This is my sister Maggy on the left, held by my mother Pat Kelly, race car driver, dispenser of honest, sage advice.
Ten years out of the sport has given me a fresh and accurate perspective of everything that is wrong with autocross. It’s not just one or two things, either, but too many to count.
It’s those stupid orange traffic cones, and how they’re arranged, like mostly in your way.
It’s a windy, cloudy Sunday afternoon in Marina, CA (ten miles north of Monterey). I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a bright yellow and purple Mazda Miata, slamming my head with the removable steering wheel. Paula Baker, who’s towed this D Prepared monster the six hours from Carson City, NV, just to let me drive it is trying to make me feel better.
“You look better,” she says, but not confidently.
“I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“It’s totally hard.”
“This course doesn’t really flow.”
No, it doesn’t. It has too many cones in all the wrong places. I watch her wiggle her five-foot frame into this car, built precisely to her own measurements. “This bend in the roll cage was added just for my own elbow,” she explained earlier. She wrestles with a stubborn starter motor and a drained battery before taking off for her fourth and flawless run, three seconds faster than my personal best. Somehow, she makes the car dance, never lifting off the throttle in places where I thought I might collide with a pylon and explode.
I try to look at the bright side. I’m a beginner again. I can only improve. My fastest run of 42.5 was within a second of her first run. Three seconds, why, that’s a blink of an eye. For an alien with the head the size of Jupiter.
Paula and my Mom gather around me.
“It looks like you’re turning too soon,” Paula suggests.
Later, I’ll think about that and conclude it’s not that I’m turning in too soon; I’m driving too slow, which makes it look like I’m turning too soon.
“You just seem really violent and jerky with the gas pedal,” says my Mom. “I’m not really sure what you’re trying to do out there.”
I have always relied on my Mom to speak the truth, in the almost most loving of ways.
“I was watching the Olympics and thinking about you,” she told me earlier, as I was walking to Paula’s Miata parked in the grid. I haven’t hung out with my Mom in a parking lot in so long. I feel a warmth in my heart.
“I was thinking about all that time and effort those athletes put into realizing their dreams.”
“They might be talented, but more than that, they work so hard.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So much time and energy. A million hours.”
“Don’t expect much, is what I’m saying.”
Will there ever be a time when my mother isn’t right?
I don’t know what’s normal to expect. This isn’t like running or swimming where ten years out of practice, of course you can expect a loss of fitness. Is autocross a form of fitness? I’d imagine some rustiness, but shouldn’t it be like riding a bicycle? Wouldn’t it be realistic to think you’d pick up where you left off? Or if not, what is a typical loss of ability, and can it return? Like, in eight days?
I consider bright sides. My Mom and Dad are here. Paula is here. My boyfriend Craig is here. Olly the Dog is here. They’re rooting for me. And in spite of all the new faces, new generations even, of autocrossers, I see so many old friends, some whom I’ve known my entire life. The running gags continue exactly where we left off. I am surrounded by love.
“I’m sorry, did you say you’re going to Nationals?” says Howell. The last time I saw Howell, it was on a running trail near Mt. Tamalpais in Marin (where I live). It was random, never to happen again, but what stands out now is how quickly of us both stopped running upon seeing each other, to hide our shared lack of coordination.
Howell and I became friends at an event in Stockton in 1999 or so. I was spinning out, and I didn’t think he was going to run out of the way. So I gestured with my own hands, in an attempt to communicate the gravity of the situation. He would never let me forget this.
“Really, Katie?” he told me after the incident. “You really thought your car spinning out of control wasn’t enough indication of danger? Really?”
“You’re going to Nationals?!” he says.
“I’m just going for fun,” I say.
He stops choking, and says, “Well, you weren’t that far behind Paula. You’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, just three seconds.”
His laughter is loud and spastic.
It is clear that my role at this year’s nationals in Lincoln will be different. I will not be a contender. I will be nowhere close.
I’m going for the laughs, the runzas, to drive first to warm Paula’s tires, to support this woman who is as significant in the history of autocross as my parents, who has come all this way just to see if I’d fit in the car.
And I’m going to say goodbye. Because grateful as I am for all the memories, the laughs, the friendships, and this amazing opportunity Paula has bestowed before me, I cannot see myself doing this again. I see myself falling back into my boring but good life. Craig and I talk about bringing out Lucy, my own Miata to autocrosses. Then we pay rent. Bills. We count our blessings that we have jobs. Sunday mornings, we go for breakfast and urban hikes instead.
I really want my Mom and Dad to be there at nationals. It’s the 40th Anniversary. They need to be there. I need them there. I don’t like this. But money’s tight, my Mom says. The trip’s so hard on Dad. We don’t ever really talk about why.
So now, I’m standing at the shore of this sea of cones, the wind’s slapping my hair in my face, and I’m watching my Mom squeal her Camaro around the turns. When the results come out, we’ll see that she beat me and my Dad in the PAX, so she obviously has no trouble finding her way. Her once dirty blond hair is now bright, curly gray. My Dad’s in his lawn chair, wearing his helmet waiting his turn, taking pictures, walker parked at his side. I flood out thoughts of the future and take in this moment, my Mom and Dad, the rebels they’ve always been.