When I was a little girl I raced quarter midgets. These little cars were scaled down versions of midget race cars and were raced by children on a makeshift race track surrounded by hay bales. My father, a race car enthusiast, thought that it would be a fun family activity for his children to compete, so my older sister Martha-Jean was given a helmet and a car, and taught to drive. Martha-Jean was a natural, and soon was known as “Lead Foot” around the circuit. I tried to imagine why my sister would want a foot made of lead, but I idolized Martha-Jean and wanted to be just like her, so at the age of four, I made my debut as a race car driver. I was to be a Pee Wee.
I hated the term Pee Wee. To me it was an insult. I wanted to be one of the big kids- the seven- year olds, like Martha- Jean. I wanted to be called Lead Foot. I wanted to fill my dresser with trophies and hang ribbons on my wall. But four-year olds were Pee Wees, and I had the choice of being a Pee Wee, or nothing at all. I chose Pee Wee.
There were preparations to make. On Sunday mornings, my father quizzed me on the meanings of the colored flags. Green meant go. Yellow meant caution. I didn’t really know what caution meant, but I knew when you saw yellow, you slowed down. And the checkered flag meant the race was over. Being first to cross the finish line meant you could circle the track in a victory lap while holding the checkered flag. I had watched my sister do this many times and dreamed that someday I might hold the fluttering checkered flag in a victory lap.
In practice runs, we discovered that I was too small to see over the steering wheel. My parents stuffed pillows behind me and a folded blanket under my bottom so I could reach the gas pedal. Once I was on the track, my father quickly learned that I could navigate the path but I could not steer and take my hand off the wheel long enough to hit the kill switch. He had to run after me, make a grab for the toggle switch and turn off the engine.
After many weeks of preparation, the day of my first race finally arrived. My stomach did flip-flops as my father buckled the chin strap to Martha-Jean’s helmet under my chin, and started the ignition. The helmet was too big and slid down to my nose, but a pair of goggles lifted it back far enough so I could see. I sat nervously until the green flag was waved, and then I began circling the track along with the other Pee Wees. In the practice laps, rounding the track was easy, but now, with several other cars around me and people watching from behind the hay bales, it was far more difficult. I wondered where my mother was, and if Martha-Jean was watching, and if my father would be able to catch me in time to hit the kill switch. In a moment of lost concentration, I veered too far to the side of the track and struck a hay bale, causing my car to spin out. Faces, hay and colored flags spun like a kaleidoscope, until I recognized the sound of my father’s chuckle as he switched the car off.
“Hey, Boo, what happened? You spun out!” he laughed.
“Did I win?” I so much wanted him to smile with pride like he did when Martha-Jean won.
“Not this time.”
I competed in several races after that, and spun out more times than I finished. I didn’t really enjoy racing- it made my stomach ache, and I couldn’t figure out what I needed to do to win. But finally, perhaps by default, my day came. I was the first to cross the finish line. The flag man gave me the checkered flag for my victory lap. I proudly held it up so it would flutter in the breeze, but it was heavy and the wind resistance pulled it from my grasp. I traveled only a few feet before I dropped it. The flag man picked it up and handed it to me, and I dropped it again. And again. It was more a humiliation lap than a victory lap.
“No matter. Soon I’ll get my trophy,” I told myself.
Martha-Jean had lots of trophies- tall ones in electric red and blue topped with gold cars and molded drivers. You could see the facial features on the drivers- I always thought they looked like my sister. Standing with the other racers, I wiggled with anticipation, imagining my trophy in blue, with a shiny car whose driver looked like me. Finally, my name was called and I ostentatiously strutted forward to collect my trophy. “Perhaps now, they will call me Lead Foot,” I thought.
I scanned the table for something tall and elegant, but instead I was handed a short white plastic base with a tiny golden car and driver screwed to the top. The driver was too small to have a face. It was just a lump of metal dipped in gold paint. I smiled on the outside, but inside I cringed. It was a trophy fit for a Pee Wee.
I never became the accomplished racer that my sister was. In fact, I never won another trophy for anything. But I learned the first of many lessons about trying to be someone I wasn’t, and accepting who I was. In the years to follow, I would find that I was very different from my older sister. I am not fearless, or athletic or tall and willowy as she is. Competition- even a relay race- makes my stomach queasy. She played varsity basketball. I never learned to do a lay-up. She moves to music in graceful steps that sway and dip. I dance like a monkey. As we age, she grows skinnier, and I… well, I do not.
But here’s the thing- we are not supposed to be alike. We never were meant to compete. We were meant to compliment. She is a willow, I am an oak. She is an apple. I am an orange. She is sunrise. I am sunset. And I’m okay with that.
But every once in a while, when it’s late at night and nobody else is on the highway, just for a few moments, I am in my quarter midget, and I am Lead Foot. Shh…don’t tell Martha-Jean.