1999 was arguably the worst year in my life. I had made some mistakes and in the process lost every one of my friends and had no hope of any of them ever returning. It was a very dark time for me, but it led to a life changing event that put me where I am today. And it’s all thanks to the man pictured to the left, Courtney Halowell, a man I looked up to for most of my life.
When I first started getting into custom cars and trucks, I drew my inspiration from the pages of Mini Truckin’ magazine, where Courtney was a writer. I didn’t know it at the time, but he also wrote under the pen name Wyatt Strange, and his tales of truck runs and driving in San Diego made me really feel like I was there with him in the passenger seat. But more than that, it made me want to be as good a writer as he was, because he knew how to craft a story that was captivating. Those stories were the reason I kept coming back to the magazine, and it was a big reason why I became so enamored with the scene.
Flash to 1999, and I was almost done with my first major project, a 1996 Honda Civic that I named the Bad Apple. I owned a shop at the time, and after struggling all night to get the car ready for the Severed Ties show, we got the car there and everything was perfect, even though it still reeked of upholstery glue and was riding on borrowed wheels. I was exhausted, so instead of promoting the shop I passed out in the back of someone’s truck to catch up on some sleep.
Courtney was covering the event for a new magazine he was a part of named Street Trucks, and was also on the lookout for cool cars for another book. He saw the Civic, and approached my business partner about it. I’m not sure exactly what he said, but from what I gathered later, it was the potential cover car for the first issue of another new publication, Import Racer! magazine. My partner took Courtney’s card, and when I woke up I got the good news.
A few days later I was sitting at my desk, twirling that business card idly in my hand. I had the phone number of the guy who wrote all of those great articles, and I had no idea what to say to him. It was like picking up the phone and calling Tom Cruise, you know, just to see if I was worthy enough to hang out with. I was scared out of my mind.
I decided to call and ask about advertising, since we needed to get things going at the shop, but the only real ice breaker that I had was that I was the guy with the green Civic. So that’s what I said.
“Hi Courtney, you don’t know me, but my name is Kevin Whipps and I’m the guy with the green Civic from the Severed Ties show.”
“Hey Kevin. Yeah, that thing was badass! You know, the editor of Import Racer! is in Phoenix right now, and he could probably shoot that thing. I think it’s a cover car for sure. Let me call him real quick and get that done, cool?”
I was shocked, but in agreement. An hour later I met the editor, and the next day my car was shot for the cover of the magazine. A framed copy of the spread is hanging in my office right now for two reasons: It was my first feature ever, and it was also the first article I ever had printed, and it was all because of Courtney.
I’d get to meet him a few months later when I was in California for an event that Import Racer! wanted me for. I walked into the offices and there he was, big smile on his face and a hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Courtney,” he said, but he really needed no introduction. It was like I was standing in front of a celebrity, and I was very, very nervous. He gave me a quick tour of the office, I got a box full of magazines with my car on the cover, and that’s when he said, “You want to come with me over to Nissan? I’ve got to take this Frontier back that I used as a demo.” I don’t even remember if I said anything, but I do know that I loaded into that Frontier and we headed onto the freeway.
As we’re driving, Courtney is telling me about how great airbags can handle with sway bars as he’s taking a sharp corner to get onto the freeway, but my head was somewhere else. It sounds so stupid to me now, 10 years later, but back then I really was in awe of the man. I had barely written 4,000 words in my semi-professional career at that point, but back then, I looked at Courtney as the man I wanted to become. He was an editor. He got to play with cars and trucks every day. He had the perfect life.
I was still shaking a little bit after we returned.
* * * * *
I’m not sure what year it was, but I remember a specific phone call that I made to Courtney a few years back.
When Courtney had his stroke, I was afraid that it was going to be the end of his life. Fortunately, he bounced back and for a while, things seemed like they were going well. My sister was not so fortunate.
My sister passed in 2007, and we believe that she had a stroke because of the heart problems she had throughout her life. The way she was positioned when she died indicated that she may have been dead before she hit the floor, something which my family heard was common for some stroke victims. It completely changed my family dynamic, and it rocked my world. I needed help, and I turned to the one person who I knew had first-hand experience with the potential killer.
I wasn’t close to Courtney in a friend sense — we were more business associates then anything — and I was worried that having a conversation about something so personal would cross a boundary that he didn’t want to step over. My fears where nullified almost immediately after we talked for just a minute, and we spent the next 20-30 talking about how a stroke works, what he knew about it and what my sister may have gone through. There were no tears or anything on my part during the call, but afterwards I broke down feeling both grief and relief all at the same time. He had no reason to talk to me about anything, much less for such a long time, but he knew my pain first hand and helped me through it.
Not too many people know that story. I wish he knew how much it meant to me.
* * * * *
The last time I saw Courtney was back in October, and that too was another life changing moment, but for a completely different reason.
My buddy Chad is in Negative Camber, Courtney’s car club, and he dropped off his ’51 Ford with Courtney to get some tech work done for World of Rods magazine. I was the copilot in Chad’s Tahoe as we drove out west with an empty trailer to pick up his newly lowered car. When we got there, Courtney gave us a warm welcome and we hung out with him and Bill Hancock for a bit, talking shop. I wandered around his garage, which was just this great building on a really cool property that looked like it held millions of memories. He had just finished cutting up his GMC Sonoma, a truck from the 1990s that stuck in my head, and was using that as a frame for his AD Chevy truck. Laying casually in the back of his old Ford was his camera bag and a tripod, and as I ran my hand across the back of the Ford’s tailgate I thought about all of the images that camera had taken. The things that tripod had seen. Amazing.
We head inside and I sit down on the couch with Chad and Bill to watch some football while Courtney sits on a stool and pops open this old looking laptop. I turned and looked, and that’s when I realized what it was. Courtney had a 12-inch PowerBook, an Apple computer that I lusted after for years, and had recently started wanting again. I chatted with him about it, talking about what a great workhorse it must be, and he agreed. The latch had long since failed, so it needed a coaster to keep the lid shut, and it was a little beat up from all of the years of travel and abuse. But it still did Facebook and the web, and Courtney used it all the time.
Later that night, I went into the kitchen and grabbed a drink of water. As I sat there in the quiet house, I looked at the PowerBook again, taking note of the many scratches and dings that marred its surface. I wondered where those marks had come from, and what the story was behind each of them. What stories he must have typed out on that thing, and how many states it had been to. Then it hit me.
This was Hemmingway’s typewriter.
For most people, the camera Courtney held was his most important tool, and he was a truly great photographer. Although I loved his photography, for me, Courtney was the skilled writer that I always aspired to become. This beat up old laptop was the tool that brought those words to life.
Before I left, I joked around to Courtney that if he ever decided to get rid of the laptop, to let me know. He could wipe the hard drive and get rid of it all, I really didn’t care. I just wanted to put it up on a shelf somewhere and retire it, or maybe continue the legacy by typing out my own work on its tiny keys. Either way, I didn’t want to see that laptop end up in a landfill somewhere, it was just too valuable a relic.
* * * * *
Others remember Courtney as Tito, the fun loving car guy, but for me, he was a hero. He was a man who selfishly gave of himself to help out some kid in Phoenix who had a bad reputation for being an ass. Not only did he not care, but he went above and beyond to help me succeed. And today, as I sit here typing these words on a keyboard not much larger than the one he wrote on, I think about what we’ve lost as a community and how much more he could have done.
Since I never got the chance to say it out loud, I’ll say it now. Courtney, thank you for everything you did for me. I’ll never forget you or what you selflessly did. You were, and are, my hero.