Do you think 14 year-old kids should be driving late models, for just one example?
(This column appeared in the January/February 2005 edition of Shorttrack Magazine, which I published for five years. It covered the sport in New England.
That's my grandaughter behind the wheel in the shot above, on her first birthday. That probably makes her too old to land a NASCAR ride. Still, the kid can drive.
Incidently, the young driver to whom I refer in this piece? He didn't make it anywhere near Nextel Cup - or whatever name they've given it since then.)
They say Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was seven months old, pounding the first movement out on one of those colorful little xylophones that the French forerunner of Fisher-Price used to make. Okay, maybe not, but the composer long has served as the model of the childhood prodigy.
Mozart, who lived a few hundred years ago, was rare to the point that he’s still serving our popular mythology, but today childhood prodigies are everywhere. Sports, far from being the exception, seems to be actively cultivating them, having recognized their value as marketing tools to help foist frivolous products upon the youthful masses ever lustful for new diversions.
Racing, sad to say, is not immune. Worse, many of the people you would hope would protect kids from this nonsense seem to be willingly complicit in its promotion. Last season I witnessed the parent of a talented kid trolling for contacts in the pits during a major race weekend. The parent was trying to dig a pipeline that would lead out of New England and south to feed the monstrous machine of (then) Nextel Cup racing. This parent admitted the son’s adventure in one of the region’s touring series had ended badly. Yet despite this a deal was in the works that would put the kid in an even more competitive series.
The question of whether this boy might have been better off taking a step down into a series where he might qualify on a regular basis, the better to learn the rather important art of racing with others, not only did not get answered, it didn’t even get asked. There was no point. The clock was ticking. Time was running out. The kid needed to be moving on, and up. A step backwards was a step into oblivion, a concession that the path to stardom had ended, that the kid was washed up, over the hill – at 17.
No matter that the one thing the kid could do that would garner attention, namely win, wasn’t being accomplished on any level. Worse, the kid wasn’t even getting a chance to demonstrate the ability to learn about his competition and figure out precisely how they could be beaten, another skill of some value.
There’s a bigger issue here, though. Recently Shorttrack Senior Editor Chris Romano informed me that a 15-year-old kid had crashed a late model during a practice-day down south. He got out of shape in a corner, and rather than collect himself, as maturity might have dictated (it was, after all, just practice), he reportedly lost the car completely while trying to hang on to it. The car rammed into the wall and caught fire. The fact that the track in question had not mandated adequate fire equipment is a point for another day, but this kid lost his life as his father and grandfather suffered serious burns in a futile attempt to save him.
Certainly this is the most horrific price a racer can pay. Some would argue that it’s one not worth paying. But, that argument aside as well, is a 15-year-old kid in a position to understand even the lesser stakes of this particular game?
We have middle-school kids banking every bit of their fiber on getting one of maybe 50 jobs that exist as drivers in Nextel Cup, and most are that specific about their goal. Even in the rarified air of NBA basketball there are ten times as many opportunities. And in basketball college is a part of the process of making it, even if many basketball players choose not to complicate the process by actually going to class. Hey, that’s their choice, and they’re adults by the time they make it.
These kids and their parents are hitching on to a star that likely exists as nothing more than the light it’s casting. The fire is light-years away. And not “might be” light-years away. This observer, here, right now, will say to every childhood racing-prodigy reading this column – unequivocally – that you WILL NOT MAKE IT to Nextel Cup.
Sure, I might be wrong – about once every ten years. Where’s that leave you?