Sam Posey, Formula One driver, got his start driving about as far from a track as you can get.
“When I was about four years old, my family owned a farm in Sharon, Connecticut,” the seasonal Boca Grande resident said. “There were old cars and tractors around, and one day my mom put me up in the seat of the tractor in front of her.”
It was the start of a love affair with driving. From the speed of Formula One to the grit of endurance racing, Sam has driven the gamut.
“By the time I was seven, I knew how to drive on my own,” he smiled. “By the time I was 11, I knew that it was what I wanted to do with my life.”
It was a good thing that he found that talent.
“I was that fat kid who was lousy at school,” he explained. “I was glad that there was something I could do.”
Formula One and endurance racing have little in common beyond the fact that the driver is in a car on a track.
“The tracks are even different,” said Sam. “The endurance tracks, like at Le Mans, are more dangerous. By the time you get to the end of a race that is 12 or 24 hours long, you are just holding your breath.”
In 1975, Sam managed to hold his breath to victory at the 12 hours of Sebring.
“The last couple of hours, you are exhausted and the car is holding on by a thread,” he explained. “You have asked so much of it. In Sebring, we were losing the alternator, so the lights were going on and off. The rear differential was shot. You feel nervous and helpless, because there isn't anything you can do if the car breaks down.”
Sam also drove in the Le Mans race 10 times, and of those he came in the top five five times. Le Mans is the most prestigious endurance race in the world, and is the world’s oldest, having started in 1923.
“The longer you drive in one of those races, the more you want to win,” he said. “If your car dies in the first hour or so, then you know it wasn’t meant to be, so you go grab a beer and watch the rest of the race from somewhere comfortable. By the time you have been driving more than 20 hours, you just want to finish.”
As Sam got a little older, he discovered that he had another talent - art.
“It was nice to be the best in the class at something, and art was just something that I was good at,” he said.
He attended Buckley School, a private boys’ school in New York City, where his family also had a home. When he was ready for high school, he looked for one with a good art program.
“I didn’t go to Exeter or Groton, like a lot of my friends from Buckley. I ended up in a small school named The Gunnery,” he said. “During my second year there, one of my paintings was entered into the Housatonic Art Exhibition, and I won. Against all of the bigger, more famous schools, we got first place. I won the next two years at the exhibition, too.”
After graduation, he applied to the Rhode Island School of Design. He graduated with a BFA in painting. Of course, by the time he finished his degree he had started racing.
“We had to spend a certain amount of time working in our studio,” he said. “I had friends who would set up my studio with a canvas and palette, and when anyone would come looking for me, they would tell them that I had just stepped out. I spent most of my senior year travelling around the country to race, and the school never knew,” he laughed. “Once I graduated, I raced full time.”
He met his wife, Ellen, at one of his races at Riverside Raceway in California.
“She had this car, a Mercury station wagon. It was covered with autographs from different sports figures. They’d sign, and then she fiber-glassed over that to protect it. Well, she wanted my signature. We ended up going on a date,” he smiled. “I didn’t see her for a few months, then we reconnected, and based on that one date, I asked her to go to Le Mans with me. I am so lucky that she said yes, and lucky that she has put up with me for so long.”
Sam and Ellen have two children. Their son John is working on a book and their daughter Judy has her own children's clothing line, Little Esop. Ellen is an artist, and is currently working on the American Mural Project, a massive piece of work incorporating the efforts of over 10,000 schoolchildren.
“Our studio is in Sharon,” said Sam. “Over the years we have gone from a tiny cottage without a floor to something a bit more substantial.”
Sam has been visiting Gasparilla Island for most of his life. When he was a young child, he contracted pneumonia. His mother was advised to take him to a warmer environment, and the first of many visits to the island was made. For years, the small family stayed in Cottage 19 at the Gasparilla Inn. Later, he and his wife stayed in a cottage near the Knight brothers boatyard. They would often go out with Johns and Virginia Knight in the boat Moonraker.
Eventually Sam brought another of his talents to bear, and designed his own island home.
“I knew that even the best view of the Gulf could get almost oppressive over time, so I planned five wings to the house. In the spring, the wind off of the water can be bone chilling, so I designed the house to face a central courtyard,” he said.
Sam’s architectural experience goes well beyond his house in Boca Grande. Over the years, he has designed more than 50 homes, several commercial buildings and a school in Connecticut. Though he was born and spent most of his early years in New York City, he automatically replies “Sharon” when he is asked about his hometown.
“It’s a wonderful place,” he said.
He described the work he does in his hometown, working with other locals to save old family farms from development.
“It’s not that there is anything wrong with developing, but some of these farms have been in the same family for over 100 years,” he said. “The history of them, the sense of community. We want to preserve that.”
While Sam considers almost everything he does to be an avocation, the one thing that most people would recognize as a hobby is his fascination with model trains.
“It started when I was a child. Then when my son John turned one, I got a small set for him, and built a simple oval on plywood. That piece of plywood is still somewhere at the base of the layout,” he laughed. “These days it is a lot more complicated, and I love it but you can’t mess with it too much. I don’t really like to even turn it on, because it's so delicate.”
Now that he has grandchildren, Sam has started getting into Lionel train sets.
“They are more sturdy, they are made to be played with. They are rugged,” he said.
Since he retired from racing, Sam has been a television commentator for several different events, including his former sport of racing. He provided commentary for the luge event in the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics. One event that he truly grew to love was the Tour de France.
“I didn’t really know much about the sport, or the event, but I fell in love with it,” he said. “My first year was 1989, when Greg LeMond won. It was the first time an American won the race, and it was thrilling to be a part of it.”
Sam continued to provide commentary for the tour, and until recently he served as the race historian for the Outdoor Life Network. Because Sam had so much time on his hands, he decided to become an author. He has written three books. “Playing with Trains” discusses his model train hobby. “Mudge Pond Road” is an autobiography that focuses on his racing career. The most recent, “Paintings and Drawings, 1959-2012” is a collection of his artwork.
Currently, Sam stays busy writing segments for Speed Television’s coverage of Formula One racing.
“It’s what I consider my real job,” he laughed. “I’ve done it for three or four years now. Other than that, I spend a lot of time painting and playing with grandchildren.”
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