Road to Riches
Parenting, like racing, is a struggle. Except when you get it right
As a child, I was exasperating. But next to my daughter, I was a pussycat. Her independent streak is of an epic magnitude. She rejects guidance or nurturing. She hikes, bikes, and skis with reluctance. She will not be cajoled or hoodwinked. Flattery will get you nowhere. But this week is different.
To thwart my daughter’s insistence on knowing—in excruciating detail—the week’s itinerary, I’ve not created one. “We’re camping,” I say. She shrugs. I load the last of the supplies into the VW bus and we leave the city on a claustrophobically hot day. “Why,” she asks, “is the bus without air conditioning?” “It's old,” I say, and suggest she climb overtop coolers, clothes, and a taxidermist’s stockpile of stuffed animals to open the vent window near the rear of the bus. She asks if we should first stop. “Yes,” I say, “we should.” Her seatbelt releases with a click and in the mirror I watch her body sway as passing trucks buffet us. She returns to her seat and we sweat the highway in silence.
Hot, slow, and noisy. Bus is a dysfunctional member of our dysfunctional family. We've a shortage of everything, except love.
“Sorry, full,” says the suntanned teen in a blast of cool air from the campground’s check-in booth, before snapping the sliding window shut. We’re too far from home to turn back and it’s too late to travel on. My daughter asks about the campground across the road. What campground?
“Three spots left,” says the man in the office across the road. “What’s your footage?” It takes a moment to understand the question. “About as long as a car,” I say. He looks out the window at the bus. His back straightens and his head ducks into his screen. My daughter looks at me, her eyes darkly mischievous. The man witnesses the glance. The office becomes very warm.
I drive to a clear-cut of shade-less burnt grass and dock between two motorhomes four times the length and twice the height of the bus. We hop out of the cab, walk into the clearing, and look back at the bus, a wedge of lemon sandwiched by loaves of white bread.
We smile at heads poking through parted curtains, but people-of-the-motorhome keep to themselves. We cook outside on a propane stove, wash dishes in plastic bins on the gravel, and don’t use the electrical hookup because we don’t have anything to plug in. At night, I read a Nancy Drew mystery aloud, and the air is heavy with the hum of air conditioners and muffled televisions.
Heat radiates from superheated midday sand and turns the beach into a kaleidoscope of sandcastles, screaming kids, mothers under sunscreen, and teenage girls tugging bikini bottoms down and bikini tops up. We sink deep in the cold, cold water, frog-eyed above the surface, and wait for the curl of the next wave to drive us down. We rise to the surface and run in lockstep to the shallows. Then do it again. And again.
At a roadside emporium we cause such a ruckus in a photo booth that we grab our pictures and run out the door. We mini-golf poorly. Eat ice cream ravenously. Find missing editions in our Nancy Drew collection at a junk store. Above all, we find ease.
We check out of the campground with a horn blast and a wave to the man in the office. He doesn’t look up. My daughter asks what day it is. “Thursday,” I say. “Races tomorrow?” “Yes,” I say, startled. “Let’s go,” she says. My daughter despises the track. If there’s a race and she’s with me, I won’t go—we’ve had too many fiery showdowns. As Friday dawns, I ask, off-handedly, if she’s still up for it. “Sure. It’ll be fun,” she says.
At the lockup, I pull the trailer from storage and latch it to the bus. “What are the chains for?” she asks. “They hold the trailer if the hitch fails.” “But you didn’t do them up.” “We’re only going two blocks,” I say. “You should do them up,” she says. I don’t. We queue for a left at an intersection and a small woman driving a big SUV can’t see the low motorcycle trailer and bumps us gently, twice. That’s all it takes. I pull around the corner and in an instant the trailer comes adrift from the bus and sails down the middle of a residential street, rolling to a stop amid the screech of the tongue grinding pavement. That the rogue trailer doesn’t veer into parked cars or onto the busy sidewalk is a minor miracle. It could have been catastrophic. Tragic. “I told you so,” says my daughter.
An hour into our 90-minute drive to the track we stop to swim in a lake beneath a blue-black sky. We set the stove on the trailer next to the Honda and cook dinner. I boil water to wash dishes. She dries. Back on the road, we sing Taylor Swift songs. I ask my daughter to take her feet off the dash. She does.
At the Paris short track, I tell Katalin in registration where to find my identification and where the keys are stashed. Just in case. At one-eighth of a mile, Paris is tight, bumpy, slick, and unpredictable. It’s a track shunned by riders who prefer the wide-open spaces of a half-mile, but I’m sentimental about Paris—it’s the first track I raced on.
Paris opened in the early ’90s as a speedway track, but as interest in speedway waned, flat trackers were welcomed. Just as young riders today are keen to graduate to bigger, faster tracks, so was I when I rode speedway at Paris. The track is seen, by some, as too small time. But that’s its charm; it’s a loud and aggressive bowling night out.
Unlike half-mile races, where registration, heats, and finals can drag on for 12 hours, Paris starts at 7 Friday nights and by 10 it’s over. And unlike the multitude of classes that bog down the schedule at big tracks, Paris has but two classes for 450 cc bikes; one for experts and one for everyone else.
For tonight’s practice the track is overwatered. Riders topple over at speeds no greater than a brisk walk. My front wheel, clogged with mud,
stops rolling. I hold the bike up by jamming both feet to the ground.
I roll to staging and take my place on the line for the first heat. The light turns green, I ease out the clutch, and the tail end spins sideways until I face the infield. I’m dead last off the line. Bodies and bikes litter the track. I’m not racing. I’m just not falling. I pull back into my pit, caked in mud. My daughter runs up with a pen and notebook. “You were last, dad,” she says, proud of her arithmetic. For the second heat the track is no better and neither is the result. (“Last again, dad.”)
The track is dragged. Conditions improve. Prior to the final, we’re given two laps to check out the surface. I feel good. Confident, even. Because of muddy misfortunes to other riders, I’ve secured the last starting position on the front row. Katalin elevates a card indicating 12 laps. The starter ensures everyone is ready. I snick the bike into gear and slowly release the clutch until the engine’s torque tugs on the rear brake. The light turns green. I’m leading.
Unsung hero. Pat Hesmer worked the gate at Paris for all of its nearly 30 years. No-one dared try sneaking past her.
Friday night lights. Short track racing is a bare-fisted brawl where up-and-comers show no mercy to older riders. As it should be.
Flat tracking is the most rewarding and the most frustrating thing I've done on two wheels. Here, I've got it right. But how I'll do in the next corner is anyone's guess.
Nothing is like winning. Even at a rough old short track. Kid poses for photograph like an expert. Me, not so much.
Laps tick off as in a dream. The engine clips the rev limiter at the end of the straightaway and I arc down to a tight apex at the corner. I’m not, as I do when I’m riding poorly, thinking of what I should be doing. I’m just doing. It’s easy. And unnerving—it’s as if a much better rider has punted me from the saddle and taken over. Unusually, for a short track race, I’m not nudged (or hammered) out of the way. I don’t hear another engine. I don’t see the shadow of another motorcycle. Then, suddenly, a rider in front of me. I’m so startled I momentarily roll out of the throttle. Aren’t I leading? Oh, I’m lapping him. Back on the throttle, underneath him cleanly, and two laps to victory.
On the cool down lap, some riders congratulate me while others impatiently exit the track. No one likes to lose. I approach the starting line. Katalin has an incredulous smile. She is holding out the flag for me. I take it from her on the trot, gun the throttle (because it’s what I’ve seen others do), and veer off the racing line into deep dirt.
Riding a flat tracker slowly is like flying below stall speed. It doesn’t work. I veer away from the wall, again add too much throttle, and nearly ride off the inside of the track. My celebratory lap has gone sideways. They’re laughing back at the finish line. Katalin points to the ground. I drop the flag at her feet and ride off. And then see the stunned look of the track photographer. I was to have stopped for a victory photograph.
I lean the bike against the trailer, remove my helmet, and hear a high, young voice. It’s 10-year-old Adrian, who often wins the kids’ class. “Neil,” he says, “what were you doing? You were supposed to wait for the photographer.” “Yes, I know, Adrian.” “Why didn’t you wait for the photographer?” “I messed up, Adrian.” And then I hear my daughter’s voice from atop the grandstand on the hill. I turn to see her running at a gallop back to the pit. She leaps into my arms with enough force that I nearly topple backward. “I knew you’d win,” she says, matter-of-factly.
It’s nearly midnight. Well-wishers have said goodnight, track lights have switched off, and a chill settles in. We drive to a coffee shop on the edge of town, sit on the curb beneath insects swirling under arcing lights, drink hot chocolate, and talk of nothing.
I double-check tie-down straps as my daughter climbs in the bus, locks the door, drapes a blanket over her body and settles in for the drive. In minutes she is asleep. I am alone. And at peace.
Luxury suburban homes atop hills to the east of the Paris track foretold its future. But when the town’s fair board, custodians of the property, revoked permission to use the facility, it was just a formality—Paris was dying. Once, I’d battle a dozen riders; it dwindled to three or four. Nearly thirty years is a good run for a racetrack. And for a racer, too. I sell the bike to a man in Montreal and hang the steel shoe above the workbench.
“Did I ever tell you about the night I won in Paris?” I’ll say to my daughter every so often. “Did I ever tell you about the time the trailer fell off?” she’ll say back to me. After a decade in the wilderness, we’ve found home.