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Dr. Jim Lowe

World’s Fastest Neurosurgeon

Published by Dr. Jim Lowe

1233 Valley Road

Villanova, PA 19085


© 2017 Dr. Jim Lowe

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law.

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Cover by Roger Garbow

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For Ginny and Aidan,

without whom there would be no story worth telling.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Getting Up To Speed



Jim Lowe Racing History


Chapter One

I was flat-out at maximum rpm in sixth gear screaming down the front straight at Daytona, my right foot pressed firmly to the floor of the brand-spanking-new Porsche, when the car directly in front of me blew up in a cloud of gray-white smoke. I was positioned roughly 100 feet behind the Daytona Prototype racer, which equated to a gap of about four-tenths of a second at the 180 mph-plus speed we were traveling. Not willing to waste any more time checking my math, I stomped on the brakes hard—hard enough to lock up all four discs, stopping my wheels from spinning instantly. The unfortunate result of this panic action was to blow out all four of the racing slicks on the Porsche, sending my car blindly spinning out of control down toward Daytona’s first turn and the concrete wall next to it.

This of course occurred in full view of the entire Grand-Am contingent gathered for that day’s practice in preparation for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona race later that month. Despite their good seats along pit lane, they, like me, were not able to see much through the thick smoke that both cars were generating. In fact, when a crash like this occurs, seemingly for all to witness, there often isn’t much to see in “real time.” Mostly, when involved as a spectator, you do what all other drivers and crew do—you listen for the big bang at the end and silently give thanks it isn’t you in the seat. Trust me, it’s much more entertaining to be a seemingly disinterested observer than the guy in the spinning racecar.

Disappointing as it might seem, there was no moment of epiphany, no sense of enlightenment, and certainly no “life flashing before my eyes” experience while I was spinning down the track at Daytona. I wasn’t reflecting on a life well lived, or any such esoteric bullshit; I was in fact worried about killing the guy in the car in front of me—and trying not to wreck a perfectly good new car two weeks before the biggest race of the season. I did, however, manage to pay some attention to what was happening outside the car, but mostly out of a perverse interest in when I was going to hit the wall or, worse yet, the decelerating prototype somewhere out there in the cloud of smoke. But I was no longer in anything resembling control of my racecar. Once the car starts to spin, you’re a passenger—you may as well order another cocktail, this thing’s going down whether you like it or not. Put “both feet in”—one hard on the brake, the other depressing the clutch pedal—and hope your wife’s not paying attention.

While I waited patiently for the inevitable big crunch, an amazing thing happened. My Porsche came to a smoky stop in the middle of the pavement of turn one—no impact, no big bang, no respectful memorial service. Nothing. I looked around tentatively, astonished to be apparently safe and sound in the cockpit of my unharmed race car. I tore off one racing glove and checked my carotid pulse, just to be sure.

My tachycardia was interrupted by my engineer, Steve Bunkhall, checking in on the radio.

“Talk to me, Jim. You OK?”

I keyed the mike. “Yeah, had a bit of a spin just now.”

“Uh, yeah, I know, we all saw it. A bit of excitement…. So, how’s the car?” A natural and appropriate question since, once the driver is deemed capable of talking on the radio, all attention turns to the condition of the racecar.

“Believe it or not, I didn’t hit a damn thing, but I blew out all four tires.”

Roger Reis, crew chief and den mother, chimed in. “I’ll send a guy down with four new slicks. Just sit tight for now. Do you need anything else?”

“Copy that, four new tires. And maybe a fresh change of underwear?”

On exiting the racecar, I found that I had come to a stop about fifteen feet from the guilty prototype, whose driver was standing just off to the side after extracting himself from his mostly intact vehicle. Intact except for the missing bodywork on the rear of the car, which had rather spectacularly disintegrated when his right rear tire blew.

Once again, the classic question: “You OK?”

He held out his arms just a bit, as if to demonstrate. “No problem, I’m still in one piece. Thanks for not hitting me.”

We stood there together, staring at our racecars, holding our untouched helmets and scratching our heads, waiting for our heart rates to return to normal and the wreckers to arrive. We both probably looked the same—sweaty, smelly, breathing heavily, and both wearing that stunned look familiar to guys who find that the parachute, in fact, works as advertised.

Fifteen minutes later, we gathered around the car in our assigned Daytona garage stall, accepting congratulatory hugs and receiving respectful stares from a large contingent of drivers and crew from various teams, all wanting a quick glimpse of the car’s reportedly intact condition. I spoke with more than one fellow driver, including the paddock’s only other physician-driver, Dr. Michael Gomez. He also expressed admiration of my handling of the spinning Porsche, but I chalked that up to his skewed sense of normalcy, given his chosen field of psychiatry.

As the crew began to examine the cooling car, Roger directed my attention to the Porsche’s two rear wheels, highlighting the flat-spotted rims that would later serve as great table bases in my garage at home. Co-drivers Tim Sugden and Johannes van Overbeek arrived from the pits via golf cart and quickly confirmed my more-alive-than-dead status. We then packed it in early so the crew could get a jump on preparing the car for the next day’s practice. After all, I would need to get back on the horse tomorrow—and do so quickly in order to avoid any new hesitation about driving flat-out.

Monday morning I gratefully awoke in my bed at the hotel, acutely aware that I was lucky not to be part of some trauma intern’s “to do” list that day. Following the script prepared by mentor Jim Pace, I ran early and often in the Porsche, ultimately setting down my personal best lap in the last session of the day. I focused on braking later into turn one and tried not to peek at my own personal set of looping skid marks laid down the day before.

Eighteen hours later I was scrubbed and gowned in the OR, bent over a freshly-fractured spine. I had long since grown accustomed to that day-after-racing surreal feeling of being back at work in the real world, but this was extra-sweet, extra-special, somehow. Days later, I was still buzzing, still amped, and ultimately more focused than ever. I joked with my partner as we operated, told endlessly repetitive tall tales to unsuspecting new nurses, and thought a lot about when I’d next be back behind the wheel of the racecar.

One thing I didn’t think too long about, though, was crashing at Daytona.

Chapter Two

A completely natural and appropriate question at this point would be, “Why the hell did a neurosurgeon get behind the wheel of a racecar in the first place?” And it is, in fact, the same question I ask myself often. After all, being a racecar driver wasn’t what I originally set out to be. But it turns out that racing is yet another “test” I’ve subjected myself to—including more than a few that, in retrospect, were unnecessary. Years of high school and college football (including being on a Harvard team that never lost to Yale) resulted in numerous dislocations and breaks, but those had far less impact than the psychological challenges that I experienced in the process. As a twenty-year-old college student, I joined the Marines, escaping Officer’s Candidate School at Quantico with an honorable discharge and a great deal of respect for short but nasty drill sergeants. I survived my collegiate pre-med experience despite my chemistry professor’s distaste of all things athletic, and my med school experience was an out-of-focus blur. Internship and my subsequent neurosurgery residency training were grueling endurance runs, harsh but unforgettable; I emerged from both in one piece, and stronger for it. In fact, whether it was heliboarding in British Columbia, surfing big waves in Portugal, or lugging an M-16 through the Virginia mud, I’ve walked away mostly intact from more than a few tests over the years. But nothing, not one of those other activities and challenges consumed me with the intensity and thrill that racing would.

But that doesn’t answer the question. To do that, I need to start at the beginning: Christmas 1969.


My brother and I sat side by side at the top of the stairs, impatiently waiting for the “OK” from our parents. We had awakened before dawn, and whispered to each other excitedly as we waited for light to come through the windows. After two unsuccessful trips into my parent’s bedroom, we finally convinced my mom to get out of bed, put on her nightgown, and elbow my dad awake.

“You boys can go and sit on the steps, but don’t go downstairs until your dad’s up and everybody’s ready.”

Rick and I nodded eagerly, and got into position on the stairs, sitting as far down as we dared without spoiling the view into the living room. I risked a quick look around the edge of the wall, and spotted something bright yellow, alongside the many wrapped presents under the Christmas tree. “Hey, no peeking!” my younger brother scolded. “Mom said we have to wait!”

“Shhh, I wasn’t peeking, but there’s something down there….”

Moments later, my four older sisters were gathered on the stairs behind us, with my mom close behind. As the youngest, Rick and I got prime positions at the front of the pack, but collectively, the six Lowe kids vibrated with a single energy as we waited for my dad to emerge and Christmas to officially begin.

After what felt like forever, my dad appeared at the top of the steps, and before he could finish saying “OK, you can go down now,” Rick and I were tearing down the stairs at full speed. Rick pretty much dove into the pile of presents, and I made a beeline straight for the toy I had only glimpsed a few minutes before.

It was, without a doubt, the greatest Christmas present ever. Sitting off to one side of the Lowe family tree that morning was a fully-assembled Johnny Lightning L.M. 500 Race Set. Easily the coolest gift a six-year-old race fan could possibly receive back then, the toy was manufactured by Topper, a small New Jersey company that competed directly with the likes of Mattel’s Hot Wheels. In a stroke of marketing genius or just plain luck, Topper would later sponsor Al Unser, who promptly won both the 1970 and ’71 Indianapolis 500. But a full five months before that, Johnny Lightning became a fixture in the Lowe household when Bob Lowe picked out the perfect gift for his sons. And, knowing his overeager boys well enough, my dad had taken time away from his other Santa duties to get it up and running so that my brother and I could begin racing moments after we arrived on the scene that morning.

The design of the Johnny Lightning set was genius, and perfectly suitable both for six-year-old boys and forty-six-year-old dads. The plastic black and yellow two-lane track was oval shaped, but with an uphill section just past start/finish. That section was covered with a clear plastic roof, intended to keep the cars from taking flight as they accelerated up the hill. The “lightening motion” propulsion of the cars was accomplished simply enough: a movable knob was attached to a hook that engaged a loop on the bottom of each car; each player would try to time it so that he slid the knob forward exactly as the car went by. With practice, a semi-coordinated six-year-old could time it perfectly to create a near-perpetual motion race, until mom, church, or fatigue put an end to that particular contest.

When it comes to race cars, young boys like to see things crashing, so Rick and I quickly learned how to get the cars airborne. We mastered the fine art of catapulting the cars off the track’s ramp, resulting in a few choice plaster divots in the living room walls that remain visible today. Even though we quickly created a “keep your wits about you” situation for the rest of the family, I distinctly recall my dad launching more than a few of those projectiles, right before we were carted off to church in the Lowe family pink ’59 DeSoto.

Rick and I both slept with our Johnny Lightning cars that night; I recall my younger brother grabbing his favorite blue car, which was fine with me, since that left the red A.J. Foyt Indy Special for me. Sharing a small room in our parent’s three-bedroom house, we whispered and fidgeted in our beds until dad’s “Knock it off and go to sleep!” call shut us down for the day. But once it got quiet enough, I could hear the unmistakable sounds coming from the living room, where my dad was perfecting his runs through turns two and three, trying to get a jump on his boys for the next day’s rematch.


Earlier that summer, I had joined my parents and siblings in front of our black-and-white TV while fuzzy images relayed from the moon allowed us to witness history live as Neil Armstrong made his giant leap. I realized then, with all eight Lowe’s huddled in the basement, that we were watching something special; I recall my dad’s ultimate compliment – “that’s really great” – but didn’t quite realize the enormity of the event. Still, for weeks afterward, Rick and I played astronauts in the front yard, stepping out of the tree/lunar module and mimicking Armstrong’s words. (To this day, I suspect that my brother remains a bit subconsciously annoyed that he always had to be Aldrin.)

The crew of Apollo 11 became early icons of the Jim Lowe heroes club, but they weren’t alone back then. Like much of the sports fan world, I had enjoyed watching the ’68 winter Olympics when French skier Jean Claude Killy dominated the downhill events. I was so enthralled with his daring and fearlessness that I insisted afterward that everyone call me “Jean Claude,” which certainly beat the hell out of my then-current nickname of “Tubby.” May had brought the annual Indy 500 viewing to our house, during which dad and I saw a diminutive Italian-American named Andretti win. It would be four more years before I was introduced to the sobering reality of auto racing, when Swede Savage’s racecar blew apart and burst into flames in front of a live TV audience in the ’73 Indy 500. But the race in 1969 was most memorable, probably because it’s the first one I remembered—and was the start of my long history as a racing fan. It didn’t have the global impact that the moon landing had, of course, but from the perspective of my small world, all of these events seemed giant and worthy of celebration.

To be sure, a replica plastic gray lunar module kit and a pair of wooden skis (seriously ill-equipped with springs for binders) shared space with the Johnny Lightning racetrack under the Lowe tree that December, but my attention was definitely more focused on names such as Jim Clark, Al Unser, and Jackie Stewart. Given my dad’s interest in spectator sports, and his obvious enjoyment of watching sports of virtually any kind with his two boys (frequently combined with a Schaefer pony beer or two), it was a short transition for me to become an avid fan of pretty much any televised competition. While football and baseball cemented their places as mainstays of American sporting events worth viewing, I was always on the lookout for the rarely televised racing, both from US venues and more exotic locales in Europe.

With the increased visibility of racing events on TV in the late sixties and early seventies, my awareness of the concept of the racecar driver as hero grew rapidly. The Indy 500 and Daytona 500 races first came into the Lowe home courtesy of announcer Jim McKay and Sunday TV programming in the form of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Learning about Jackie Stewart’s first Formula One World Championship in 1969 took a search beyond the local papers, but after he won two more F1 titles, Jackie then became an auto racing mainstay at Wide World of Sports. His Scottish accent still remains a visceral memory of my early years watching fast cars crash spectacularly. My own attempt to imitate Jackie (“This is Jockey Stoowart, calming to yew live from the straits of Monaco!”) was always good for a laugh, although admittedly few kids in my neighborhood realized exactly who he was, or why he was on that show that started with the crashing ski-jumper. There was no reasonable way that I could have known then, from the perspective of a six-year-old, that Jackie Stewart and his crusade for safety at the track would have a far bigger influence on my life decades later, when I changed roles from fascinated spectator to that of an actual racecar driver.


F. Scott Fitzgerald advised us, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” I was oblivious to this idea as a young racing fan, but racing was a painful example of this concept many times in those early years. Drivers routinely risked their lives, race promoters shrugged that same risk off as part of the deal, and fans came to accept the inevitability of losing drivers every season. Unthinkable now, the deaths of racecar drivers were likened to those of ancient gladiators: somehow perceived as noble, the huge risks were allowed as some necessary part of the entertainment, simply the price paid for the spoils available. But as the death toll mounted, TV exposure, and especially sponsor involvement, demanded changes. A new type of hero was needed. Nearly a tragedy himself, Jackie Stewart indeed stepped forward.

There’s an incredible racetrack in Belgium known as the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps or, more commonly, “Spa.” It’s a marvelous relic of a track that was built in 1921 and that initially included some nine miles of twisting public roads in the classic “road course” style typical of the period. Situated in the Ardennes, the layout has hills and valleys spread widely enough that it frequently rains on one end of the forest circuit while the other might remain dry. Although the current track is a more manageable and modern four-mile course, in 1966 it consisted of what amounted to country roads without barriers, unless you counted the roadside farmhouses sprinkled throughout the thirteen-turn lap. Despite its intimidating design, the annual Formula One race there was a favorite of many drivers and was thought to favor those with good cars and better courage. That year, the grid for the Grand Prix of Belgium held John Surtees on pole, with Stewart starting third, in front of British Racing Motors teammates Graham Hill in fourth, and Bob Bondurant in eleventh.

The race started in heavy rain, with seven cars crashing on the first lap—including all three of the BRM pilots. Midway through the first lap, Jackie slid off at a turn called the Masta kink and landed upside down in a ditch adjacent to a barn. Trapped in his car, Stewart was saturated with leaking fuel while awaiting rescue. He was finally freed—by his own teammates who borrowed a spectator’s tools to remove the car’s steering wheel before moving Stewart to safety. It then took over thirty minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the scene of the crash, after which Jackie was taken to the track’s poorly equipped first aid center. Upon the realization that Stewart was badly injured with shoulder and rib fractures, a second ambulance was called to transport him to the local hospital. Adding further drama to the situation, the second van’s driver got lost en route, resulting in a further delay before Jackie finally received the medical attention he needed.

Stewart’s Belgian Grand Prix experience occurred during a particularly deadly period in Formula One’s history. No fewer than nine drivers had been killed in the period between the beginning of the decade and the 1966 Belgian GP; ultimately, ten more would die while racing before Stewart’s retirement in 1973. The final blow for Jackie would come when his teammate Francois Cevert was killed during qualifying for the Watkins Glen Grand Prix in 1973. Having already clinched his third championship, Stewart reluctantly ran the race and retired shortly afterward, one race shy of his one-hundredth Grand Prix.

For the racing community in that period, the most shocking event was surely the death of Stewart’s compatriot Jim Clark in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim in April 1968. Then, as now, Clark was widely considered the world’s best driver; his fatal accident was proof positive that no one was safe—even the more skilled drivers. Clearly changes were needed urgently.

Jackie Stewart’s close call in Belgium, combined with his unique status among racing’s elite class, positioned him perfectly to take on the role of safety advocate. Stewart quickly became an outspoken campaigner for new safety measures in auto racing. He thereafter always used seatbelts, a full-face helmet, and a fireproof suit. He also demanded many changes be made to update circuits with purpose-built barriers, remove dangerous objects close to the racing surface, and provide better medical facilities with ambulances on standby at all events. When race promoters balked at the cost involved in these provisions, Stewart threatened to withdraw from events, with other drivers willing to follow his lead. Ultimately, Jackie’s clout won out and his demands were met, with immediate improvements seen. In the next twenty years of Formula One racing, only seven more drivers would die behind the wheel. Although efforts to protect racing drivers, crew, and spectators continue to evolve as our understanding of the risks and dangers of the sport expands, we certainly have Jackie Stewart to thank for creating the culture of safety that now protects the modern driver so well.


Mario Andretti’s win in the ’69 Indy 500, followed by ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year honors, propelled him to instantly recognizable celebrity in the United States. Decades before first-name-only monikers became the sports hero norm, “Mario” was an instantly recognizable name attached to many kids my age deemed to be doing any activity too fast. Whether I was running in the house or pedaling my Schwinn with the red banana seat wildly down Edgewood Drive, “Slow down, Mario!” was a frequent warning yelled by my parents and various frustrated neighbors tired of my occasional detours into flower beds and, on one occasion, fresh concrete.

Given that I had no access to motorized machinery back then, my personal need for speed had to be met through self-powered means, usually while navigating bikes or skateboards. Conveniently, our house was situated on a long, steeply inclined circular street, with even steeper sections on the curving back side road called Glendale Circle. At the bottom of my street, Edgewood drive, there was a right-handed turn, gentle enough for the average young bike rider to make without drama, providing that speed was controlled and the runoff area grass wasn’t too wet (in case of the all-too-common understeer situation). By 1969, negotiating that corner on my bike at moderate speeds had become rather uneventful, so I naturally hatched a plan to do it from the top of the hill, adding a significant component of speed.

Perhaps I didn’t examine the running surface thoroughly enough, but I was at least aware that my neighbors’ lawns had some well-manicured grass gutters bordering the sidewalk, ideally positioned to catch an unsuspecting bike rider’s wheels. I knew about these course obstacles but simply planned on ignoring them. Besides, if you stayed on the hardtop, and didn’t venture off into the grass, it was a nonissue. Why plan for failure when there’s glory in the offing?

Starting at the very top of the street, my only goal was to max out my entry speed into the turn far below—basically the same concept that racers the world over strive for—without overcooking the corner. A simple enough idea, even for a six-year-old brain with zero racing experience and little genetic propensity for speed. Pedaling furiously down the hill, I focused first on the driveways intersecting the sidewalk— I knew that an errant Buick would ruin my run and that I would probably never get out of the doghouse if I dented a neighbor’s car. Midway down the hill, at terminal Schwinn velocity, I made the mistake of taking a quick peek at the sidewalk gutters. As any racer will tell you, the vehicle will tend to follow your eyes—in this case, off to my left and into the thin gutter at the edge of Mrs. Edwards’ lawn. At full speed my front tire found the trough, caught up abruptly, and launched me over the handlebars before I even realized that making the corner was no longer a priority. I landed on the pavement squarely on my unhelmeted head, awakening a few minutes later to my own howling and the anxious face of Mr. Edwards. Blood streamed down from a gash on the growing egg on my forehead, and seemingly every exposed inch of skin (I was wearing the road rash special: shorts and a tank top) was abraded. My neighbor walked me to see my mom, who was calm enough given that I was standing up, talking, and apparently OK. A later doctor visit (“Bette, the boy should probably stay off the bike for a while.”) confirmed that I would live to fight another day, but for some time after that, the Edgewood Drive speed record attempts were curtailed.

Edgewood Drive was also a busy place when it came to after-school pickup games. Depending on the season, and how the local sports teams were faring in the standings and collective psyche of the neighborhood, games of football, street hockey, and baseball were ever present. Each afternoon, I would rush though homework, struggle through piano practice, and head outside to play. However, the “to play” part was sadly misleading, as it suggests action of some sort. I ran out the door with eager anticipation that I’d get to join the other kids, but each time my enthusiasm would come face to face with reality. Whether it was my overweight and non-athletic physique, or simple shortcomings in the bravery department, I normally ended up sitting on the curb. When the older kids chose sides for games, the less athletic kids always had to wait until the end to be picked. But instead of being picked last, I wasn’t picked at all, a veritable no-show in the neighborhood pecking order. Despite this, I showed up every day, painful as it was. As much as I wanted to play and hated being excluded, I loathed staying indoors, away from the action. And if I was out there watching, there was at least a chance; if I stayed inside, well, there wasn’t even that. So, from the safety of the curb, I watched the big kids, who in reality were probably still preteens, playing right out there in front of my house or in the park around the corner. As I watched, I fantasized that one of the players would pull up lame, and the team would suddenly need a super sub. In my imagination, a finger would be pointed at me, and after confirming that it was in fact me they wanted, I would feign nonchalance, step in, and promptly hit the buzzer-beater or home run for the win. But at least for a while longer, I would simply sit, arms around my knees, and wait to someday play also.

By the time I was ten, my mother had already experienced several of the assuredly frightening events that raising two active boys entailed. Being a stay-at-home mom, Bette Lowe got to be first on the scene for many of the Lowe boys’ traumas, dealing with scrapes, sprains, and abrasions well before my dad arrived home from work. Despite being a first responder, my mother was somehow able to put forth a calm demeanor, all the while quietly fearing for our safety. Perhaps this was a byproduct of her immense faith, exhibited in her daily prayers to protect her kids. I’m pretty sure that Rick and I occupied, then and now, a disproportionate amount of “Please God” space in my mom’s private moments.

Despite her well-founded fears, and in spite of my demonstrated ability to land successfully on my head at high speed, my mother finally broke down and allowed me to buy my first skateboard in 1974. I somehow managed this feat through a carefully orchestrated assault on Bette Lowe’s usually airtight sensibilities. First I showed her my friend’s benign-looking skateboard; then I demonstrated how we were only doing a few tricks, such as popping wheelies or trying to spin 360 degrees, and finally I promised that I would never do the dangerous run down Edgewood Drive. What I hadn’t promised, though, was that I wouldn’t do an attempt at Glendale Circle, the Mt. Everest of our 1970’s neighborhood high-speed runs.

Unlike the makeable turn at the bottom of Edgewood Drive, the right-hander at the bottom of Glendale circle was a 90-degree off-camber horror for which my low-grip polyurethane skateboard wheels were no match. With my friend and chief accomplice, Danny Devine, I walked the run from top to track-out, debating wildly the possibility of actually surviving the run. Ultimately, Danny convinced me that it was doable, but his good judgment took advantage of my adrenaline rush when he convinced me to go first.

Equipped with the requisite summer outfit—Chuckie T’s with shorts and tank top again—I set off down the hill, wobbling just a bit with the few mid-course corrections required for the gently curving upper section, and braced myself for the final right turn at the bottom. Fully committed, I passed on the last bail-out chance just before corner entry, firmly believing that gravity, grip, and determination would beat the wicked geometry of the turn.

I was wrong. Big.

Leaning into the right-hander at full speed, I initially turned in—but realized in an instant that I was in no way going to come out at the exit unscathed. I tried a frantic mid-turn correction, only to immediately lose traction just before the apex. What I hadn’t planned on was a car appearing at the intersection just as I was in need of runoff area. Danny screamed from his pre-planned vantage point at the exit of the turn, and I tried leaning in further in a last-ditch attempt to regain control. The car’s brakes screeched and tires squealed as I exited the pavement, crossed airborne over the grass boundary, and bounced firmly off the right front fender of Mrs.Cope’s skidding car. (Ironically enough, she was in a Dodge, but I digress).

I jumped up, more scared than hurt, a bit unnerved by the sound of Mrs. Cope’s yelling and the sight of the Coronet’s tire so close to my head. There were some requisite scrapes, a distinct ringing in my ears, and a curious amount of instant swelling from my right elbow (which still bears the scars today). However, I was most worried about the sting of retribution once my mom found out about our adventure. Danny was nowhere to be found, having taken off at a sprint once Mrs. Cope had stopped her car, and it was a full day later before he had the guts to reappear and corroborate my story of having fallen out of a tree. Although Mrs. Cope later supplied my mom with the correct version, I did enjoy a brief delay and cooling-down period that lessened somewhat the eventual punishment resulting from yet another confirmation of my parents’ suspicion about my apparent poor judgment.

To this day, whenever I visit my parents, I take a long look at the right-hander at the end of Glendale Circle on my way by. I swear I could make it, with just a little more grip and a better line through the corner.



Chapter Three

Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s Philadelphia suburb that was Springfield was not necessarily a kinder and gentler experience. Although my mother endlessly taught the concept of “acting like a gentleman,” other kids in my neighborhood didn’t necessarily get the same message. The direct result of this is that I ended up getting my ass kicked a lot. Two especially willing participants in this activity were my neighbors, Anthony and Sammy Marcozzi. Practitioners of the fine art of name-calling and taunting, Anthony and Sammy spotted in me a reluctance to participate, and decided that the best way to address the situation was to beat me up. I often found myself struggling on the ground, getting alternating views of pavement/lawn/curbing while avoiding blows from above and simultaneously trying to figure out what a “faggot!” was. Many such fights were concluded when the ever-vigilant Bette Lowe—restrained from uttering any non-church sanctioned expletives—pulled Anthony or Sammy (or occasionally both) off of me.

Even though fighting wasn’t especially common for me, I definitely learned that there were risks involved in not being one of the “cool” kids. I recognized early on that kids who were acknowledged as cool rarely suffered the same schoolyard or front yard confrontations. I also quickly realized that one way to shortcut the whole process was to participate in sports—and to participate well. This insight ultimately got me out of my designated seat as a timid spectator and into the action when the opportunity arose. I firmly believed that if I could become one of the guys on the court or running down the field, I would be insulated from the ambushes of the Sammys and Anthonys of the world. It became obvious to me that if you hit the ball far, evaded tacklers, or sank the baseline shot, nobody much cared if you were actually a bit of a dork in real life. Becoming an accepted member of a team also counteracted somewhat the perception that I was an “egghead” because I happened to get straight A’s in school. Latching onto this fact, I spent considerable focused effort in trying to become the best athlete I could— mostly out of a desperate sense of self preservation.

Once I realized that there was safety, acceptance, and adolescent salvation in athletic participation, I embraced the concept whole-heartedly. I was also lucky enough to go through a few growth spurts during my later grade school years, which had the bonus effect of further diminishing the frequency of Anthony’s and Sammy’s bullying. And what happened next was something completely unexpected: by eighth grade, I was one of the bigger kids in the class, and that size combined with some element of inner determination helped enormously to put me squarely at the top of the football player pecking-order. After spending years riding the pine, I suddenly blossomed into a star running back and linebacker, finally enjoying success at the upper-level 120-pound Springfield team. My coach, the remarkably-named Nick Nicholas, taught me to hit hard, cut on a dime, and curse like a sailor, much to the dismay of Bette. In the process I achieved a semblance of very-local stardom, enhanced further when I scored my first touchdown. Sweeter still was the fact that the TD came on an interception of Barry Blundin’s pass, which I somehow managed to not drop on my way into the opposite endzone. Barry was the acknowledged best athlete in my school, so I had long since been in awe of his physical gifts and resultant status among my schoolmates. But when I scored off of him during that game between Springfield and Kedron, it was a moment that overwhelmingly reinforced my theory of sports and acceptance: it felt not just good, it felt great. Even better, the high lasted well past my return to school, where the event hadn’t gone unnoticed. It was a guilty pleasure, but being recognized as a good football player easily outdid getting beat up any day of the week.

The next step up, playing for the freshman football team at Cardinal O’Hara High School, was a big one. I knew this would be a huge jump in terms of player skill, speed, and size; I had overheard my dad talking to other dads about the team with a hushed reverence. Over one-hundred kids tried out for the team, and many arrived at the first practice with advance press, big reputations, and more confidence than I would ever have the right to feel. All I wanted was to quietly gain acceptance. And while I readily made a few friends, it always seemed as the outsider requesting permission to join, rather than as an insider sharing a mutual connection.

However, once I started playing, there was a perceptible change in attitude—mine and also that of the other players. I felt more comfortable out on the field—playing hard and being part of the team—than virtually anywhere else in school. I kept my head down, literally and figuratively, and only later realized that I had established myself as a solid player worthy of some recognition based on game performance, which unexpectedly (to me, at least), was good. A few touchdowns here and there, and next thing you know, no one’s stealing your lunch money.

All that was well and good, for playing on the freshman team at O’Hara was demanding in several special ways. The most obvious was simply the change in time management demands from grade school to the high school level. All at once, I was spending thirty hours a week playing ball while trying to comprehend biology late into the night. Beyond that was the pressure put on the players to perform: that first year was more than an introduction, it was a showcase for the big team the following year. The reputation of the varsity team was large and mighty, and we all knew that playing there someday would be a visible payoff for a lot of miles run and weights lifted.

To add to the stress, the freshman team hadn’t lost a game in years and the varsity players never passed up a chance to remind us that losing was not an option.

“You idiots lose, we’re going to shave all your heads!”

I cringed a bit as we tried to make our way past the gauntlet of varsity studs taking a breather during their practice There was no hiding from their collective gaze as we approached the field for our first game.

Gerry Feehery, only four years separated from being drafted by the Eagles, stood up directly in our path. There was no way around the 6’ 3” 250-pound senior lineman, and I certainly didn’t want to show the fear I felt by breaking into a sprint.

“No kidding, you worthless Frosh, we never lost even once. You guys blow this one, and we’re going to make you all pay.”

“Better believe it,” added Jimmy McAllister, “Don’t fuck up our record.”

Our little group stood there meekly, staring at the ground silently until Gerry and Jimmy lost interest.

“Let’s go, these guys don’t stand a chance,” they laughed as they returned to the assembly of their teammates. “We’ll be watching!” they warned over their shoulders as the rest of the guys smirked in agreement.

Appropriately motivated, we went out and went 6-0 that season. I scored eight TD’s in those six games, including one long run where the varsity coach, Bob Ewing, happened to be watching from the end zone as I arrived.

“Nice going, kid,” coach said while patting me on the shoulder as I trotted up to him.

“Thanks, coach,” I managed, in between gasps after the long sprint.

“We’ll be on the lookout for you next year, son,” Ewing added.

I couldn’t believe my luck, having that chance to show off a bit before the big man—a legend in the high school football community.

“Did you see that, Bette?” my dad beamed on the way home in the car. “Ewing congratulated him and shook his hand, right there in front of everybody!” My dad sounded like I had just met the president or something. For my part, I settled into the good vibe, enjoying the warmth of my dad’s proud moment and knowing it would go well for me at school for at least another week or so.

I made it through that first season, and my freshman year at O’Hara, with a work pattern that has stayed with me even today. Basically I worked my butt off once I made up my mind that I wanted to be successful. Coming home exhausted each night after practice, I then sat down to a few hours of studying Latin, calculus, or some other similarly obtuse subject. I juggled the schoolwork with the football practices, and without really noticing, I had made the team, earned a starting job at running back, and somehow managed straight A’s.

What I did notice, however, was that no one was bullying me. I had groups of friends who were acknowledged geeks and others who were big and popular jocks. I wasn’t sure what category was made for me and, frankly, didn’t care. I just realized that I had a sort of safe haven in more than one clique of fellow students, and no one had yet asked me to leave. In a way, I was a bit of an anomaly—I studied and practiced hard, and ended up performing well both in and out of the classroom. While that might not have gone unnoticed among my teachers and friends, I was simply satisfied to be accepted, for whatever reason. I also recognized that competition, in any sport but especially football, was rewarding in a visceral way. Although an admitted “smart kid,” I wasn’t really interested in making it very obvious, and academics didn’t seem so much competitive as simply demanding of my time and modest effort. I knew I was close to Joe Diguisseppe, the number one ranked kid in the class, but didn’t give it any more thought beyond what was required to keep me ahead of the curve academically. For me, football was the more valuable asset—one that gave me access, friendship, a sense of achievement, and a reason to get my nose out of a textbook. The ultimate goal of academics would be attained later in life.

As I continued working hard enough and late enough, I was rewarded by good grades and a high class rank. It’s hard to describe, but most of my early success was unanticipated and really a pleasant surprise. I worked hard because, well, there didn’t seem to be any reason not to, and it was far easier every day to arrive prepared and with none of the stresses associated with missed or incomplete assignments. It wasn’t really some conscious effort to perform, at least not initially. Eventually, though, I became aware of the direct result of focused effort. When I applied myself, I was capable of outperforming academically nearly all of my peers. This fact wasn’t a matter of pride, it was simply a concept I relied on as a comfort when schoolwork became more challenging than usual. Anxieties about uncontrollable factors interfering with my grand plans (such as engines blowing up at Daytona) were not yet part of the equation. Instead there emerged an easily recognizable pattern: work hard and success is just part of the completed package.

It was at that point that a theme emerged, beginning a process that continues to mature to this day. I found some aspects of my life easier—such as academic performance—and therefore discounted them to some degree, as there was less of a challenge involved. On the other hand, activities that were atypical and non-conforming for the kid labeled as smart were simply enticing. I wanted to be different—recognized as unusual in my participation and dedication to apparently incongruous activities—not because I stood out as a typical A-student.

For sure, the balance required to do this was the real challenge. Knocking heads on the football field was pretty diametrically opposite to doing Math Club problems, but I managed to find a fit in both places. And in both the classroom and the locker room, I really wanted to be “just one of the guys.” In some sense, my varied and unusual participation probably diminished that possibility in each instance, so that by trying to fit in, I probably stood out even more. But I was happier and less anxious about myself and my peers’ opinion of me when I occupied safe space in whatever group I was part of at the moment.

To be included was critical. I had spent more than enough time sitting on the curb as a kid, watching the other kids play and secretly wishing to be invited in. Back then, I wasn’t being excluded—there was no deliberate barring of me by those already playing—but I lacked the assertiveness to dive in unsolicited. Why I didn’t think to ask in, I still don’t know; perhaps the acute understanding of the cautious role of an outsider was present even then. As a result, I sat there and watched, fantasizing about scoring the goal or hitting the home run, all while I silently observed other kids acting out my dreams. In that fashion, my mind equated the possession of the courage to actually participate with success and acceptance, regardless of the actual level of performance. You had to get in and be in, in order to belong. As that concept became more concrete in my adolescent mind, I forced myself to participate, joining teams, entering schoolyard and backyard games, and generally actively trying to be, well, just one of the guys.


It was in the midst of that developing pattern that I decided to try out for track and field in the spring of my freshman year at O’Hara. Because the track season ran counter to football, it was a great way of staying in shape and keeping the football players together and off the streets until the fall. It was here that I would find yet another test of perseverance and intestinal fortitude.

Not content to simply sign up for various sprints (and unwilling to torture my body with distance running of any sort), I figured that running hurdles would be pretty cool. Without really understanding exactly what was involved, I somehow decided that it had to be that event—another way to be just a bit more challenged, a bit more intense. Not just sprinting, but jumping over obstacles in the process, hurdling was a natural activity expressed rather unnaturally in several different events. I expected to run the high-hurdle short-distance sprints, but was drafted into also running the longer intermediate hurdle events. The latter would be the event, the animal, the gut-buster that I dreaded but couldn’t quit.

In those days, the intermediate hurdle event was a 300-meter affair, which was a medium-demand sprint distance for me, at least when done without hurdles. Add hurdles to the equation and you have a true bitch of an event. My coach actually introduced me to the event only moments before the scheduled start of my first track meet. He grabbed me by the elbow, pointed at the shortish-hurdle, and informed me that I was signed up for the next race. I shrugged, guessing that it was just part of the deal in order to be allowed to run the more glamorous high-hurdle event later.

I warmed up with a few tentative hops over the intermediate-height hurdle, which sure seemed easier to clear than the higher barriers I was used to in the 110-meter event. No big deal, I figured. (Eventually, I’d learn that when something seems to be “No Big Deal” at first glance, alarms should be going off, but back then, I was pleasantly clueless). I trotted over to where my dad was positioned on the sidelines and mentioned that I was going to do the 300-meter hurdles.

“Have you done that one before?”

“Nope. But it doesn’t look too hard. Coach wants me to do the 300 hurdles if I want any chance to run the high hurdles later.”

“Well, OK, but maybe you should practice first.”

I was frustrated by my dad’s apparent lack of confidence in me and his failure to understand the importance of my first varsity track meet. “Dad, there’s no time to practice. Besides, (lowering my voice), the other guys will see me.”

Consistent with his firm belief in the school of hard knocks, my dad backed off on offering any more useful tips, and as I headed for the starter’s area, he made his way up the hill for a better view of the carnage about to happen.

I assumed the sprinter’s four-point stance at the start line and waited for the starter’s pistol to begin the race. No big deal, right? You sprint some, you jump in between, all over in less than a minute. How hard could it be?

I fired out of the blocks, running full speed toward the first hurdle. I hadn’t bothered to count steps the way I had been coached to for the high hurdles event, since I didn’t know how many steps I’d need anyway. Why worry about details when the race is on? As a result, I arrived at the first hurdle awkwardly, realizing that I needed to stretch my last step, and do something resembling a long-jump, to make it over the hurdle. Hesitating for just a split-second, I failed to clear the top of the hurdle, striking the cross bar hard enough to slam the hurdle against the ground. I tumbled over the hurdle, sprawling onto the asphalt track, landing on hands, then knees, then rolling onto my head and back. Stunned, I barrel-rolled over and popped up, partially facing the wrong direction. I was peripherally aware of the yelling of my coach and the other kids but more aware of the need to get going again in the proper direction.

I stood up and started running again, arriving at the next hurdle with more determination to clear the obstacle. My lead foot hit the crossbar, but this time I simply knocked over the hurdle as I ran through it. Stumbling briefly, I kept on going forward. Two down, only seven more to go.

The third hurdle treated me much like the first, conspiring to pull me over with it as I hit it in mid-stride. Again I hit the hard track, this time allowing the hurdle to impact me directly in the crotch as I added to my collection of abrasions. I’m relatively sure I heard the laughing of my teammates then, although it’s altogether possible that they only laughed afterwards upon the retelling—my recollection is understandably a bit fuzzy on that detail.

Righting myself once more, I started running again, now desperate to just get the thing over with, and then be allowed to limp on home. Managing to clear the next five hurdles, I dully thought that the worst might actually be over. Instead, the ghost of Jim Thorpe had not yet had his fill of me. My legs by this point were feeling leaden, and my sprinting strides were much more of a stagger. I attempted one last clumsy leap, but instead crashed into the final hurdle, sprawled onto the ground beyond, and came to a rest on my back. I blankly looked up at a few clouds silently floating by and wondered how they kept marching on, ignorant of my plight down below. Unable now to ignore the hurt that came rushing at me simultaneously from multiple origins, and feeling every bump and crack in the asphalt at my back, I considered staying right there. Or I could crawl off to the outside of the track where the grass was more comfortable, and I could possibly start digging a hole big enough to fit into.

Instead, I got up. Slowly, as I wasn’t sure whether my injuries might have resulted in the inability to stand, let alone run any further. Hands and knees first, and then trotting again, I felt my legs protest the strain of flexing and extending abraded skin over painful joints. I looked awkwardly downward, not ahead, and made it finally over the finish line. Instead of stopping there, I continued a few more steps off onto the grassy infield, sat down hard, and assumed the plane-crash position with my head between my knees. Looking up briefly, I noticed my coach approaching from further down the track. I hoped that he was simply planning on throwing a tarp over me, but he was apparently intent on talking.

He started with the standard question that people have been asking me for various reasons over the decades: “Are you OK?”

I gave a silent head nod, wincing as I waited for a public rebuke.

“Pretty tough race, huh? Always good to get the first one out of the way though.”

Huh? The first one? As if there would be more, really?

“Better shake it off. You have the high hurdles in about fifteen minutes.”

What, no courtesy ambulance ride? No last rites? “OK coach, but I’m going to need a minute here.”

My dad arrived next on the scene, with his unexpectedly blunt observation. “Way to go out there, Jimmy; you just kept getting up”—a pause here for effect – “I was waiting for you to stop, but you didn’t quit. No matter how many times you fell, I saw you keep on getting up. I couldn’t believe you kept going!”

I looked up at my dad, expecting his face to betray sarcasm, and prepared myself to admit that I was once again foolish to have not taken his advice. Admitting ignorance on top of defeat on top of pain was a tough combination to work with, but I knew it was my lot at that particular moment.

Instead, I saw a rare expression on my dad’s face. He smiled with a mixture of kindness, concern, and pride all at once. No criticism in there, no reminder of how I had blown him off earlier. As I wondered who had switched dads with me, he extended a hand.

“Can you get up? Easy does it, now. Let’s go walk a bit so we can get you ready for the next race, OK?”

We walked slowly around the track’s perimeter, my dad with his arm draped over my bloody shoulder, silently bonding over the moment when I first fully realized that he could be proud of something I had done. I had won nothing but his respect; instead of pity, embarrassment, or regret, I experienced an emotion with him that I couldn’t have purchased by winning a race, then or ever.


Born in 1923, Bob Lowe was in every way a product of the Great Depression during which he was raised. The oldest son of a German mother and English/Irish father, my dad’s nature easily co-existed with the nurturing of very frugal, conservative, and demanding parents. To this day, he doesn’t tolerate nonsense, and my father was always quick to pronounce a wide variety of activities and sentiments as “happy horseshit.” As in, “Cut the happy horseshit, I’m trying to watch the news in peace down here.”

The oldest of three boys, my dad was athletic and fit, but he readily describes his brothers as having been more successful at sports. Never one to point out his own virtues, it’s apparent to me now that Bob Lowe had bigger fish to fry – working through the Depression and enlisting in the Navy – than participating in sports. But he certainly grew up a fan of all things athletic, and much of that interest later rubbed off on his two boys.

My father’s stoicism was demonstrated daily as he dealt with the challenges of raising six kids on a government worker’s income. He happily went to off to work each day, as he once admitted, because it was a peaceful respite where he felt comfortable and more than capably in control. At home, he was subject to the demands of maintaining broken-down cars, corralling misbehaving kids, and keeping a small roof intact over a large raucous family. And on a daily basis, for sure, Bob Lowe worried for his kids that life only be somehow better for them, and less stressful and demanding.

Charles and Clara Lowe were surely parents who disciplined Bob and his two brothers with classically physical incentives to behave properly. This was ultimately passed on to my dad as the only way he knew for sure to raise a child properly. As a result, my father was an active and demanding disciplinarian, who didn’t tolerate well any deviations from what he perceived as correct behavior. I certainly feared my father at times, and coincidentally, those times were always predictably based on having recently done something wrong—though the thought of getting punished was always worse than the actual occurrence. And to this day, the hair on the back of my neck still stands up at the sound of coins or keys jingling in someone’s pockets – the very sound I would hear as I ran from my dad up the stairs in an attempt to get to the safety of my bedroom. Still, that the memory is so vivid is testimony to the effectiveness of that technique. Dad kept us in line and demanded respect, and we rarely had any misunderstanding of what would occur should we cross the line. While there was little physical discipline for my four older sisters, my brother Rick and I were targets of tough love on many occasions, and rarely stepped far out of line as a result.

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