It didn’t start out well. For John’s second race, and his first time at the Wilmington track, we showed up about an hour late. Our neighborhood had held a block party the night before, outdoor torches blazing and kids running around in that kind of frenzied aimless excitement that I remember from when my dad’s baseball or softball team would have a season-ending party in my youth. I’d let him stay up until nearly midnight, so I felt that I had to let him sleep until eight-thirty the next morning.
When we arrived, John’s competition was already out there practicing. His name was Colin and he was a very soft-spoken, friendly young boy who looked to be maybe ten pounds lighter than my son. His kart was powered by the new Comer C51 with a free-breathing cone filter, which didn’t bode well for any straight-line drag race in which John might find himself. His father had brought a stand, somebody to rebuild the carburetor between races, and a very complete set of tools. Every lap Colin took, the dad would run out to the start/finish line and make a pumping motion with his fist until the kid was well past him. These were people who took karting very seriously.
In the first practice, Colin dropped John by maybe five karts per straight and was on track to lap him when I called a halt to the proceedings. I was genuinely upset. John wasn’t worried at all. “The race,” he said, “will go great.” Doesn’t he know he almost got lapped? I thought. Should I have coached him more? Pushed him more? How is he going to deal with being humiliated out there?
Turns out my son had a much better handle on things than I gave him credit for.
John had his clutch engaged even as the green flag began to wave. Colin was caught flatfooted. It was a classic Rosberg-v-Hamilton start and by the time both karts were up to speed, John had a thirty-foot lead. This was in no way secure, however, because Colin was reeling him in fast. It was apparent that somewhere around the third lap, Colin would just pull out and drive around John on the straight the same way my NASA series director’s boyfriend was able to pull out and drive around me at Autobahn Country Club two months ago.
And then one of the older kids in the Predator karts spun right in the middle of the big left-hand sweeper. John nimbly zipped around him. Colin slowed down, unsure of what to do. At the finish line, my boy had a five-kart lead.
“Colin’s kart was boggin’, you know,” the father said to me. “We’re gonna rebuild it before the second heat.” And when that second heat came, Colin lined up within an inch or two of John, pointing at him the way that Hamilton would point at Alonso on standing starts. John got the jump, moved Colin over, then made a successful pass on the 206cc kart for second place overall. With the bigger boy between the two kidkarts, John’s position looked secure, but then he proceeded to absolutely lay waste to every corner on the track. It took the 11-year-old until the final straight to pass him, right before the checkered flag. Colin had lost momentum; he finished half a lap back.
The father was visibly upset. Colin was crying. John was worried by this; he wanted to go over and try comforting “my new friend.” We told him that Colin and his dad would work it out. Which they did, by pulling the kart apart and rebuilding it again.
For the final race, John started early but Colin outpowered him down the first straight. I think the dad and the mechanic actually did a jumping hi-five when that happened. But on the second lap, John picked up three kart lengths in the brake zone and did a high-low to come out next to Colin on the back straight. I was ready to give somebody a jumping hi-five myself. I was ecstatic that he hadn’t simply given up, that he was using racecraft. It doesn’t really matter to me if John ever wins a 50cc race; I want him to learn the skills that he’ll need in the senior classes and in club or pro racing. His behavior in those first two laps was adequate proof to me that he is already thinking like a racer.
On the third lap, John made the same move but this time Colin dropped him even harder. About a hundred feet later, he waved at me then pulled his kart off, clear of the racing surface. It was stone dead and wouldn’t start. These engines are good for about eight hours before rebuilds; we’d put at least that much on it since buying it used in unknown condition. I walked out to him and we came in together.
Colin’s father was magnanimous in victory. “Good job there, buddy,” he said.
“If my engine hadn’t blown up,” John said to me in his outdoor voice, “I could have passed him and won, easily.”
And that was the end of our race. The track director came over to shake John’s hand and compliment him on the safe and aware way he’d managed to get off the racing surface under pressure. We loaded up. “You won the race, so you can pick where we eat,” I said to him.
“I’d like to have Arby’s,” John responded, “but what I really want is for both of you to be happy with your lunch.”
“We’re going to need a little more killer instinct out of you,” I replied, and we headed for home.