I recently had one of those “milestone events” that if a man is really lucky, might happen just once or twice in his lifetime. A week or so ago, I awoke on a Sunday morning realizing that one of the first Grands Prix of the season was on television. Now, while I have virtually sworn off watching Formula One for the past season or two, I figured with all the new rules the start of the season might hold some surprises…like hopefully passing and some semblance of excitement!
So I flicked on the tube and started watching the race when my three-year-old, Abigail, walked into the room, took one look at the TV and said, “Ooh, racing, can I watch with you, Daddy?” and proceeded to nestle her little jammy-clad body onto my lap. Moments later my wife walked in, took one look at my watery eyes and wanted to know who died!
Needless to say I was dumbstruck by my daughter’s interest in watching Formula One with me. Not only did she watch the majority of this race—rooting seemingly arbitrarily for Fisichella’s “blue and yellow car”—but two weeks later she again snuggled up to watch the next race. That’s when I knew this might be serious, because let’s face it, how many people can watch two complete Grands Prix these days unless they are an absolutely nutter, dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast! However, Abi’s burgeoning interest in racing posed both a host of new possibilities and problems. Should I actively encourage this behavior or let it develop on its own? What if she eventually wants to race? What if she turns out to be faster than me!?! What if she is good enough to go pro!? But if that happened and she, God forbid, got hurt, could I ever live with myself for being the one to introduce her to the sport? I finally had to stop myself. We had a long way to go before I tortured myself with that level of guilt…first thing was to figure out whether she would even like a real race or not.
While Abi had been to one or two local vintage events when she was much younger, she had yet to test her mettle in the cauldron that is a full, professional, racing weekend. Fortunately, just weeks away was this year’s Long Beach Grand Prix, which not coincidently, had been my very first race 31 years prior. Gad! It doesn’t seem that long ago! After talking it over with my wife, we agreed that this year’s event would be a good daddy/daughter day out and a valid test of Abi’s burgeoning racing interest. However, as excited as I was to be taking her to her first real race, I have to confess to also being a little nervous. After decades of going to races and taking friends along to give them their first taste of the sport, I’ve learned one great truth—a person’s first race experience tends to be a make or break event for their long-term interest. If you think back for a moment to your own experiences introducing friends or family members to the sport, I’m sure you’ll agree that if you take them to their first event at a glamorous place like Monaco or Monterey, they’ll be fans for life; take them to a cold, dreary club event at Mallory Park or Willow Springs and they’ll never set foot at a track again.
So with this lesson in mind, the night before our trip to Long Beach I angsted over all the final details. I packed a stroller in case Abi got tired of all the walking; I brought all manner of hats, coats and sweaters to try and maintain the optimum comfort level; I packed drinks; I packed snacks; I packed ear protection (two kinds!); I packed crayons and paper (just in case she lost interest). By the time we walked out the door for the first practice session I felt like a Himalayan sherpa guide loaded down with Sir Edmund Hillary’s provisions for an assault on Everest. I was determined not to blow this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Crunch time came as soon as we walked into the track. The Champ cars began their first practice literally two seconds after we crossed into the infield. As a result, Abi went ramrod-straight in her stroller, as I hadn’t either warned her or gotten her industrial-strength ear protectors on yet. My first thought was, “Crap, she’ll be scared right off the bat and that will be it for the rest of the day!” So I picked her up in my arms so she could at least see what was making the noise on the other side of the K-rail. As the cars went shooting by, her eyes got big as she soaked it all in. I’ve seen this look in her before; it could go either way at this point—tears or smiles. She watched two more cars fly by, then looked up at me with the biggest grin and said, “Daddy, I saw a blue car!” Whew!
For the next six hours, she soaked it all up like a sponge. We watched the cars, walked the track, the paddock and the pits. In fact, the only tears the whole day came at 4:00: “Daddy, I don’t want to go home!” I think it is the only time in my life that I’ve been elated to see one of my kids cry.