I want to be the Ginger Man.
A mongcarenthusiasts,Chicago native Dan Schnitta is a rarity. "I don't know how it worked out like this," he says, "but I have fun all of the time." As far as I can tell, it's true. I want to be Dan.
Schnitta, 65, lives above his bar, the GingerMan Tavern, a block north of Wrigley Field. Scenes from the movie The Color of Money were shot in the bar's adjoining pool room. [See last month's comparo, "The Real Color of Money."] He owns about 15 cars, which he stores at the road course he built in 1995, GingerMan Raceway. When he's at the track, he lives in South Haven, Michigan, on the shores of Lake Michigan. He commutes between the track and the tavern, selecting "whatever car feels right that day but usually the BM W M3 or the Mazda RX-8." And when the weather goes south, so does he, fleeing to his coastal home in Costa Rica.
In college, Schnitta saw a Porsche 356C in a car magazine. "My dream was to go to Stuttgart to buy that car," he recalls. "So, in 1965, a friend and I got in a '41 Mercury, and we found a liquor store, bought a bottle of whiskey, drank it, and puked on the car. It was two degrees in Chicago. We headed toward New Orleans, and the puke didn't thaw until Kentucky."
In New Orleans, the pair boarded a freighter bound for Le Havre, France, "except the captain didn't tell us we were going to Central America first," he recalls. "That took three months. I was the galley boy. But once I got to Europe, I found work doing laundry for U.S. soldiers in Dachau. It was fun. The soldiers gave me free beer. Then I drove to Nice and found a church with a sign that said, 'Free Cookies'— wow, a free meal, so in I went. The priest hired me as a handyman, then one day told me I was riding my motorcycle too fast and drinking too much. He said, 'You might want to move on.'"
Sans 356C, Schnitta returned to the U.S., arriving in Philly in 1966. "In a bookstore, there was an ad for the 'unexpurgated edi tion of The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy.' It sounded racy. I read it all through the night on the bus headed back to Chicago. And there was this passage, when Sebastian Dan-gcrfield is trying to seduce Lilly, and he says to her, 'What's a piece of arse between friends ... ?' And I thought, 'Wow, he's me. That's me.'"
Once home, Schnitta applied to the Peace Corps but was rejected as "too much of a bounder," so he went into real estate. "A guy told me bars were good investments. So I found one [in 1975], a flat-iron building that had been owned by a woman selling everything from prostitutes to heroin. When I bought it, the cops told me to wait a year before reopening, to get rid of the 'children of the night.' They said, 'We don't even want you to smile in there.' The bar was next to the Metro Theatre, and I thought, 'Beautiful actresses will come into my place!' Some did, but mostly guys—Leonard Nimoy, John Malkovich, Gary Sinise. Nowadays, I have an artsy and reflective clientele. When they come in all revved up and tipsy after a ballgame, I put on classical music. Calms them right down."
Still, the children of the night sometimes return, with dire consequences. "A guy went into the men's room and shot his head off. Business wasn't so good that evening. Later in the week, I told a drunk he couldn't come in. He jammed his hand through the front window, cut his arteries, almost bled to death. The cops arrived and said, 'Schnitta, you gotta cut this shit out.' I said, 'I didn't let him in.' The cop said, 'Yeah, well, that's two in one week.'
"I installed big windows so the cops could see what was going on inside. They liked that."
After the movie was released in 1986, Schnitta's bar business boomed, and he began buying cars, initially a BM W32oi built by Steve Dinan for SCCA racing. "Before my first real race at Elkhart Lake, my mom said, 'Listen, take it easy, okay?' I said, 'I think I'll go as fast as I possibly can.'"
Among Schnitta's current collection, his favorites include an '02 Honda S2000; a '67 Jag XKE; an '06 Lotus Elise; an '87 Lotus Esprit; a '68 Corvette GTi racer; a '94 Mazda RX-7 and an '05 RX-8; an '06 Nissan 350Z; an '05 Porsche Boxster S; a '57 MGA; a '98 Formula Mazda; a '70 Porsche 911 RS that
Schnitta painted French pink ("I love that car, they'll bury me in that car"); two BMW M3S—an '02 and an '08 ("I loaned the first one to my daughter, who never gave it back, so now I have two"); a '97 Formula Ford; a '71 Porsche 911 Targa; and, in Costa Rica, a much-loved '06 Toyota Terios ("top speed around 65 mph").
Right now, Schnitta is consumed by a 1770-foot extension to his racetrack. He's also adding new curbing and flagging stations so the course can be run counterclockwise. "You could race both directions on the same weekend!" he gushes. "I'm 65 years old, and it suddenly occurred to me to go backward. I think it's a good sign. Or maybe something's really wrong with me. Could be. You know, SCCA marshals have black-flagged me twice on my own track. They said I was screwing around. I said, 'I'm just having fun.'" =
"Before my first race at Elkhart Lake, my mom said, Take it easy, okay?" I said, 'I think Til go as fast as I can/ "
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Syd Mead's future is one you'll want to hang around for.
Syd Mead has been drawing the future ever since he discovered that it paid better than drawing new Fords. Mead was designing the taillights for the '62 Falcon F utura as a fresh graduate of the Art Center School in Los Angeles (later called the Art Center College of Design) when a freelance commission came in from U.S. Steel. The company wanted some illustrations of "cars of tomorrow" for a publicity book extolling the thrilling new uses for steel. The vehicles Mead drew were preposterously sleek, seemingly made of every possible material except steel, and often levitating by unexplained means. "I've been trying to get rid of wheels since 1963," says Mead, who quit Ford after two years to become a full-time designer, illustrator, and "futurist."
Today, Mead, 77, lives in the hills above Pasadena in a rectilinear mid-century modern home full of car models and wall-size reproductions of his own work. Significantly, his art is rarelyjust of vehicles. Mead has conjured whole worlds for his backdrops—Shangri-Las, really, with skies of lime green and ocher where handsome and tanned futurel-ings work and frolic among soaring glass pinnacles and iridescent chrome mushrooms, many of which are also levitating inexplicably. What is going on in these "immersive scenarios," as Mead calls them, is often as baffling to people of the here-and-now as an illustration of a Southwest Airlines terminal might be to people in Ben Franklin's day. But in Mead's head, it all makes perfect sense.
"It's an underground polar launch facility," he explains. "The people here are on acceleration couches." And, "this guy's helmet tells you if you've met the person before." And, "genetically, we'll be able to adjust our appearance, and everybody will be buff. I like to draw very large, corpulent ladies and paint them in chrome suits. This one has a five-star frontal crash rating."
If you don't have a copy of his seminal book, Oblagon, Concepts of Syd Mead ($387 from Amazon.com, when it's available), you've likely seen his film work. Director Robert Wise, he of The Sound of Music acclaim, approached Mead to create the alien "V'ger" ship for the superfluously titled 1979 motion picture, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Wise "had this note from the script that the crew was 'looking at something no man has ever seen before.' That was the sum total of the design direction."
Mead's creation was a sort of planet-size futuristic flyingMoscow that spat out giant blue slush balls of deadly energy. Mead also developed the vehicles, gadgets, and streetscapes for the murky 1982 film Blade Runner, which is set in 2019 when L.A. is visited by murderous but highly philosophical androids in black punk leather.
"It's sadomasochistic—on a high-tech basis," he says.
My favorite illustrations are of the mundane—a rush-hour freeway crammed bumper to translucent bumper with tomorrow cars, a parking structure dispensing vehicles robotically, a family tailgating out of the back of their levitating station wagon. "I like arrival scenes," says Mead, who has often drawn people stepping out of their ncc-dle-like bolides at snowbound lodges or at phosphorescent cocktail parties. In Mead's work, you not only get a car, yougct a wi ndow through one artist's eyes into eras to come.
Of course, expectations for the future bend with the prevailing mood of the present. The Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies "were a time of exuberance" for America and for technology, says Mead. Thus, his supersonic, scrubbed-clcan tomorrow seems a bit anachronistic today, when pessimism prevails. War, disease, environmental collapse, the year 2012 when... something... is going to happen—it's all grist for the news cycle and for cinematic amplification. Thanks to advances in computer-generated imagery, you can see each individual person in a crowd being crushed as a city crumbles. Why we pay money and delight in watching our industry, our culture, our cars— every product of mankind's creativity and striving—gleefully erased in film after film is completely beyond me.
For Mead, the real devastation is caused by the "pompous, self-announced 'saviors' of us all," who, in Mead's view, frustrate advances in science and technology out of fear or religious compunction. "I am... an optimist as an intellectual insistence," he says. "To be otherwise plays into the ignorant purview of those who still think medieval life was glamorous."
Gazing at my own 1958 De Soto recently, I was struck by the optimism expressed in designer Virgil Exner's flaring fins and afterburner taillamps. Life sure wasn't perfect in 1958, but people believed technology would eventually improve it. Just as the ancients decorated cave walls with depictions of glorious hunts and hoped-for harvests, Exner offered a glimpse of the era to come of ubiquitous jet travel and pioneering moonshots, writ large on 17 feet of steel.
Sure, it was partially a fantasy. Technology often generates more problems than solutions. But does anybody remember the last time we dreamed about a better future? Syd Mead still does, s
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