Robert Sinclair Jr. posits a question likely to generate envy and head nods.
“How great is it that I get to sit at my desk and read a car magazine and it’s considered work?”
Pretty great, according to Sinclair, AAA’s Northeast manager of media relations, who dispenses automobile advice, dissects sometimes complex industry studies and promotes the group’s advocacy from his office in Garden City, an NBC News station in Manhattan or in some cold clime with NBC’s “Today” show meteorologist Al Roker.
He has been AAA’s spokesman since 2000 and refers to it as his dream job. As far back as he can remember, Sinclair said, he was watching or working on cars.
“It’s a family affliction,” said Sinclair, 59, of Astoria, Queens. Both of his grandfathers — one of whom favored DeSotos and Cadillacs — were car aficionados who passed it on to the next generation. “I helped my uncle with drum brakes, engine swaps,” he said. “My uncle took me to the drag races in Center Moriches. He was a hot rodder.”
Sinclair talks with excitement about his memories, which is matched by his enthusiasm for his role at AAA.
The American Automobile Association was founded in Chicago in 1902 from a group of state auto clubs. (The Long Island Auto Club was founded in 1900, according to AAA’s website.) The nonprofit membership organization has more than 50 million members and offers roadside assistance, travel planning, tows and other services.
Sinclair said he considers it a privilege that his personal and professional lives are so closely aligned, and considers boredom the enemy. And for the record, he’s not glued to magazine pages all day.
“My phone rings and I could have to go anywhere — Brooklyn, New Jersey,” Sinclair said. “I make myself available 24/7. If I get a call at 2 a.m. to do a 5 a.m. newscast, that’s just fine, that’s what I do. I like being on television. I like talking and sharing information that will help.”
Some of that includes interpreting data from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which conducts research on traffic-related questions and generates recommendations to prevent crashes, injuries and deaths on the nation’s roadways.
“Our foundation does pioneering research,” Sinclair said, recalling a recent read of 143 pages. “Every three to four weeks, we’re releasing a study. I want to know and understand our studies from front to back.”
A lifetime of preparation
Sinclair said everything in his past prepared him for the AAA job, from speeding tickets to car crashes to wearing himself out with one endeavor too many.
In the 1990s, he had a full-time job with a telephone company while he was majoring in speech at York College in Queens, and he volunteered at WBAI, a listener-sponsored radio station in Manhattan, helping out with pledge drives. Sinclair said he met news director Andy Lancet, who gave him the opportunity to learn the news business by going in on Saturdays, taking copy off the news services and writing scripts. He was then given the chance to try his hand at reporting.
“I would go to obscure community events, get my tape and write my wraparounds,” Sinclair said, referring to a reporter’s voiced segments before and after recorded sound bites. He moved into anchoring a program focused on the black community on Wednesday nights, and the morning news on Saturdays, all while working full time at the telephone company and going to school.
That schedule caught up with him after a stint of working more than 40 days straight without a break.
“I was home sick watching ‘A Walk Through the 20th Century With Bill Moyers,’ about Edward Bernays, who is regarded as the father of public relations,” Sinclair said. “I was intrigued. He charged $1,000 an hour in the 1930s. I would see many press releases come across my desk, I knew I could write press releases,” added Sinclair, who was having second thoughts about the news grind.
He then started reading about Bernays and was convinced that public relations was the right field for him, though he did return to the radio station. After graduating from York College, Sinclair did public relations for a drug-prevention group in southeast Queens for a few years until the organization’s state and federal funding started running out.
The gloss of public relations faded, and Sinclair said he turned to his former professor/mentor, who said he might have an opportunity for him.
“He asked me, how would I like to spend the next three years in South Korea?” Sinclair recalled. He jumped at the chance, remembering a relative’s time abroad. “I had an uncle that had lived in Israel, Egypt and Japan and had regaled me with stories about life overseas,” Sinclair said.
He made his way through a competitive selection process with a committee of professors. In September 1994 he went to Seoul, South Korea, where he participated in a cultural exchange program that was created to help bridge the gap between African-Americans and the Korean community after the Rodney King riots in 1992. While there, Sinclair earned his MBA. Not surprisingly, most of his business school papers were on the car industry. When he returned to the United States in 1997, he had a short-term assignment at the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in Manhattan and later was hired as a marketing and tourism assistant for the office of then Queens Borough President Claire Shulman. Term limits prevented Shulman, the first woman to hold the job, from continuing in office. In 2000, when other employees began leaving, Sinclair said he decided he should start looking for another job, too.
“I was reading the classifieds in Sunday’s New York Times,” Sinclair said. “As soon as I saw the ad for a public relations person for AAA, I knew it was mine.”
He promptly faxed his resume and cover letter, thinking his background in public relations and city government made him a good fit. Less than a week after applying, he got the job.
TAKING THE WHEEL
Sinclair the “car guy” has had many of the same experiences as the car-driving public he serves, ranging from a suspended license to an accident that prompted expletives from an elder.
Sinclair said he was at the local DMV office the day he was eligible to get his learner’s permit in 1973. At the time, he attended Brooklyn Technical High School, and his time behind the wheel was short-lived — his license was suspended two months after he got it when he was stopped for speeding in Brooklyn. That was just the beginning of his driving incidents.
In 1975, Sinclair was in high spirits, driving his grandfather’s Oldsmobile Cutlass to take his friends for their senior class trip to Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey, when, he said, he took his eye off the road for a second and ended up hitting another vehicle and pushing in his car’s front end.
“That was the first time I ever heard my grandfather cuss,” Sinclair recalled.
His grandfather repaired the car, but gave it to Sinclair’s mom and bought himself a new car. Sinclair got his mother’s 1972 Ford Pinto. He said he enjoyed it for about a year, until the day he was behind the wheel in a driving rain on the Belt Parkway and two cars in front of him lost control and then stopped. The driver behind Sinclair ran into him.
“The back seat and trunk became one,” he said. “The car was ruined. My mother kept talking about the accident for six years.”
Sinclair bought his first car, a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle, when he was in his early 20s. A relative worked at a dealership and was able to get the vehicle for a few hundred dollars. Sinclair said the car was his baby, and he drove all over the tri-state area in it. He was devastated when the driver of a Mazda cut in front of him on the Belt Parkway near Coney Island in 1983. The front of the car was destroyed. Though he welded it together, he said it was never the same.
Sinclair replaced it with a first for him: He bought a 1996 Volvo and hasn’t looked back. His love of station wagons led him to his current vehicle, a Subaru Impreza. Though Sinclair said he values its strength and body structure, he said his next vehicle will be a pickup truck so he has ample room to cart materials.
Besides cars, Sinclair enjoys renovating and remodeling. He worked on his previous house and does woodworking in a shed at home. “I’m on a kick,” he said. “I’ve been building tables out of black gas line pipes. I made a wardrobe and a makeup table for my wife.”
The handy man of course also has a way under the hood. “It cost me $150 worth of parts to do a brake job on my wife’s car, compared to about $1,100 at the dealership,” he said. “I had to tell her, ‘See, honey, how I take care of you?’ ”
Sinclair’s attention extends beyond relatives and others behind the wheel.
Vicki Metz, who teaches introduction to journalism and media and investigative reporting at SUNY Old Westbury, has invited Sinclair to speak to her class a couple of times. “He gets their attention, answers their questions honestly and oftentimes with humor,” she said. “I always learn something from him, and I’ve been teaching for eight years.”
Sinclair mentors young people, would like to teach and offers advice during speaking engagements at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn and elsewhere. He was also instrumental in getting a $200,000 scholarship sponsored by a bank in Spain for York College students.
Metz first crossed paths with Sinclair when she was man aging the Long Island bureau of a New York City television station.
“He never said no to meeting me and a crew at the last minute because we needed a sound bite, even for ridiculous requests, like meeting on the LIE during a snowstorm,” she said. “His sound bites were just like him — thoughtful, clear and filled with wisdom. He also knew this was the perfect way to get free publicity for AAA. Smart man.”
AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. shares some personal and professional insights about the road and the racetrack.
“At AAA, the three top items we get calls for are lockouts, flat tires and dead batteries. Most batteries last only three to five years, so if yours is nearing that stage, you should think about having it tested and/or replaced.”
Don’t do this on the road
“I remember years ago sitting in traffic on the Grand Central Parkway, barely moving, at twilight, in a driving rain. As we crept along, I had the vehicle’s lights, wipers, radio and defroster all going at the same time when, suddenly, the vehicle shut off. Before trying to restart the car, I shut off all the electrical accessories, remembering the advice of a mechanic. Then, prayerfully, I tried to start the car. It jumped to life, thank goodness. What had happened? The alternator that generates electricity for the vehicle is tied to the engine via a belt. The faster the engine revs, the more electricity is generated. At idle in traffic, the alternator isn’t spinning fast enough to meet the electrical load of providing ignition for the engine and all the electrical accessories I had going. So, the system starts pulling power from the battery.”
Power to the people
“Keep a good strong battery under the hood, as many CCA [cold cranking amps] as will fit. The other tip is, if you’re in a similar situation, idling in traffic, think about doing some systems management by turning off some of the electrical accessories.”
Formula One cars
He’s a fan
“It was a big deal to see him win the Indy 500 on television,” he said of legendary Italian racer Mario Andretti.