By on April 22, 2016

Bark Mid-Ohio AER

“You know, if it’s not fun anymore, you could just quit.”

I stared at my father as he spoke these words, confused beyond belief. He had just picked me up from a brutal three-a-day football practice in the heat of the Ohio summer. As I sat there in the passenger seat of his piano black Infiniti J30, baking in the leather interior, I couldn’t begin to comprehend why he would tell me it was okay to quit.

Sure, I’d been complaining I was in danger of being passed over for a starting wide receiver spot, for which I’d been fighting for nearly three years. And yes, the practices were hard. We didn’t know much about things like “hydration” or “concussions” in the mid-’90s. We got water breaks about once an hour. If you got your bell rung, you just sat out a play and jumped back in. Sitting out too long meant that somebody else got your reps. But I never, ever considered quitting the team. Those guys were my teammates. My brothers. I could never quit on them. Quitting was for losers.

So as I stared at him, I decided right then and there that I wasn’t a quitter. Not only that, I decided that I would never become one. And that, my friends, is why I’m racing at Watkins Glen this weekend.

You see, amateur automotive racing is decidedly unglamorous. There’s nobody there to watch. Most of your friends will think it’s about as exciting as playing basketball at the Y — probably less so, because auto racing looks incredibly easy on television. The cars don’t look like the cars that your friends see on television either. They’re older. They’re not as beautiful. They’ve got scrapes and dents and character, man.

The risk? It’s substantial. While amateur racing is getting safer all the time (well, unless it’s budget, crapcan racing), people still get badly hurt. Sometimes, people die. And for what? What’s the great prize for which we’re all literally willing to risk our lives over?

Nothing. There’s no money to be won. In fact, there’s only money to be lost. It’s like playing Blackjack, but with no chance of winning. It’s hideously expensive to build a car. It’s hideously expensive to maintain a car. And God forbid that you wreck, especially if it’s not in your car. Be ready to write a check before you leave the track — assuming that you’re not leaving in a life-flight helicopter.

And much like Blackjack, you can do everything right, and you can still lose. Through no fault of your own, you can make a trip into the wall at a neck-breaking speed thanks to a squirrelly competitor. In fact, our last trip to the Glen ended in exactly such a fashion, thanks to an E30 racing us out of class in the Boot.

It’s because of all of this that I’m afraid. I’m afraid every time that I strap into the car. In fact, I’d be pretty stupid not to be afraid, right? I mean, at Mid-Ohio last year, a bad bearing on the right-front wheel made it impossible for me to navigate left-hand turns. Luckily, it happened early in my run and I noticed it right away. But, it did cause me to have a pretty adventurous off-track excursion in the “Madness” turn. What if there had been another car next to me going through that turn? Through no fault of mine, my day could have ended very, very badly.

It’s not just me that I’m afraid for, though. I’m afraid for my kids. Listen, I know that we all gotta go sometime, and I know that it’s more dangerous for me to make the nine-hour trek to Watkins Glen than it is for me to drive at Watkins Glen. But I’ve never let the kids come to a race. I don’t want them to have a lasting memory of Dad being taken away in an ambulance. Before I go to any race, I hug them a little bit tighter. I let them know that Dad loves them as much as anybody’s ever been loved. I always expect the best, but I prepare myself — and them — for the worst.


So there’s the fear element. But there’s also the team element. For the first time in 20 years, I’m on a team. Make no mistake about it — much like high school football, I’m the slowest, least-talented guy on the team, but they still need me to pull my weight to win the trophy at the end of the day. It’s not some bullshit “cross-functional Tiger Team” at work, where you actively despise half of your “team members” and you’re only on the team because somebody is making you be on it. It’s a real team, full of real guys who want to win just as badly as I do. We don’t have a pit crew, or a team manager, or spotters. We fuel the car, we fix the car, and we drive the car. We don’t have matching uniforms. We all have real jobs, real families, real responsibilities. None of us have to be there. We each have a thousand reasons not to be there. But we’ll be there, just the same.

Undoubtedly, the safest, easiest thing to do would be to never race a car again. I don’t gain anything that you can measure by doing it. But the things that can’t be measured I gain in spades. I gain friendship. I gain confidence. I gain brotherhood. And one day, I’ll get to look my son in the eye on a day that he’s afraid, on a day that life is hard and maybe even a little unfair, and I’ll tell him that sometimes Dad is afraid, too. I’ll tell him that even though he’s afraid, he’s got a team that’s counting on him to do his job, and that even if he’s the smallest and slowest player on this team, I’ll tell him that they still need him to win.

And just like my Dad told me it was okay to quit, I’ll tell him that it’s okay for him to quit, too. But you know what? It took me nearly 20 years to figure this out, but my Dad wasn’t telling me that it was okay to quit. He was reminding me that it wasn’t. He knew that my complaining and whining was just that. By telling me that I could quit, he was holding a mirror to my face and reminding me that quitting wasn’t something that I really wanted to do. And he was right.

When I strap into the #387 car this weekend, I will be afraid — but that’s okay. Anything worth doing in life should be a bit scary. And when I emerge from the car, hopefully unscathed, it will be another life experience from which I can draw when the going gets tough. My job might get hard. Parenting might get frustrating. Money might get tight. But I don’t quit. I won’t quit.

Instead, in the face of fear, I fight. I scrabble. I race. Sometimes, I lose. Sometimes, I even get hurt. But sometimes, I win. And standing with my team, holding that trophy? That makes it all worthwhile.

Team Pic AER Mid-Ohio

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23 Comments on “Bark’s Bites: I’m Afraid, But I Still Race...”

  • avatar

    Nice piece. Many things in life worth doing come with very high risk. Sex. Starting a business. Joining a band. Or for me, riding a motorcycle on the street. As scary as it is though, when I’m on the bike and in a rhythm, I feel completely relaxed. Being in control of something that is supposed to kill me, and focusing all my mental facilities to the task of riding is incredibly cathartic.

    I’m hoping to have some kids very soon, and I hope to tell them the same. Life is all about risk and reward… if you can manage it, some risk is definitely worth taking.

  • avatar

    We’ve got a nice weekend for your visit, 55° and 10% chance of rain Saturday, 65° and a round 0% of precip on Sunday.

  • avatar

    You really should take your kids to a race sometime. Back in my SCCA days, I would bring my wife and kids out at least once per season. My daughter was at Road America for the June Sprints when she was barely a month old. The kids should see you doing something that you love. They get a kick out of otherwise mundane tasks like wiping the car down.

  • avatar

    “But the things that can’t be measured I gain in spades. I gain friendship. I gain confidence. I gain brotherhood.”

    This is exactly how I feel about my job (military). It isn’t safe… even if there was not a war going on right now, guys die all the time in training. Since I’ve been stationed in Hawaii- just two years- an Osprey and two CH-53s have crashed, resulting in 14 dead and 20 injured. You bet your ass they’re in my mind every time I ride in a Blackhawk or Chinook anywhere. The National Training Center rotations before and after I went each had a Soldier die. It’s a part of our life. But if I could go back to 2008 and start all over from high school graduation I wouldn’t do anything differently.

  • avatar

    Right on Mark .

    I wish my father had even been that forthright with me .

    i too think you should take your kids to see what it is you love to do . they’ll learn even more than you do and at an earlier age , helping them to become better Adults and Citizens to boot .


    • 0 avatar

      I agree that the kids should not be left out, though I understand the concerns as well. But I think in the long run, hiding something your do may well make it more frightening to them.

  • avatar

    “If you got your bell rung, you just sat out a play and jumped back in. Sitting out too long meant that somebody else got your reps.”

    yeah, kids these days are such wimps. Don’t you know repeated chronic brain damage makes you a MAN?

  • avatar

    Be safe out there and godspeed, Bark.

    (Just because I break your balls regarding Ford doesn’t mean I have even a solitary molecule or quark of personal dislike of/for you)

  • avatar

    How about a nice game of chess?

  • avatar

    If you aren’t scared, indeed you are an accident waiting to happen. If you aren’t scared, even in the slightest, then I don’t want to be on track with you. Those of us who aren’t scared tend to take chances most of us would not take, and that can turn into a positive or a negative. Positive that it may have gained you that next position, or negative if you take yourself, and an innocent driver out of the game through miscalculation.
    Being scared can manifest itself in varying degrees. I am more scared when I climb in a car as a right seat coach with someone I am not familiar with, in a car that I have not personally inspected for safety issues, and worst of all, a driver who isn’t scared and forgets you are the coach and simply along for the ride so he can show you how good he really is…
    Give me a scared student every time, one who wants to learn and is open minded enough to take advice and appreciate positive instruction. Scared is being in a Z0 6 Corvette at Texas Motor Speedway on the oval with a driver as previously described, who ignores your every instructional command, going 140 plus approaching turn three…we never made it to turn 4…not because we crashed out, but because when I did get his attention, we headed straight to pit row and back to paddock.
    Again, I would much prefer to be on course with a scared soul than an idiot who wasn’t…

  • avatar

    About crapcan racing being less-safe…yeah there is a greater quantity and variety of machinery on the track, but I’ve found the worst offenders on the unsafe driving list are those who think they’re at an SCCA or AER event.

  • avatar

    Yup, I know how you feel. Every time I get on track. Part of the appeal of racing is finding a state of focus in the midst of danger. I guess some people can get to that mental state on the golf course, but I’m not one of them.

  • avatar

    Beautifully written!

  • avatar

    Really appreciate your writing this. Says so much, all of it good and encouraging…I’d just add myself to the list of people hoping you’ll bring the family along, at least once. And the Glen’s a beautiful place to go.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    Timely piece and well written. Im reading this in the paddock at gingerman and am going to face time with my boys before getting strapped into a crap can.

  • avatar

    Excellent read. A lot of depth.

    I don’t know what the statistics are with racing in general, or the type of racing you’re doing, but I’m guessing that with kids in the equation, I wouldn’t race even if I loved it. But then, caution genes run in my family–my parents had seatbelts installed in the ’57 Chevy in 1960, 8 years before they became mandatory, and my first hard-shelled bicycle helmet was Bell serial #7022. And when I ride, I always wear one of those lime green jerseys that’s visible from the international space station. (I did ride across the country, but I consider that to be relatively low risk.)

    It’s obvious from much of what Jack has written that caution genes do not run in your family. Thus, any advice from me to you on this would be irrelevant.

  • avatar

    What a timely post .
    To -day 4.24.2016 was the BSA Moto Club’s memorial ride out of Sunland , Ca. ~ I decided to give it a go having not ridden since January 1st.
    On the way to the ride I was pondering if I was actually going to go out canyon carving with my buddies on mostly vintage British iron or just kick a few tires , have coffee and ride on home again as I’m definitely feeling the age and broken bones etc. a lot more these days .

    In the end I rode the route for about an hour and headed on home , glad I did ride , don’t ever hide any thing from your Children ~ I began taking my Son on Moto rides and traveling jobs when he was 6 Y.O. and I don’t regret a moment of it ~ we’re tight like two peas in a pod , he knows how to handle himself better than I ever did at any age , he understands risk assessment and management extremely well and races Motos and cars competitively , faster and safer than I ever was even is my dreams .
    Children are like sponges : they sop up everything good or bad so you’d best take the time to teach them and teach them well .
    Right now I’m looking forward to sending my Teenaged Foster boys to MSF Iron Horse Motocycle training as soon as I find where it is in Los Angeles .
    Ride hard far and wide but always : -SAFELY_ ! .

  • avatar

    Finding something you’re passionate about is a blessing, Bark.

    Just out of curiosity, is your wife supportive of this?

  • avatar

    I’ve done a bit of wheel-to-wheel racing; not enough to consider myself an expert by any means but enough to know what’s involved. I have always been surprised with how racers like to talk about how “dangerous” it is.

    Sure, there’s some potential for things to go wrong and people to get hurt; but I suspect that racing on a track is statistically one of the safer things you can do behind the wheel of a car.

    Caged-out and helmeted with a fire suppression system, emergency response on standby, a closed course with all traffic moving in the same direction, and corner workers whose job is to watch for unusual conditions and alert you when they arise? Sure, you’re really courting death out there.

    I expect that more drivers get hurt commuting to the race than do on the track; and harbor a suspicion that all this “danger” talk is either ego-stroking or to make racing more impressive to people who have never done it.

    If anybody has statistics to the contrary I’d be very interested to see them.

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