Right before I went to bed last night, I got the news that Mike Kline, who with Danny Kao built and raced one of the most well-known CSP cars on the National autocross circuit, passed away. My weekend had been going pretty swell up until that point when the sledgehammer of loss fell upon my spirits.
My story with Mike only really began when I got to know him over just the past few years. And yet, in that short time, he had made enough of an effect on me that, despite being casual acquaintances at best, I’m truly gutted by his passing.
Not all that good at dealing with death
My roommate Darrien and I were having dinner last night when the conversation turned to death and mourning. Darrien’s uncle has just passed away, and the next day (today) he would be making the drive back to Chicago for the funeral. Of the people in my life, I’ve only had two people pass away — my high school math teacher, who passed away from cancer shortly after I took her class, and my grandfather, who passed away a few years ago in China. I gave a blubbering soliloquy at my math teacher’s memorial service. My grandfather I had to mourn an ocean away.
Those were people that one could argue were very important and influential in my life. Naturally, one could excuse the grief and tears I shed over those losses.
But I wasn’t prepared for this loss. If we look at it straight, I’ve only ever seen and interacted with Mike a handful of times over the past three years, almost all of those in the context of a National autocross event. That he is gone from this world at a young age due to cancer is tragic, yes, but there are thousands of people that we become acquainted with that come and go in our lives. Why would his death carry so much weight?
Perhaps there is more to it.
My story with Mike
I haven’t been autocrossing on the National circuit all that long, and with my priorities starting to wander off elsewhere, there’s no telling if I’ll continue to be a regular presence at big autocross events around the country. In short, I haven’t been around long enough to really plant deep social roots in the National autocross crowd.
Yet, I somehow managed to root myself with the Washington DC Region (WDCR), and effectively consider that region to be my “home region away from home” whenever I’m at a National event. Maybe it’s because I started my National autocross life as an STR driver, and when it comes to STR competition east of the Mississippi River, there is a heavy concentration of it in the New England area, so when I first started competing seriously, I would often find myself surrounded by WDCR folks.
And when you hang out with WDCR people, especially the WDCR Miata people, you find yourself in a group of good natured, easygoing yet super competitive folks where having fun was always the number one priority.
For me, the story of Mike is inextricably linked with that of Danny. Though I met Mike when he was a competitor in STR codriving with Chris Lin in the STR MR2, it was through Danny that I really got to know him better; I watched Danny’s frequent Facebook posts as he and Mike built up a green Mazda Miata for CSP, a car affectionately known as Oscar the Trash because the chassis was literally saved from the scrap heap and built up into one of the best known CSP cars in the nation. That Mike and Danny had a great sense of humor surely helped matters, as the car was festooned with a massive vinyl decal of the titular Sesame Street character’s head right there on the hood of the car.
Whenever I’d to see Danny at a big event, I’d see Mike there too. We’d shoot the shit in between moments of driving and working on course. Especially at Nationals, where I found myself spending as much time with the WDCR people as I did people from my own region, there’d be plenty irreverent chit chat to go around, oftentimes taking my mind off whatever typically horrible driving performance I was presenting at that event.
Also in the name of fun, and something I picked up on right away because it was my kind of jam, were the karaoke nights that WDCR folks would organize, either at National events held in WDCR like the DC Pro Solo, or in Lincoln for Spring Nats and Nationals. I’d see Mike at these sing alongs too.
Overall, my moments with Mike short but sweet. We’d chat in the paddock along with other WDCR people at Nationals or the Oscoda Pro Solo, and we’d cheer each other on when singing karaoke.
The last time that I would see Mike in person would be after the last WDCR event of 2017, held at FedEx Field. I had traveled to Washington DC to buy back my NC STR Miata, the car that I place most of the blame for introducing and sticking me to so many of the folks in WDCR, back from Shane. I drove a borrowed truck and a rented trailer out to Washington DC, stayed the weekend over at Danny’s place, met up with Shane and the car at the autocross event, drove both morning and afternoon sessions in my new old-to-me autocross car, and picked up all of the spares that came with the car, most of it untouched and still in the same storage bins when I sold the car and its things to Shane three years ago.
Dinner right after the event took place at a local Ruby Tuesdays. It was there that Mike and his girlfriend, Valerie, arrived to join us for food and drinks. He arrived in good spirits and what looked to my eye good health. We had a long dinner, though I didn’t get to say much to him, as I was sitting pretty much on the exact opposite from him at the end of the long table.
From then on, I would only ever see Mike in occasional Facebook updates by Danny. I knew that he was undergoing treatment for cancer, but as someone who doesn’t like probing people about their personal life, I never asked for more details. I merely observed what was being posted online, updates trickling in here and there that I’d briefly read in between moments of real life and work here in Michigan, ten hours away.
Suddenly, things started happening at a much faster clip. I could see in pictures that Mike was deteriorating, his spirits high but betrayed by a body that was struggling to fight off the cancer. A week ago, Danny announced that he had married Mike and Valerie. Mike’s racing kart was fire saled. Then Oscar the Trash was fire saled — just a few days ago. That’s when I knew something was up.
At 1am in the morning, after spending the most of my evening in my downstairs lounge listening and grading a new addition of jazz 78 rpm records to my collection, I checked Facebook and saw the news. Mike was gone.
Lots of people die every day. People come and go in our lives, and most are quickly forgotten. The human mind can only keep so many relationships in memory, and there are so many people out there that triaging people in our mental filing cabinets is a necessary action to keep oneself planted.
So why, out of all the casual friends — some cynical types would pointedly insist that they aren’t truly friends but just mere acquaintances — was I thinking so long and deep about Mike’s passing? I had plenty of time to think about this last night, as melancholy swept over me, keeping me in the undesirable state of wanting desperately to sleep yet being wired wide awake.
Was it because he is a fellow autocrosser, and by extension, someone just like me, who cared about some of the same things — driving around really fast in a parking lot — as I do? Maybe it’s because I only saw him at autocross events, and so associated him with the good times, and never was present to witness the bad times, and so I’m clinging on to a solely rosy picture of his life that seemed tragically cut short. Maybe I had assumed that the autocross world stands still, and that Mike’s departure shatters that delusional notion.
But after a whole lot of thinking, I think I’ve settled on the following as to why I care. In a sport as competitive as autocross, where folks fight for every advantage in order to squeak out that hundredth or thousandth of a second necessary to beat their competitors, it’s easy to fall into assholish behaviors and general dickery. By virtue of being Not Another Asshole, hanging around Mike and company was relief from both external and self-imposed competitive pressures to do well at an autocross. Mike was generous, humorous, gracious, and a whole bunch of other good ous-es too numerous to list.
It’s all too easy to bitterly conclude that the good die young and that assholes live forever. Perhaps instead of focusing on who died and why they died, perhaps its best to focus on what someone was able to bring to this world while they were alive and judge them solely by that. Hanging out with Mike in the paddock at an autocross or in the bar singing karaoke was a gentle reminder that Having Fun needn’t come at the expense of Serious Business, and vice versa. That I, a casual friend in which our paths crossed in only occasional and very specific instances, someone who lives ten hours and several states away, was left devastated by his passing really speaks to the kind of person he was. And that’s perhaps as good a measure of a life well lived as any.
Goodbye, Mike. Rest in peace.