All my dad needed was a glimpse of a tail light.
He could tell you the make, model and year, just from that. Just from a red glow, a glance of it. That’s when cars had cool names, like De Soto and Falcon and GTO. Not Prius and Altima and Cruze. Those aren’t even words, let alone cars.
Dad and I picked out a 1962 Buick Skylark for my first real car.
Maddie was white with red interior. Full-bodied, four-door, hardtop sedan. Sleek lines. We installed glass-pack mufflers with dual exhaust and low-profile tires with sweet chrome rims. She shined brighter than Grace Kelly, Debbie Boone and Brooke Shields.
Saturdays are THE days when you’re a teenager with a cool car and a cool dad.
Saturdays mean waxing a car, unless it’s making a funny noise. Then we’ll have to lift the hood and get to the bottom of it. Might take a trip to AutoZone and reference an engine data book or maybe order a refurbished water pump we’ll install together.
It means cooking out and shining up and, every September, it meant a trip to the Auto Fair at Charlotte Motor Speedway for dad and me.
Lessons not learned
When dad died 17 years ago, I had lots of unanswered questions. They revolved around grilling and football, fatherhood and manhood. I needed to know how to lead a family and what to do when I couldn’t do anything right.
I needed to know how in the hemi to change the oil in a new car when the engine was wedged sideways under the hood.
Every late summer, when baseball wound down and thoughts in Carolina turned to barbecue and football, the billboards emerged. They’re identifiable, with a classic car in profile and that Auto Fair logo, with the late-September dates.
So many factors kept me, a dad now, from taking my kids to the show my dad took me to – not the least of which were soccer schedules and constricting lack of disposable income.
Yet here we were, Madison and me, on a Friday morning, walking the track early with relentless heat pushing through the day already. As with so many things, the fair felt smaller, less grandiose, than when my father brought me here.
I didn’t have that innate knowledge, that shared time under a car hood with my kids that my dad had with me.
I had stories as a sports writer at this track, learning race terminology and changing Dale Jarrett’s racing cap during a TV interview, at his publicist’s request. I told my girls of a racer named Dennis Setzer, a Hickory guy, who wrecked early in a race I covered here.
My race trash
I worked for the Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record then.
I watched his crew toss a quarter panel torn off in the wreck into a Rubbermaid trash can, not far from where my pickup was parked in the infield, during the Coca-cola 600 once. I lifted the race trash out of the bin and tossed in the bed of my truck.
That race junk stuck by my desk in the office at Hickory.
I also had a developing story, watching my oldest gawk at muscle cars. We walked silently through the garage area’s display of souped-up Cobras. I know nothing about souped-up Cobras, so we mainly talked about their stripes and paint jobs.
I watched Madison take pictures and also video when we entered the Jeep Mountain Course, where we’d ride along in rugged 4×4 vehicles loaded with such incredible technology for climbing and descending on off-road adventures.
I remembered the old turquoise Ford pickup my father taught me to drive in, the one with the huge stick shift that I had to drive to Greeley West High, praying to Jesus I wouldn’t strip the gears on the way.
I saw this day and the next, with Camdyn at my side, that my girls were coming into this place with a similar wonderment I did as a teenager.
The speedway is a culture unto itself. Camdyn had no words at the sight of of men in unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts, others in neon green Crocs and matching Chevy T-shirts. I saw race gear of drivers I’d never heard of, and a hat I’m sure had been worn since ‘77.
We gravitated toward enticing food smells and the chaos of pig races.
Right there, in the track. Madison was picked as rep for one race, and her hog won. This, the same kid who got to chase chickens as a preschooler at a dinner theater in Myrtle Beach, and who met Jeff Gordon at Ricky Hendrick’s motorcycle shop in Pineville.
You won the championship on my birthday Madison told the champ, who smiled and said, Did I? That’s cool. Matter of fact, that kid. Madison, not Jeff.
That kid was a grown up now, riding with me in a Dodge Ram chock full of the same automotive wizardry that would have amazed my dad. Her phone was rolling as we took on the obstacle course, and I wondered if she realized how really cool this was.
All-terrain vehicles, beautiful as luxury cars, with engineering so sharp I could have sipped a rum and Coke (Zero) in the backseat and not spilled a precious drop.
A drive system so advanced it could climb a 30-degree hill with no driver interference, adjusting throttle and brakes to scale then descend the treacherous decline. Camdyn, too, was rolling on her smartphone when these beautiful beasts did their thing.
The engine roared
The weekend came full circle, and only Hayden missed out on a trip to the Auto Fair.
She didn’t seem to mind, but I’d love to take her next year. We left with plenty of swag, and I got to start a brute muscle car whose engine roared like a thousand lions. The noise was beautifully terrible and brought me back to days in that revved-up Buick.
I couldn’t sneak back home late at night because the entire neighborhood could hear Maddie coming a mile away.
My girls made fantastical wish lists of the Jeeps they wanted, the same way I fantasized about Pontiac Fieros and Buick Reattas and cried in a bathroom with a girl named Ashley after she blew the engine on her powder-blue ‘67 Mustang.
We marveled at muscle cars and pondered the idea of autonomous vehicles, so probable after seeing what these Jeeps could do. The girls learned how donuts get on a speedway retaining wall and a little about brothers named Waltrip and Bodine.
And the girls caught a glimpse into a space I walked with my dad as a teenager, and later where I worked as a reporter with a notebook, ear plugs and a thousand questions.
And it all makes me wish my girls could have spent a Saturday waxing and fixing and grilling and listening to super gold oldies with my dad. Today, though, I’ll settle for walking the same banked turns at an old speedway with them that I once did with him.