Sometimes I think I was born 10 years too late. If I had arrived in 1945, I would have grown up living “American Graffiti” instead of just loving the movie. Poodle skirts, bobby socks, and pedal pushers would have filled my closet and Bill Haley would have blasted from my radio. As a teenager I felt drawn to Elvis (even went to see him in concert) and I often imagined myself dancing on American Bandstand. All I wanted to do was to race into adulthood – fast times and fast cars called to me. During this time, I had my share of bad boys and it was one of those “bad for your heart” guys that first introduced me to the idea of drag racing. It stuck with me and when I created my list of 60 things to do before I turn 60, I was quick to put driving on a race track near the top of the list. I was thrilled to learn that it was possible to drive your own car at a local speedway and scheduled an evening to test my skills.
My companion for the evening, Art, was a car guy who had agreed to use his muscle car instead of risking the transmission on my leased Hyundai. He allowed me to drive the hour to the track to get a feel for his car. I was only interested in being behind the wheel and learning how to accelerate and brake. Art rattled on about the track, the rules, and something about the tires. While he used terms like “reaction time,” “stage area,” and “time slip,” I listened patiently, only wanting to get there and go fast. I nodded my head, asked a few questions, and channeled my inner Danica Patrick.
Arriving at the speedway I immediately began to take in the culture. More men than woman, more leather than denim. There were pick-ups, corvettes, and motorcycles. Young couples, old guys, long hair, and flag bandannas. People knew each other, hoods were up as they chatted over carburetors and spark plugs. The evening air was chilly and the smell of gas was everywhere. The constant drone of racing engines provided the backdrop for the guy reporting race times over the PA system. When he wasn’t shouting results, the music ranged from the Beach Boys to Alan Jackson to Styx. A little something for everyone.
I was excited as we approached the line of cars, eager to take my turn. But that anticipation quickly turned to frustration by the long wait…at least an hour before we could turn the corner onto the track. Really? Two cars could race at the same time, less than 20 seconds per run…what could take so long? It was a bit like being stuck in a traffic jam, not knowing what was causing the delay. I was anxious, eager to get going. I used the time to check out the group of guys gathered around their motorcycles. Greying beards gave away their ages and I imagined them as a group of accountants and attorneys also playing out their fantasies. I could almost see Pinky Tuscadero strutting her stuff among them, stomping out her cigarette with the tip of her stilettos!
Once we got to the front of the line, Art wanted to go first; it was after all, his car. I tried to memorize the details, the light signals that told him to hit the accelerator. Art sat patiently; knowing the exact spot from which to start. When the light turned green, he hit the pedal…hard! A concrete barrier separated us from the car in the other lane, so there was no chance of a collision. I watched the strip of pavement stretched out in front of us, watched as we sped by the grandstand. In just 15.25 seconds we hit 90 MPH and crossed the quarter-mile mark…the end. A brief thrill, slightly less than a roller coaster, more than a toboggan run. Would it feel different when I was behind the wheel? Would it be more of a thrill being the driver rather than the passenger? I would have to spend another hour checking out the businessmen in leather before I would find out.
Finally, it was time. As we turned the corner to take our place on the track, I noticed three young men sitting on the side of the pavement. They seemed surprised to see a woman my age in the driver’s seat but they smiled, waved, and offered an encouraging thumbs-up. I was nervous, worried when I rolled over the starting line and had to back up. Nervous when I looked at the light panel. That’s when it hit me. This wasn’t only about holding on to the steering wheel, it was also about holding on to all the excitement that surrounds me every day. It was about embracing what is in front of me and enjoying what happens on the way to where ever I am going. I gave a thumbs-up in return, and turned my attention to the race. When I got the green light, I gripped the steering wheel tight, pushed that pedal to the floor and took off!
It took me .6 seconds longer to cover that quarter mile than it did Art. But who cares? Not once did I look in the rear view mirror; what is behind me is behind me. I paid no attention to the car in the other lane, because it wasn’t about winning the race. It was about taking notice of what was in front of me….what is in my path! In 15.85 seconds, I freed myself from my own expectations of what I should be doing at this point, freed myself from acting my age. It felt glorious!
The following week when I was enjoying dinner with Art, we reviewed the night at the speedway. I shared that I wanted to go back, but this time on his motorcycle! He smiled and held my hand as he congratulated me on a successful race. We did a couple of shots of hard whiskey to toast knocking drag racing off my list, and made plans for fly-fishing, hot air balloons, and shooting bows and arrows!
Maybe I was born in the wrong decade. Maybe not. But as I approach my own 60’s, it is about living the life I have and not looking back at what I don’t. Pedal pushers are now capris, saddle shoes are now Keds. I often dance the twist in my living room and I have tickets to see the Turtles this summer. So much waiting for me….and I don’t need to get there fast.
Susan Emmerich is the author of A Girl on a Bike, available through Second Wind Publishing and amazon.com. Sometimes serious, other times humorous, this collection of essays on life transitions invites the reader to ride along on a journey that includes adjusting to an empty nest, aging parents, divorce, and again seeking love. The author resides in Cleveland OH where she continues to discover miles of new bike trails.