Who launched your passion for cars? For me it was my dad.
Cars were definitely a thing growing up in the DeGraff house. When I was stroller-bound, my parents used to roll me down the street to the corner of of Brown Deer Road and Pelham Parkway to watch cars drive by, rain or shine, for hours. Then came the abundance of tiny Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Micro Machines toy cars that caused traffic jams in the hallways, scratching up the floors, or raced in circuits around the table legs of our kitchen. I also vaguely remember being gifted a Hot Wheels or Matchbox car as a reward for successfully doing my duty during toddler potty training.
My father has always been into cars, telling me stories about doing his first burnout in a Olds Cutlass 442, how he almost bought a Jensen Interceptor, or road tripping from Ohio to Wisconsin in a Toyota Celica during the late 1970s. He loves all-things Mazda, once owning a 1984 RX-7 and then an ’86. That burgundy ’86 stayed in our family until my littlest brother, Jamie, came around in 1995. Damnit, Jamie, now we had to get a minivan. I remember going out into the garage, and exploring that orange rotary-powered machine, opening up the rear storage hatches behind the front seats, pulling on the gear shifter, grabbing the ribbed steering wheel. Sunday afternoons on the way home from church, my brother Chris and I used to crawl in the back beneath the rear glass hatch, and dad would fling his car swiftly left then right, going down the road like it was a roller coaster. We’d laugh as we flew, unbuckled of course, from one side of the “7” to the other.
As my adolescences continued into the middle school years, the RX-7 got sold and a green Ford Windstar dubbed “Ocho” for unknown reasons, and a leather-canvassed V6 Toyota Camry XLE took its place. My dad so missed having a sports car, but then rumors came out about the return of the rotary. There was this thing called the “RX-8” coming soon, and my dad was hooked, instantly. I remember going to the Milwaukee Auto Show with him and seeing a pre-production model for the first time. It shined red under the bright fluorescent lights of the Midwest Express center. “I wanna buy it,” I remember him telling me. He was so excited, and months later we arrived at the local Mazda dealership and took one for a test drive. He shopped around, and on a November day in the fall of 2003 when I was walking home from school, I saw a Titanium Gray RX-8 sitting in our driveway with temporary plates on. He had followed his dream and bought it as a retirement present. The next morning, he dropped me off at school in it and all of my best friends ran out eager to see the new “8” when he pulled up revving its 1.3-liter Renesis high into the choir lofts of the tachometer. This ignited my passion for cars like wildfire.
Approaching age 16, my dad saw my obsession for cars growing, and growing, and growing. I was asking to go out and start the car, then drive it around to the front of our house, or pull the car into the garage on our way back from school. When I turned 14 before my freshman year of high school, he took me out and taught me how to drive stick on the RX-8’s tight six-speed manual. I remember every time I nervously stalled it, he’d laugh and just say “You’re fine, you didn’t break it, try again.” Thankfully his patience held up through all the embarrassing gos at trying to parallel park right before my driver’s license test.
After my sophomore year of high school, we went car shopping, and seeing how my love for cars was at the “just got your driver’s license climax” stage, he agreed to buy me a sports car, with the understanding that I took care of it, paid for gas and stayed out of trouble. We spent weekends floating between used car lots across Milwaukee, looking for sub-$10,000 “fun” cars that I had been drooling over. Mustangs, Camaros, 3000GTs, Celicas, 3000ZXs, Preludes. Pretty much anything a high school car nerd would geek out over, dream of customizing in the latest Need For Speed Underground on Playstation, then probably lose their license with. Truthfully I had always wanted a fourth-generation Camaro, ever since going to the Chicago International Auto Show in 2002, seeing a 35th Anniversary SS convertible on display, grabbing a poster for it and hanging it up in my bedroom wall where today it still is taped onto the 1970s wood paneling. At a crowded used car lot in Milwaukee’s West Allis neighborhood, we found a red 2001 Camaro with T-Tops and the most atrocious, back-alley purple DIY window tinting job. We took it for a test drive and I fell in love. I drove that Camaro home that afternoon and I still own the exact car twelve-years later. It’s my pride and joy, and it wouldn’t have happened without my dad’s shared excitement for motoring.
Speeding tickets, speeding tickets, speeding tickets. He’d shake his head, call me an idiot and help me navigate the whole “thing you’re supposed to do” when you get into trouble as a juvenile driver. In high school I detailed cars at the local Toyota dealership, valeted through college, and began working a career in automotive journalism after earning that pricey degree. Buying cars, autocross racing, riding home two vintage motorcycles, and polluting my parents’ garage with car parts, tools, and spilled oil. My dad continued to selflessly support me and this passion. At 28, I’m still getting car books for Christmas, birthday cakes with Hot Wheels cars on top stuck in the thick vanilla frosting, emails with links to stories about classic muscle cars. My dad and I have started going to our weekly Tuesday night car show together, and it’s quickly turned into one of my absolute favorite traditions. We’ll walk past rows of shining, polished and waxed rides, pointing out our favorite things about said vehicle. He’ll ask me “What is this?” and I’ll answer with whatever knowledge or fact that springs to mind. He loves these conversations, and I love getting to share with my dad something new about car technology or explain what makes, say, an old, mint Suzuki Jimny so special.
I credit my father, Robb, for sculpting me into the obsessed gear head I am today, and give upmost praise to all his support and encouragement. Now I just need to sway his objections towards me performing an engine swap in his driveway or taking out a bank loan on a used 911.
Paying Tribute to My Motoring Roots
Who launched your passion for cars? For me it was my dad.