Bad At Small Talk

Gentlemen, Start Your Unrealistic Dreams

When I was eight, I had a profoundly life-changing event.

I saw a televised NASCAR race.

It was the Rockingham 500, and Neil Bonnett narrowly beat out Alan Kulwicki for the victory. I had never seen auto racing before, live or televised, and I was hooked. I was not a sports fan when I was eight. Indeed, I didn’t even play any sports when I was eight. But something about racing absolutely grabbed my attention, and it wouldn’t let go for the next ten years.

[Incidentally, both Neil Bonnett and Alan Kulwicki would eventually die. I think about five drivers whom I really, really admired died before I graduated from high school. I’m guessing this is different for kids who grow up infatuated with, say, pro golf.]

A year after this, during which I consumed absolutely every form of auto racing I could, I had settled on what I wanted to be when I grew up. Not only did I know I wanted to be a race car driver, but I knew what kind of race car driver I wanted to be. Even at nine, I was short for my age. I knew this, and I also knew that Indy car drivers pretty much had to be short to fit into their cars. Thus, I would be an Indy car driver. I would win at least four Indy 500s, just like A.J. Foyt.

But where to begin?

Competitive karting was not an option, first because there was no competitive karting in Kansas City but also because competitive karting is expensive, and my parents had just divorced and were channeling all their discretionary income towards chocolates, new wardrobes or other women.

Yet there was Malibu Grand Prix.

Malibu Grand Prix was a “fun center” in Kansas City featuring a video arcade and go-karts. There was no racing (the karts were driven one at a time on a narrow and twisty road course,) but at least the course was timed. And the karts seemed really fast for a nine-year old.  There were hulking steel beast karts for adults and, for kids like myself, mini karts that were slower but much more drivable.

There was also something horrible, cruel and insidious: A sign with a thin red line indicating how tall a child must be to drive one of the kiddie karts.

That thin red line became my great white whale.

Every weekend that my dad had custody of me, I would take advantage of his post-divorce guilt and get him to drive me to Malibu Grand Prix. I’d have spent the week doing things like drinking tons of milk and running laps around the playground at recess, thinking those were the things that make one grow three inches. I lost weight. I did not grow. But I would show up at Malibu Grand Prix just the same, thinking I would beat the thin red line.

Every time, to make the trip worthwhile, my dad would throw down eight dollars to take me for a few laps in the Malibu Grand Prix passenger kart – an ugly, blocky two-seated monstrosity that looked nothing like an Indy car. The pictures on the wall inside depicted a muscular, tan man in a hot pink Lecoste shirt and Ray Bans assertively driving his captivated, thrilled girlfriend in the passenger kart. They did not depict a recent divorcee grimly driving his midget fourth grader.

Then came my tenth birthday, and there was only one place I wanted it to be. By then, goddamnit, I surely would be tall enough to drive one of the kiddie karts. Surely no benevolent god would allow a ten-year old to watch his taller friends go zipping about in karts while he stood on the side. Didn’t anyone understand? If I couldn’t get any track time to hone my racing skills, my destiny would forever elude me.

I was prepared for months of milk-drinking if it meant taking a triumphant birthday lap. Then my dad tells me not to worry. My dad tells me he guarantees that I will be tall enough to drive on my own.

He says no more, but it’s all I need to hear. And on my birthday, me and my little friends take over Malibu Grand Prix. There’s cake, ice cream, presents, video games and air hockey. None of which I could possibly care less about. My focus is singular.I believe in my dad. I am still nine, for two more hours. When you are nine, your parents aren’t supposed to lie.

So now it’s kart time. And before it commences, every kid has to stand before the thin red line so that Malibu Grand Prix employees can verify they are of safe height. For my friends, this is not a problem.

My dad comes up to me in the line. He takes a knee to get on my level (which he almost never does) and says “Stand on the sides of your feet. Don’t stand on your tip-toes, because that’s too obvious. But standing on he sides of your feet will make you just tall enough, and they won’t notice.”

And I blurt: “YOU SAID YOU’D MAKE ME TALLER. STANDING ON THE SIDES OF MY FEET DOESN’T MAKE ME TALLER.”

I remember the Malibu Grand Prix workers wheeling out the passenger kart for the birthday boy and his dad. I remember my friends, who had already done their own laps on their own, watching as my dad and I climbed in. My dad drove the kart as fast as it could go, and I tried my best to drive it with him. I sat there and concentrated with everything I had on when he would brake, how he would accelerate out of turns, how he got the most speed possible out of the straightaways.

I concentrated on how much I loved racing. Because I knew I was going to have to find something else to be when I grew up.

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December 3, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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