Friday, May 25, 2012

We're Off to the Races

By Sheilah
Just spent two days at the Hare Scramble dirt bike races, and got to see what I’d been missing. Prior to this, I’d always driven down the morning of the race. I tried to blend into the background and not be obtrusive, not cramp the boys’ camping style. I wanted to see what it is they do for a day before races. We packed up and were off to the races at 10 a.m. Saturday, arrived at noon dragging the Rattler Toy Hauler and a head wind at 12 mpg into South Carolina. Once you cross the S.C. state line, all bets are off. Anything can happen in our southern sister state.
Exiting the interstate it immediately felt deserted, abandoned, left for dead. You wondered why an exit existed there, but then it became clear: This here’s Flannery O’Connor storyville. I kept my eyes peeled, kind of like how Dylan says he feels racing—you never know what’s around the next bend. You hope the trail’s clear, that a tree doesn’t jump out in front of you, or a bear, or a lone rider lying there with his leg bent in an unnatural pose. You only pray you won’t have to break hard and somersault over a log, that someone won’t sideswipe you forcing a face plant.
We had arrived. Clearly, the race began by racing to the campground. At noon on Saturday for a race at 10 on Sunday—only 22 hours to go. (I kept such thoughts to myself—but now, please take them.) Ostensibly we get there first to get the pick of the campsite litter. Now, this is primitive camping, no facilities, which is why we were hauling our own expensive ones. Driving into the cleared-out space, it was clear there was nothing to pick from, even though we were the third ones there. Do we get a medal for third place, I wondered. There was nary a tree in sight, only mulch, flat acres, a rock hill. We parked in front of our friends, No. 2 there. The kids set off immediately to check out the woods, returning later knee high in mud. I have no idea how I spent those hours—except I realized good camping chairs are all important. I watched kids run in and out of the camper for our 24 pack of water, depleted in a day’s time. Doled out popsicles and zero advice.
I looked at the desert-like hill. Asked a few times why is it again we come so early. Oh, right, this is me blending into the dusty background. Then, finally, it was time to walk the track—the real reason we come the day before. You have to scope out your competition—which in this case is the earth. First off, our cadre of racers and their Dads say no, you don’t need to walk the track with us. It’ll be hard. It’s hot. You don’t have the shoes for it. (Like I’m a girl or something.) My back’s already strained from the cheap camp chair. Oh, yes, yes I do need a walk, boys. I need to see some trees. I promise to look away when you go all natural in nature.
The 4- or 8- or 12-mile trek through the woods was beautiful with a capital B. I got to experience in the leafy flesh where Dylan will ride, the rough terrain, the easy, the long, long laps of time that will pass oh-so-slowly as he races and I stand on that hillside waiting for a brief glimpse of him before he’s lost to the woods again. Walking it took over an hour. Creek crossings, bridges, hairpin turns, rocky hill climbs, moguls, dry ruts—the geography of the world under his wheels. He will eat it up. They quiz each other on how to handle certain aspects, and wonder if all the signs will be up by race time—there are different routes for younger kids and older ones.
I felt refreshed instead of tired after the long walk. The kids ran off to play again, we cooked, and hung out till 9 in the night as the boys threw firecrackers to the sky and played hide and seek with tomorrow’s competition.
A shower and to bed at 10, after 10 hours of nonstop activity. That’s the part I don’t get—how can you have a good race the next morning when you ran yourself to the edge of sleep the day before? He fell right to sleep as did we soon after. Of course the sound of the generator is annoying, but I imagine it fueled his racing dreams.
We awoke at 6:30 to bikes revving, made bacon and eggs and got his gear on. We watched the PeeWees start at 8 then back to warm up the bike and ready. In line at 10, which is always hurry up and wait. Dylan’s race includes about 50 kids of varying ages and class of bike. His line is the 9-10 year olds with 65 cc bikes, about 15-20 of them. About 6 or so rows of older kids on bigger bikes take off one row at a time with 30-second intervals between. His row is followed by a few more rows. He is competing with his row of racers only, but all 50 plus are on the same path, which scares me.
Buddy and I stood on the hilltop to see how they made it down the big rocky hill at the race start. Dylan avoids hitting it on the hole shot on purpose—he doesn’t want to be in the inevitable pile-up, an interesting strategy I must say. His buddy always wins the hole shot, and the race. He negotiated the rocky hill well and went on to pass some kids right away. Then he was gone into those deep woods by himself for 12 minutes. That’s the hard part.
We made it over to the best vantage point near the scoring tent to see him emerge from the woods looking good up the hill through the mud bog into the tent for a split-second stop where they scan his helmet. The display reads that he’s in 6th place and he’s off again. 12 more minutes pass. Repeat, still in 6th. 12 more minutes pass. Repeat, still in 6th. 12 more minutes, white flag. Then checkered. The race is an hour long—which is 10 hours in mommy time. He’s covered in mud helmet to boot, and his new GoPro camera is still attached to his helmet, mud all over his face, even with goggles and helmet covering him.
“Only one crash,” he proudly exclaims. A dirt-eating grin. Happy. Happy with 6th place. It means he’ll be on the podium, get a plaque, almost like a win. His best friend took first again, and all is right in their worlds. The Monster drink sponsor passes out free drinks, hot dogs for everyone. A sore shoulder. A shower. Time to play again.
Now with the GoPro video recorder, we get to play back the race right away on the TV in the camper and see what really happened. We got to see how he negotiated every obstacle, hear the gear he was in, see the pack of older racers zoom by and then the video go upside down, along with my little boy’s body. Got to see the Dad in the woods appear, asking “Are you all right little buddy?” No answer, then Dylan sped off again. For two laps I saw the same racer in blue lying on the side waiting for help; one of the teen girls who races said it looked like his leg was bent the wrong way. I got to see lots of riders stuck at times, saw Dylan go around them, never letting up, never getting lost. I’m grateful to the Dads and the sweepers and the track officials who hang out in the woods to help. I’m scared to death for the racer who had to lay there until someone came for him. Now I know what can happen, and what can’t.
Between walking the track myself and watching it recorded, I feel both confident and unsettled. Anything can happen. My little 65-cc Suzuki racer No.929 is pretty sure of himself and his secret strategy, and is happy enough with 6th place. I’m happy, too.  I’m also happy he scored 99 on his writing EOG last week. I told him we should hit Wrightsville Beach for Memorial Day and he said, “No way. While we’ll be relaxing, the other kids will be practicing. I need to practice, Mommy.” Oh, we’re off to the races again in two weeks. I hope the video stays steady this time, and plays back only the good parts.
Courage is fear that’s said its prayers I tell him. What the heck does that mean? he asks. You know, I say. You know. You’ve got it in your bones. And so do I.

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