Monday, March 28, 2016

The Weekend That Changed it All

In the midst of this thick tempest I've been enduring I almost forgot that I had a blog post I wanted to run on this day. Actually, I've had this day on my mind going all the way back to the changing of the year almost four months ago because this weekend was one of a major milestone as the person I am today and the ability to present began a decade ago this weekend at a small track outside Quincy, Illinois.

2006 wasn't exactly a year where I was flying around doing things. Actually, I hadn't had a job in over three years outside of the 10 local kart events I worked and sure, I was in the midst of writing Finding Kansas but that was just potential energy that would turn into kinetic, but for the most part I was idle. Then, after the race director of the Saint Louis Karting Association stepped down I was put on the ballot to become race director. Sure, I had 11 seasons under my belt as flagging but in terms of making the final calls on anything I had no say and yet here I was, 23 years of age, being thrust into the possibility of that position. Before the election, though, a new regional series was formed and I was asked if I wanted to be the race director and flagman. I said yes having no idea if I had the skill or even the ability to fake being a race director because I'd have to give the driver's meeting and I hadn't spoken in front of a crowd since... since... a 7th grade book report!

It was early on March 25th, 2006, that I drove to the series promoter's house, Greg whom I've written about several times, where he and Gary, to who I dedicated a post to last year when he passed away from cancer, were waiting to make the two hour drive north to the track. Getting to the house I was nervous and unsure of myself because I knew Gary from the track and I knew nothing about Greg. New situations are difficult for me and they're amplified when I'm going to be in charge when I've had no experience in such things. I was fearing the worst the entire drive up and I think Greg and Gary sensed this as they tried to put my qualms at ease.

My tradition at the time was to always have a Red Bull on any day that I was flagging so as we neared Hannibal I came up with a reason why we needed to stop at a gas station. Thankfully, Greg needed gas as the gas light would come on at the same time. The Red Bull may have added fuel to my anxiety by giving me a sugar overload but there was familiarity as for the past five years that drink was only saved for race day and I may now be in charge but nonetheless it was race day.

Trial by fire is an interesting thing to go through and that first day was trying. To begin I had to give the driver's meeting where I had to convey confidence and make in no uncertain terms that I was in charge, I knew what I was doing, and that the driver's best not misbehave on the racetrack. Did I deliver in the delivery? Well, um, to put it simply no no NO! Had I broken out in random song midsentence during this meeting it would've gone better as there were more "uhs" and "ums" then there were words. There's been times in my life I've been nervous but this was something I was just not prepared for. I had rehearsed in my head what I would say, I even made notes, but the delivery was stumbled upon. It was awful but what I had going for me was I was the race director, after all, and no one wants to be on the bad side of the RD so nary a word was spoken and practice began. My confidence was shaken but once practice started I made up for the lack of public speaking skills by showing off my flagging skills.

As lunch approached I had a new problem. I had to announce that there would be a 30 minute lunch break but how would I do this? The track had a microphone and a PA system but I dared not use that as I'd hear the sound of my own voice! This was downright dreadful and there was no way I'd allow everyone to hear my voice. Yes, things certainly do change but on that crisp day just the other side of river from Quincy I was petrified of using such a device to amplify my voice so I always came up with an excuse to have someone else make the announcements.

After lunch it was time to qualify and the trial by fire was about to go to Mach 5. There's been two instances in my life at a track where I have said, "yeah, qualifying" the first time I said practice, "is rather boring and nothing ever happens." If you're a rookie working at a track never utter those words because something will always happen and the two times I've done so it turned into a major incident and on this Saturday as I just finished that a kid kart, which is a kart for the youngest of racers 5-7 using a small 50cc engine, biked over. What I mean by biking over is this; the kart was going around the sweeping infield right hander and it quite literally flipped over all by itself by having the right side tires lift off the ground and the momentum carried it all the way over. The driver stayed within a kart and unlike the karts you may envision at an indoor track or at a mini golf course there are no seat belts or roll cages so flipping over isn't good.

The session was brought to an immediate halt and I made my way to the scene of the track where the crash had happened which was my first time going to a scene. Being the flagman as I had been I never got close to an incident scene, but now I had to assess the situation. We had an EMT that day and the kid was complaining of neck pain so the EMT ordered up a call of 911 and an ambulance fearing severe neck injuries. I'd seen this dozens of times but it just so happened on this day that the county I was in and the ambulance services of Quincy, Illinois weren't playing nice in the sandbox. Typically, Quincy would respond to the kart track in Missouri to transport to the hospital in Illinois just across the river but on this day Quincy was already responding to something and told the county of Missouri to deal with it whilst the county in Missouri were busy with a call themselves and didn't convey that Quincy so at the track we waited, and waited, and waited.

After an hour, yes I said an hour, I was being asked all sorts of questions about, "why wasn't there an ambulance on site?" to which I didn't have an answer. One was scheduled for race day but even if you rent an ambulance they often aren't allowed to actually transport so we'd have been in the same position regardless. The poor kid that crashed was about the most annoyed of everyone as he was being told not to move and the pain wasn't as bad as it was after he flipped but at a race track if you so mention "neck" and "pain" it's a one-way ticket to the hospital.

As I waited I was sure I would be one and done as race director. This wasn't my fault but I was the face of the officiating side of the series and I was supposed to be this authoritative figure that feared nothing but how could this be when I couldn't even look the drivers in the eye?

The ambulance, 90 minutes after the crash, mercifully showed up and the kid was transported and all was fine, and I believe he raced the next day, but my confidence was shaken and I made it a point to speed the rest of the program as fast as I could so I could get off the property as fast as I could because I was sure I was done.

Greg, Gary, and their buddies went out to eat but I remained at the hotel and I ordered a pizza. I wasn't in the mood to socialize which at that point in my life I wouldn't have been even if the day had gone perfect, and I awaited the disaster that I was sure to come the following day.

As turbulent as Saturday had been Sunday was the opposite. My driver's meeting wasn't a cataclysmic disaster. Was it good? Not at all, but a small bit of confidence was starting to bloom, albeit just a little, and the race day went off without a single red flag or any situation that required me to impose a penalty. It was exactly what a rookie needed to boost their confidence and when the final checkered flag flew I actually felt as if I knew what I was doing which of course I did, I just didn't know that I was capable of being in such a positon.

On the drive back to Saint Louis Greg asked me if I'd write the race report for ekartingnews as he knew I was in the midst of writing a book and I agreed to do so and found that writing a recap came naturally and in a way that writing style was the style I still use to this day when I blog about a sequence of events and the racers gave the report a rave review so the fears I had the previous day were put somewhat to rest.

What made that weekend so important? I can assure you I WOULD NOT BE presenting today to the audiences I do if not for the experience I had race directing. The season of 2006 turned into 2007 turned into 2008 and my confidence kept increasing. My fear of using a microphone would vanish as proven by this picture from 2008 in Delmar, Iowa. I traveled all over the Midwest and with each race I felt more at ease not just with myself but I was also having more conversations with Greg and the competitors and with the race reports my confidence in writing increased.

Now what would've happened had I not been prepared for that first race? My story would've been much different. Remember that I had been flagging for 11 years so I knew the rules and I knew what was expected. Was I great to begin with? No and I'll gladly admit that, but by 2009 I could handle any on track situation because I had established the alias of race director and when I was at the track I ran it like a captain runs a ship. To the racers that I told that I had Asperger's they often wouldn't believe me unless they saw me after the event when I would shut off the world. Of course, that observation and all the observations on my blog posts for the past six years and the 730 presentations I have given never would've taken place had the series not taken a chance on a 23 year old rookie. I assure you the entire sequence of my life would be different for the worse if not for the events that took place decade ago.

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