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The Interesting Odyssey of Jon Farbman

Astrophysicist- Auto Racer- Bicycle Racer and Auto Racer Again With a Lot of Other Things Besides

By Carol Bender

As water seeks its own level, so do many of our classmates, ending up in a far different place than that which they had originally planned or ever dreamed of.

Jon started out at Cornell in Engineering but quickly moved to Arts and Sciences his sophomore year in order to study astrophysics.

During Jon's Junior year a Cornell friend introduced him to car racing. His friend took him to the race track at Lime Rock, CT where he got to drive his street car around. Jon was more than exhilarated by the experience. He got out of his car and exclaimed, "This is better than girls!" Soon after, Jon started racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

He had a succession of (street) cars at Cornell including a rusted out Triumph TR3, an Alpha Romeo Spyder that refused to start most winter mornings, a beat up SAAB smoker and even a Dodge station wagon clunker that performed the best of all.

In the summer between Junior and Senior year Jon toured Europe courtesy of his aunt and uncle. While there he contacted a man he had been referred to and had an auto built for himself to race – Lotus 7. It cost only $1100.00. After graduation Jon received training and became licensed to race in the SCCA – Sports Car Club of America.

He declined a graduate assistantship toward a doctorate in biophysics opting instead for employment at Mission Control with NASA in Houston. After three years there Jon’s employment was driven by the car racing passion he had developed while at Cornell.

Leaving NASA in 1968 his next career swing was to Wall Street as a stockbroker for E. F. Hutton. He had realized that his auto racing "hobby" needed some real money – far more than a government salary provided.

His New York City brokerage career lasted two years. By then Jon decided that he needed to understand better his race car and abandoned the "Street" for a job as a mechanic at a sophisticated auto repair shop in Fairfield, CT.

Jon kept racing as an amateur. His first crash occurred in 1970 at Pocono International raceway. His car was destroyed but Jon was OK.

Now he was serious!

After rebuilding his car he was earning $ 500.00 at weekend races – a lot of cash in those days. And his many wins on the track attracted a major sponsor, Remington Shaver. With their support/cash he had 2 cars specially designed/ built in England and was well into his "new" career – that of a professional driver.

Unfortunately, an accident happened while he was testing one of the prototypes in 1972. A simple $ 0.25 spring failed causing the throttle to stick open and Jon crashed into a wall surrounding the track suffering serious burns. He was treated for several months as an outpatient.

Truly aimless for two years after the crash, and with no more sponsor money to race on, he finally settled on working in the family business founded by his grandfather in 1915. He found himself immersed in mechanical contracting and plumbing jobs building hospitals and within the subway system in the City of New York. (After all this was a "City boy").

Nevertheless, he was still anxious to get back into a racecar and he began looking for sponsorships. By 1975 he was trying to raise one million dollars to put a team together.

At the age of 6 while bedridden from mononucleosis his mother introduced him to classical music. A constant in his life since then has been his love of this music. He reasoned that one of the most important things drawing people to auto races was the thunderous sound. (Studies confirmed this – people won’t go to car races if the cars are muffled.) He reasoned that Pioneer High Fidelity Electronics would make the ideal sponsor for his team. He set out in an aggressive pursuit of their advertising money relentlessly trying to convince the advertising agency Scali, McCabe, and Sloves that it would make perfect marketing sense for Pioneer to sponsor a racing car.

He was not successful in landing any money for his racing. But, he realized that he was irresistibly captivated by the creative people he met and the advertising world that he had had a glimpse of at while trying to "pitch" the racing effort.

Subsequently, he spent 2 years trying to get a job with the agency. Here was the "most creative" ad agency in the world at the time, SMS, (Purdue Chicken, etc.) being pursued by a middle aged man in the plumbing business. Not much hope there.

But Jon was finally hired in 1978 based on his knowledge of "hi-fi" (his hobby and means to better hear his classical music.) plus his sheer perseverance. He was initially hired into a management position but soon gave up his expense account and corner office for a windowless garret so he could work on the "creative side" as a writer.

Later, Jon was one of many casualties in the takeover of the agency. This left him on his own to do freelance work in 1984.

Again following his interest in music he became a "groupie" of drum and bugle corps summer competitions. Jon was so fascinated with the musical competitions and the associated extravaganzas that he decided to write a movie about the activity. He did extensive research but never made the film.

One repeated theme during his research discussions with the young musicians were the "horror stories" about how bad their shoes were for marching. The players often complained of debilitating blisters and worse. Jon, the marketing person, saw an opportunity! Jon suspected there could be a niche market for a then non-existent product - marching shoes. The friends he'd made in the drum corps community gave Jon all the advice and information he needed detailing what might be required for a "marching shoe" -- if there was one. After much trial and error in development, Jon eventually designed the "production" prototype and started his business.

And as they say – the rest is history. Jon's company Drillmasters is celebrating its 25 years of making shoes for school/college marching bands.

Having given up car racing in 1972 after his horrendous accident, Jon took up bicycle racing starting in 2000. Going around corners at 30 mph with 25 other riders inches away reminded him of racing the car. This new challenge changed his life wherein he was required to rigorously train 11 months a year in order to be fit enough to compete.

In the winter, for example, he'd spend 3-4 months training in Florida. In 2001 Jon suffered a bicycle racing crash that necessitated a surgery leaving him with a titanium plate bolted to C5, C6, and C7 in his spine.

He continued bike racing until 2007 when he rented a racecar and returned to Lime Rock, CT – the site of his original love affair with auto racing. He suffered another accident fracturing his neck while driving without specific piece of safety equipment that hadn’t arrived before the race. So that curtailed his very brief return to automobile racing in 2007!

About 4 years ago while training for his bicycle racing in Florida, Jon took a thee day Skip Barber Race Driving School and performed so well that he was invited to race in the Barber racing series. But he wasn't interested- and got back on his bike.

Remarkably, his mind changed regarding car racing and in 2007 - not soon after his neck-breaking crash - he commissioned FlatOut Motorsports to build him his own race car. Incredibly, though, in Feb 2008 he tried the car for the first time at Sebring International Raceway but walked away from it!

His desire to race had evaporated.

Friends who had known him as a highly successful "fast" driver in the late 1960’s persuaded him to reconsider quitting and he tried the car again in May 2008. This time he felt he must race again.

So off he has gone, winning his first race in 39 years at the New Hampshire International Speedway at the end of August of this year.

On the social side, Jon married for the first time at age 51 - 15 years ago to Jacqueline West, a dancer and dance educator who he met through a New York Magazine ad he wrote in the mid 1980's- when that was the avant-garde way to find dates.

The couple divide their time between Florida (where he still trains religiously on the bike to be fit enough to drive the racing car), New Jersey (where the Drillmasters business is), and going to races throughout the northeast. If he ever relaxes it’s in a recently completed magnificent home he and Jacquie designed and built from the ground up in a breathtaking and totally secluded setting near Greenwich, NY.

What a winding road professionally for a kid from the City who was supposed to be an engineer. And the big question: Why does he race in spite of so many serious accidents?

"I love the overwhelming mental and physical challenges – the violence, the close wheel-to-wheel competition that demands life-threatening judgments and highly complex physical skill sets that are necessary to operate the racecar and at the same time compete against 35 other folks who are trying just as hard as I am."

And the band played on" wearing Drillmasters marching shoes.