Home » How I Went From Being Flat Broke To Getting My Dream Job In Cars

How I Went From Being Flat Broke To Getting My Dream Job In Cars

Dream Gig Sam
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Clearly, you must be thinking, the parking lot was full.

The picture above was taken in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the spring of 2014, at the editorial headquarters of Road & Track. The diminutive machine between cubicle and copier is a 2003 Caterham Seven. Caterhams are sports cars, small and bare-bones, purpose-built in England for speed and feedback. You don’t buy one unless you’re a glutton for punishment. Which is fitting, really, because you don’t decide to be a writer for a living unless, well, same.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Know yourself, Kant said. Or in my case, know the niche you love and the incredible but deeply unstable job you’ve found within it. Stability being, after all, both overrated and temporary in the grand cosmic scheme, while the joy of landing a childhood dream is basically forever.

I’ve never made real money or had anything like job security and I’ll probably never be able to retire. I can’t believe I’ve been so lucky.

[Ed note: Sam Smith is one of the best car writers of our generation (or any generation), which is how he gets away with being largely a mess as a human being. He’s got a new book out: Smithology: Thoughts, Travels, and Semi-Plausible Car Writings, 2003–2023. I asked Sam to let us have an excerpt, both because that’s what you do when your friend writes a book, and also because people constantly ask what it’s like to be a car journalist and I think few people have ever expressed it so eloquently. And because it’s an excerpt I don’t have to pay him. Sucker. – MH]

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In the spring of that photo, I was executive editor at Road & Track. I was two months past my 33rd birthday and had been working toward that job in one way or another since age 13. I had been out of school for 10 years, writing professionally for 11, at R&T for 23 months, and buying parts for funky old project cars since what felt like the dawn of time. I couldn’t get enough of driving, wrenching, club racing, machines, and history, to say nothing of stories and how we tell them.

Vettel Horner
Some dudes come to look at a race car.

“Executive editor” is one of those glamorous but misleading titles of which media organizations are so fond. In this case, it meant that I oversaw Road & Track’s magazine and website. I was neither an actual executive nor top of the ladder—an editor-in-chief one step above ran the whole thing—and I worked 60-hour weeks while watching our budget and resources shrink year after year. But creating anything with other people hit me like a drug, especially in that office.

I got paid to write, research, learn, and drive at speed while surrounded by smart people. I tested every new fast car in the country, traveled to interesting places constantly, kept a diary of the breakaway characteristics of various high-performance tires, met and learned from heroes and jerks the world over. I had experiences in and around automobiles and motorsport that money can’t buy. A new challenge hit my desk almost every day.

Dajiban
I went to Japan’s Ebisu Circuit once, chasing the lore of Dajiban. (Google it.)

I had worked at other car magazines before, but that one was special. First published in 1947, Road & Track was an enthusiast bible, a romance-heavy journal of sports cars and racing. It was the oldest car magazine in the United States and, with more than 600,000 print readers and millions more online, one of the largest and most respected in the world. In a business obsessed with performance statistics, R&T orbited nuance and emotion. It was the magazine I had read when I was young, it was where I first learned that I wasn’t alone in caring about cars and driving for the unmeasurables, and it was where I had always wanted to be.

The job is strange when you’re doing it and can be downright absurd in retrospect. Looking back through my bylines and files can feel like rifling through someone else’s life. I drove a Jeep with no doors to an oil-well town on the Arctic Ocean, cupholders catching snow on the tundra. I track‐tested a Porsche 962 prototype that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans —230 mph, 700 hp, seven figures of history on the hoof—but I’ve also strapped into one of the five 700-hp Mazda prototypes built specifically to dethrone that very Porsche in that very race. Work has gifted me first-hand experience with cult collectives in rural Japan, Hitler-fighting Italian armchairs in the Pacific Northwest, and midnight hallucinations amid 30-hour stretches in motorcycle sidecars. To say nothing of countless inspirational lives here and gone.

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Who gets to do this stuff? In what world does any of it qualify as employment?

At Goodwood Revival Credit Goodwood Road And Racing
Racing a Jaguar XK-120 at the Goodwood Revival for R&T, 2015.

All I can tell you is that pinch-me moments don’t live in memory as you’d think. Several years ago, I traveled to England for a story about competing as an also-ran in the Goodwood Revival, one of the world’s most cutthroat vintage races. In an odd turn of events, I ended up surprising my backers (and myself, honestly) by qualifying on the front row, at a track I’d never driven, in a 60-year-old Jaguar I had just met.

The whole affair was astonishing and perfect, and yet I remember little of my time at the wheel. What I do recall, with pinpoint clarity, is the night on the same weekend that I spent drinking gin in a muddy campground with a 95-year-old former development driver for Jaguar, one of my childhood heroes. We talked about risk and heartbreak and what it felt like to nearly die in a race car in midcentury France.

That man is no longer with us; he passed away in 2019. But in those moments, chuckling into his glass in that dark English field, he gave me a small part of what it means to be alive.

Arctic Ocean Jeep Mountains2
In Alaska, headed to the Arctic Ocean in a Jeep Wrangler with no doors for R&T, 2018.

My father, a Road & Track reader, ran a restoration shop when I was young. In high school, I spent more afternoons there than I could count. In college, a career counselor asked what I wanted to do for a living. “Work for a car magazine” seemed hilariously optimistic, so I told her I had no idea. Think about it for the weekend, she said, and come back with a list of things you like doing. I spent two days reading Douglas Adams, drinking bourbon, and playing Gran Turismo.

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Then I went back to her office on Monday and said that being a writer sounded like fun.

Was I certain, she asked. When I answered, she repeated the question. When I didn’t cave, she offered to help however she could. “You won’t make much money, but every day will be different, and you’ll be learning all the time.”

Being easily distracted and more than a little shy, I didn’t think to ask why she double-checked. I simply signed up for a raft of journalism and literature classes and read everything I could get my hands on. Then I graduated a year late, having spent too much time screwing around with cars to wrap my degree on schedule.

That’s about when I went stone-cold broke, but not for the reasons you’d think. I found work as a mechanic, an outgrowth of a college job I had landed at a small Alfa Romeo shop near campus. Somewhere along the line, I discovered track days and amateur racing. (Summary of both for the unfamiliar: driving in circles while feeding your paycheck to a blender and being thrilled to do it.) After graduation, possessing both zero financial intelligence and my first regular income, I dipped a toe into club-level road racing. Then I dove in, head-first, on a salary that wouldn’t have supported a season in competitive ping-pong.

At Indy Credit Nbc Sports
At Indianapolis, shooting the NBC Sports TV show Proving Grounds, 2019.

If my story were a movie, this would be the turning point. Where your narrator finds success in some backmarking clunker, gets noticed by Enzo Ferrari’s ghost, meets fame and fortune, the end. In reality, I met an almost comical amount of opt-in poverty. I ate ramen noodles for years in exchange for driving the hubs off an uncompetitive old race car, sleeping in borrowed tow rigs and winning only when everyone else broke. I loved it anyway. I loved it so much, in fact, that when I finally ran out of money and credit limit, I capped the whole thing—funded my last race for years to come—by selling my living-room furniture for one last set of tires.

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You can sleep in your car, as the line goes, but you can’t race your house. Or sofa, as it were. (I didn’t date much.)

I was busted but content, going nowhere and happy about it. And then, in December 2005, I landed an assistant-editor spot at a Michigan car magazine called Automobile. The tone shift was surreal. I knew nothing about editing, but that was fine; the “assistant” part was the whole job. On my first day, in the small back room of a rabbit-warren office near Detroit, I was assigned to fact-check a 3500-word feature story on midcentury Formula 1. I would have paid to do that, did work like that on weekends for fun, but now there was a 15-person staff to help, and there was health insurance and free coffee, and when all that truly set in, I nearly fell off my chair from shock.

At lunch, while slurping up noodles in the office kitchen, I listened, rapt, as two of the staff’s resident club racers discussed Corvette handling. At 5:00 that evening, I shut my laptop, clicked off my desk light, and walked out to my car on air. The next day, I stayed at the office until midnight, reading out-of-print racing books from the office library. One week later, in a fit of extravagance, I bought a $12 hamburger and four cheap tires for my daily driver on the same day. I felt like Croesus.

Twenty years ago, the world’s big car magazines had money and influence and sat smack in the middle of the culture they covered. They had been in that position for roughly nine decades. A handful of titles in America—Automobile, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Road & Track—were the world’s largest and most trusted sources for automotive news and entertainment and their editors knew it. Imagine The Devil Wears Prada minus devil and Prada. One week, you were flying to Spain with three other staffers to group-test new supercars that wouldn’t see dealers for months. The next, you were sitting down with family-sedan engineers who had flown across the country to give your office a presentation on the tech tricks that let their new V-6 make 20 more horsepower from 15 percent less fuel. Or maybe that week’s guest would be the winner of the last Indy 500 or the president of Lamborghini.

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In quiet moments, we were renting racetracks or private roads for tests or listening to the art director tell stories about booking the Universal Studios back lot for a splashy photo shoot. Being a staff writer meant pitching your own adventures, unpacking technology and history, meeting the world’s most interesting people, mainlining dopamine through mechanical novelty and education. Breaking down the behavior and engineering of new cars was the least compelling part, and even that was ferociously compelling.

I couldn’t get enough of the storytelling and the people. Exploring why something happened a certain way or finding out I was wrong and being able to throw some long-held belief out the window.

Testing Mclaren F1 Gtr
Testing an ex-Le Mans McLaren F1 GTR at the Pitt Race road course, near Pittsburgh, 2019.

Automotive culture runs on the same simple equation as anything else we care about: What you get out is directly related to what you put in. You can view a traffic jam as a source of misery or a chance to breathe; a car show is either a boring static parking lot or a stack of people gathered to celebrate something they think makes life worth living.

Every kid who can’t explain why they like things loud and fast is really just drawn to the notion of control in an uncontrolled world. How far we can push past known answers. How humanity is at its best wondering what lies beyond a lap record, the next hill, the limits of an athlete’s endurance.

The machine might not be around forever, but that pull will. And if I’ve learned anything from all this, from 20 years living and breathing this stuff, it’s simple: Our relationship with the machine says far more about us than we might like to admit.

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This is Sam’s first book. Go buy it here because it’s great and I can’t keep giving him jobs. Also, listen to his podcast.

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SAABstory
SAABstory
19 days ago

Holy shit, Sam Smith on the Autopian. Felt for a moment to be back in the halcyon days of car mags. Reminds me of reading all those great writers.

BTW, reading car magazines at an impressionable age has led me to constantly price check Bugeye Sprite prices. I (reverently) blame Peter Egan.

Jeff Jordan
Jeff Jordan
20 days ago

Always enjoy reading Sam Smith. And I used the link to order the book.

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
21 days ago

And another name amongst names appears on the same website as my silly little babblings. Fantastic stuff. I’ll definitely be picking up the book!

Is Travis
Is Travis
21 days ago

Inspiring write up! I was once a snowboard bum who lived all over the place scrapping it similar to your early broke days, we even did a motorhome stint for a stretch.
Awesome stuff.

Ohgodwhyme
Ohgodwhyme
21 days ago

Sam Smith! Most excellent! I discovered Sam in Roundel where he seemed to spend most of his time trying to keep old bimmers roadworthy (or trying his best to do things to them to make them less roadworthy). Loved reading every word.

If I had a do over, I would live a Sam Smith life.

Cullen Krause
Cullen Krause
21 days ago

Bought the book!
Love to see Sam on the Autopian.
Torch & Sam are the best.

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
21 days ago

I miss magazines. When you didn’t have a daily turnover of information you made the time to read stories over again and pick up something you missed the first time. You could savor a magazine. My teachers would ask me if I read any books and I would tell them about my love for car and motorcycle magazines. They always replied that magazines aren’t books. I agreed with them because that’s what they needed to hear. They were wrong. I’ve enjoyed your writing for quite some time, Mr. Smith. Many thanks.

AceRimmer
AceRimmer
16 days ago
Reply to  Dodsworth

Hey, they’re still out there! I make it a point to keep a paper magazine subscription to Road and Track and Car and Driver, even if it costs more and and only get 6 issues each/year. Long live printed media!

Aaron Berga
Aaron Berga
21 days ago

There are exactly two people that write stuff about cars and other things in the world that I read every article I get my grubby little hands on. Sam Smith and Jack Baruth. Torch is almost on that list, but some of the tail light ones are a bit too far.

Eslader
Eslader
21 days ago
Reply to  Aaron Berga

Did you see Torch got quoted in Vox and didn’t mention tail lights once?

I got a little worried about him…

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
21 days ago
Reply to  Aaron Berga

Jack is amazing. If Sam is in his rarified air, then hopefully we hear more from him

Sandy Eggo
Sandy Eggo
21 days ago

I had a mild freak-out seeing Sam Smith’s name under the Autopian header. Love his work! I got my copy of the book a few days ago and am eager to start reading.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
21 days ago

Sam Smith!!! My favorite auto writer!!! (Love you autopians!!! My brain just seems to ramble in a similar manner as Sams based on his writing at least, haha). I’ll be buying the book post haste, been over on Hagerty rereading articles from a couple years ago anyway….

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
21 days ago

Sam! It’s great to see his name here. I was lucky enough to get him to drive on my endurance racing team for one, 24-hour race. We won that race overall. He fixed our lighting rig with Gorilla tape! His lap times were nearly the same at night as in the day! To sum up: a good guy 10/10 strongly recommend.

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
21 days ago

I just about blew a head gasket when I saw the byline for this one. “How in blazes did they get Sam Smith?!?” I wondered.

While I am sad to see that he’s only here as a guest (Dajibans passing in the night…), I am still thrilled to see him here. When Larry Webster brought him over to R&T was a period when the writing returned to the level of the period when I started reading it back in the 90s (Kim Reynolds’ review of the first water-cooled 911 springs to mind).

As others have said, I saw Sam Smith as being up in Peter Egan’s rarified air. When Egan slowed down his writing, Sam Smith kept me subscribing.

And I guess I need to see if I can find his book.

Cars? I've owned a few
Cars? I've owned a few
20 days ago
Reply to  Rollin Hand

Wow. Peter Egan… That takes me back. Egan also wrote for Flying magazine, so some months I got to read two of his articles.

I think Sam lived in the same Seattle suburb I did before he moved to Knoxville. I kept looking for vehicles he described in some of his columns, hoping to meet such an amazing writer in person, but never spotted them/him.

Leon Muks
Leon Muks
21 days ago

I discovered the joys of R&T in the early seventies before a lot of the staff became legends. Henry Manny, Peter Egan, the Bonds were my guides into the classic car hobby.
I dove deep into classic British cars, owning MGs and Minis. I helped a dear friend restore a ’64 E-Type. Attended vintage races around the Southeast where I discovered that the owners were there to have fun, too.
I was honored to have a some of my writing published in a couple of enthusiast magazines and took a part time job writing for a boiler room-type web site. I put a lot more into the writing than what the pay would imply.
Keep following your dream – A lot us enjoy riding shotgun!

ESO
ESO
21 days ago

That second picture – ha! “Some dudes come to look at a race car”.

The “dudes”, including a 4-time world champion, looking at a race car that many grown men would swoon (and some possibly faint) to be in the actual presence of…

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
21 days ago

Man, the emotions and memories elicited by this piece are nearly overwhelming! It accomplished several things for me: I dug out a couple of back issues AQ and yes, they are as great as I remembered; It got me looking back on some Peter Egan links that I had mostly forgotten; and I did a deep dive on Sam Smith!

Deeply appreciate the effort that went into producing this article.

JerryLH3
JerryLH3
21 days ago

Holy crap, nice to see Sam Smith here, even if it is just a book excerpt! Sam is truly the Peter Egan of the next generation (well, not that anyone can be Peter Egan, but Sam is of the same mold). I’ve always enjoyed his writing.

Codfangler
Codfangler
21 days ago

I fondly recall his writing from RoadTrack, his work was almost as good as Peter Egan’s.

A. Barth
A. Barth
21 days ago
Reply to  Codfangler

I say this in all sincerity: that is high praise indeed.

JerryLH3
JerryLH3
21 days ago
Reply to  Codfangler

Haha, I was typing almost the exact same comment. For anyone not familiar with Peter Egan, anyone who is almost as good as Peter Egan is definitely still very, very good.

Dennis Ames
Dennis Ames
21 days ago

I liked reading Sam Smith, and the people of C&D, Automobile, and Autoweek, which I thought was much better for F1 racing news in the 80’s and 90’s until the internet came along.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
21 days ago

Amazon says I’ll have your book by Monday. Good luck!

Tbird
Tbird
21 days ago

Sam, we are the same generation and while I pursued an engineering degree you pursued your (our?) dreams. So glad to have you on the byline here. I admired your writing for R&T always imaging I could be you. Godspeed

Matt Hardigree
Matt Hardigree
21 days ago
Reply to  Tbird

How much candy do you eat now? Quadruple it, and you’re getting at least 20% of the experience.

Tbird
Tbird
21 days ago
Reply to  Matt Hardigree

Not a big candy eater. Best enthusiast car I owed was a ’94 SHO, 5 speed. Had to sell because it would not fit a circa 2005 rear facing child seat.

Matt Hardigree
Matt Hardigree
21 days ago
Reply to  Sam Smith

That poooor kid!

Alexk98
Alexk98
21 days ago

Since I didn’t see it linked, give a listen to Sams Other podcast Driven To Fail. I have zero association with it, but listened to it and it is an excellent behind the scenes of some super awesome automotive history!

Aaron Berga
Aaron Berga
21 days ago
Reply to  Alexk98

He has a new one. It’s called “It’s not the car”. Highly recommended.

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