Caring for yourself as much as your project car

By Tim Suddard
Apr 16, 2024 | Shop Work, Column | Posted in Shop Work , Columns | From the Dec. 2015 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

I started wrenching well before I was 10 years old. Like most of us, my time in the garage has given me my share of bumps and bruises, skinned knuckles and the like. It’s also left me with more than a couple of scars.

I remember my first major incident: I was about 11 years old, and my dad and I were trying to get a minibike back on the road. We were heating the handlebars to bend them into the proper location, no doubt because we couldn’t afford the part we needed and were trying to make do with the wrong one.

Anyway, after heating one side until it was glowing cherry red, I grabbed hold of it so I could start working on the other side. My parents’ response, which was typical, was to rub some snow on the resulting burn and tell me everything would be fine in the morning. After I’d spent hours screaming, they finally relented and took me to Doctor Sherm, a family friend. We kept his Model A and other cars running, and in return we paid little or nothing for medical care. Because this was the deal, my parents hated to bother Sherm on a weekend with a minor problem like a third-degree burn.

I spent years after my hand healed telling people this story and showing them the scars, but I think that some of my folks’ walk-it-off attitude was just as permanently imprinted. I went on to other injuries, some serious, some not so serious, and rarely took time to address the results. (A knee injury I suffered in college, then ignored for years, still haunts me today.)

A few years ago, I finally hurt myself so badly that I had to actually address it. While working on my Shelby Mustang in a Red Bull-fueled haze of haste, I finished off my right rotator cuff. Of course, I waited a week or two at first to see if I could walk it off. When I got to the doctor, he told me my rotator cuff was 75 percent torn. Three weeks later, when I had the surgery (had to wait until after Monterey car week, of course) the doctor let me know that my rotator cuff was 95 percent torn through. Yeah, I kept working on the Shelby right up until the night I left for Monterey.

Those who know me know I always go all out. My friends and family often tease me about my German heritage and how I never stop, never quit and never ever even slow down.

It worked for a long while; at 35 I was still indestructible. At 55 years old, however, I am starting to feel the years of abuse. A nearly nonstop diet of working on cars, staring at computer screens, and autocrossing, road racing or doing press track days when I am not working on cars or staring at computer screens has left my back and neck a mess. Arthritis is something I didn’t understand 20 years ago, but it’s something I live with in seemingly every joint today.

I hate to be that old guy telling you what to do, hate even more to be that old guy who is always complaining about his aches and pains, but I wish I’d listened to the people who cautioned me years ago to take it a little bit easier on my body.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was watching a bit of football and indulging that modern pastime of wondering what the players’ lives will be like in later years. I worry about how I have abused my body, but what I have done is nothing compared to the abuse these guys take. That said, they do train and take care of their bodies. I do not. I haven’t been to a gym in many years, and the only curls I do are the 12-ounce kind.

I wish I could tell you that I have a cure for aging. My best advice would be to suggest you avoid the whole ordeal, but that’s a bit unlikely. Instead, I would advise that you do as I say and not as I do. Going all out, all the time, will pay dividends; it has brought me much more success than my skills, intelligence level and background probably warranted. But it does come at a cost, and I am finally realizing the evil of my ways.

Take better care of yourself in the shop: Use safety equipment and think before you lift, stretch, or wrench. I know for sure that shoulders and knees are not designed for the kind of abuse that constantly working in the shop dishes out. 

Take better care of yourself out of the shop: I know a lot of successful people who have hit the gym and altered their diets to improve just about every aspect of their lives. What really inspires me, though, is the example of racers who have managed to stay youthful and competitive thanks to smart lifestyle choices. Randy Pobst is a sterling example here, since his vegan diet and fitness regimen have allowed him to remain in the top competitive tier for far longer than most people manage.

I guess it is never too late to change, and I know I need to. I am unlikely to turn vegan, but I could do with a few less hours in the shop or at the bar, and a few more in the gym—or even sleeping occasionally.

I promise, this time I will get in a little better shape and turn down the excesses. It’s definitely overdue. But please, can I occasionally still have a Red Bull, and could we mix it with a little vodka?

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Tom1200 UltraDork
3/14/22 4:21 p.m.

Having just lost a friend (he was only 62) who really didn't take care of himself this really hits home.

I'd like to really emphasize on the letting the tools do the job i.e. not trying to be a gorilla.  As a 145lb guy I don't have the option of hoisting engine blocks because I can...............seen more big guys wound themselves being the Samsonite Gorilla.

Take good care of yourself and you'll be able to do this hobby for years.

dean1484 GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/14/22 4:30 p.m.

The one thing that I wish I was more attentive to was my hearing.  The constant ringing and the lack of some hearing in one ear I attribute to not using hearing protection while working on cars and at the track.  The docs say I am SOL in terms of getting it back or stopping the ringing.

Tim has greatly understated the importance of taking care of yourself when racing or working on cars in that article.  I am much closer to 60 than 50 at this point and everything Tim said in the article hits close to home.  The other thing that I have concerns about is we never used gloves to protect ourselves from solvents and we did not use masks to protect ourselves from fumes or dust.  I don't seem to have any side effects from it but I do worry.  I actually wonder if the ringing of my ears is related to chemical exposure as some of the things we messed with could have an effect on the nervous system.   

I saw an interview with Ed China about why he wears the orange gloves when working on cars and he said that years back he had a blood test and they found high levels of hydrocarbons in his blood.  They attributed to him working without gloves and it was being absorbed through his skin.  I never wore gloves but after seeing that I am much more careful.

Snowdoggie (Forum Supporter)
Snowdoggie (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
3/14/22 4:49 p.m.
Tom1200 said:

Having just lost a friend (he was only 62) who really didn't take care of himself this really hits home.

I'd like to really emphasize on the letting the tools do the job i.e. not trying to be a gorilla.  As a 145lb guy I don't have the option of hoisting engine blocks because I can...............scene more big guys wound themselves being the Samsonite Gorilla.

Take good care of yourself on you'll be able to do this hobby for years.

I can remember lifting a 1275 out of an MG Midget with one other guy without an engine hoist MANY years ago. Those things were not exactly big blocks. laugh

Tom1200 UltraDork
3/14/22 10:57 p.m.

In reply to dean1484 :

I screwed up my hearing by not wearing ear plugs while riding motorcycles.

I mostly wear gloves while working on stuff after reading that it will be full time.

I turn 60 this year.

Floating Doc (Forum Supporter)
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
3/14/22 11:25 p.m.

Getting old is tough even when you're relatively healthy. Sixty is slowly fading out of sight in the rear view mirror, I'll be halfway to 67 tomorrow.

I'm planning (as in got no choice) to work for several more years, so I'm pretty careful about how I take care of myself. I stopped playing volleyball by the time I was 31, as I had decided to try for vet school and didn't want to risk a hand injury.

I'm with you on the hearing loss and tinnitis. I'm also getting early cararacts, from UV radiation (can't wear sunglasses when surfing), and from scatter radiation when taking xrays. My mildly gimpy knee does okay if I keep up a routine of frequent walks, and my job is physically active enough that I hardly sit at all.

There's good advice in this column, but I predict that those that need to heed it are going to have to learn the hard way. It's the way of the world.



Patrick GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/15/22 8:45 a.m.

I'm 41.  I've got 26 years of hard labor on my body on top of car stuff.  I remember bench pressing a cast iron powerglide into place when I was 16.  I didn't always remember to wear my hearing protection, especially using power tools constantly.  

for anybody younger reading this, you're not superman.  Take care of your body.  I'm doing that now, but I waited till 40 to start.  I feel way better than I did at 39, but have a long way to go and certain things like the back pain and tinnitus can only be kept in check, they're not going away

Snowdoggie (Forum Supporter)
Snowdoggie (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
3/15/22 8:50 a.m.

In reply to Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) :

The way of the world is that doctors are expensive and health insurance deductibles are high. 

All of the above.  As someone who is knocking on 70, I paraphrase what the great Mickey Mantle once said.  "If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself".   How true.

frenchyd MegaDork
3/15/22 10:42 a.m.

I'm nearing 74 hard, interesting work has kept me healthier than most my age.
OK noisy radial engines  damaged my mid range hearing made worse by unmuffled with megaphones Jaguar. 
     Construction of my own timber frame home (13,000 hrs  ) with seldom worn hearing protection. Gives me tinnitus.  

  Overworking, takes me a couple of days to recover from.  As do accidents. Like falling from a 3story to the basement. But I was in my 60's then.  Falling in my tower in my 70's hurt more and longer. 
      That and I'm fat. A good 100 pounds overweight.  
  But I've realized ain't one of us gonna get out alive.   The one thing I don't want is to be bored to death. Out of control, sliding sideways, on fire,  into my grave is how I'd like to go. Life is too precious to waste living a boring life or settling down to calmly wait your turn.  

3/15/22 11:55 a.m.

Look at those guns!

I'm about the same age, and yeah, getting old isn't for the weak.

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