On February 18th I sat down with Ronald Hettich, an engineer, inventor, occasional race car driver, former motocross racer, GREY Club member, and real estate businessman. He is definitely someone who refuses to be defined by his job title which is why we at GREY were excited to get to know him.
As is evidenced by the following interview, Ronald came across as an accomplished, articulate, and adventurous. Entering this conversation I had hoped to glean some idea about how he could multitask so well, I was not expecting to be treated to some enjoyable anecdotes about a life well lived.
When did you start racing cars?
Around the time I moved out to California in 1980. I was working with some guys that were really into cars. I needed to buy something to replace my pickup, and they convinced me to get a 1969 Corvette that needed a lot of work.
That must have been expensive to have fixed.
Actually, I restored it myself. I redid the interior, stripped and repainted it, gave it new fiberglass bodywork, and put in a new suspension. . .I had never rebuilt an engine before, but once I did I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself.
Those same friends ended up introducing Ronald to autocross and Monte Carlo style rally racing. For those of you who are unaware, autocross is essentially a timed race around a circuit set up with highway cones where the fastest time wins. On the other hand, Monte Carlo rallying is essentially a race across large areas where checkpoints are announced 1 hour before the first departure, racers must show up at said points by specific times. Participants gain points for getting there early and lose points for being late.
You started in autocross right? How did you do?
I did OK – when I didn’t hit any cones I had competitive times. Again, I learned a lot because I had never done anything like that before. I was young and my driving style was a little too brash to be a true threat. When I got older I started racing with more finesse.
What about rallying, what was that like?
We usually raced from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas or Santa Barbara to San Diego. Races were 12 hours long and you’d race through the middle of the night.
That must have been tough on both you and your Corvette.
My friends and I ended up racing more than just my car. We also raced a Jensen Healey [an English sports car], a Saab Turbo, and a Chevy S-10 Blazer.
That’s a pretty wide variety of cars. I’m sure that led to at least a few misadventures.
At one point, we broke down outside of Furnace Creek, Nevada on the way to Las Vegas. We had sprung a leak in the radiator and figured out how to fix it using a jackknife, a piece of wood we found on the side of the road, and epoxy. We carved a plug out of wood and glued the plug to the radiator. We won the “Press on Regardless Award” for that piece of thinking.
Another time it had rained in the mountains and I had to take the Corvette and ford a stream to cross a road. The water was up to my door-sills! The river was a quarter of a mile wide and I couldn’t tell how deep it would get, but I took the chance because I knew I had to make a checkpoint and backtracking could have cost me the race. It probably wasn’t the smartest decision of my life and I was definitely lucky I didn’t get hurt.
These are some pretty long races, I assume you had to pack a lunch or something?
We took pizza with us and kept them hot by putting them on top of the engine. We drove the rally with pizza boxes under the hood to keep them just the right temperature. No cold pizza for us.
You were basically alone in the desert at night, did you see anything strange then?
One time it snowed in the High Desert in California in the middle of the night, so I saw snow on Saguaro cactuses which made me think I was dreaming at first. It only ever happened once but I remember it being a surreal experience.
How did you fare in rallying? Any wins?
Sure, I won a few times, more than I was winning motocross at the time. Those races are all about the adventure for me, I got to see and learn all kinds of new things so I’ve never regretted them.
What about once you moved to New England, did you continue racing?
Yes, as I got older I became a more experienced driver and my autocross times really improved. I won the best in my class with my BMW 5 series which was a pretty big deal for me. At that point, I could handle my car with much more finesse than when I was in my 20s.
What about rallying, do you still do that?
Oh definitely, my wife, Elaine, is my navigator now so we race together.
That’s not your typical couples activity, how do you guys do?
We won the last time we rally’d together. I wanted to just enjoy the route and race for fun, but out of the blue, she decides she wants to win this thing so we really went for it.
Is there anything else you want to do with cars in the future?
I’d like to build my own electric car at some point. I think that would be a good challenge.
His curiosity about everything combined with his willingness to try almost anything leave little doubt in this interviewer’s mind that he could do it. It’s clear that his attitude about life and love of adventure make Ronald and exemplary member of the GREY Club.