Racing & Responsibility

Gary Junior

Six months into the Jr. Dragster experience with my oldest son Gary, I can already say with conviction that if we stopped today it’s been worth the time, effort, and investment (and to be clear to any of you consider going Jr. Dragster racing: the time, effort, and investment are significant!). 

With that statement as an introduction, allow me to back up a bit. My own driving career began in the seat of a Jr. Dragster. The class was introduced when I was 11 years old, and my father made sure that I had one of the first in our area. Granted, I’m more than 25 years removed from that experience, and the technology surrounding the Jr. ranks has changed just a bit! My son, who is 8, took the wheel in June: so I have all of a half season crew-chiefing and parenting as a “Jr. Dad” under my belt. In short, feel free to take anything that I say with a grain of salt. I’m far from a Jr. Dragster expert!

What I do think is worth sharing, and my purpose for writing on this topic, is the impact that this newfound sense of agency and responsibility has had on my little guy – and the impact I believe it can have on many (perhaps most) children.

For the sake of background, while my wife Jessica and I don’t consider ourselves to be helicopter parents, I’ll readily admit that we protect our boys. Perhaps that’s natural, I’m not certain. I am confident, however, that it’s cultural. I believe this protective trait is common – accepted, if you will – in our society, whether we want to admit it or not. I know that ultimately my role as a father is to prepare my boys for their life beyond youth. And I know that protecting them from rejection, failure, and responsibility does not typically serve that end. And yet I coddle, probably more than I should, because I feel an innate pressure to make things easier for my boys.

Any Junior Dragster parent will emphasize the importance of a positive starting line routine. This involves both Mom or Dad, and kiddo. As parent/crew chief, we’re tasked with ensuring proper idle and clutch adjustment, among other things, to provide the most competitive car possible. We have to communicate this with the driver in a manner that, at the very least, doesn’t detract from their concentration and confidence. In a perfect world, our routine not only checks those boxes, but also facilitates optimal focus and belief within the driver (which, if we’re being honest, isn’t any different from the goal of my own pre-race routine within the NHRA Lucas Oil Series). Call it routine, call it ritual, call it whatever you’d like. The fact is it’s important, and it requires active participation and presence from both parent and child.

Almost immediately upon his start in competition, Gary and I developed a consistent routine on the starting line. As the final step of our routine, after everything is set mechanically, after I’ve guided him up to a point just behind the pre-stage, I stand, look at him, and point to him. Effectively, I’m saying “I’m done. Now it’s all on you.” And before I can step away, I can’t help but notice the look in his eye.

Mind you, my son is a laid-back, playful 8-year-old. If I’m being completely honest, he’s lived a pretty entitled life to this point. I call him a “typical” kid in that regard. If you called him a knucklehead, I’d have a hard time disputing that label. My point is that I didn’t at first recognize the steely eyed boy inside that helmet at the end of our routine. His playful aloofness was replaced with an excitement. An intensity.

The first time I noticed this, I laughed it off: “Kid is into this!” Then it happened again. And again. And I began to realize where the catalyst for this drive and determination that I’d never before seen comes from. When I tell Gary “It’s on you” and I walk away, it’s literally on him. For perhaps the first time in his 8 years, he’s 100% responsible for whatever happens in the next 30 seconds.

Win… Lose… Crash… It’s all on him. And that responsibility – that agency – it LIT HIM UP! 

Admittedly, I’m a bit biased. I think my son has tremendous potential in racing. But that’s not for me to decide, and ultimately it’s not the point of this message. The point is that, regardless of whether or not he develops a passion for racing; whether or not he becomes even more successful behind the wheel; this Junior Dragster experience has been worth the investment – simply for that brief moment. Selfishly, I say that from the perspective of a father, it’s been worth it for me to witness what my son is capable of. More importantly, I think, it’s been worth every bit of it for him to feel and accept that sense of responsibility.

Ultimately the question isn’t how I can use this experience to help him grow as a racer. The question is: How can I present similar situations to challenge my sons to identify what they’re capable of?

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