From Myrtle Beach Online, a story on my friend and mentor Shea Brown.
Shea Brown — every bit of 6-foot-2 — has squeezed himself into his racing-modified 1974 Fiat 128 Coupe so many times over the past three years that it has become second nature for him.
He is getting ready to do it again at Florida’s Sebring International Raceway for the 2015 Spring Vintage Classic — a weekend event in connection with the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, which pits similar cars of the same era against each other on well-known tracks across the nation for wheel-to-wheel racing. The Sebring event runs from Thursday through March 1.
A Myrtle Beach resident and lifelong proponent of world peace, Brown has lived a multifaceted life as, among other things, a musician, tennis pro and perennial student. Getting to know Brown is like peeling back an onion, with each layer revealing a surprising new component. He lives life on his own terms and has experienced many fortuitous moments along the way.
Brown, 63, quit drinking more than three years ago and attributes the forward motion in his life to his sobriety. “It made the most amazing difference,” he said. “I saw so many wonderful changes come about and positive things happening when I decided to stop drinking.”
Originally from Winston-Salem, N.C., Brown said he and his mother lived with her parents. “My mother and grandfather worked at Western Electric. My grandfather was a CPA and my mother worked in Personnel,” he said. “My grandmother had been a schoolteacher. She was more like my mother and my mother was more like my sister.”
In 1969, the Vietnam War was in full swing. Brown was a student at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. “It was the best college I could get into,” he said. Things got tense when he fell behind in his credit hours and lost his college deferment status. He became eligible for the draft and missed it by the skin of his teeth.
He dropped out of Hampden-Sydney when the draft ended, but this was not the last he would see of higher education. He attended the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the late 1970s and a summer session in 1982 in pursuit of a communications studies degree that remained elusive at that point.
Tragedy struck in November 1988, when his mother had a seizure and died in St. Maarten at 61 years of age. “I put my guitar in my truck and drove to Myrtle Beach — and that was it,” he said.
He quickly fell into a job emceeing a weekly comedy show at the now-defunct Rick’s Cafe in Surfside Beach, started picking up solo gigs around town and played for a time in a trio with local musicians Glenn Todd and Rick Mariner. He formed a band called Shea Danger and the Rhythm Rangers, and continued to make a living playing music until 1995, when at 45 he decided once and for all to return to UMass-Amherst to complete his communications studies degree.
Because he was older, he lived in the graduate dorms, although he was still working on an undergraduate degree. He was struck by the sheer number of foreign students living there. “There were kitchens down in both of those dorms, and every night, it was like an international food bazaar,” he said. “We had food science majors from all over the world, and they were some of the best cooks you could come across.”
While in New England, he gave tennis lessons to several of his fellow students. “I taught tennis in my 20s for a short while, but I didn’t have the patience for it. And here I was at 46, and I decided that I wanted to be the best tennis teacher I could be.”
Brown said he took lessons from the late Wake Forest tennis coach Jim Leighton. “I took stuff that Leighton taught me as a youngster and mixed it with some of the martial arts stuff that I had learned over the years, like balance, and I realized that I was a pretty good tennis teacher.”
When he came home, Brown got certified and became a U.S. Professional Tennis Association T1 teaching professional. But there was a problem: “Because I had been a big drinker and a singer here, nobody wanted to give me a job.”
But Brown secured a tennis job at Saddleback Resort in Wesley Chapel, Fla. He also did summer camps at Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He went to Wimbledon twice as a guest of a junior player named Timothy Neilly and wound up living at Corpus Christi College at Oxford for a month, helping Oxford coach Jonathan Markson at his tennis camp there.
Still, he couldn’t get hired as a tennis pro on the Grand Strand, so Brown effectively ended that chapter.
Brown has always been a vocal proponent of peace, and he attributes this to his grandfather, who was a World War I veteran who was gassed twice. “He was the only real father I knew, and he asked me to promise him that I would never take a human life,” he said. He was also told to never point a weapon at anybody, but Brown said he has done well in pistol competitions nonetheless.
“I guess I have been an anti-war guy since I was a little fella,” he said. “War is failure. War is the word that legalizes murder. I was against our invasion of Iraq way, way back. It was an illegal, improper and illogical invasion in order to control their resources. A whole bunch of the country realizes what we have done.”
Brown immersed himself in a program of reading and writing about what he calls the travesty, error and foolishness about the invasion of Iraq and some of the things the United States was doing in Afghanistan. In 2009, he was floored when he came across news about Matthew Hoh, a former State Department official who resigned from his post over U.S. strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan. This was a major part of the news cycle at that time. Hoh also served in Iraq as a Marine Corps company commander and was the 2010 recipient of the Ridenour Prize for Truth-Telling. This prize was later bestowed on CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2014.
Hoh is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and now lives in Raleigh, N.C. He has battled his own personal demons, including struggles with alcohol and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he recently became certified as a peer support specialist for substance abuse and mental health.
He remembered receiving an email from Brown, which Hoh said struck him with its intelligence and knowledge, and the pair began a correspondence. “He said he was going to be up in D.C. and offered to buy me lunch. I thought, what the hell why not,” he said. “I was in a really bad place at that point. I was breaking down due to my PTSD and everything — it was really bad. And here was this guy who told me he had been sober now for six months, and he was very open and sincere with me. He had an incredibly startling effect on me — strengthening me and giving me a purpose.”
Hoh and Brown have been friends ever since.
“I think if I had to sum up Shea, it’s that he inspires others to have strength. He inspires others to do things — to either chase their dreams or stand up for what is right, or confront their inner demons. He is just a very strong, loud, vibrant beautiful person. There is this aura of life emanating from him or something. If you read my blog (www.matthewhoh.com), I’m not shy about it or exaggerating. I really do credit him with having a lot to do with me still being here.”
Hoh’s blog header displays a quote from Brown: “Peace. Cut through all the Lies and there it is, right in front of you.”
The racing bug
Brown raced go-carts when he was younger, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he caught the racing bug, quite by accident. He was talked into buying a Fiat 128 race car by a friend of a friend in Jupiter, Fla.
“Another friend came down, and we loaded it up and took it back to South Carolina. I put some gas in it and started racing it, and didn’t really have a clue what I was doing,” he said.
He took the Fiat to Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in Alton, Va., to get a feel for racing. “They had a track day for Fiats, and most people brought their street cars,” he said. “We had like five sessions, and I was exhausted at the end of the day.”
He met renowned Mini Cooper racer Phil Wicks that day and later spent a track day under his tutelage at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw so that Brown could secure his license with the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA).
He said he did eight or nine racing events that first year at the aforementioned tracks, as well as at Watkins Glen (N.Y.), Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hutchinson Island Race Track (Ga.) and Daytona and Sebring [Fla.].
But his little Fiat was not quite right for him: The seat was so high that his helmet kept hitting the roof, and the steering wheel was too far forward. One day at VIR, he met a racer named John Baucom of Baucom Motorsports, who agreed to take the car to his shop in Matthews, N.C., for modifications.
Brown spent three days in Matthews with Baucom and his crew chief, Allen Culpepper. “Allen did masterwork on the car and turned it into a real race car.”
Culpepper noted Brown’s size in relation to the car. “When we first saw the car, we looked at each other and said, ‘How do you even get in there?’ We had to move the roll cage back, get the seat back (and lowered) — then all of a sudden there were other issues: We had to move the steering wheel back and change the dash around so he could see everything again. Now Shea can actually fit into the car, move his arms and legs and actually be a race car driver,” he said.
On a personal level, Culpepper gets a kick out of Brown. “I’m not a particularly funny kind of guy,” he said. “Shea is quite a character. Sometimes you talk to him and have to laugh, like — where did that come from? He comes off the chain occasionally, and I just giggle. I wish I could be like that.”
It is said that repetition is the mother of skill. Brown took SVRA’s Most Improved Driver award in 2013. In 2014, Brown prevailed in SVRA group one sprint and enduro events and has been on the podium several times at Sebring and Daytona.
This year, Brown will display the World Beyond War logo on his car — a testament to the nonviolent organization’s purpose to “end war and establish a just and sustainable peace.”
Brown made a distinct impression on SVRA President and CEO Tony Parella.
“I have over 5,000 entries this year. That’s 5,000 different people coming to race with us,” he said. “This guy is just such a character. He is so colorful and fun. I’ve got CEO’s, actors, lawyers — very high-end, prominent people racing with us, and this guy is the salt of the earth. He just loves the sport. He is a very good driver and drives hard. He doesn’t have the most expensive race car, but he certainly gets every bit out of it that he can.”
And what does it take to win Most Improved Driver?
“It’s how they finish and how they are doing overall,” he said. “And it’s how they do on the race track: Do they hold their line, are they consistent and aware of what is going on around them — are they safe? Shea really is a damn good driver. He is just so passionate about it, and it’s a joy to have him a part of this.”
Parella added that the staff loves him: “He is just a handful.”