Elizabeth, our oldest daughter, has never shown much interest in sports. By this, of course, I mean she has shown no interest in sports. When she was 4 or 5 years old, she used to climb into my lap when I was watching baseball games and ask, with complete seriousness, “Daddy, when will the commercials be on again?” When she got a little bit older, when we would take her to various sporting events, she would always bring a book along and always read during the boring parts, which for her meant the “game action.” She would enjoy it when people threw T-shirts into the crowd or the mascot performed. She liked fireworks. Double plays meant too much noise when she was trying to read.
Yes, every now and again she showed signs of paying more attention to these games than I expected. I have written before about the time that friends of ours came over with their son, who was just about Elizabeth’s age. They had grown up together. He began telling her about baseball games. He was — and remains — an extremely talented young baseball player and Elizabeth asked him what position he played. He said he was a shortstop and a pitcher. And she said, “What kind of pitcher are you? Are you a starter or a closer?”
He asked: “What’s a closer?”
She said: “A closer is someone who comes into the game at the end to finish off the other team.”
He said: “Oh.”
She said: “Of course, managers tend to misuse their best pitchers by turning them into conventional closers, pitching them for one inning at the end of games, often with a two- or three-run lead, when they would be much better suited for high leverage situations earlier in games.”
OK, she did not say that last part. But the rest of it is true.
So, yes, some things seeped through. But, she never really cared; sports never really meshed with her dreamy personality. Our younger daughter, Katie, is ultra-competitive — you know that scene in a “River Runs Through It” where the young version of the Brad Pitt brother sits at the table and refuses to eat his food until well past dark? Yeah, well, that’s a nightly exercise with Katie. She would still be sitting at the table if we tried to make her finish the chicken fried steak from last night. We have a friend who beat Katie at Tic-Tac-Toe like three or four years ago, when she was 3 or 4 years old, and she STILL wants a revenge match. So she got all those Darwinian genes. With Elizabeth, it’s much more about everybody being happy. She would be perfectly content if every game or match ended in a tie. The few sporting events she has ever watched, she has felt more sadness for the losers than happiness for the winners. That’s just her nature.
So, it was surprising to find that while I was absurdly busy and distracted doing other things, Elizabeth at age 10 became a sports fan.
And, have mercy on me, she’s not just any kind of sports fan either …
“Daddy,” she said to me. “Jimmie Johnson won at Darlington, I think he’s going to be hard to beat for the rest of the season.”
* * *
The first time I ever wrote about NASCAR … I didn’t write about racin’ at all. This was during the NFL strike — so it had to be 1987 — and I was an agate clerk at The Charlotte Observer, which meant that my job was to compile the standings, to type in college box scores and to take various high school results over the phone. Sometimes, I was to take dictation from writers whose computers had broken down — a routine occurrence in those dark days when stories were sent in over phone couplers. I was dreadful at all of these things, of course, but I did them because every now and again I would get a small writing assignment. This time around, I was to go out to the Charlotte Motor Speedway to write a story. Lawrence Taylor was supposed to be out at the track.
I have never felt more out of place in my life than I did that first day I went out to the track — not in China, not in rural Japan, not at Augusta National, not anywhere. It was loud, and it was smoky (both from the cars and from the cigarettes; it was called “Winston Cup racin’” back then), and everybody was speaking this language I didn’t understand — talking in thick Southern accents* about pistons and clutches and gears and brakes and biscuits and Lord knows what else.
*There’s something about racin’ that makes everybody — even people born in places like Indiana and California — speak with Southern accents.
I did have one advantage — the Charlotte Observer racin’ writer at that time was a legend named Tom Higgins. This was in those days when racin’ writers were about as famous and respected as the drivers themselves. Tom was not only the racin’ writer for North Carolina’s largest paper (making him the Dean of racin’ writers), he was also the outdoors writer. People around North Carolina used to say that Tom Higgins had the best job any man could have. He fished and hunted all week, and went to the races on weekends.
Tom was also an extraordinarily kind man, certainly to me, and as soon as I got to the track he explained how things worked (“Son, those are called tires”) and told me that if there was anything I needed, absolutely anything, I should just ask ol’ Tom and he’d make sure to get it taken care of. He was not kidding around, by the way. NASCAR catered to Tom Higgins. When he needed a driver, they often would bring the driver TO HIM there at his work station. And that’s how it should have been.
Well, as I said, the first story I wrote had nothing to do with racin’. I was supposed to write about Lawrence Taylor and the NFL strike. Taylor showed up, and I remember this so clearly — he had this look on his face that said, “I will personally break the legs of the first two people who talk to me.” I’m not saying that he was really thinking that — I suspect maybe he wasn’t — but that was what his face suggested. Nobody, and I mean nobody, got near him. I’m sure I exaggerate the scene in my memory, but I’m also sure I’m only exaggerating slightly: There was Taylor standing there, all alone, and about 30 feet away was a group of sportswriters (me among them) trying to gauge if we should take one more step toward him or if 30-feet was the appropriate distance.
And then, suddenly, that big voice boomed.
“LAWRENCE TAYLOR!” the voice said. “HOW THE HELL ARE YA? TOM HIGGINS! I CANNOT STAND THE GIANTS — REDSKINS MAN MYSELF — BUT IT IS GOOD TO SEE YA!”
Higgins walked right through the crowd and all the way over to Taylor. And Lawrence Taylor — the most intimidating human being I’ve seen up close — well, he just melted. Absolutely melted. That look of his broke into the biggest smile you could imagine and he shouted, “Tom Higgins! I’ve read you since I was a kid!”
And the two of them talked happily like that for probably ten minutes, pure joy, Taylor with his arm around Tom, Tom telling him that the Redskins were going to beat those Giants, both of them laughing it up. And then — again, it’s probably exaggerated in my mind, but only a little bit — Tom said, “Well Lawrence, I gotta get back to work, but it’s good to see ya.” And Lawrence gave him another man-hug, said to stay in touch, and the second Tom left that “I want to break someone’s bones” look returned to Taylor’s face, and the group of reporters who had moved to within 10- or 15-feet slowly backed away.
That scene — no matter how amplified and embellished it has grown for me — made racin’ bigger than life in my mind. I’ve loved the IDEA of racin’ for more than 20 years. Over that time, some of my favorite stories and some of my favorite writing was about racin’. I’ve had breakfast with Junior Johnson in his shop (at a table with at least a dozen different kinds of bacon), and I wrote a story about the roughest, toughest, meanest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed into a race car, and I’ve been to a couple of Indy 500s and went to the Tonight Show (Conan Style) with Jimmie Johnson. And so on. I love racin’ as a writer, absolutely love it. I am always looking for a great racin’ story.
But I never got it as a fan. I never appreciated the noise, the mind-numbing technical aspects that sounded to me like gibberish, the baffling merry-go-round where you can’t be sure who is leading without a scoreboard. Look, part of it is just age. I didn’t grow up with racin’, so the sport is not in my blood. And somewhere along the way, as I’ve gotten older and older, I’ve come to love the sports that I can fall asleep to on Sunday afternoons. It’s hard to fall asleep during a NASCAR race. Golf, on the other hand, is marvelous for napping.
Elizabeth, however, is not at that age where she appreciates a good nap.
“Jeff Gordon is not making a move,” she said. “He doesn’t seem to have a good car today.”
* * *
I have no idea whatsoever what it is about NASCAR that appeals to her. I don’t mean that as a slight on the sport. I just mean this is a girl who does not like riding her bicycle. This is a girl who, even going back a few years, could not stand the movie “Cars.”* This is a girl who still insists on calling our car “Snowball” because she likes to think of it as a pet.
*Much less, Cars 2, which she refuses to see.
So, NASCAR? How? I have no idea. But this is one of those daunting parts of being a parent … you find that there are times when your children utterly baffle you. That doesn’t seem right somehow. It seems like you should know your children better than they know themselves; after all you were there with them when they were infants, before their consciousness kicked in. You changed their diapers*, you heard their first words, you caught their first thoughts. It seems like you should be able to predict exactly what they will be like.
*This was my job, changing diapers. And I must say, I was good at it — and so were all my friends. I’ve long been unreasonably annoyed by movies and sitcoms that show clueless fathers who have no idea how to change diapers … maybe this is true somewhere, like for fathers in the 1940s or whatever, but I don’t know anyone who ever had any problem with it. Take off diaper … wipe butt … put on diaper. Really not complicated. The tough part, as any parent knows, is emptying the “Diaper Genie” which is supposed to suppress the smell of these diapers but actually has a patented smell-amplifying system that makes the short string-of-diapers smell like a skunk eating limburger cheese in a landfill.
But you can’t predict it. Elizabeth likes vampires, Hollywood stars*, reading, Star Wars, celebrity, Harry Potter, mustaches (don’t ask) and being goofy at every possible opportunity. And NASCAR. There was no way to see it coming.
*We are planning a summer vacation to Hollywood — yes, Hollywood — because Elizabeth has this idea in her mind that she is going to see Selena Gomez, Austin and Ally and the cast of the Hunger Games just walking down the street there, and she will say hello to them, and then they will all be best friends. That could be a long flight home.
The funny thing is: She knows more about NASCAR than I do. A lot more. I called home from the road one day, and she was chirping happily about getting some NASCAR trading cards at the NASCAR Hall of Fame (yes, my wife — bless her soul — bit the bullet on that one) and Elizabeth said, “Daddy, guess who I got?” And what followed was almost an exact replica (using different names) of the kinds of conversations I used to have with my mother about baseball cards I got:
“I don’t know, who did you get?”
“I’ll give you a hint. He’s Number 20.”
“Uh … Jeff Gordon?”
“No, Daddy. He’s Number 24. EVERYBODY knows that.”
“Oh yeah. Uh, wait, um, Dale Earnhart Jr.?”
“This is embarrassing, Daddy. Aren’t you a sportswriter? He’s 88.”
“Oh, right. Who is No. 20?”
“Joey Logano? Hello?”
Elizabeth loves Joey Logano. She has told me many, many times that her three favorite drivers are Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano, who I must admit I had not really heard of (If someone had told me Joey Logano was a NASCAR driver, a Vancouver Canuck or the host of “The Voice” I would have had a 33 percent shot at best — no offense Joey, I mean, I know a lot about you now). She briefly liked Clint Bowyer but became convinced somehow that he had crashed Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon in a race and lost much of her admiration (I don’t know that this is actually how it went down, but Elizabeth, unlike NASCAR, does not allow appeals). This girl who cannot sit still for five minutes of piano practice — or two consecutive plays in football or two straight pitches in baseball — can watch three hours of racing without losing interest.
And I can’t quite figure it out. I think part of if could be her trying to adjust to her new home in the South — I came to love college basketball when my family moved to North Carolina because it helped me fit in. I think part of it is the spectacle of it all — the colors, the noise, the rush (I’m betting she will love the Olympics this summer). I think part of it is that she read the book “Racing In The Rain” and it left its mark. I think part of it, alas, is that she thinks some of the drivers are rugged and good looking, though just thinking about this is enough to make me want to dig a moat around our house.
But I also think that maybe part of it is reaching out to me. It isn’t easy being the daughter of a sportswriter. For her, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Masters and so on, these haven’t been majestic sporting events. They have just been work trips that take Daddy away from home. Our connections have always been on her terms — reading Harry Potter, watching Star Wars, playing with dolls, watching Disney Channel shows and so on. I don’t’ want to go psychiatric here, but I do think that maybe this is her tentatively reaching into my world … even if it is a sport that I know almost nothing about.
Oh … wait. Maybe, that’s the point. Maybe it’s BECAUSE it’s a sport I know almost nothing about.
Being a father gets more complicated all the time.