When I saw the Tuesday night moto sheet I said “God damn it” loud enough to produce a double-take in the 285-pound woman standing next to me. Even though it hadn’t been five minutes since I’d heard her tell another steatopygous Stegosaurus of a heavyweight twentysomething BMX mom that Oh my God, I got so drunk after the fair that night I pissed the fuckin bed while the handful of elementary-school-aged kids around them nodded sagely. It made me think of something I’d read recently about the children of Afghan tribesman during the reign of Czar Nicholas. Something about how they had no childhood but were thrust headlong into the cares of the adults around them. Still, she hadn’t been the one to break the unwritten rule about not starting drama at the moto board. That faux pas had been all mine, and after thirty-four years in the sport, longer than any of the parents around me had been alive, I should really be above that sort of thing.
Still. My son is nine years and three months old. He is eighty-sixth percentile for height but he is so thin that there are no pants commercially available that fit him properly. Like his father, he has an oversupply of brain pan; when we went to the motorcycle show last year he put on an adult Arai Quantum in size XS and said “This is too tight.” As a rider he is reasonably indefatigable, capable of doing fifteen miles at pace on a mountain bike, but he just doesn’t have the muscle mass to shove a BMX bike out of the gate the way he wants to. When I tell him that he will eventually have that capability, that I could break a chain at the age of fifteen, he quite sensibly responds “That doesn’t help me now, Dad. I want to win races now.”
But he wouldn’t be winning any races tonight. There were four other children. One of them was ten years old and the others were eleven. At this age, having a two-year advantage is like being Nelson Vails at an amateur velodrome event; you have so much more leg than the competition that virtually nothing else matters. God damn it.
What made it worse was that I’d been watching two of his competitors during practice, accurately estimating their age, and thanking God that he probably wouldn’t have to face them. They were tall, strong, quick, and not all that bad at riding their bikes. John had lined up with them for one practice lap only to be dropped twenty feet by the second turn. He’d made some of that up in the second half of the track, because he has been practicing his bike-handling skills to the point where only the clipped-in Experts can gap him over any kind of jump or roller section. Still, there was no question of him beating these kids unless they made not a single mistake but rather a series of them.
Which left the other two kids, but who were they? As it turned out, one of them had pulled up next to me and was looking for his moto. John arrived shortly afterwards. “You’re in moto 4, with me,” he said, pointing at the printout. “And those are our gates.”
“Oh, okay. I didn’t know how it works,” he replied in the kind of lisp that makes speech-class educators at poverty-stricken schools shudder. This was a big kid, wearing his helmet for no particular reason off-track and giving me a quizzical expression besides. He was wearing the provided-at-no-cost jersey of the “BMX Racing League”, which is kind of a neat program that the USABMX tracks do now. If you don’t know anything about the sport — more pertinently, if your parents don’t know anything about the sport — you can go to the BMX Racing League nights instead of the regular local races. They’ll loan you a bike and the requisite safety gear. If you win a couple of times in the League then they send you off to the regular events. That’s why the kid was confused: on a Racing League night they don’t post motos and gates without explanation.
He and John rode off chatting. When I saw them again, they were lined up on the gate. To my utter horror, John was coaching the kid on pedal placement. He’s a natural pedagogue and he’d taught a 6-year-old how to successfully ride the full-sized asphalt flow track in southwestern Ohio just an hour after encountering it himself for the first time. Still. As I watched him patiently correct the errors of a child perhaps half a head taller than him, I felt actively sick to my stomach. It made me think of those pre-war Grand Prix drivers, deliberately screwing up their lines whenever a competitor hove into sight behind them. That’s what you need to do. Not help a competitor with the physical ability to smoke you into next week.
As I went up to the gate to stop this foolishness, I happened to catch a glimpse of this kid’s face. My son maintains a flat affect at the track, unselfconsciously aping the too-cool-for-school 17 Experts right down to the casual way they toss their helmets onto the grass, but his moto-mate was alternating between a completely guileless open-mouthed smile and a sort of terrified concern. When he slipped a pedal on the gate, he said “Oh… no” in a tone that made me want to immediately file adoption papers so I could fix whatever had happened to him in his past. My affection dwindled a bit when he put two bikes on John before the first turn.
“It’s okay, Dad,” John said when I pulled him aside, “I’m not pushing as hard as I will in the race. I have a plan.”
“Your plan,” I snapped, “should be to quit screwing around.” Then I ruffled his hair to help him swallow the contradictory facts that I didn’t really mean it but that I also truly, deeply, meant it. Twenty years from now, he will be able to tell me where I was too harsh with him and where I neglected my parental duty, the same way I can now with my own father. (“Keeping my shirt tucked in during church” and “Missing twenty school days a year for unconvincingly-feigned illness”, respectively, in case you’re curious.) It will be too late by then. The mistakes will have been made. Last year I sat down with a moderately famous racer and he told me a story about how he watched the father of an extremely famous racer beat him mercilessly between junior-formula races. It made my heart sick to hear it, but still: that guy has $500 million now and my moderately-famous pal is doing driving events with journalists to keep the lights on at home.
In the interest of making the USABMX system clear both to recent veterans of the BMX Racing League and to my 50,000 or so readers who have never so much as watched a BMX race, I’ll explain the two-moto local system in the context of John’s Tuesday night. There are five riders. In the first race, the top two will “transfer” to the main event. In the second race, which will only have three riders remaining, the top two will “transfer” out. The kid who doesn’t transfer goes home. The others participate in the third race. That is the main event and that’s what determines your trophy.
When the first of John’s gates dropped, the two fast 11-year-olds ran away with it, my son a solid but not close third place. This encouraged him, but it did not encourage me. I’ve seen too many kids lay off once they realize they can’t transfer, only to come back with a vengeance in that second race. I saw John’s new friend and competitor ride by with a look of wide-eyed wonder. He’d taken fourth behind John, but you would have thought he’d won the whole thing.
Ten minutes later, I was holding John’s bike at the gate and pouring some cold water down the back of his jersey. Have I mentioned that it was ninety-three degrees outside? Earlier in the day, I’d thought about signing up to race myself but I’d quashed the idea because I didn’t want to get hurt right before the four-wheeled thing I have coming up this weekend. Standing under the summer Ohio sun and sweating through my herringbone Japants(tm) I did not regret that decision one little bit.
“Oh… man.” The kid was trying to push his bike up the hill and failing because he was astride it rather than walking next to it.
“Ah, let me show you an easier way to do that.” I demonstrated using John’s bike.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. He seemed frightened, both of me and of everything else. In that moment, I thought about being just three years older than him, back in 1986, and participating in my first BMX race. I thought about how frightened I’d been. Not of getting hurt — even at that point, I’d already been injured too much on a bike to worry about that — but of failing, of looking stupid, of being all by myself while the other kids laughed at me. It occurred to me that I could tell a lot about this child just by looking at him. I could tell that he was shy and kind and unsure of himself. I could perhaps guess that he was doing this because he had failed at other sports, or because he just wanted to be like the kids he’d seen on YouTube. Kids who had it together, who sat balanced on the gate behind their mirrored 100% goggles and spoke sparingly in phrases that dripped with the liquid nitrogen cool of the preternaturally competent BMX racers. He had a wish to be someone else, someone better, someone who maybe had more to which he could look forward. Thinking about my memories of 1986, I could not help but sympathize.
It was time for the second moto. John loaded into the gate. The third competitor, a hulking child on a bike that was still too big for him, followed suit. And this kid just sat there on the concrete pad behind the gate and watched them with that same open-mouthed look of cautious friendliness, like a dog that more than half expects you’ll smack him for sniffing your lunch but can’t help himself because he is hungry.
The starter gave the traditional call. “Everybody ready?” And now I want you to imagine that time slows to a crawl and you have a chance to look inside my head. This is what I’m thinking: If this kid sits there and misses the moto, there are just two out of three riders left. Which means that John transfers. No matter what. Even if this other kid blows him away. Even if he crashes. All I have to do is be quiet, and my son makes the main. Which means that he’ll be happy on the way home. Which means that he will be encouraged to continue. Which means that the next week of his nine-year-old life will continue to be much better than mine was at the same age. Where’s the kid’s dad? Oh—there he is. Down there on the other side of the fence. Watching. He doesn’t know any better, either. Just shut up, Jack. Just don’t say a fuckin’ word to anybody, and your son is in the main. Just. Shut. Up.
“Starter, hold the gate,” somebody said. God damn it. Who the fuck said that?
It was me, of course. Because I’m an idiot, and sentimental besides.
“Hey, little dude, this is your race. You have to get in there with the other kids, alright?” The kid looked at me fearfully. Somewhere along the line he’d learned not to trust adults. And my heart flipped backwards again and I felt sick all over again. But he got in the gate. My son, who is also an idiot, stopped balancing on the gate long enough to look over at him and say, “Good luck.”
At this rate, neither one of us will ever win anything again in our stupid lives.
Ah, but when the lights went off and the gate dropped John kept even with the kid until the first big jump before putting on a clinic of his own, finishing first by perhaps forty feet and wig-wagging his bars in arrogant celebration across the line. They rode back afterwards chattering with their helmets canted towards a common gravitation between them, their bikes wobbling in motion precariously every time one of them made an exaggerated hand motion to describe some part of their heroic contest to the other. Then the last place rider went by me and I could hear him sobbing in his helmet. God damn this sport and every one like it that makes one kid a winner and every other kid a loser. Can’t be helped. That’s the life into which we are sending all of them anyway. There’s always one promotion to be had, one big bonus slot at the top of your “stack rank”, one contract to be awarded, one woman for whom all the boys have the eye, one open seat in next year’s formula-car season, one, one, one, and you’d better be the one to get it.
I would like to tell you that John and his friend placed first and second in the main event, but as Morgan Freeman once said in a movie around the same time he was harassing the living shit out of eight or more women, life ain’t no farrrry tale. The two eleven-year-olds who’d run away with the first race crossed the finish line neck and neck. Behind then, about fifteen feet away and closing, was my son, displaying that turn of speed he’d promised me in practice. He had time to come to a halt and look around before the fourth-place rider finished. Normally in these situations John demands that we get in line for the trophies immediately; he has a sense that a trophy deferred is a trophy denied. This time he arrived with the other kid in tow.
“Dad,” he told me, “can you get the trophy? I want to ride with my new friend.” The sun was nearly down and all around me the parents were packing up. I swear to God, some eighth-ton 28-year-old woman bleated, these little fuckers don’t hurry up and get over here, gonna make me drink till I get a hangover tonight. Her nearly identical pal spat companionably into the ground by way of assent. Ahead of me in the trophy line, children in brightly colored polyester outfits jostled for position the way they’d done just minutes before on their bikes. I looked out past the fence and saw John leading his friend over the long series of third-straight jumps, turning around and stopping to make sure that his point was getting across. The other child came to an unsteady halt next to him. I couldn’t hear them but I saw their helmets bounce and I knew they were laughing. Listen to me for a minute, if you will, if you, too, have not wandered out to the track parking lot at this point, with the other parents and the ice-cold Experts. I have one thing to tell you about all of this and it is: From his vantage point on the mount, Christ told us that the evil of the day would be sufficient. This is what I’m telling you: the same is also true for the joy.