen us at the bottom of the ridge; that meant he'd made it to our location in less than seven minutes. On my best day, in a new M3 with kick-ass tires and a tank of 100-octane, I feel good if I can do it in nine. How anyone could go that fast was impressive; how anyone could do it in such a shitbox was incomprehensible.
I let Dude fondle the 335i, play with all the doodads. I took a closer look at his car. De-badged and wearing spots of primer, its roundels had long since been pried off, probably for someone's jewelry. The lower lip of the front airdam was augmented with a piece of plywood. Cheesy-looking lengths of aluminum flex pipe poked through-to feed the brakes, I guess. The trunk wore what appeared to be a mini-blind slat affixed with silver duct tape. There were two tailpipes, one smaller than the other.
Dude's tire's were an off-brand I'd never seen before. They'd been shaved and wore a custom tread block design, something that appeared to be hand-cut with a soldering iron. The rear tires (slightly wider than the front) had a different home-cut tread.
The cabin looked like something from Back to the Future. A dozen gauges, assorted knobs and handles faced the driver. A Simpson five-point harness hung from a length of gray pipe and a note pad was stuck to the center of the steering wheel. A laptop displayed all sorts of data, exotic stuff typically reserved for rocket ships.
I asked Dude about his car, asked him how he got up here so fast.
"I come up here all the time," he said. "I'm playing with aerodynamics right now. I can get another four mph on the bottom section with these bits. I keep breaking them, though, especially in town. I make them from wood so they're cheap to replace."
To shed weight, Dude converted his wiring harness to 24-volt. Apparently, it allows the use of much thinner, lighter wire. He was also running on two different types of fuel, custom blends he made himself. One for high-performance driving, the other for highway cruising.
He was running adjustable anti-roll bars fashioned from beryllium and other exotic metals because of their elastic properties. He could modify their geometry from inside the car. The tires were cut specifically for maximum grip and treated with an activator to modify the compound. The differential was his own design (like a Quaife, but different) and wrought from materials I'd never heard of. He'd whipped up the brake pads and the gearbox too.
The thing was, Dude didn't want to talk about his car. Describing its systems seemed to annoy him. He'd drift off, rambling about pulse jets and plasma streams. Perhaps genius and madness really are close relations. Dude seemed to have equal parts of both. He left with that weird smell in the air-the scent of creativity, I guess. I tried to get a taste; maybe there was some still floating about. Now I have this idea for an underwater jet engine. It's gonna be huge. Remember: I thought of it first.