Approximately ninety seconds after pulling up at Adkins Raceway in eastern Ohio for John’s first race in the Junior Sportsman class, I realized that I was the only father who had not pulled a trailer to the event. The concrete path to the pre-grid was lined with the kind of hardware that in my world is used to haul pampered Bimmers from one CCA pretend race to the next; twenty-footers, twenty-four-footers with big side doors. While I was realizing this, a massive Fleetwood RV pulled into the spot next to me and an arrogant-looking tween-ager popped out to effortlessly set the stationary jacks with the aid of a Snap-On electric ratchet.
“We don’t have a trailer,” John said, and he looked up at me in much the same way that I suspect Chris Pirsig would look at Robert during the worst parts of their cross-country trip. Dad didn’t plan. Dad doesn’t know what’s going on. We are different from everybody else. This cannot be good.
“Not yet,” I chirped, “I didn’t know if we would need one.” I grabbed John’s shoulders and steered us both out of the way of a hurried-looking father pushing a brand-new TonyKart on a electric-lifter rolling stand. The man’s son strode behind him, imperious and unworried behind the mirrored visor of the same $1,500 carbon-fiber Impact! helmet that I use in my racing. I get ten years out of mine; if this kid was anything like John, his helmet would be outgrown and junked by Christmas.
We were late, we were underprepared, and John’s kart didn’t run. Things looked pretty bad from the jump. Naturally, I figured out a way to make them worse.
Eight months ago, I thought I had it all figured out. After a few conversations with the owner of Margay Karts in St. Louis, we’d agreed on a program where John would run one of their cadet karts powered by the 206cc Briggs&Stratton engine for a full season that would end with an appearance at the Rock Island Grand Prix. The stage was set for my son to follow-up his promising debut in 50cc KidKarts with ten or maybe even twelve races in state-of-the-art machinery across the Midwest.
It fell apart in kind of slow motion. Through a series of miscommunications with John’s mother, all of them admittedly my fault, I didn’t get all of the race weekends blocked out of his calendar far enough in advance. Then the Margay fellow started pulling a slow fade on me. My emails went unanswered, but every time I could get him on the phone he’d swear that everything was about to be built and delivered. In April he asked for me to measure John for a seat. After that he stopped returning calls.
I’m a fairly trusting person by nature so it took me until July to realize that I’d pissed away half of the season waiting for an extended “California No.” Still, I did promise him that I would mention Margay in writing, so here goes: If I were you, I wouldn’t buy a Margay, just in case they’re just as bad at delivering everybody else’s kart. You should consider something else. Which is a shame, because Margays are made in America and that’s a big thing for me. Nevertheless, screw them.
This is the point in the story where I should have rung up a reputable distributor and bought a brand-new kart for John. But I knew just enough to know that I didn’t know how enthusiastic John would be about the jump to Junior Sportsman. It’s a big jump. The engines have more than twice the power and the karts are physically large enough to handle a twelve-year old. It’s almost directly equivalent to cutting your teeth on a Spec Miata and then being handed the keys to an IMSA Conti GS Mustang. Furthermore, I didn’t know exactly what he would need in a kart. It seemed safest to buy something used.
Which I did late last month, driving out to Pittsburgh to buy an old Birel cadet kart with a fresh Comer K80 engine from a former WKA winner who was just getting his own kids into karting. His son was the same age as John but he was too small to use the Birel effectively. Consider this a Chekov’s Gun moment, only instead of a gun we’ll be talking later about how big and heavy and difficult to control the kart is. The price was more than fair and I liked the cut of the kart dad’s jib, so I paid him and brought the kart home.
Our first practice session in my cul-de-sac didn’t go well. To begin with, the Comer K80 is monstrously fucking loud and we are talking no-go-at-Laguna-Seca loud. John was visibly unnerved just sitting next to it. When he finally agreed to drive it around, it was obviously a handful for him to operate. Not to mention it could spin the back tires at will like a Z06 Vette. When the chain fell off after five minutes’ driving and refused to stay on, we called it a day.
After some discussion, John and I agreed to target the August 19th practice day at Adkins Raceway, which had been recommended to us by Paul the kart dad. This almost entirely refurbished track features a “Monza turn” which is a massive carousel banked at nearly thirty degrees. Why anybody ever thought it was good for children, I have no idea. But it was built back in the days when we encouraged children to smoke Camels so there you go.
Our plans were derailed because John’s mother had already scheduled something for that day. With admirable stupidity I decided that we would just go and do the race on the following day instead. After all, there would be morning practice. Surely we could fix the kart once we got there, at which point John would magically learn the track in a very short practice session followed by a race with ten bloodthirsty children who had six races under their belts already this season.
Saturday afternoon, after John’s existing plans were finished, I took him to Lowe’s and he picked out colors for his kart. Then I showed him how to tape off and paint the old red Birel bodywork, which he did very well. We ended up with a sort of black-and-gold Bandit Trans Am theme. During the bodywork reinstallation, I managed to tilt the intake the wrong way and the fucking engine hydrolocked on oil. I then spent ninety minutes pulling the cord with the spark plug out before it would start again. Finally, I adjusted the chain tension to what seemed right and we called it an evening.
Come Sunday morning, John and Danger Girl had their act together but I didn’t. Every time I turned around I realized I needed an additional tool. I got so agitated that I lost the keys to the truck. They were actually in my back pocket, but it took me six long minutes to find them. By the time we got to the track, it had been open forty minutes.
John’s eyes went fairly wide when he saw the size of the track and the Monza banking. It didn’t help that everybody around us in pre-grid was revving their engines to holy hell. I was fairly unnerved and I have an FIA International B license. He decided he didn’t want to go out. Meanwhile, I was trying like hell to get the engine started. But it wouldn’t start. Finally I managed to wake it up — but although John was sitting in the kart, he was pleading with me through his half-closed visor not to send him out.
It’s at times like these that I realize that I have no effective parenting manual for situations of this nature. How do you force a child to go out on a very scary track in a very scary kart, surrounded by kids half again as old as he is? So I did exactly the wrong thing.
“If you want to walk away,” I snapped, “get out and walk away.” He gave me the wide-eyed Chris Pirsig look. “Get out,” I said, “and walk away.”
“No,” he whispered so low that I had to read his lips, “I can do it.” Then the kart died.
“Congratulations,” I said, “you got your way after all.” Some day in the near future I’m probably going to find out that I have inoperable colon cancer and I will know that I deserve that cancer just for having uttered that repugnant, narcissistic, hateful phrase. Luckily for me I think the other karts were too loud for him to hear it.
For the next practice session, he agreed to get in the kart. I reset the mixture screws to the baselines recommended in the factory manual and it started, although it didn’t sound particularly strong. He went out for one lap, was buzzed by a bunch of faster kids, and came in. “What the fuck is he doing?” I asked Danger Girl. She managed to deliver an effective lecture on parenting and motivation as we were running to pit lane.
“Nobody ever bothered to motivate me,” I said. “Nobody ever gave a shit if I went racing or not.”
“Shut up with the self-pity.”
“It’s just,” I responded weakly, “that he has to want it. Or there’s no point.” But when we got there John was ready to go back out. He just didn’t want to do more than two laps at a time. So I knew that the first race, which would be six laps, was going to be a problem. It didn’t help that I botched his startup again and he had to catch up to the field for the rolling start.
The video of that start, which I’m going to delete because it makes me sick to my stomach to watch it, goes like this: He takes a strong run from the back of the pack and is on the bumper of the second-to-last place kart when they enter the Monza turn. And then he goes sliding up the banking at what was probably 30mph but in my mind’s eye is 130mph. He recovers, finishes the first lap, then pits in on the next.
When I got to him, he was crying. “I hate this kart! It doesn’t steer! My hands are slipping on the wheel!” I snapped at him again, although not as badly. He ran off to the trailer where our friend, Paul the kart dad, had a remarkably comprehensive setup. Danger Girl went after him. Finally, after twenty minutes, I found him and asked him to describe the problems. He said that the front tires were slipping (journalists call that understeer at the limit) and that the steering wheel hurt his hands and was really hard to use.
Kart Dad Paul heard this and started working on getting some ballast for the front axle. Karts are so different from race cars. I would never weight down the front of a car to make it turn better — but in karts you do that, I guess. I put my hands on John’s shoulders and delivered what I thought was a half-decent lecture on the whole thing.
“John, this is worthwhile because it’s difficult. Video games are easy. The sports at your school, soccer and basketball — they’re easy. This is hard, and it’s scary. We do it because it’s hard. Because it shows us who we are. I can spend as much money as we need to in order to fix your kart, but I can’t make you want to drive. I can’t make you want to win.”
“I want to drive,” he said, “but it hurts my hands so much.” The kid had a point. The steering wheel was tiny compared to his old TopKart, which was actually sitting in a local dealer’s display a few trailers down.
“Wait a minute,” I said. I went down to the dealer. He’d bought John’s old kart for a song last month. He sold me the wheel for several verses of that song. We installed the wheel. It didn’t fit. I went back and bought the steering wheel hub. “I think that guy probably has never lost money on a transaction,” DG opined. But ten minutes later we had a properly-weighted kart with the right wheel on it. So all I had to do was to go convince my son to risk his neck on track for… why?
Because I didn’t get the chance?
Because I want to live through him?
Because I want him to be better than me?
Because he has the gift and it would be a shame to see it go to waste?
I don’t know the answer to that. Like Saul Bellow’s Henderson, I can only say that “I WANT” and what I want is for my son to have a chance to race. I cannot tell you if that makes me a better person or a worse one.
“It’s okay, Dad,” John said. “This is my time to be brave.” This time the kart started right up. He got into formation with no trouble. When four kids spun off ahead of him, he kept his cool. He stayed low on the Monza banking. On the white flag lap, he dove too hard for the first turn and looped off. I ran out and set him back on track. He went to the pits, missing the checker that they were waving at him fifty feet away. I didn’t care.
He was sitting in the weigh-in line with a massive smile on his face. “I have one word for the kart now, Dad, and the word is AMAZING.” Just for once I stifled my customary urge to lecture people about the over-use of AMAZING. It wasn’t hard to do. I was kind of amazed myself. I was so shocked by the transformation in his attitude that I let my hand slip as I went to push his kart across the scale and promptly burned a stigmata of stupidity into my left palm.
I grew up feeling unworthy of my father and lately I’ve started to feel unworthy of my own son. I can’t imagine what it was like for him to arrive at the track he’d never seen and drive a kart that he didn’t like at remarkably high speeds despite the noise and the traffic and the sickening uncertainty of it all. He is eight years and four months old. Sometimes I think that the best thing I could for him would be to ride my ZX-14R right into a concrete bridge post before I can give him any more of my bad ideas and damaged advice, before I accidentally discover the alchemist’s reverse transmutation and turn the gold in his heart to the lead that weighs mine down.
On the way out, I saw a group of John’s competitors removing their helmets and turning back into regular children, laughing and tormenting each other, looking for sticks on the ground and running in the awkward, coltish manner of the ten-year-old boy. I don’t know if we do them any favors by dressing them up like gladiators and sending them out to drive like this. Earlier in the day I’d seen a child in the Comet class catch a 45-mph slide that took him just a whisker off the pavement, reverse the tankslapper with hands that would fit invisibly inside my fists, and then dive for a pass on his competitor, all without lifting his foot a millimeter off the throttle. I don’t know what purpose it serves to create children like that. I don’t know if we are unlocking something in them that wants to soar or if we are crushing their souls into some kind of Raikkonnen-shaped box.
All I know is this: there was a moment today when my son took in my bluster, my fury, my mechanical incompetence, and my half-assed attempt at delivering an even more half-assed motivational speech — and what came out of him was a decision that this was his time to be brave. I could burn myself again to give him that moment, over and over again. We say temper and we mean two things. We mean emotion and we mean the kind of strength that you get from being burned. What I need is for him to come out on the other end of whatever fire we find. Stronger than me, sharper, and not looking back.