Dateline: Friday, April 1, 2022
So, here I am at 36,000 feet heading to Sonoma, California. This is supposed to be the exciting, upbeat kick-off newsletter for our first race of the 2022 SRO GT4 SprintX Championship season, but instead I am bearing an incredibly somber message. One week ago, Tom McCready, a pillar of everything scR motorsports, left us suddenly. Too suddenly. And now I somehow have to put pen to paper here and share a few stories about Tom because it’s the only way I have to start letting him go.
Tom was 49 years old and was nothing if not my best friend. Tom was the Mater to my Lightning McQueen, although he would probably poke back that I was the Mater to his Lightning McQueen. We worked together, raced together, taught together, traveled together, played together, wrote together, laughed together, and cried together. It was a remarkable 25-year journey, and he will forever be my wingman, or co-driver as the case may be. And now I’m going to tell you a little more about him through the James Walker, Jr. lens (including all of the distortion that entails).
Our paths first crossed in 1990 at General Motors Engineering and Management Institute. Tom was one year behind me at GMI, but we were both pursuing the same major – automotive mechanical engineering. We shared a few classes along the way, but never connected as he was always that weird guy with a mullet. Oh, and he was in the “wrong” fraternity, so for the duration of our college experience we lived in separate worlds. I do recall listening to his band play from time to time at a local bar there in Flint, Michigan, but otherwise we kept our distance and did our own thing.
From the 1990 GMI yearbook. In case you’re wondering, Tom is the one with the mullet.
Following graduation, Tom stayed on full-time with his co-op sponsor, the Delco Chassis division of General Motors (later to become Delphi Chassis). By a strange twist of fate, I ended up working at Saturn a few years later as a brake system engineer and found Tom to be my supplier counterpart. Yes, he still had the mullet, but I quickly learned that he was a solid engineer, a great project manager, and a trusted confidant when the business side of things tried to drive a wedge between our two organizations. For three years we worked hand-in-hand on a daily basis, doing our best to develop the very best brake systems that we could. We were surrounded by a spectacular team of individuals (you know who you are), but at the end of the day it was essentially up to Tom and me to keep the program moving in the right direction.
As you might remember from our last newsletter, in 1997 I had the courage (?) to kick off scR motorsports. And if you have been reading along since the early days, you know that Tom was a fixture in our SCCA paddock. For seven years he served as crew chief and tow vehicle driver, and I am pretty confident that if we took the time to tally it all up, he attended more SSC and ITA races than any other person on the team scR roster. He was a rock, never flinching, never complaining, and always focused on getting the car to the track on time so that I could go out and do something (usually) foolish with it. His only reward was consuming an inordinate amount of Outback Steakhouse and Dairy Queen, but that never bothered him. He was there for the love of the sport and the time spent with his friends.
From left to right: Ed, Mark, Tom (with mullet), Chris, and James at Mid-Ohio, circa 1997.
One of the more memorable stories in this timeframe doesn’t involve a race, but rather an impromptu road trip. Tom, Mark, and I decided rather spontaneously to watch another friend race at the American Road Race of Champions at Road Atlanta. This decision was made on a Thursday afternoon and the race was that Saturday…and about 1,300 miles away. In the days before we could all afford airplane tickets, we piled in a development vehicle from work (this is still a secret to this day, so please don’t tell anybody) and drove non-stop to Georgia. On the return trip we hustled the little Mercedes through Deal’s Gap multiple times, the brake pads smoking violently in protest at each turn-around. It was nothing but pure, unadulterated fun and three days that I will cherish forever.
From left to right: James, Mark, and Tom having way too much fun in a company car, circa 1999.
While racing slowed down for me in 2004, Tom and I took this opportunity to develop a professional development seminar for the Society of Automotive Engineers. Because that’s what normal people do in their spare time, right? Over the next 18 years, Applied Vehicle Dynamics became one of the most highly decorated titles in the SAE catalog, culminating with our “major award” from IACET in 2015. I don’t recall all of the details of the award, but man I sure remember Tom and me having way too much to drink that evening with Kevin, our adult supervision from SAE. That awards celebration was an event I’ll simply never forget.
But no talk about our seminar would be complete without a mention of the autocross competition that occurred following the first day of class. Tom and I had an 18-year history of squaring off in the car to see who would navigate his way around the track the quickest. Being an OCD engineer, I religiously kept track of the results in spreadsheet format, calculating our cumulative average lap times after each event. The spreadsheet is unfortunately now frozen forever in time, with Tom taking the overall honors with a fastest average lap time of 27.89 seconds to my 27.98 seconds. That’s an average lap time difference of 0.09 second over a period of 18 years. I can’t think of a better metaphor to describe just how close we were.
From left to right: Erik, Patrick, James, Tom (notably without mullet), and Ed. The SAE vehicle dynamics syndicate, circa 2013.
When scR motorsports crawled back out of hibernation in 2011, Tom signed up to be one of the first back on board. While racing a pair of $500 Saturns in the ChumpCar series wasn’t a radical departure from our days with SCCA, this was most notably Tom’s first opportunity to take the wheel and drive with us. And I won’t lie, he was a natural. He could wheel those Saturns with the best of us. Our low-dollar endeavors only lasted three short seasons, but each and every time we rolled those cars out on track it made for a good story. Newsletters from that era are still some of my favorites, not for the incredible writing and prose (you can smirk there if you like) but for the rich memories that we created one 12.8-gallon tank of gas at a time. The gang still pleads with Mark to wake the cars out of their deep sleep to chase a few more checkered flags together, but if we end up back on track someday, we will surely miss Tom and the trusty “speed pillow” that helped him to see over the steering wheel.
Here’s Tom navigating the high banks of Texas World Speedway, circa 2011. Don’t overlook the Hello Kitty Duct Tape on the front fender.
In 2012, Tom and I had the opportunity to travel to Germany together to drive on the storied Nürburgring. Epic. Trip. Two buddies spending seven days touring Germany in a Porsche 911 (thank you, Avis), culminating with two full days of driver training in brand-new BMW M3s at the most famous and most exciting racetrack in the world. What can go wrong? Cue favorite Tom story here.
Our group consisted of about 10 guys, all car nerds of one sort or another. On Wednesday we toured the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart and needed to drive up to Nürburg for dinner that evening in advance of our school on Thursday morning. Now I forget now just how far Stuttgart was from Nürburg, but naturally it turned into a cross-country race with the last ones to arrive buying beer or something cliché like that. Tom diligently entered the hotel address into the GPS, and we took off in our rear-engined rental car, talking and laughing continuously for hours as we sped across the picturesque countryside.
All was going great until the GPS chirped that we would be at our destination in 5 kilometers. The problem was that we had blindly followed the instructions to the town of Dusseldorf. Now if you’re a typical American like me you really don’t know much about Dusseldorf, but I knew enough to realize that it was not anywhere even close to the town of Nürburg. Turns out that instead of entering the hotel address into the GPS, Tom had entered the hotel chain corporate headquarters’ address, and in the thrill of the moment we both had paid no attention to the error.
After laughing hysterically and collecting our thoughts, we figured out that we were about 60 miles north of our intended destination. We called the rest of the group and discovered that they were naturally already at the restaurant bar enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail without us. When they told us dinner was starting in approximately 30 minutes, the challenge was accepted. Leveraging the power of the autobahn, we made it to the restaurant about three minutes before the salads were served, reaching a top speed at one point of more than 180 miles per hour. And Tom got the whole thing on video.
German autobahn. Porsche 911. No traffic. This naturally results in absurd speeds. Camera credit to Tom, circa 2012.
Tom and I went back to Germany in 2016, but I need to be honest. It wasn’t quite the same. Yes, we drank a lot of great beer, yes, we drove irresponsibly fast, and yes, we cheated death once again at the ‘Ring. But something about that first trip was so special. So very, very special. And damnit, here come the tears again.
Eight guys catching their breath between driving sessions at the Green Hell, circa 2012.
When I resumed racing in earnest in 2017, Tom’s career at Harley-Davidson was in full swing so he wasn’t able to commit nearly as much time to imprudently following me around the country as he had in years past. But that said, he never missed a race at Road America. Without fail, he would ride up to Elkhart Lake on something with two wheels and join in the weekend’s festivities. More often than not he would drag others along with him, simply because he wanted them to share in the fun. He could also be counted on to wear his limited-edition red scR motorsports polo shirt from 1998, remarkably none the worse for wear after all of those years.
It was always Tom’s job to hold the trophy in victory circle. Photo taken after a class win at Road America, circa 2017.
I could go on and on like this all day. I would love to tell you about how Tom so graciously helped me write several chapters of High-Performance Brake Systems in 2005. Or how our careers intersected again when I took a job a Delphi Chassis in 2002 and supported Tom’s work managing the GMX245 (that’s the C6 Corvette for the uninitiated) electronic brake control systems program. And furthermore, you might find it quite the coincidence that my middle son’s middle name is Thomas. But I’m going to move in a different direction now because, much as this trip down memory lane has been cathartic, story time is over.
When I answered my phone on that Friday evening, I was told that Tom had been found unresponsive in his bed earlier that afternoon. And I came unglued. Not in a sobbing, hysterical kind of way, but I felt like I had been completely emptied. Hollow is the only word that makes sense even now. I was asked to start making “those” phone calls on behalf of the family and cried through every single one of them. “Those” calls continued to be made for next few days, and while it never really got any easier, I was comforted time and time again by those that held Tom’s friendship near and dear to them. If you’re on this distribution list, there’s greater than a 50 percent chance you were one of them. Thank you so very much for all of the kind words even though I had little capacity to remember them all.
Compounding the situation (as if it needed to be compounded) was that Tom and I were scheduled to deliver our SAE class in Palm Springs, California just three days later. For this reason, most of my very first calls were to the rest of the instructing team to figure out how we needed to move forward. With the support of SAE, we unanimously elected to continue on with the seminar, but as you can imagine it was, without exaggerating, likely the most difficult thing I have ever done. As I stood up in front of our 27 attendees and cried for a moment or two while informing them of the uniqueness of the emerging situation on Monday morning, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. We sat, we shared, and we moved forward with the simple study of how cars go, stop, and turn. I’ll be forever grateful to everyone in that room that day for letting Ed, Erik, Patrick, and me share our fondest memories and stories about our friend. I’m sure it was awkward at times, but the healing process sometimes needs that kind of space in which to operate.
From left to right: Erik, Patrick, James, a space for Tom, and Ed. The SAE vehicle dynamics syndicate, circa 2022.
On Thursday, I traveled from California to Ohio in preparation for the various services and gatherings about to take place. As you might imagine, the time flew by, and when I gave the eulogy at Tom’s funeral on Saturday, I clearly wasn’t ready for it on a number of levels. But then again, how can one ever be? I laughed a little, I cried a little, and hugged a lot of people. We then all drove to the cemetery and did more of the same. This was followed by a delightful reception and evening out with many of Tom’s closest friends and family, but in spite of the incredible coming together, fellowship, and camaraderie, I left Ohio feeling, well, hollow all over again. And while I know this is a natural part of the human condition, grieving cannot rule the day. Desperation is not the end game, and death does not have the final say.
This coming Sunday is Easter, arguably the most important event in all of history to those of Christian belief. And the unbridled joy of that day when Jesus overcame death is something that Tom accepted for himself through his baptism in 2004. At the risk of getting a little preachy here, Tom knew that he was saved through no action of his own, but because God loved him enough to sacrifice his only Son for his benefit. So, unlike our autocross competitions where Tom and I were on pins and needles, anxious to see how the finishing order would end up time and time again, Tom knew this race was already won for him. It gave him hope, and it gives me hope too.
At times this world will suck. Right now is one of those times. And we all miss Tom like crazy. And we will cry. And we will mourn. But there is a Championship Round beyond our wildest dreams where all is made right again. So, while I do not claim to understand this great mystery, hope provides me with my very own spiritual “speed pillow” in times when I fail to understand the sovereignty of God’s plan. Or, more succinctly, hope helps me to see over, in some small part, God’s steering wheel.
See you at the finish line, Tom. Don’t forget that it’s still your job to hold the trophy in victory circle. And save a sip of champagne for me.