How I Became a Gearhead

Every gearhead, it seems, has a story to describe the origins of his (or her) obsession. Some grow up around cars, constantly exposed to car talk, tinkering, motorsports, or some other automotive endeavor by some close friend or family member. Others kind of stumble in to it, one day happening to walk past a car show and falling in love with them, or some such. Still others seem to have a predisposition bred in to them from day one.

My own path was slightly less direct than any of those — and way more nerdtastic. Rather than stumbling on to a car show at a young age, I stumbled on to Star Trek.

But let me stop you before the serious eye rolling starts. This isn’t that kind of story. I didn’t give a damn about the highly developed characters, the storylines that mirrored political and social questions of the time or about soap opera-esque sub plots. I didn’t care much for Kirk or Picard, Riker or Spock, Data or Uhura. Actually, I think one of the best lines to come from anything Star Trek related was in a Beavis and Butthead episode where Butthead (as Picard) tells Beavis (as Riker), “Number One, go take a number two.”

No, what fascinated me was the ships — and not in a “oh I love the Starship Enterprise” or “oh, isn’t that a spiffy special effect” kind of way, either.

Actually, I wasn’t even all that interested in the Enterprise itself. I sat in front of the TV eagerly each week, hoping that this episode would feature a starship of a different design than the Enterprise. Then, I could study its shape and design and figure out what it would be best used for and what its advantages and disadvantages would be, compared to the others. I especially loved looking at the smaller, more nimble ships — the runabouts, frigates and corvettes, to use nautical terms. The big cruisers were neat, but I focused most of my attention on the lighter craft. Even in those days, I guess, I had a tendency towards smaller, lighter and faster over heavy and powerful.

Unsurprisingly, this level of fascination earned me an unflattering reputation among the other children. I had a sneaking suspicion, though, that their snickers and rude jokes masked a feeling of inadequacy because secretly they knew they couldn’t comprehend what I was talking about.

Or it could have been that the notebook I carried around full of screen shots printed out in trading card sizes actually was a bit nerdy.

Whatever the case, I continued to get information on every ship I could from every source I could find. I can still recite many of the ship names and classifications and describe the shapes and what I liked best about each. It became a bit of an obsession, to say the least.

That obsession reached new levels when I discovered Star Wars in seventh grade. I had seen the trilogy when I was much younger, but I didn’t really remember it. The level of imagination and creativity that went in to the ships was, if anything, even better than Star Trek. Here I had examples ranging from one-man fighter craft to heavy capital cruisers, and everything in between. Schoolwork be damned, this was way too cool to spend something other than all of my free time on.

Again I amassed a huge knowledge of different types of craft and their uses. Now, though, I took the geekery to a new height by breaking them down in to parts. I can still tell you, for instance, that the A-Wing starfighter used by the Rebel Alliance pilots in Return of the Jedi is powered by twin “Event Horizon” engines made by the Novaldex Corporation. I can also tell you that, with that configuration, the A-Wing was the fastest, most maneuverable fighter available — more than a match for the twin ion engined TIE Advanced fighter used by the Empire, which, though fast and maneuverable as well, doesn’t afford its pilot the protection of shields or… *ahem* I seem to have digressed.

Anyway, the point is, at that time in my life I could be satisfied by books and magazines with technical specifications and schematics for imaginary machines. By the time I was 14, though, that was no longer enough. I had learned all I could by oggling a piece of paper; now I wanted to get my hands on something and take it apart. Sadly, though, there were no A-Wings available, so my interest in fictional machinery began to wane.

Logically, it was right around this time I noticed that there were actually machines in use by real people around me; machines that I could compare in even greater detail than I had for my sci-fi obsessions. Best of all, though, these were also machines that I could touch. Sure, they weren’t space cruisers or fighter craft. Because they were real and tactile, though, they became even more interesting to me than the imaginary creations of either Lucas or Roddenberry.

And so the process started again. I bought every car magazine I could find; went out and popped the hood on both my parents’ cars and studied the engine configurations; learned everything I could about the strengths and weaknesses of different types of cars — everything I had done for starships, but now on a much more tactile level.

By the time I got my first car, then, I had learned all I could about the theory. Now it was time to put what I had learned in to practice. I was, in short, primed and ready to become the gearhead I am today.

Am I still a nerd? Probably. But if I am, I am a damn happy one.

About Chris Nelson

Chris is a writer and communicator with backgrounds in public relations, communication, political science and automotive technology. He holds an M.A. from Rowan University and a B.A. from Susquehanna University in addition to a certificate in Auto Tech from Lincoln Technical Institute.

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