Racing and Responsibility (part 2)

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I know that I’ve written on this topic before: extolling the virtues of the Junior Drag Racing League as both a parenting tool and a developmental component in the growth of our children. While I had reservations when I considered writing on this topic again, I came to the following conclusion: many of you reading this are parents. If you’re anything like me, it’s uncommon to feel like you’re a great parent. Let’s be honest; we’re all winging this thing, and there’s no handbook for making our kids turn out to be the exemplary human beings that we envision. I lay in bed at night more often worrying about how I’ve messed them up today than I do patting myself on the back for exemplary family leadership. With that in mind, I think it’s imperative to both celebrate wins and to share them when we stumble upon them (I can’t begin to list the number of ideas I’ve “stolen” from other parents). That’s my sole intention in this issue.

As I write this, we’re nearly a full year into the Junior Dragster journey of my oldest son Gary, who just turned 9 years old. To this point, we’ve enjoyed the obvious benefits of Junior Dragster competition: a vessel to discuss sportsmanship, competition, the value of practice and preparation, and most of all, it’s something to use as a motivator for (and often something to hold over the head of) our growing boy (and it tends to work)! 

In addition, and I believe more importantly, Gary’s experience behind the wheel has brought a tremendous sense of agency. As I’ve written before, driving his race car is literally the first time in his young life in which he’s been in almost complete control of very real, very immediate consequences: win, lose, crash… It’s all on him for 20 seconds at a time! That’s not insignificant for anyone, much less a 9-year-old. What I’ve seen more recently as Gary grows more and more adept behind the wheel, is a sense of not only agency, but confidence. It’s a confidence that I see spilling over into other areas of his life – perhaps every area of his life.

As I step back from this, it’s no surprise. I think back to my own introduction to racing. I was 11-years-old when NHRA introduced the JDRL, and my father made sure I had one of the first cars in our area. While I didn’t fully realize it at the time, looking back it’s obvious that my early years of racing put a huge stamp on my life. I took to driving immediately, and I enjoyed a fair amount of success in my couple of seasons in Junior Dragsters. Like most boys (and girls) of that age, I was struggling to figure out where I fit in – struggling to find my place in the world, if you will. Racing was something that I immediately latched onto: it was something that I seemed to do well. It was something that not everyone could do well. I had watched my father seemingly tame this wild machine for most of my life – I deified him for it, viewed him as super human. As a driver myself, I could begin to prove that I was capable of similar feats. When I had success behind the wheel, I was recognized for it – by my parents, my friends, and others that I looked up to. If it wasn’t the first time I really felt like I was good at something, it was on a very short list.

In retrospect, that initial feeling is not only the reason that I gravitated toward racing as I continued to grow (nothing else I found created similar feelings), it’s also clear in retrospect how that self-confidence impacted the rest of my life. The idea that I could do something difficult, and succeed at it… It opened my eyes to what I was capable of. It changed the way I approached school, athletics, social events, and other pursuits I took on. 

And now I see a lot of the same things in my son. Obviously I’m biased, but I think Gary is going to be a very good racer for as long as he chooses to pursue it. He’s better at 9 than I was at 12 (truth be known, he’s better on the starting line at 9 than I was at 19!). That’s not important. What is important is that I tell him this – and he hears it from others – and he can actually see that he’s growing behind the wheel (in addition to having a blast). Racing has provided agency. It’s provided responsibility. Thanks to competition, he’s beginning to understand what he’s capable of, and perhaps expanding the vision of what he could be capable of in the future. That’s powerful stuff.

And I can see the self-confidence spilling over, perhaps in little ways that only a parent would notice… There’s a vigor to his schoolwork. He’s playing baseball: he’s not the most athletic youngster, and it’s his first year in kid-pitch. A year ago, he’d have been super intimidated. Today, he stands in and takes his hacks without trepidation. Last week, he had a huge hit that drove in two runs, extended an inning, and ultimately led to his team’s victory!

For years, I’ve made breakfast for Gary and his little brother – it’s our routine. Recently, I challenged him to cook their breakfast (typically waffles or pancakes on the griddle). To my surprise, not only did he accept the challenge, he’s handled breakfast duty for weeks-without any prodding! He cuts his own waffles. He peels his own oranges (these are things he always leaned on me to do).  Little things like this make me both proud of the little man he’s becoming, and sad that my baby doesn’t (and won’t) need me in ways that he used to!
Perhaps I’m making too much of this. Maybe these illustrations are simply a result of typical and inevitable growth. Maybe he’d be putting things like this together regardless. Perhaps I want to attribute this growth to his racing – admittedly, it’s a convenient narrative for me. Racing is a big part of my life and I’m still as passionate about our sport as I’ve ever been. I believe the connection is real. Thanks to racing, he has agency. He feels important. He feels accomplished. This is what racing did for me. I see it having a similar transformation in my son. This isn’t limited to our family, and I don’t believe it’s entirely unique to racing – I’m sure there are myriad pursuits that have similar impacts on children in various walks of life. I also don’t believe it provides any indication as to the direction of his future. I don’t hold aspirations of my son becoming the next Dallas Glenn or Peter Biondo. I’ve lived out my own racing dreams – I try to be conscious of not burdening my son with them! Rather than indicating direction, I do believe that this racing experience is helping to provide the tools to allow him to succeed in any direction that he chooses! As parents, ultimately that’s one of the best gifts we can give our children.

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