Any racing enthusiast who has read Garth Stein’s best-selling novel, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” — and anybody who will see its film adaptation when it hits theaters later this week — is quick to point out the authenticity of the racing sequences depicted in the story.
And there’s a good reason for it. The story of race car driver Denny Swift as told through the eyes of his golden retriever, Enzo, is inspired by an actual, real-life racer by the name of Kevin York. York was Stein’s driving instructor when he attended ProFormance Racing School at Pacific Raceways near Seattle in the mid-2000s.
“There’s all sorts of little mantras in the racing world and Enzo gives us plenty of them in the book,” Stein said. “You know, ‘Plan your drive and drive your plan’ is always one that was bandied about when I was getting started.
“What I love about my relationship with Kevin is that he had that ethic and he was more than willing to share that with me. So, I think that’s really sort of the mentor-mentee relationship is being willing to share one’s experiences with other people in the hopes that they can pick up on that.”
York’s mentoring left an impression on Stein that continued long past the author’s own somewhat abbreviated career as a race car driver. Kevin York became Denny Swift when Stein was inspired to write the novel.
“There were many things we shared in terms of life experiences and different things, so we spent a lot of time together,” said York of his relationship with Stein. “I would count him as one of my best buddies, for sure. It was pretty interesting when he had these ideas to have a dog as a primary voice in a story and to have the, sort of, reincarnated observation of human activity and want to be a race car driver.
“To have Garth think of me as that person who would be the dog’s owner in this idea that he was building in his head was a little shocking at first. Like, ‘Dude, what are you talking about?’ And what’s really funny to me is when he handed me that first manuscript – which I still possess – my first instinct was to go through and correct all his motorsport references or motorsport commentary.”
After all, as a racer, York knew how it needed to be depicted, right down to the types of cars, racetracks and sanctioning bodies. And with “Denny-approved” racing references, the novel became a New York Times best-seller for 156 weeks.
After several twists and turns over the better part of a decade, a group led by longtime IMSA racer and Hollywood superstar Patrick Dempsey finally unveiled plans to bring the novel to the big screen last year. Dempsey is one of the producers in the film, which stars Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried and Kevin Costner as the voice of Enzo.
At different times since filming began and as the premiere approached, York has periodically tweeted about the film using the hashtag #DennyApproved.
York and Dempsey also shared an IMSA paddock at one point. Back in 2008, as Dempsey was competing in a precursor to today’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, driving a Mazda RX-8 for the Hyper Sport team in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, York was racing in what now is known as the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, driving an Acura TSX for Compass Racing in support of Stein’s forthcoming novel.
“Kevin came and drove with us for a full season, supporting the launch of the book,” said Compass Racing owner Karl Thomson. “We sort of had a neat little thing that we did initially. Before the actual launch of the book, we had ‘Go Enzo’ on the side of the car and there was a web presence that was a little mysterious.
“Then, of course, the book came out and we were involved in the initial promotion of the book with our race car at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and down in downtown Toronto. Pretty much the whole year was spent promoting the book and having Kevin race with us.”
York’s actual debut with the Compass team came four years earlier, co-driving a BMW with Thomson in the 2004 season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. In the film, Swift races a Turner Motorsport BMW against a Compass Racing McLaren, as well as other recognizable IMSA race cars.
York appreciates that fact, as he’s been a professional driving instructor at the BMW Performance Center for much of the past decade. It’s one of many links between York’s life, Stein’s novel and the film, and it’s sometimes surreal for him to see how much the story has resonated with so many people.
“You look at a situation that you interacted with a guy, Garth,” York said. “You helped him along in a certain way that honestly I didn’t see as any different. I mean, obviously, I have a personal relationship with him. But I didn’t – in many ways – treat him any differently than I did any other client that I would coach or work with at a racetrack in terms of methodology and in terms of mindset and in terms of the things that we as racers do, at least when we try to do it properly. You could draw correlations from really any pastime that seems to have a methodology and make it appear correlational to real life. Right? It’s a life lesson, you can often say.
“Skip ahead to when the book comes out and it suddenly is skyrocketing. You know, it’s in Starbucks. It’s on the best-seller list. People are talking about it. I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me that have said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to read this book.’ I mean, literally two days ago I overheard some people talking about the book. I’m overhearing this conversation saying to myself, ‘I just can’t get away from it.’ In a good way.”
Overall, York is proud that the lessons he gave Stein on the racetrack, as well as the off-track relationship that was formed, helped to create such a compelling story.
“It’s inspiring to me that there is something that I had a small attachment to in helping Garth that resonates with so many people and they aren’t necessarily racing people,” he said. “They could be a dog person, or they could be just a person looking for a good read or whatever it might be.
“To sum it up, it’s just this almost astonishment that what I considered to be a regular interaction with a client/friend inspired him to write a book that then further inspired other people and they draw from that, which is cool. They find, literally, things in there that either help reaffirm ways that they feel or maybe even make them reconsider ways that they feel about approaching – for fear of sounding corny – life.”
Late last week, York took Stein up on an invitation to watch an advance screening of the film.
And his review?