The actions of Joey Logano’s father at California have been well documented by now, and the comparisons to soccer and little league parents have been aired. As some other writers have noted, I understand as a parent, but there comes a time when you have to let the kid stand on his own, and I think Joey’s going to do OK in that department.
The reason for mentioning it in this space is that I’ve had a little experience with racing fathers myself. I’m going to slip into drag racing for this column, but I think the situation applies to virtually all types of competition.
When NHRA started the Jr. Dragster program in 1992, it was naturally heralded as an idea whose time had come. Prior to that, if a youngster wanted to go oval racing, his or her parents bought a quarter-midget. If he or she wanted to go road racing, they bought a go-kart. If the kid wanted to go drag racing, we told him to come back when he was 16.
The program began, as all such programs do, with great intentions. They all had specific chassis regulations and five-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engines. It wasn’t long before the parents/crew chiefs were tinkering with the engines, of course, and the cars got faster and the racing more sophisticated.
Before going any further, let me say that NHRA has done a good job of trying to police this, but they’re up against the same philosophy that prevails everywhere in every form of racing – racers are their own worst enemy and they’ll spend every dollar they can beg or borrow to go faster.
In overseeing the program for a few years at what is now O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, I watched as things progressed. We had some really good youngsters, many of whom have moved up in drag racing as adults. The most notable is JR Todd, NHRA’s first African-American winner in Top Fuel at a national event. One of my personal favorites is Greg Dillman of Greenwood, our first champ in 1992 who has gone on to more IRP championships and is one of the more respected racers in the North Central Division. I even had the pleasure of meeting AJ Foyt IV as a member of the Houston team at his first Jr. Dragster Nationals (and telling his grandfather he had to get a credential like everybody else).
My most memorable experience came one weekend when a kid was coming out for the first time. There was a minimum age, of course, and when his parents brought him out on Saturday, he was one day short. Sometimes our two-day events ran a little late – we tried to have everything shut down by midnight; however, I promised this boy that if we ran close to midnight, I’d sign his application and make sure he got to make his first licensing run at 12:01 a.m. on his birthday.
We did and he did.
The next day, after completing his license requirements and going through time trials, he lined up his box-stock Jr. Dragster against a high-dollar car in the first round of eliminations. He had trouble staging, just as had happened in his earlier runs. The boy was just learning.
As it turned out, he won the round because the other kid ran under his declared “dial-in” time. I’m not going to try to explain bracket racing to oval people here, but let’s just say that’s a no-no.
I was at the finish line to congratulate the kid, and so was the other kid’s father. He went ballistic, shouting at the youngster before I could get there. When I did, I pulled him away and asked him if he’d like to yell at somebody closer to his own size (I will admit there have been some situations in my race officiating career when I haven’t always been as calm with the competitors as I should have been).
He told me that the newbie had “…tried to burn my boy down.”
Now, for you oval folks, a “burn down” is a drag racing maneuver in which you delay staging while trying to overheat the other car’s powerplant. There have been some classic “burn down” duels, most notably in the Pro Stock ranks, in which neither driver wanted to be the first to stage.
I couldn’t believe this guy’s attitude, and I pointed out that his son’s opponent was participating in his first-ever drag race, and, at nine years old, probably didn’t have a good idea what a “burn down” was, much less how to pull one off. He was just trying to stage his car properly. To which, our irate father shouted, “I’ve got $5,000 in that engine!”
I could think of only one reply…“That’s your fault.”
If I recall correctly, he boycotted our place for a week or two after that, but I don’t think we missed him a lot.