In the Fast Lane
Mason Professor Takes an Intellectual Approach to Racing
By Lynn Burke
Lee Talbot, Environmental Science and Policy, knew early on that he would be an ecologist, but science was not his only interest. As are many young men, he also was fascinated by cars—and not just by their mechanics. His fascination became an intellectual exercise—a need to discover how to make cars go fast and what intellectual and physical skills were required of the driver to accomplish that task.
So when 18-year-old Talbot was presented the opportunity to race, he jumped at it and won that first race in a sprint car on a dirt track. That was more than 50 years ago, and he has been racing—and winning—ever since.
Talbot has driven every kind of car, professionally and as an amateur, on tracks around the world. These days, Talbot prefers road racing, which differs from the oval-track NASCAR-type racing. “Road racing normally takes place on a two- to four-mile track with anything from 10 to 30 turns and changes in elevation,” he says. “The turns are right and left; some of them very fast, some of them very slow. So what is required is not just speed, but skill in braking and the ability to get the car around the track quickly through different kinds of corners.”
Talbot approaches racing in the same way he does ecological problems. In both cases, he says, he is dealing with interconnected systems. “You have the vehicle and its components, all of which have to work, and other external factors. Of course, there are differences in the speed in which you proceed. If you make a mistake studying an ecosystem, it may be embarrassing later academically; make a mistake on the race course ecosystem and you end up on your head!”
While moving at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour, Talbot has a lot to consider, including the best line to take to get through each turn; whether a straightaway or another turn follows a turn; tire adhesion; gas load; changes in the road’s surface; his own level of fatigue; “and then, of course, there are those other cars on the track.” As each of these factors change, so must his driving strategy. “It’s a magnificent exercise in high-speed calculation and coordination,” he says.
Racing has its spin-off benefits for Talbot. He credits the mental discipline and what he’s learned about his body from racing with helping him with other things, such as exploring Laos or climbing the Himalayas. His ecological research has even benefited from his professional racing. When the sponsorship of a British car company allowed Talbot to travel from California to race in East Africa, he was able to conduct several months of field research in the region.
In fall 2002, Talbot’s racing schedule took him from upstate New York to Georgia. He owns two race cars and an interest in a third. Of the three, he seems to favor his Ginetta, a British-made sports racing car. “She’s lovely,” he says, “sensuous lines, a magnificent, wonderful car.”
Talbot’s wife, Marty, says that the car is his true mistress, but she’s not jealous. When the couple first met, Talbot says, “I thought one of the best ways to make sure Marty supported me was to get her involved in racing.” And he did: she first managed professional racing teams and then drove. When the couple’s sons, Lawrence and Rusty, were born, she retired from driving but not from racing. Now the entire family has worked in Talbot’s pit crew, as have a few George Mason faculty members, including Grant Reynolds and Bob Jonas, also from Environmental Science and Policy. In fact, Reynolds and Talbot have been involved in racing together for more than 36 years.
Racing and the other things Talbot enjoys keep him young. “They all fit together,” he says. “I’ve got the best of all possible worlds.”