— by James Bell
Sitting down at a keyboard with the goal of sharing parting thoughts on a dear friend should be a seen as a moment of dread. No matter the circumstances of their passing — whether graceful relief from a long illness or due to a sudden or shocking accident — the overwhelming sense of “Wow, I really won’t ever see or talk to that person again …” can make such words hard to collect and share. But today I am writing about Al. Al Vinikour. And I can’t help but smile. And laugh. And sincerely thank the MPG for this opportunity to share my brief window with a man that had such a profound impact on my success.
I quickly recognized Al as an acquired taste. I like to think of myself as a student of the human condition, and early on in my automotive media career I realized that the parade of OEM press events that I was fortunate to attend would provide a treasure trove of characters to experience. I like to call the junket run “adult day camp,” as inevitably we spend more time with fellow attendees than our real friends back home. Into this mix walked Al: a person that fit every definition of “grumpy old man.” He was funny as any person I had ever met before and a real equal opportunity “offender.” He was quick with a profane verbal poke at any political bent or social orientation, yet also as cantankerous as a hungry mountain lion. Funny that food comes to mind, because I truly believe that the scheduled snack breaks during a day’s test drive were the real reason Al made the effort to wake up at all. I will never forget pulling up to just such a stop during a MINI drive, just in time to hear Al bellow, “What…no $%@! peanut M&Ms?” I recall thinking maybe my best move was to take him in peanut M&M-sized doses.
Then, one fateful afternoon I found myself in an airport in Miami after a Nissan event, with Al waiting for the same return flight to Detroit. Ugh. I suddenly played back his moaning about the quality of the breakfast buffet earlier that day and how the paparazzi assembled outside our hotel kept him up all night. (Yes, paparazzi. The hotel was nice enough for Brittney Spears and her contingent to call home, but not good enough for Al.) And here in the terminal he was already grumbling about something completely innocuous … but in his signature damn funny way. Think M&Ms…
Al boarded the flight with the “those needing extra time” group because, well, he was pissed at the airline for being behind a few minutes behind schedule. “And besides, just look at me…I am a mess.” Off you go, Al. My new M&M strategy was working well. But then I boarded and found my seat right next to him. His reply? “Oh…you again? From bad to worse …”
All I dare say about that ensuing flight, without misting up and soaking my keyboard, is that I fell wholeheartedly in love with the man. In retrospect, I think he used his gruff exterior as a litmus test; when I barked back at him, we were hooked. By the time we were at cruising altitude, he was regaling me with tall tales from his early days as a member of the airline industry and then hosted a veritable roast of many of the automotive industry execs that I (once) held in high regard. He really understood this crazy business and taught me much of what makes it roll during that significant flight, so I made a silent promise to myself to spend as much time at “Al’s Altar” as possible. From that day forward, auto show and press event dinner table conversations were quite never the same.
My only regret is that our Miami flight eventually reached Detroit and we had to depart. Replaying our conversation kept me giggling all the way to LA that day. And it does again on this very sad day.