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Learning Curves: A Racecar Enthusiast Hugs the Road

The Cars I've Raced and Loved

— Photo by Rob Howard

Professional car racing typically conjures images of loud, flashy cars; company endorsements; and rabid fans spilling out of party vans for a glimpse of smoke and fire. Not many people think of physics.
Yet each time environmental-science and -policy professor Lee Talbot, Ph.D., gets into a racecar, he imagines himself in the throes of a scientific experiment.
Talbot, who turns 79 this summer, is not a NASCAR driver—the oval tracks and constant left turns don't give his disciplined mind quite the challenge it craves. Instead, this explorer-at-heart prefers the more cerebral hobby of road racing—hills and valleys; quick, varied turns; and maneuvers into a straightaway at 150 miles per hour.
For more than 60 years Talbot has been racing all kinds of automobiles—from everyday sports cars to open-wheel Formula cars. He has participated in amateur and professional leagues, and has won trophies on four continents. Lately his focus has been on racing vintage sports cars from the 1960s. His current love: a rare 1967 Ginetta G4. "She's sensual, a magnificent machine," Talbot says. His G4 has even snagged several trophies for the best-restored and best-looking car. And during the past several years Talbot has placed first with it in more than 80 percent of his races, routinely beating drivers half his age.
"I get a high from racing," says Talbot, "but not the gee-whiz kind of high one might get from bungee jumping." Rather, he says, "it's the high that comes from doing something really well both physically and mentally—from bringing it all together." And when he wins: "So much the better."
That winning is not Talbot's main goal probably makes sense for a man whose lifework has centered on finding solutions to vexing problems. At George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he has taught since 1994, Talbot has become one of the country's most influential voices in conservation and animal- and land-protection policy. As an adviser for Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, he had a major hand in drafting the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
He's an avid explorer, too. Each summer for the past 13 years Talbot has traveled to Laos and Cambodia to hike and explore stretches of land he and his wife, Marty, have fought to protect from development. While on the treks, the two have discovered previously unknown plant and animal species. Partners in marriage and in exploring for decades, Marty and Lee have also conducted research in East Africa, backpacked everywhere from the Asian and Pacific tropics to the Arctic regions of North America and Europe, and gone diving in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Both have been recognized for their exploring skills and passion: Marty, 77, is president of the Society of Women Geographers, and this year the Explorers Club awarded Lee its prestigious Explorers Medal for his "extraordinary contributions to exploration, scientific research and human welfare."
The pair also share a love of racing—and Lee isn't the only prizewinner in the family. Before the couple had children, Marty also raced competitively, winning prizes in Singapore and the United States. "On our first date, I borrowed back my racecar and took her to a meeting of race drivers," says Talbot. "Then later, after we were married, she got pregnant and stopped racing—but even now, when not driving or managing, she has run the crew, maintained the lap times, helped with strategy and logistics, and been an integral part."
"Whatever I do—racing, exploring, hiking, or teaching—I do because I love it," says Talbot, who insists he is willing to try almost anything, within reason. "I make sure I'm in good enough condition to meet the anticipated physical challenges. But I'm convinced that I'm only as old as I think I am. The greatest obstacle to pursuing passions is your own state of mind."

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