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The legacy of "The Unions"

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Earl Ma meets with Katherine Legge at the 2006 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Photo: Earl Ma)
Earl Ma meets with Katherine Legge at the 2006 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Photo: Earl Ma)

The month of May is heavily-laden with tradition, good sentiment, and memories of family and friends that centers around a particular race at a particular track located at the intersection of 16th Street and Georgetown Road in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Every year, I am flooded with reminisces of race cars and drivers, the memory of the smell of hot rubber and machinery and racing fuel, and the decades of history I have been privileged to experience over nearly forty years as an IndyCar fan. They are good memories.

But for the past few years, I have also lived with the bittersweet recollections of a friend. A friend who I knew far more superficially than I would have liked to have known him. A friend whose brief interactions with me helped change the course of my life. A friend whose death irrevocably changed the way I feel about the month of May - casting a shadow over the excitement on one hand, but adding irreplaceable gems to my cherished memories on the other.

His name was Earl Ma.

To understand who Earl Ma was, one only needed to see him at the Chateau Thomas Winery in Plainfield, Indiana in May of 2007.

Playa Del Racing's pre-Indy 500 party was going on in the second-floor loft at Chateau Thomas on the Saturday before the race. Earl was an invited guest of the team's rookie driver Phil Giebler, who happened to be one of Earl's many, many friends in racing. Phil had qualified 33rd and would go on to win Rookie of the Year honors in the race, but that was a day in the future. Saturday's party was a simple celebration of being in the race at all.

Earl arrived at the Chateau in a car driven by a friend who had volunteered to be his assistant for the weekend. He needed an assistant because Earl was in the late stages of a three-year battle with cancer (exactly how late, very few people knew... because Earl tried to downplay it and because his natural energy fooled everyone into thinking otherwise). Only weeks before, a tumor in his body had pressed up against his spinal column and had paralyzed him from the waist down. The car he was sharing was filled to the brim with the odds and ends Earl needed just to get from point A to point B.

We helped Earl get into his wheelchair, but once he was situated he began calling for his equipment.

Not his medical equipment, but his work equipment.

Digital camera. Video camera. Laptop. Film bag. Notepad. All piled somewhat haphazardly on his lap or hung from various points on his chair.

Immediately, he asked us to wheel him to the front of the winery so he could get footage for the video he was compiling about Giebler for the racing webzine he and I published. He handed me his camera and instructed me to get some good framing shots of the building - "something AARWBAworthy," he told me, in reference to the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association to which we both belonged and who annually awarded prizes to the best writers and photographers at a breakfast in Indianapolis.

"If you do a good job," Earl teased me, "I'll make sure and put your photo credit in my story."

It wasn't until he was satisfied with our work that he allowed us to wheel him into the winery. We carefully maneuvered him into the tiny special-needs elevator which he had to operate on his own, then dashed up the back stairway to meet him in the party room. Playa Del Racing's owners were already well advanced in their speech-making by the time we quietly rolled Earl's chair to a spot just to the left side of the dias. Phil had arrived late and made it to the room just as Earl got situated. It was there that I reluctantly had to leave him for another engagement. I tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, "I'll see you later. Have fun!"

That was the last time I saw Earl Ma alive.

I first met Earl the same way many people have their first meetings in this Digital Age - we met on the Internet. It's hard to believe that it was twenty years ago, but when you're around Earl time has a way of flying faster than you thought possible.

Earl and I got to know each other on the fledgling USENET bulletin board Even then, it was impossible not to get a double-barreled shot of Earl's personality. While we bonded over our shared love for racing - both real-life and simulation-based - it was clear to me that Earl existed on a different plane than I did. He seemed to have almost a machine-like capacity for information and detail; his intelligence and insight frequently astonished me in its depth and breadth.

It would be years before I met Earl in person. Earl was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii and it wasn't as if he commuted to the mainland every week (although even living on the Big Island, Earl was always in much closer touch with the racing world than I ever was). Our "professional" relationship - which actually was just a progression of our friendship - began before the turn of the century when both of us elected to attempt the transition from racing "superfans" to legitimate members of the motorsports media. We conducted our business and grew our friendship by e-mail and instant messenger.

This was before blogging and Facebook, back in the days when web publishing - particularly web-based media - was still a specialized industry. Earl and I had both freelanced for different web-based publications, but after a while both of us chafed at having to submit to someone else's editorial heavy-handedness when it came to our material. So in 1997 Earl and I embarked on our own "webzine," which is what they called "blogs" before blogs existed. The fact that our little magazine had limited readership and no income meant nothing compared to the freedom we enjoyed in what we wrote and photographed.

A year or two into our joint project, we were contacted by a guy who was publishing a magazine of his own called "MotorSportsNews." It was a big glossy deal and Earl and I agreed that if we contributed that we might start making some money off of it. It helped that the guy offered to get us credentialed at Indianapolis for that year's 500. So we made plans to show up in the IMS media center and finally get to meet each other face to face.

Those of you fortunate enough to have known Earl know exactly how I felt when I first saw the guy. He was this moon-faced Hawaiian with a hat pulled down almost to his eyebrows and huge steel-rimmed Napoleon Dynamite glasses. He was stocky, a couple of inches shorter than I was, and otherwise unremarkable... at least in physical stature. What was unbelievable was the amount of gear the guy was packing. He must have had at least three different cameras hanging from his neck, which appeared to be a lot stronger than it looked at first glance. A simply enormous bag of film hung from one shoulder, looped over the strap of a backpack that had to be almost as big as his torso was wide. From his other shoulder hung a video camera. Underneath all of this was a photographer's vest that I was to learn was less a piece of clothing than an actual extension of his own skin. When he walked over to shake my hand, he walked like a fast version of an old man - hunched a bit at the shoulders and a little bowlegged (which, I discovered, was due to a pair of gigantic kneepads that hobbled his gait).

Faced with this spectacle - a kind of Rambo of the racing set - I felt somewhat intimidated with my consumer 35mm Canon slung over my shoulder and a fanny pack of film, but I enthusiastically shook his hand anyway. When I grabbed his hand, I had the unnerving feeling that his hand was going to fall off, so limp was his grip. But after a while I decided that, in typical Earl fashion, he simply didn't expend any energy on his handshake - or indeed anything else - if it diverted energy he needed for other things. And looking into his eyes for the first time I immediately knew that this guy had more energy in him than I probably ever would. His eyes kept dancing around as if he was on the lookout for something. He talked like his mouth couldn't keep up with his brain - rapid-fire, staccato sentences sprinkled with a laugh that sounded like a hacking cough. When he got distracted or had to think of something, instead of stammering or hemming-and-hawing, Earl would let fly with a single long, "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh..." that would last exactly as long as it took him to think of what he was going to say. In the teasing words of our mutual friend Memo Gidley, Earl was definitely "the most uptight Hawaiian [we had] ever met."

Needless to say, meeting Earl in person was a thousand times more fun than talking to him over the Internet.

After some small talk, Earl proceeded to shove towards me mountains of tacky just-developed prints of the photos he had shot so far at the track. Thus was delivered my first lesson in racing photography from Earl, the first of many - you can never shoot too many photos. I had taken maybe six photos up until the time we met in the IMS infield - and yet here was Earl piling envelope upon envelope of pictures into my arms. I eventually had to hit the post office to ship all of the photos that Earl took that weekend back to my home office. But before I sent the photos home, Earl and I sat down to go over his shots... and in that period of time he taught me a master-class in photo composition that has influenced my photo work ever since. Earl would eventually go on to win several awards for his photography, including the prestigious Catlin Award, but the Rolex he'd win for the latter was still a couple of years away. Even at that point, however, I knew I was in the company of a shutterbug with some real skill and inspiration, and I felt lucky and glad that now I had met him face-to-face.

I think my nascent motorsports media career would have been aborted in embryo if it hadn't been for Earl Ma.

Up until the time I met Earl in person in Indianapolis, my writing had been well-received but shallow. Essentially, as a writer I was a glorified superfan, and as a photographer I was a total loss. Earl proceeded to change all of that.

Somehow, this island-bound Hawaiian seemed to know everyone in racing. Earl introduced me to several of his friends and to friends of friends. It was as if Earl had loosed an avalanche on me - from those introductions, I was able to build a network of contacts within the sport that completely changed the course of my life. Looking back on it now, I feel enormously guilty for not having thanked Earl properly for having done that. I don't think Earl even thought much of what he did - to him, I'm sure it was a small gesture of friendship.

But Earl was the master at those small gestures. Every holiday I'd get a card from Earl on stationery he designed himself, festooned with characters from the comic book he had created as a two-year-old called "The Unions." Every so often I'd receive a care package from Hawaii. Sometimes it would be a package of cookies and some Hawaiian coffee (I never had the heart to tell him I don't drink coffee... and now those unopened packages are more precious to me than I ever would have guessed). Other times it would be photos from another race and, as technology improved, CDs and DVDs filled with his work. One time he even sent me a package of decals from Memo Gidley’s shifter kart.

Earl always introduced me to his racing buddies as if I had a right to be included in their circle of friendship. I hear stories all the time about the fun they had together - shooting off bottle rockets, doing donuts in rental cars, "drafting" on the highway - and I feel poorer for not having been a part of those hijinks. And yet, when I was with Earl his pals would incorporate me into their spheres as if I had been there for years.

The fact was, whatever personality type lends itself to the rarified air in which Earl and his friends seemed to exist, I realized that I didn’t possess it. In my mind I felt like an imposter, a person pretending to belong in a world I had no right to inhabit. I think Earl recognized this on at least a superficial level, because he kept pressing me to improve myself and wedge my way into racing despite myself. He coached me on photography... asked me to take interviews he allegedly didn't have the time for (which I realize now was a dodge)... he even urged me into taking professional memberships in media organizations of which, left to my own devices, I would never have thought myself worthy.

It took me a long time to realize that Earl believed in me a hell of a lot more than I believed in myself. And it is only now that I recognize the consummate skill in which he manipulated me to overcome my own hesitancy and reticence. Over the 15 years that I have been doggedly pursuing the pseudo-journalistic career in which I’m now engaged, I have almost annually come to a point where I have been ready to throw in the towel. The cost and effort to publish for a small readership and no financial reward has always been oppressive. It was Earl who convinced me that he needed our obscure little blog - however small-time I felt we were, to him it was another opportunity. And every time I came close to throwing in the towel, I would stop myself on Earl's behalf. Had I taken the time to think about it, I would have realized that his extensive publication in other outlets, from to the New York Times, made whatever we were doing look like small potatoes in comparison. But I clung to the lifeline Earl cast out for me, and for that I'll always be grateful.

I'll be grateful too for the way Earl's friendly competition helped me become a better writer and photographer. Every time I would write or shoot something I considered great, Earl would produce something even better. I began to measure myself against him and challenge myself to keep up. I'd like to think that the benefit was mutual, but having Earl around was a competitive advantage for me that helped me at least act the part of a professional journalist.

Sitting in my office are some cherished pieces of motorsports memorabilia. Specifically, they are custom-built models that Earl Ma built for me to commemorate various moments in my motorsports career.

Here is a meticulously detailed NASCAR Craftsman Truck, the #38 of Brandon Whitt. It is painted down to the rubber streaks on the grillwork, exactly the way it looked when Whitt drove to his first-ever Craftsman Truck Series victory. Earl built this model for me because at one point I was Brandon’s PR guy - a job I got because of Earl’s connection to the Whitt family. Brandon was also the first driver I ever worked for who won something on a national level of this magnitude. It is #2 in a series of four models Earl built - #1 is in Brandon's possession.

Over there is an International F3000 car model painted in the colors of Den Bla Avis with a tiny replica of Phil Giebler, another of Earl's friends who became my friend by association. On a piece of aero work behind the front wheels is a small replica of my company logo - the first time I ever had the logo on a racecar. Earl sent me #2 of this series as well because he knew it was a big moment for me.

Before his death, Earl had already begun work on Phil's Playa Del Racing Panoz - the first of four that Earl had been asked to build. He had presented Phil with a model of Phil's A1GP Team USA car at Indianapolis two weeks ago, but the Panoz was going to be a labor of love for his friend and newly-minted Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.

For Earl, these models were the ultimate gift - both to the racers for whom he built them and to himself. Earl's questing eye for detail and boundless energy and determination found the perfect expression in these unbelievably detailed replicas. He would take his model-building equipment with him on his trips to cover races. Earl had a reputation for working on almost no sleep - on many occasions he would show up at a friend's house and spend the next 18 hours working non-stop on one project or another. But the thing that would make his sleepy host goggle in disbelief would be stumbling into Earl's room early in the morning to find him bent over a tiny resin racecar chassis, carefully crafting it with a steady and practiced hand as if sleep were utterly secondary.

Earl was borderline obsessive-compulsive, to be sure, but in his case it was a good thing. He directed all of that energy and need for precision into everything he did. In addition to building models, Earl accumulated a massive collection of historic oil cans and bottles, possibly one of the largest collections in the world. He also had a thing for Union 76 signs - the giant orange ball with the blue "76" on it was an icon in just about everything Earl did. In fact, he expended a lot of effort into a drive to preserve the 76 balls all over America.

Earl was also one of the driving forces behind the annual Memo Gidley Karting Clinic, which brought the star driver to Hawaii once a year to help tutor and encourage Hawaiian karting hopefuls young and old. Earl sent me photos, stories and video from each clinic and it was clear that what Earl and Memo were doing made a huge impact in the lives of the participants. I still remember collaborating with Earl on signage, apparel, logos - really an endless stream of Clinic-related material - but the work was so fun that in subsequent years I signed on as a sponsor of the event.

Perhaps the best example of his directed drive and passion was his homegrown comic strip, "The Unions." Earl created no less than 55 separate characters for "The Unions," each with his or her own very detailed biography and backstory. The mere existence of "The Unions" reveals more about Earl's imagination and attention to detail than anything I could write about him. Earl brought that hardworking and meticulous manner to all facets of his life. He did good work, and he did a lot of it.

About five years ago - the Year of the Indy Tornado, if you’ll recall - my father and I were sitting in our room at the Red Roof Inn just off the Crawfordsville Road exit on Indiana's I-465 highway. We were congratulating ourselves on getting back safely and drying off our soaked clothes when Earl showed up at our door, coughing and rubbing his eyes.

He was there to pick up a die-cast IndyCar I had found at the local Meijer, a "donor" car for another in his multitudinous models. He seemed fine, but his face was creased in a worried frown. He was coughing regularly - dry, hacking coughs as if he was trying unsuccessfully to loosen something in his chest - and he told us that his vision was blurry. It sounded a bit like pneumonia or bronchitis to us, and the blurred vision was probably fatigue.

We told him not to worry about it.

After some idle chat and some exchanged photo CDs (by this time my photo habits were similar to his), Earl turned around and walked out in a torrential downpour to his rental car to drive back to his hotel.

Some weeks after that hotel room visit, Earl phoned me and told me he had been diagnosed with cancer. His coughing and blurred vision were complications stemming from a growing tumor in his chest, not a cold or pneumonia like we had first suspected.

Only days before Earl and I had celebrated our take in the annual AARWBA writing and photo contest. Both of us had won multiple awards (a trend that continued right up until Earl's final visit to Indy) and we had been almost giddy at our good luck. I remember both of us going up to the podium and shaking Fred Nation’s hand while several well-known media types looked at us as if to say, "Who in the hell are these guys?"

All of that good feeling evaporated with the news of Earl's diagnosis. I felt physically sick with remorse and fear for my friend. I almost didn't hear him as Earl told me about the regimen of treatments he faced, including a dicey surgery he would undergo where they would crack open his chest like a lobster shell to try and dig out the tumor.

Over the course of the next three years, Earl would contact me intermittently, giving me updates on his health. He never complained much about his treatments - always speaking with a wry humor or filling his e-mails with emoticons as if he were just teasing. Teasing about radiation therapy that rendered him immobile with nausea and vomiting and weakness. Teasing about his hair falling out. Teasing about how that darned tumor wouldn't go away...

And yet Earl kept up his brimming-with-energy style and his indefatigable, relentless ways. He would show up between treatments at places like Long Beach and Phoenix, ready as ever to cover racing and still weighed down with his ten metric tons of gear. His hat was simply pulled a little lower on his head, his trademark shoulder hunch just a bit lower, his gait only the slightest bit slower. He still laughed like a chain smoker and rolled his eyes at jokes and talked wryly out of the side of his mouth about the latest "big" issues in racing.

It wasn't until two months before his death when Earl came out to Phoenix for business that I realized just how much Earl had been covering up the extent of his disease's progression. I met him for breakfast at a Mimi's Cafe in Scottsdale. Earl wore a back brace to compensate for a broken rib he had suffered because his bones had been so weakened by his treatments. He couldn't even lift his laptop, he was so weak. I tried desperately to keep my concern off my face as we went over his photos from his most recent race. Earl was suffering visibly, but still... if I closed my eyes and listened to him talking, it was as if nothing was different at all. He was still as vital as ever - simply frustrated and trapped in a body that was betraying him.

That May at the Indy 500, it became obvious to everyone that things were not going well for Earl. He was half-paralyzed, catheterized, and tired visibly after even short exertions. By any sense of logic, he should never have made the trek from Hawaii to Indianapolis. For Earl, though, the only frustration he felt besides being in a wheelchair was that he only could spend a couple of days in Indianapolis and not the usual couple of weeks.

What we didn't know was that Earl's trip to Indy was his final pilgrimage, his final nod to his "superfan" roots. Even though he insisted that he was there to work, his true purpose was to see Indy one last time and to see his friend Phil Giebler make good. He admitted to a few of his closest friends that seeing Phil qualify for and race in the Indianapolis 500 was one of the great thrills of his life. For the rest of us, it was our final chance to rub elbows with Earl, to share one more time in the reflected brilliance of that unique personality and inner drive that spilled over and infected us all.

Earl's final Indy trip was the summation, in many ways, of his life as a racing fan. Indy was, after all, the nexus of his racing life - everything seemed to revolve around it. His annual trips to Indy were like homecomings for him. This time, not only was he coming home - he was seeing the reward for one of his close friends after a life of struggling in motorsports.

I have no doubt that living vicariously through Phil Giebler's month of May was like drinking one last draught out of the fountain of youth for Earl. A stay of execution, as it were.

When he got home, his body just shut itself down over a period of days. He went back into the hospital. He called me once from his bed to let me know there were some "complications," but that he was going to get working on the Giebler models soon.

"Get feeling better soon," I admonished him.

"Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh... I'll do my best," he said.

And that was how we said our final goodbyes.

A phone call a couple of days later from a mutual friend confirmed my worst fears. Earl passed away in his sleep after what was described to me as a "catastrophic shutdown of his bodily functions." It had happened so suddenly that it almost seemed like Earl had decided he was done on his own. His personality and vigor were so strong that I could almost believe him capable of deciding when it was his time to go.

Earl lived his life something like a superhero... mild-mannered CAD designer and oil can collector by day, big-time racing journalist by night. In Earl Ma I had a friend, a co-worker, a fellow racing nut and Simpsons freak who got the same guilty pleasure from pretending to be part of the big time that I did. Except I realize now that Earl was big-time, in many more ways than his professional life. Life for Earl went at qualifying speed, wings trimmed out right to the edge of the envelope, but he never took his eyes off the road or his hands off the wheel. I feel privileged to have been along for the ride, even as a passenger.

Earl Ma was a good and loyal friend to everyone he met. He believed in me and worked with me for almost two decades when he probably didn't need to. He treated me like I was good at things when I didn't feel it myself. And he unfailingly shared his energy, passion and wisdom with me - even when he called me at 5am to do so.

Earl Ma was an original. And I miss him dearly.