At some point in every race weekend with my son, whether it’s BMX or karting, I always have this horrible, cut-crystal moment of clarity that says: you don’t have to do this. You can go home and sign up for something reasonable, like basketball.. This past Sunday, that moment came to me when I realized that I’d taken a simple complaint — my son had not been paying attention on the gate in his first moto, causing him to start with the wrong pedal forward and take a last-place finish — then extended it all the way into the kind of business/career/life metaphor with which my father used to browbeat me. “You know,” I snapped at John, “if you’re just going to screw around and be lazy out there… at what point does it stop? Why bother to race? What do you think is going to happen when you turn Expert? Do you even think you’re going to get to Expert with this attitude? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING ABOUT UP THERE THAT WAS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SETTING THE CORRECT PEDAL FORWARD? This is how losers behave! DO YOU WANT TO PACK THE TRUCK AND GO HOME?”
“Maybe I am a loser,” he replied, giving me a flat-eyed murderous look that made me momentarily glad I was still two hundred pounds heavier than him, “but I want to race.” Which, of course, made me feel like garbage. Because of course he was going to have his head in the clouds. It was his first-ever outdoor race, a 76-moto, 400-rider carnival of an event featuring a sea of pop-up tents and a constant crowd-noise level of approximately 100 decibels. On the way up to practice, we’d seen an authentic four-way fist-fight between BMX dads, which was eventually broken up via the interaction of three more BMX dads. Six of the seven were bald, goateed 300-pounders; one still had a half-circle of roid-head hair. When Dad 6 took Dad 3 to the ground with a running forearm slam, the resulting impact caused the adjoining pop-up tent to half-collapse. Most of these guys looked like they could shake off being shot in the head with a .44 Magnum, the same way the Cape Buffalo can be remarkably resistant to even major-caliber skull hits.
It’s a great sport, if you fancy the intersection of white trash, random violence, forty-five-second interval training, off-the-charts stress, and the occasional bout of paralysis. My son cannot get enough of it. Earlier in the day, he had told me, “I feel like we don’t race as often as we could,” which is as close as he will come to demanding any change in my self-centered, SCCA-and-NASA-and-sprint-car-and-God-knows-what-else scheduling. I’d taken the hint and mentally scrubbed one of my SCCA races off the calendar in favor of the Toledo BMX Nationals. He wants to race.
After a few more minutes’ worth of discussion, and a timely interjection or two from Danger Girl, we agreed on a strategy for the second moto. I would walk him all the way to the gate and help him set up. No matter what happened, he would not stop pedaling until he crossed the finish line. His start was not good, but he managed to finesse his way out of last place by the end of the second straight. Our home track, Cobra BMX, is needlessly, oppressively long. It was laid out in 1987 by city planners who didn’t know the first thing about BMX. I was there on Opening Day and I was horrified. There are five, count ’em, five straights, with the fourth straight at a diagonal and therefore longer than the others. It is my least favorite place in America to race a bicycle. On hot days, such as this past Sunday, the second half of each race resembles nothing so much as a mountain stage in the Tour de France. Misery abounds.
Ah, but John is fitter than his competition, and he does not give up once his mind is set on a goal. Around the last turn, he was a bike behind the lead rider. I saw the kid “bonk” and just give up on his way across the last tabletop jump. There was a ten-foot straight between that and the finish line. John snagged him at the line by maybe three inches. The former first-place rider’s father threw his water bottle into the fence.
“It’s hard, watching the kids,” I offered, because I’d been on the edge of vomiting for the previous ten seconds.
“Whatever, buddy,” he spat, and stormed off to confront his child. That’s the nice thing about the lower classes; they have no illusions. That man is my enemy, as I am his. We need not indulge in conviviality or collegiality. Only one of us will have a happy son at the end of the day. In team sports half the kids get to win but in racing virtually all the kids — eighty percent or more, usually — get to lose. The worst part is that you can’t protect your child from that loss. In karting you can spend more to tilt the playing field, but the boy whom John had just beaten was riding a $2,000-plus custom build with carbon fiber parts from axle to axle. God only knows what percentage of the family’s income that represented; they’d arrived in a 1999 Explorer. It didn’t help. What helped was to not give up until the end.
I resolved to be as effusive in my praise of John as I had been critical previously, but he was not interested in hearing what I had to say. He was angry with himself over his poor start. It takes a certain kind of person to win a race and be self-critical afterwards. What I wanted to do was ruffle his hair and hold him in a bear hug until that feeling went away. But: the future is a zero-sum game where 90% of the population will be effectively unemployable. It won’t be enough to be a winner. You have to be a winner who is dissatisfied with winning. What you need is perfection. That’s how the mortgages will be paid in 2045. John will spend his life facing the cream of the global crop, many of whom will start the 100-yard-dash on the ninety-yard line thanks to trust funds, family connections, invested capital.
We’ll come back to that tomorrow. Let the evil of the day be sufficient. Because there was, after all, just a little bit of evil. In the third moto, that same kid swerved over and ran John off the track, dropping him to third place. Then the kid wrecked trying to pull the same move on another rider. John held on to take second place. “It doesn’t count,” he informed me. “The other kid wrecked. I didn’t beat him.” I went to get his oveall trophy, which had a large “2” on it between a pair of snarling cobras.
“Do you know why it’s a second instead of a first?” I asked him.
“Yes. If I had gotten one place better in the first race I would have won the first-place trophy. But I didn’t, because I might have been lazy then.”
“Is that a problem that we can correct next time?”
“Yes, Dad, it is.” I saw his over-aggressive competitor flopped on the ground, sobbing, while his father waved a third-place trophy in a threatening manner in his direction. All around me, there were children crying or cringing before examples of utterly unhinged parental temper. Some of the bald dads looked like they were getting ready to scrap it out again. Eighty percent misery. Minimum. Guaranteed. Thanks for coming, see you next Sunday.
I cannot live with the idea of ever returning to this place unless I can tease some skein of purpose out of the mess. I think it’s something like this: Today, John learned that you can win a race by pushing to the end. Regardless of the heat, the noise, the distractions, the pain in your legs. If you learn that lesson early enough in life, it might stick. Most importantly, he came to that conclusion and learned the lesson all by himself. He had my encouragement, but not my help. There was no help I could give. And here’s another moment of clarity that came to me as we loaded the bikes into my truck and headed home: The time will come, sooner than I can know, when I’m unable to help him with anything at all. Right now I walk up to each race with him, but soon I’ll be just an encouraging voice on the sidelines. Then I’ll be a distant presence on the phone. Then I’ll be… just plain gone. On the day that my son looks back and doesn’t see me there at all, I hope he remembers to keep pedaling.
This was an exceptionally light week because I was out of town working on a story. For R&T, I suggested a second act for the second Mustang. My contribution to TTAC didn’t run until today. However, Brother Bark is here to talk about tires. As always, thanks for reading.