In my book Finding Kansas there is a chapter about my first race. While that race was certainly memorable it is nothing compared to the race that is the most.
It was 1997 and I was in my third season of racing karts. This was a rebound season for me as I had a crash at the start of the 96 season and had spent the rest of the year timid behind the wheel which led to getting involved in crash after crash.
While the series was the Saint Louis Karting Association we were actually in West Quincy, Missouri due to the fact that our track, which I blogged about in 2011, was under water. This was fine by me as the TNT Kartway was a blast to drive with a banked final corner leading onto a nice straight.
This story picks up right before the main race. I was 14 years old at the time and also flagging all the classes I didn't race in. As the races before mine were ran I was getting nervous as I thought I had a legitimate chance at the race win, but my starting position didn't show it. In the first heat race I won, which was my first heat race win, but the 2nd heat race saw me getting taken out so I would be starting 7th of about 15.
It was time. I zipped up my racing suit, crossed the track, and got into my kart and waited. This is one thing I don't miss about racing; this time before a race when one has to try and tune everything out. The world around is moving, there's smell of cooking food in the air, but inside the helmet there's a world of complete isolation. As my dad started the engine he gave me his customary, "use your head" gesture.
We rolled out of the grid and onto the track in anticipation of 15 laps of racing. As I said, I loved this track but going from 7th to the front was going to be difficult but at least I would be starting on the inside.
The field came off of the final corner (it's the one in the bottom right of the photo and we ran counter clockwise) and a slow pace waiting... waiting... waiting... then there it was, GREEN! and we were racing into turn one.
Starts had intimidated me as it was on the first lap of a race the previous year I had my crash at the old Gateway race track, but I had to put that aside as I knew I could get to the front. 15 laps may sound like a lot, but it isn't when lap times are around 30 seconds. With that so I had to move up quickly to not allow the leaders to pull away.
I didn't get the start I wanted as the outside line got the jump. I wanted to blame the flagman, but it was a substitute so I couldn't be all that upset. Besides, driving angry is a one way ticket to a bad race.
At the end of lap one I was in 8th with 7th right in front of me. You wouldn't think it, but there's drafting in karting, and a lot of it! Headed into turn one I had an unexpected run and as he turned into the corner I aimed out and held my breath as I was attempting an outside pass on a flat out corner. "Aaron, what are you doing?" I thought to myself. What the picture of the track doesn't show is the knee-high curb (okay, it isn't that high) that is in the kink that is turn two. That meant if I didn't complete this pass the driver in front of me wouldn't know I was there and I'd run out of room and I'd probably get launched over that curb. That didn't happen though as I stayed on the gas and somehow pulled off the impossible and was now in 7th with 14 to go.
6th place was right in front of me as we headed into the final corner and once again I got a run down the straight and once again I went to the outside in turn one and once again I pulled off what I thought to be impossible. As fun as those passes were they were certainly scary moments, but I was on a mission and running the best race I had ever ran and it was only two of fifteen laps in.
My passes on 5th, and 4th were more conventional as I passed on the inside in braking zones and now I set my eyes on third as the race was now half over. I was losing heart, though, as first and second were long gone as it took me several laps to get around 5th and 4th.
With five to go I went for my move in turn one once again, on the outside, and made it work, but I had settled down and relegated myself to knowing that making up about five seconds in five laps was impossible. I may have been the fastest kart on track, but in the sport of karting a tenth of a second can be an eternity so five seconds was a margin that could not be overcome.
Of course, in the sport of racing anything can happen and it usually does. The leader and second place had been swapping the lead and in the north turn they made contact and both drivers spun way off the track. I saw the dust as I came out of turn one and as I got to turn three I counted two karts. It may have been by default, but now I was the race leader with less than five laps to go. Coming off the final corner on the same lap I glanced behind me and I had about a half second lead; all I had to do was to hit my marks, not push it, and I was on my way to my first win.
Across the line there were four laps to go, then three, then two and each lap passed as if a decade had passed. Time was crawling and I started hearing every bump, rattle, and I was sure something was going to go wrong. "Just keep it going, no mistakes!" I yelled as I headed to the final corner. The two karts which had been leading were back in the race but they were a good five seconds behind and I now had about a full second lead over second place.
Around the final corner and I could see the white flag in the air. This was it, the final lap; I was just 30 seconds from achieving a dream I had had since I was three and that was winning a race. I wasn't breathing as I went into turn one and my entire body was tense, but I hit my marks and I headed to turn two then the tricky turn three.
Headed into turn three I lifted off the gas in the same spot I had done but then a flash of something caught my eye flying over my head. I didn't know what it was and I tapped the brakes and turned into the corner. There was something odd though; silence. I stepped back on the gas but there was nothing and I was slowing down. "No! No! No!" I yelled. To my left flashed the second place kart whom I sure could not believe what fate had given him and at the same time I couldn't believe what cruel blow fate had dealt me.
I pulled off the track and I just sat there. I was just 20 seconds away from a win, and now I was seated in my kart, in the weeds. I would get up out of the kart just as the race winner went passed me with his one of his arms raised in celebration as this was his first win in what should have been my first win. About a minute later the retrieval vehicle came and the kart was loaded up and I then saw a huge hole in the engine which was the demise of my race.
Instead of riding back with the kart I walked towards the finish line as I still had to flag the remaining races. I took my time walking back as I wanted my eyes to dry first and I had to have composure to be able to do my job rightly.
When I got to the finish line I took the headset from the sub and stood in a very dejected manner. The track owner, who was also announcing on this day, came on the radio and said, "Aaron, I know you are probably dejected beyond belief right now. But look at it like this; anyone can win, but it isn't how you win that matters but rather it's how you take defeat. Especially defeat when so close to victory so keep your head high and move on."
What made this the most memorable race? The final race of the next season I would pick up a race win in a race that saw even more daring passing on my part so why isn't my first win the most memorable? It was the track owner's talk over the radio as I just had experienced the most ultimate gut punch fate could deal me in that race. It wasn't so much going out while leading at lap four, this was going out when I was so close that it was all but a guarantee. However in racing, and life, there are no guarantees and I think back often to that race as I recall the moves on the outside, the liberating feeling of being the first to see the white flag, and that big shiny piece of metal which was my engine blowing up. Yes, I think back to this often as anyone can win, but it's how one deals with adversity and challenges that shows a persons strength. A few minutes after his pep talk I was starting the next race with the same passion as I had on all the races prior and yeah, I truly wished I would have won, but isn't this what shapes who we are? And wow! that day certainly was a precursor to the events that follow in my life.