Author’s Note: This is a delayed follow-up to my son’s first race on July 6th. It’s a tad longer than some articles, but then again, so was the race day. Please enjoy…
“That's the one! That's the one I want!”, said my nine year old son as he excitedly pointed to the blue #46 Toyota truck on the infield TV screen from his seat in Grandstand G Row 28 Seat 10 of the Kentucky Speedway.
As I wrote in my last article, the 2017 NCWTS Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 was going to be my son's first race. It was a day I had dreamed of since I knew I was going to be a dad. I had planned for it for more than nine years, as I wanted it to be perfect for him. However, tonight, July 6th was nothing like I had planned and it was far, far from perfect… or so it appeared.
My plans never included rain gear. Having him spend the entire day watching the Weather Channel to see if the race was going to be rained out or not was not part of the plan. I never envisioned a last minute decision to make a flying trip up US 127 to try to beat the rain there only to find it already there. Having the skies opened up as if poured from a boot as soon as we bought our tickets wasn't either. In my plans he would see the entire “circus” that is race day. Instead, the sand sculpture was under wraps, hospitality tents empty, show cars covered, souvenir trailers buttoned up, product booths closed (including a rain gutter protection product which could have been perfectly demonstrated there). No shuttles were running for us to ride on. No Kid’s Zone open for him to play on.
He was undaunted. He was there to see his first race.
Under my plan, after walking around a while and going down to visit Col. Sanders in Turn 4, we would have wandered back to our seats and watched the infield TV’s show clips from past races or highlights while waiting for the trucks to be pushed out onto pit road. Tonight, it was severe weather warnings flashed on-screen, advising us to take cover under the grandstands. Under my plan, at 7:30, the trucks would be taking the green flag and race for the next two and a half hours or so. Instead, it was a pack of Air Titans and jet dryers taking to the track to race against the elements. Finally, my plan had the checkered flag falling around 10:30 PM, a couple of hours past his usual bed time and we’d be making our way back to the truck for a nice drive home. Tonight, at that time they were just shutting down the Air Titans and pushing the trucks out onto the grid.
So much for plans!
About the only things from my “perfect” plan were that we were at the track and he was going to dine on track food. Kentucky, unfortunately doesn’t have a “dish” that it's known for like other tracks so he’d have to make do with a foot-long corn dog. He didn't seem to mind!
Although the night wasn't going as “planned” it was full of surprises - some nice and some, well, surprising. Even when things looked their worst, the track workers went the extra mile to be welcoming and make the day as pleasant as possible. Those assigned to the rest rooms were incredible, constantly mopping the floors to keep them dry and safe from the rain being tracked in. They put the Air Titans to shame. The faithful fans were positive and patient. No one fussed about the weather. The attitude was it was just one of those racing deals. As the rain lightened, their spirits buoyed. With each passing lap by the Air Titans you could feel the confidence grow, that by dog, they were going to see a race! Tonight!
The final confirmation came when the rainbow appeared. If it is true that the pot of gold is at its end, then there is an RV parked in the infield at the exit of turn two that must be positively loaded! Seeing that though, you could almost feel a collective smile from the gathered faithful. My son, fresh off of the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, was ready to go treasure hunting while we waited for the track to dry.
Track drying became the center of attention for the longest time. The Air Titans were running in packs of four and their noise along with the jet dryers brought out the headphones. It wasn't racing but it was loud and had some action, so it sufficed for a while. I had said in my previous article I would take my son to the fence, but the rain and track drying changed all that. It was a long climb down wet steps to get there and Air Titans lapping at 7.4 miles an hour hardly has the same impact. The race, when it came off, would have to do for now.
The Infield TVs switched from weather alerts to clips from past races and scenes from tonight's race. It was there he saw HIS truck, his pick for tonight's race that I mentioned at the opening.
I have to admit, I hadn't done my homework and wasn't familiar with the #46 Truck. It was a nice looking ride but I thought it couldn't be much as it was starting deep in the field. When I asked him why he picked that one his answer and reasoning was simple and pure. “Because it has a kitten on the back!” he beamed from under his official Kentucky Speedway Event Staff cap. I thought he was joking, but sure enough, there it was, as pretty as you please, a kitten on the right rear fender of the #46 Toyota. How can you argue with that?
During the three hour delay we had lots of time to discuss what he was seeing and what he was going to see. He was full of questions (which he always is) but this was different. Usually, he’ll ask a question and before you can answer he would be asking another. This time he was listening, digesting, thinking about it. I could see in his eyes the wheels turning as he was trying to piece the information together.
As the track color lightened from shiny black to black to gray more fans came in and all things considered there were a fair number of young fans in attendance. Free tickets for kids under 12 didn't hurt. You could tell some were “rookies” like mine but others clearly got “it” and were already grizzled veterans. They had the hats and shirts and they were comfortable in this environment. I saw many three generation packs of fans, which also brought a smile. That is what this is all about and it was nice to see that it is still alive. It was bittersweet because it also made me long to have my dad there with us to make ours three generations.
Finally, as the Air Titans wound down and exited the track you could feel the excitement rise. By then my smart phone had finally cooperated and gave up the info I was after, which was probably the last thing not in my plan. The #46… Banfield Pet Hospital (hence the kitten on the fender) Toyota Tundra driver was none other than… Kyle Busch! Of all the trucks running tonight, somehow, someway he had picked Kyle out for his favorite. I passed the phone to my wife and said he will probably win this tonight. She seemed happy that our son might have picked a winner at his first race. I was less happy, knowing that if he did win, my son would probably become a Kyle Busch fan for life. It was not a pleasant prospect, but I kept telling myself if it makes him a race fan it will be OK.
As they rolled the trucks onto pit road, his gaze was fixed on the opening from the garage waiting for his truck to roll out to be lined up. When the #46 finally came into view he was pointing and tugging and bumping us to make sure we saw it as well. A lot of memories came rushing back. Had it really been over 50 years ago that it was me and my sister doing the same thing to our parents, pointing to our picks to make sure they saw them and try to sway them to cheer for them with us?
His eyes were locked on his truck as they rolled off of pit road and after a couple of pace laps he asked me for my glasses so he could better see his “Kitten Truck”.
They continued to run pace laps to finalize drying and make doubly sure the track was race ready. As they came down to take the green flag he stood with the rest of us as I sent up my final prayer… “Dear Lord, please don't let him yell ‘Boogity, Boogity, Boogity.’” My prayers were answered with a big yell instead.
Together, we watched his first race unfold. Starting 27th, we saw the #46 make quick work of the trucks in front of him as he carved his way toward the front. With each truck passed my son’s smile grew. On lap 23, he saw his first caution and his first pit stop. He also got an introduction in fan sign language - when dad taps you on the leg and points, look quick, because something is happening. He was upset after the stops as his truck lost a lot of positions because of an issue in the pits. “I thought you said under yellow they couldn't pass one another. I’m going to tell somebody”, he protested. So I had to then explain the exception. It made me realize how little in our sport is cut and dried anymore, how now there is an “exception” to every “rule”.
When they resumed racing, his truck climbed back to 14th before they waved the green & white checkered flag for Louisville’s Ben Rhodes, winner of Stage 1. “What’s that?” he asked. I then attempted to explain stage racing. He hung on every word, trying to understand why this race was being stopped. When I finished, he was unusually silent and then asked “Why?” I had no answer that would make sense to him other than that’s the way they want to run their races. I warned him they will do it again before the race ends. His gave me a sideways glance, shrugged his shoulders and did a little head nod as if to say, “Really?”
Many of the trucks pitted during the first stage break, allowing the #46 to restart in fifth. This allowed him to restart ahead of the “Big One” in the dreaded Turn 3. As the second stage continued, my son watched as the “Kitten Truck’s” advance slowed as the competition toughened. I actually found myself pulling for him to take the lead, just to see my son’s reaction. Surprisingly, that never happened, as the #46 could not get around teammate Noah Gragson, who held on to take Stage Two.
As the field slowed and bunched up on the backstretch things became relatively quiet, giving us a bit of time to talk - which, if you know my son, he needed.
The usually stellar Kyle Busch pit crew muffed another pit stop during that break, which did not sit well with my son. Once again, he wanted to tell someone that all those trucks passed his truck under caution and that's not fair. His truck started the final stage fourteenth, and when the green flag dropped we again watched him climb into the top five.
We were now into July 7th but my son never showed signs of tiring. I was pleasantly surprised he had made it this far. About halfway through the final stage I noticed other young fans starting to lose interest and curl up. My wife suggested it was time for a snack, so I nudged him and motioned for him to follow me. We wandered around for a while to stretch our legs, before getting in line for some snacks for a final push to the finish. “Two funnel cakes. One plain. One with strawberries”, I said. “Would you like powdered sugar on those?” asked the smiling food vendor. “Sure! Put mine on his!” He had come this far, I was taking no chances that he would not finish this race!
He and his mom shared (which is dad-speak for she had to fight for a couple of bites) the deep-fried, double-sugared, strawberry monstrosity. In retrospect, he probably had more powdered sugar on him than in him, but he was topped off to go the distance. Besides, he needed something to lift his spirits as another botched pit stop and handling issues pretty much took his “Kitten Truck” out of contention. It was about 1:00 AM when the checkered flag fell on winner Christopher Bell, who had survived a spin and a wreck to come home first.
We stood around for a bit to see the post-race activities. Bell’s burnout was nothing to speak of and was too far away to cause any excitement for him. Instead, he watched intently as Kyle Busch unstrapped, crawled out of his truck, looked under the truck’s front end and then melted into the pit road crowd, leaving the “Kitten Truck” all alone on pit road to await the crew to come push the lonely Tundra back to the garage.
We gathered all our gear and hustled to our truck to get in line for the trip home. Luckily, two right turns and one brief delay and we were back on the main road and heading south. We hadn't gotten much past the one traffic light in downtown Sparta before things in the back seat got quiet. A quick glance in the rear view, confirmed that my son’s first race was officially over.
As we travelled down the fog-covered highway in a small convoy of south-bound race fans, my wife and I finally had a chance to talk, just the two of us… a chance to reflect on the day. Today, watching my first race as a dad with her and our son I saw things differently. My son’s questions made me look at racing through his eyes instead of mine. Explaining things racing, things I take for granted so that he, who knows almost nothing about the sport, could understand, was for me enlightening and in a way reinvigorating. Trying to explain more difficult things like stage racing and why things are the way they are often elicited a “Well, that’s silly” or “That doesn't make sense” response for which I often had no comeback. Seeing it through his eyes made me think that maybe things have become too complicated. Maybe we have strayed too far from our roots.
The rain that I had all but cursed had provided us with a unique opportunity. Though it made for an extremely long day it had stripped away all the “enhancements” to the racing experience that everyone now seems to think are essential to attract and keep fans, especially young ones. The rain had made this race day like the race days I grew up with - where you went to a race to see a race… not a concert (nothing against the girl who performed, she sang her heart out) or any of the extra trappings. My son had no distractions. When it was all said and done, all that was left was the race (and a foot-long corn dog and most of a funnel cake). I’m pleased to report that as best I can determine, racing, by itself, can still hold its own.
I looked over at my wife, who years ago after a soggy slog through the Coca-Cola parking lot at a rain-delayed Indianapolis 500 said she was done with racing, had tonight, given it one more chance. I stole a glance in the rear-view to see my little exhausted race fan who had been such a trooper today. It was then I understood that what I’ve always heard folks say about rainbows wasn't true. For if it was, the rainbow we saw tonight would not have ended at an RV inside Turn Two, but would instead have ended at their seats, Grandstand G Row 28 Seats 9 and 10, for they are my treasure.
Finally, I asked her a question that I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer to, but I had to ask. I told her that during the race, during the Stage 2 break he told me something and I had to know whether she had put him up to it or not. After telling her what he had said, she assured me she had not.
Hearing that, I felt my eyes start to fill, so I looked out the side window for a moment, feigning checking for deer along the roadside as the scene and his words ran through my mind again.
He tapped me on the leg twice, our signal that we needed to talk. I pulled off my headphones to hear him say,
“Thank you, Daddy for bringing us tonight. When we get home tomorrow, can I log on? I want to join Race Fans Forever.”
As I looked back in the rear view one more time, I could only silently say, “You already have Son. You already have.”