By on December 12, 2010

Two months ago, American road-racing fans watched the heartbreaking finale of the Pennzoil-sponsored Risi Competizione attempt to win both the final race of the ALMS season and the series championship. Half a lap from victory, the Ferrari F430 simply ran out of gas, handing the race to the Corvettes and the season to the Rahal-Letterman BMWs.

This finale was also a beginning for a colleague of mine. Michelle Naranjo, a female journalist whom I met at a Ford press event earlier this year, flew to the event with her daughter, Henrietta. For “Henri”, this was a chance to work with the biggest names in racing photography; for Michelle, this was a moment to reflect on childhood, life, and all the other things normally covered in “Lifetime” movies. I’ve included a gallery of Henri’s photography below, and I’ll let Michelle pick up the story:

“Baja is my first love and it always will be. It was an adventure I did as a child and was given again as a present later in life when my race-loving father and brother were no longer with me to see my face and heart grow.

Petit LeMans was the moment… the gift, I guess that you could say, when I got to introduce my daughter to something that I only had elusively loved before.

She is 17-years. She is slight, to say the least. She is an aware child. Muggings, fluctuating neighborhood, people who appear like stars and then disappear: we have had it all. She missed a summer while we watched my father die and when given the chance to go away to Road Atlanta, we ran. She just started by wanting that photographer’s vest. We got on a plane.

In the past few years, my expectations for myself had become… shall we say, curbed? What I had expected for myself had certainly not been what I had ever thought and now I was supposed to show my only child, my world. She had always patiently watched me disappear before to previews, auto shows and races. She stayed with friends so I could disappear into the car world. I was Vanishing Mama. I had often written about how I was never happier than when I am getting on a plane. A few nights a week, I disappear into “shows”.

When we arrived at the race, we realized that she had her own room. And she chose to use it. Much to my surprise. That night, I lay in bed and realized for the first time that I would be without her in a year and a half when she goes to college and my empty nest started.

Next day:

The Pennzoil representatives and the local Ferrari Club members greeted us at the track. We made our way through the beautiful cars, down through the infield and I took her in the pressroom. Henrietta is 98 lbs soaking wet, wearing a bright red Ferrari cap on her bright orange hair; she sees the track for the first time and her eyes get big. Autoextremist correspondent A.J. Morning instantly jumped in and took her down to the track’s edge to see where a GT2 contender had hit a wall. She started taking pictures and I became her assistant, carrying her equipment. The seasoned guys, especially legendary motoring photographer Hal Crocker, began showing her how to take pictures so that the cars didn’t look like they were parked on the track. She stood behind them, listened in silence, and asked questions when she wanted to know more.

At one point, I sat down on a hill behind her tiny frame and an army of photographers and just watched. The smell of the track was that perfect mix of speed and fuel: it was a perfect day. I missed my brother and my dad and I cried. There was no way I could have brought her into this world before.

She sat in the pressroom, camera in lap, and watched as the Risi Ferrari crew chief cried in the arms of the driver who ran out of fuel. I watched her watch and saw the tears grow in her eyes in sympathy. She knew that she was supposed to take photos of that moment and she knew that it was mean to show folks so vulnerable. I told her that she had to toughen up. I had no idea what I was talking about.

Henrietta grilled me on the plane trip home about when the next race would be and could she “go to France for the 24 Hours of Lemans?”

Two months and some days after, I am packing her in my mind as she prepares to fly to France for the holidays with her father. A first. She has to change planes at Heathrow and thank goodness, they speak English. Mostly. Desperately trying to find some Oakley hi-top driving shoes in a size 5-men’s as her Christmas gift since she saw them on the LeMans drivers… and yet she still doesn’t drive.

It is one year and 90-odd days until she will do the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles with me. I just have to get through this one Christmas without her.”

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