Last week I wrote about what we can do to attract younger drivers to our sport, and around the time we sent it out, I began thinking about how many Speed Secrets Weekly readers have kids they're either helping to get involved in track driving, or wished they could. Ingrid Steffensen has just been through this, as she shares below. And she has good advice for you parents. -- Ross
Well, folks, we have achieved lift-off! We have crossed the parental finish line: our one and only child has turned eighteen, graduated from high school, and is headed to the college of her choice. Aside from writing a decent Ferrari’s-worth of tuition checks, we are done with parenting. Yeah, I know, you’re never really done parenting. Just let me wallow a little, please.
Ever since I wrote Fast Girl, readers have been asking me: “So, will you let your daughter drive at the racetrack?”
And I have always replied, “Absolutely. It would be pretty hypocritical of me not to. We’re not going to force it on her, but we’re going to make the offer.”
Over the years, her dad and I have gradually acquainted our beloved offspring with the racetrack milieu. We first took her along when she was thirteen, when my husband said to her, “You’re welcome to just sit in the trailer and read, but if you want to get involved, I’ll teach you what to do.”
That was how our daughter became the only teenaged girl (or boy, for that matter) we know who can operate an impact wrench, change a set of wheels, torque lug nuts in a proper star-shaped pattern, measure and maintain performance tire pressure, and call a race. Over time, she racked up some go-karting sessions and eventually she got her learner’s permit, learned how to drive my stick-shift Mini, and got her full-fledged driver’s license. She has always been a responsible and conscientious person, and she also turned out to be a pretty decent instinctive driver, and so it was without hesitation that we offered, “Would you like to drive at the racetrack after you turn eighteen?”
She vacillated at first. “I don’t know, it’s not like a go-kart, where if you hit something, it’s no big deal. What if something happens to the Mini? It’s so big and expensive.” (Which may be the first time such a statement has been made about a Mini.)
We reassured her that her instructor would do his best to keep her safe, and that we trusted her good judgment, intelligence, and skills. In the unlikely event that some kind of incident would occur, we could take care of it. And we offered gentle encouragement: “We think you’d like it.”
Eventually, she decided to take us up on it. On a personal level, I was thrilled. I can’t tell you how excited I was to help register her online, prep the Mini for its re-acquaintance with the racetrack, and make the hotel arrangements. As a perk of having an excellent relationship with the chief instructor, I was able to hand-pick her instructor for her: a kind and intelligent father of four whose 18-year-old daughter I had instructed for her maiden voyage a few years earlier. Turnabout is fair play, right?
Three days after her eighteenth birthday, we were at the track. I’m super-proud to say she handled it with great aplomb. Unlike yours truly, who showed up for her first outing at the racetrack utterly unprepared and a vibrating bundle of nerves, she was by now so steeped in the ways of the gearhead that little of the experience was unfamiliar to her. She had called this particular track for her dad so many times she already knew about 75% of the course by heart. The classroom material was also nothing new: as the daughter of two instructors, she had absorbed a fair amount of the basics via osmosis. She already knew most of the flags, the whys and wherefores of point-bys, and the basic geometry of the line.
We handed her a helmet, helped her apply her race numbers, and turned her over to her instructor.
The two days proceeded without a hitch. Never have we, her parents, watched a race with the same level of excitement and absorption as we did the novice run group at this particular event. She had no idea how many instructors were observing and analyzing her driving—enough of them know both her and us that she’s something of a club pet. There were a fair number of fatherly votes of approval:
“She’s definitely picking up speed.”
It was enormously gratifying to see the progress she made from start to finish, when she came thisclose to overtaking a Corvette, and in the aftermath she now proudly reports, “I got up to 120 miles per hour on the front straight!”
An interesting sidebar: at this particular event, there were three instructors’ kids driving the circuit for the very first time. All of them were girls. Statistically significant? Likely not, but an encouraging sign for those of us who would like to see more women involved in the sport, and a happy thing for anyone who supports girl power generally. I can report that with just one event under her belt, our daughter has increased her awareness and appreciation for the act of driving, and her confidence not just in her driving skills but in her overall sense of herself as a brave, confident, and competent young person.
Will she do it again? She relates to others, when asked, that “It was a lot of fun,” and “I’ll do it again, as long as they”—meaning the parental units, of course—“continue to sponsor me.” Fair enough: she has no money of her own. All in all, an unqualified success, both in terms of driving, and in terms of parenting.
So how about your kid? Just because you love this crazy thing, you can’t necessarily expect your Mini Me to feel the same. Make the offer: start by inviting him or her to come along and observe, especially if she’s never done so—and start early, at thirteen or fourteen, if this is a goal of yours. Familiarity with the milieu goes a long way toward making this resemble a reasonable thing to do. And just as it was with introducing your toddler to new food, you cannot push too hard. Put the avocado in front of him, in all its weird green glory, and then back away. It’s going to have to be his decision.
What if, instead, your kid is absolutely champing at the bit to get a hold of your car keys, and drive like the devil incarnate in a stolen Lamborghini? Exercise parental caution here: do you trust your child’s maturity level? You’re about to hand over the keys to your most precious possession—I’m not talking about the car here—and many teenagers and twenty-somethings believe themselves to be immortal. That said, if you trust your child to drive on the street, you can probably trust him on the track, and trust that the instructor will keep a firm clamp on that enthusiasm. A brief warning to the instructor about your Vin Diesel wannabe might be in order—but my experience thus far is that most young people tend the other way, and need a lot of encouragement.
Preparing together for a first racetrack outing can be a great life lesson—make sure your kid has a stake in the process, from signing up online (a month or more ahead), to getting the car inspected (a week or more ahead), to shopping and packing for the outing (a day or so ahead). Drivers tend to be highly organized and disciplined people, and these skills are valuable no matter what kind of life your child ultimately pursues. Comfort with the flags, a primer on the etiquette of the point-by, passing familiarity with some of the jargon—all will go far towards making the experience go more smoothly. But by the same token, be wary of overstuffing the brain. Most instructors know that the novice driver can only handle so much before going into overload.
On that note, you may not have an inside line on the chief instructor. But I would not hesitate to reach out well beforehand with a heads-up: “My son/daughter is 18/19/20 years old and is driving for the first time. S/he responds well to a lot of enthusiasm/a low-key demeanor/a firm hand.” This kind of insight is likely to be welcomed by the chief when making the instructor assignments.
And if all of this goes according to plan, and you and your beloved offspring have made it to the racetrack together? A few parting pieces of advice:
Be supportive, be encouraging, but let them make their own decisions.
Waggle the pom-poms with abandon but offer advice only when asked for it, and even then keep it sparing.