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Main | Kids Shouldn’t Need Scuba Gear to Breathe in a Car »
Friday
Feb192016

In Memoriam: Allen D. Vinikour

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Rest in Peace, Big Guy.I can’t remember the first time that I met Al, or the first time we drove together on a new car launch. That has been lost to time. However, my first memory of the man dates back to a GM Christmas party, held  in the lobby of its new engineering building, where we were watching a video produced to commemorate the retirement of Steven Harris, GM’s head of global PR. It was late 2003, I think, and Al played Harris as a man who had sold his soul to Satan to get the top job. The premise of the film was to see whether those in line for the job would similarly sell their souls to get the corner office. The video was funny, and Al played the part with a subtle malevolence that made you think he had done the Devil’s deal. Steve Harris capped his short speech with a sarcastic, “I can die in peace knowing that I have been so sympathetically portrayed by Al Vinikour.” Across the room, you could see Al beaming.

Not long after, I was attending a vehicle launch and needed a driving partner. My usual go-to pair, Tom Lankard and Ann Job, were attending and driving together, and the list of attendees the PR folks had so graciously sent me ahead of time didn’t look promising. That’s when I spotted Al’s name on the list. A quick e-mail asked if he was available. Unfortunately, Al already had “a date” as he put it, but he steered me to a safe alternative. On the trip, I was invited to join Al’s group at dinner, and we became fast friends.

Al held court, dominating the conversation with the most wildly sarcastic, foul and politically incorrect statements you could image; each delivered in a resonant voice you could hear even if deaf. It was one of the reasons many in the journalistic community hated Al. To hear his detractors tell it, he was off color, racist, a homophobe, hate-filled, cantankerous, a conservative, and worse. Hanging with him would, I was warned, ruin my reputation and future prospects. Yet in one night I felt I had learned more about the man — and his detractors — than they'd ever know.

He had a sense of humor similar to his Uncle Barney’s, and worshipped this man who could tell a string of dirty jokes to a group of nuns, and leave them laughing. Uncle Barney was a frequent topic of conversation, as were the junkyards his family owned in and around Valparaiso, Indiana. These were the touch points in his life, the things that had shaped his character. Yet these weren’t the only things that motivated Al. Years later, again on a press trip, I had a conversation that was, as always, profane and hilarious, but also incredibly thoughtful and deep. It was a glimpse at the Al that lived behind the facade of humor, behind the kid who was constantly seeking acceptance through his humor.
 
It was the humor, however, that in many ways defined Al Vinikour and his approach to life. On a trip with Subaru, he had two engineers in the back seat of the car as he and his driving partner drove to the lunch stop. Traveling through farm country, Al was seized by the need to honk at every cow and sheep they passed, saying “hello” to each and asking the females what they were doing that evening. “I kept looking in the mirror to see if the two Japanese engineers had any reaction at all to what I was doing,” he said later, “but they were looking at each other with a puzzled expression, and paying strict attention to every animal I honked at. It was only when we stopped at the checkpoint to switch drivers that one of the engineers tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to a herd of sheep across the street, and said with a smile, ‘You forgot to say “hello” to them!’ That’s when I knew they had gotten it.” The rest of the drive was filled with salutations to sheep and cows, and from that trip forward honking at the livestock became a regular event.

Years later, Al and I were driving together on the launch of the BMW 1 Series. Unlike most trips where Al would throw the directions up on the instrument panel and say, “Follow those guys,” this time he was paying attention to the maps, and caught a hidden turn many others had missed. After lunch, he took the wheel of the dark blue 1 Series convertible, and handled the twisty bits from the lunch stop to the next driver change point. Though Al could become desperately car sick (a condition I, too, have suffered from on more occasions than I care to admit), this time he was enjoying himself. Especially when he came up behind a fellow journalist at a traffic light.  Second in line in the right-hand lane we drew close to the back of the BMW ahead, and Al — recognizing the driver — began honking the horn and motioning for him to get out of the way. You could see the other driver’s startled look turn to recognition, then to annoyance as Al inched closer with each fusillade from the horn. When the light turned green, the car ahead pulled off the road into the gravel entrance for a construction business, and Al followed right behind, still honking the horn! Our colleague — a dear friend to us both who has a tendency to stutter, especially when flustered — got out of his car, walked back to our car and said: “Dddddon’t be an asshole! Ggggo around!” To which Al replied, “I wwwwould bbbut you’re in the wwwway!,” before he backed up and drove off. I nearly wet my self laughing. Our colleague, on the other hand, soon got over his anger, cracking a smile when the story was retold at dinner that night.

Years later, Al and I traveled to Washington D.C. for a full-line drive event with Volkswagen. It was an eventful trip. First, we got to the hotel just in time for the area to be hit by an earthquake. Al, Jim Meachen and I were standing in the lobby of the hotel with VW’s event staff and journalists from California when the earthquake hit. It sounded like a subway train had just gone beneath us at a high rate of speed. This was just the start of the fun. On the way home, where the next day we were to attend Ford’s full-line event in Dearborn, MI, Al, Jim and I were almost home when we noticed that the plane was beginning a long, lazy right turn. Raising my window shade, I looked out at thick, dark storm clouds filled with lightning and stretching well into the sky. Detroit was being battered by a huge storm cell, and we were going to circle to see if things would clear enough for us to land. They didn’t. And, in a phrase that came to denote rough patches in our lives, we were — in the words of the captain — “Spiraling down to Cleveland” to ride the storm out. As the rain began to lash the windows of the nearly empty terminal where we waited, a group of colleagues decided to rent a car and drive to Detroit. But Al, Jim, I and a few other journalists decided to ride the storm out in the terminal with the rest of the passengers. Over the next four-plus hours, Al entertained everyone in that terminal with commentary and remarks that would make Don Rickles blush. He worked the room like an expert, getting people to share their life story, then used these facts to make jokes. We were all crying with laughter, and the woman directly across from Al — who took a good bit of the ribbing — told him that she wished the evening would never end. Raising an eyebrow and grinning that grin he said, “That’s what all you gals say. Then we have sex, and it can’t end soon enough!”

There are many more stories like this. Stories that undoubtedly will be told over and again as those of us who knew and worked with Al think of the good times as we try to hide the pain of his passing. We knew his death was inevitable. Al was suffering from advanced stage kidney cancer that had spread throughout his body over the past four years. He had kept us apprised on a semi-regular basis with his viciously funny Cancer Chronicles e-mails, and — when he was feeling up to it — would meet for lunch at a restaurant near his home. Now, unfortunately, those times are past.

 May God have mercy on your soul, Al Vinikour.

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