In the 70’s, someone identified as a “fan” put “Rod is God” on a shirt and presented it to my Dad. My Dad was a motorcycle racer. He was good. He competed in just about every form of two-wheeled racing that existed, won several regional titles and held a national number for one season. He never made much money racing, but he made memories for himself, his friends and wrote a life narrative for me.
I grew up following my dad to the race track every weekend. The smell of engines and burnt rubber thick in the air. My youth corresponded with the tail end of his career, marked with a mix of competitive finishes and also ran performances. I remember a fifth at Daytona in the inaugural super-bike race, and a Sunday afternoon near the end in Middletown, New York when something broke on the bike and he slid across the track on his ass before stopping abruptly against a concrete wall. I sitting with my mom and sister near the flag stand as I watched him collapse onto his side. The ambulance, the broken bike, the rundown hospital, the back brace and the couch. Three months out of work at home recovering. It was never a possibility in my mind that he wouldn’t ride again, and fast.
He would break his back again, and stop racing for good. He never stopped riding, fixing bikes or teaching others to ride them. I was his pupil once, but I lacked the courage to race. Maybe I never had it, maybe I lost it watching him in pain. I recall the time we stood in the infield at Daytona when he told me that if I wanted to race, he would do what ever he needed to do to support me. I knew the truth at that moment, but said nothing, afraid to disappoint him. He has never said anything, but I still feel as though I did. I think of that moment all the time raising my own children. I am committed to giving them the same opportunity to succeed in their chosen passion. I prefer to think that the meaning of the moment was in the offer, and not my failure to accept it.
There are other moments that speak to experience, and opportunity taken and lost. My Dad’s father never saw him race. He forbid my Dad from racing until he was 16, and then died before he turned 16. My Dad won his first race. My uncle Don became my Dad’s mentor. My Dad’s real job was as a mechanic in the family dealership that uncle Don ran. Don gave Dad plenty of good advice that served him well, he also discouraged him from going all in and racing at the national level. Maybe, he would have found himself out of his depth, but maybe not. This story burns deep within me on each telling. It is the job of the mentor to push for the resolution of the question “am I good enough?”, so that when the answer is no it can be accepted without regret.
His racing career was done on a shoe string budget. He got some help from uncle Don and a “sponsor” named Marv, but mostly from friends. They loved racing, a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves and believed in him. They celebrated the wins, picked up the pieces of the wrecks and above all where there….at the track, the hotel and the long hours going from one race to another. Even as they all aged and those days slipped further into the recesses of memory, something palpable remained….respect. The men who volunteered of themselves to his cause seemed to hold my Dad in a place of esteem. Maybe because of his talent, his commitment, or probably out of the appreciation for having shared the journey several of them have pulled me to the side simply to say some variation of, “your dad was the real deal.”.
I knew that already, but it gave me pride that he transcended beyond our family, and touched the lives of others. It validated this son’s hero worship of his father.
Happy 66th Birthday Dad!
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