Athletes spend much of their lives trying to master a sport, dreaming of being the best they can be, never being satisfied when they don’t win the day. Racecar drivers are no different. They strive and labor relentlessly while attempting to master their sport. For a lucky few, there sometimes comes a day when they are bested by another competitor — except this time it’s one that makes them smile.
What circumstances would lead anyone to be happy to see his lap time bested, to be beaten by a better or more skilled driver, you ask? The answer is simple. It happens when a father sees that his own son has arrived on the racetrack. It’s these precious moments that bring a lump to his throat. At first it’s because he’s beaming with pride and excitement, but then there comes a time he begins to consider hanging up his own helmet because he realizes the torch has been handed off.
This is one of the many reasons I have loved my involvement with NASA. I have seen countless such examples of fathers who have sat in the driver’s seat for years until they find themselves wearing the headset while giving their sons a fist bump as they get ready to pull onto the track. It truly is a special feeling.
Other sports examples that come to mind are NFL football greats like Archie Manning, whose sons Peyton and Eli followed in his footsteps and achieved greater success. There is my best friend Nate Singleton, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, whose son Brandon is besting his father’s records. There are famous major league baseball stars like Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey Jr. and so on, but I can’t think of any sport that has as many fathers passing the torch to their sons than auto racing.
Names that resonate like Dale Earnhardt to Dale Earnhardt Jr., friends like Wally Dallenbach to Wally Dallenbach Jr. to Paul Dallenbach, Lee Petty to Richard and Kyle Petty, Al Unser and Al Unser Jr., and my childhood idol and friend Hershel McGriff to his son Hershel McGriff Jr., and even on to his granddaughter Shelly McGriff. Yes, ladies too are part of this tradition. The list of father-son racing greats seems endless.
All fathers hope, as do their sons, that one day they too will emulate their greatness. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Astronaut Walter M. Schirra, Sr. said, “You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes.”
Few realize it but NASA is a leader in the auto racing scene in making it possible for young drivers to get an early start. Getting a young driver headed in the right direction early on gives them an amazing advantage over the early experiences many of us older gentlemen were not privy to.
There is a feeling beyond explanation that a father feels as he watches his son — or daughter — buckle in for the first time, and there is a surprising reality of nervousness, which ironically is highlighted as the all-knowing father attempts to give last-minute words of wisdom only to hear, “Dad … I got this.”
It’s at this instant, a father begins to realize it’s time to step back. And now its NASA’s turn to take over the helm doing what it does best: giving those deserving a chance the opportunity to show the old man what they can do.