What I’ve Learned From Racing With My Father

Fast laps won't turn back the clock

June 15, 2023 6:32 am
two racecars parked next to each other
Benjamin Hunting shares the pleasantries of bonding over automobiles with this dad
Benjamin Hunting

Time is the only thing you bring with you when you roll out of the pit lane and cross the blend line onto a hot race track. You can see it, flashing in milliseconds directly over the dashboard on your data logger display, but more often you feel it, with each momentary slip of traction or judicious throttle application adding and subtracting from the chronological ledger that accumulates from one lap to the next.

Few of us mark the more ordinary moments of our lives with quite the same level of precision as we do when attempting to shave seconds off of a personal best — at least I didn’t, until the pandemic intervened and forced me to reckon with the theft of something both precious and irrecoverable. I have spent years working to slice a 10th of a second here or a 100th of a second there from laps around road courses whose corners I can by now see in my sleep, but it’s become clear to me that the most precious measure of track day temporality I could ever hope to hoard exists in between the on/off clicks of the stopwatch.

Alone, Together

In my race car, I am entirely alone. It’s one of the few areas of my life where I don’t think about anything else, where I am so tightly focused on the task at hand that I am able to completely relax and let go of whatever quotidien troubles had been hounding me. Once I am back in the paddock however, I shed that isolation as soon as I exit the car because parked there beside me in the garage is my father.

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My dad is almost entirely responsible for my automotive passion, which has in turn given me a career and a life beyond my childhood dreams. In between the cradle and today he has also been witness to all manner of poor purchase decisions, ill-considered projects and a fair amount of twisted metal mayhem, but despite this I’ve been able to convince him to accompany me to the track and try his own hand at turning in hot laps.

We’ve spent much of the past 10 summers traveling all over New England, him tugging his Ford Mustang and me with my Datsun Z, hitting up spots like New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Palmer Motorsports Park and Watkins Glen International. We’ve endured zero-star accommodations, monsoon conditions and even losing a wheel from the tow vehicle during rush hour traffic on a six-lane highway. And yet we kept coming back for more: more fuel pumped into gasping tanks drained by all-day redline excursions, more tires stripped bare by the vagaries of oversteer, more sleepless nights giving way to crack-of-dawn mornings hundreds of miles from home.

I won’t discount the thrills of full-throttle fun far from the prying eyes of local law enforcement, but the true measure of any weekend at the track is the time we get to spend together. The joy of taking time out of our lives and making a space for hanging out, regardless of whether we’re shivering under a chilly fall cloudburst or celebrating a new fast time of the day, is what pulls us both back to the circuit each and every season.

Writer Benjamin Hunting and his dad in a Polaroid
Hunting and his father
Benjamin Hunting

Time, the Thief

The pandemic took a lot of things from a lot of people. Lives, livelihoods and loved ones lead a list of loss that continues to echo as we navigate through a world that has been forever changed. By any conceivable yardstick I have been lucky, with my health and that of my family remarkably untouched by illness. Three years later, I still have a roof over my head and enough of an income to keep it there for the foreseeable future.

What the pandemic did steal from me was time. More specifically, the combination of lockdowns and curfews up-ended the entire structure of how I spent time with everyone I cared about. That extended outside of my day-to-day to include the race track, where border closures and limitations on gatherings wiped out nearly two full years of competition.

Vaccines and other mitigations have once again opened up the invisible line dividing Canada and the United States, giving my father and I the opportunity to resume our regular pilgrimages. Sitting amidst the trailers now, under the roaring sonic blanket thundering down the front straight, I can’t help but think about the time we’ve lost.  Not the tick-tick-tick faithfully digitized by the timing app suction-cupped to my windshield, as I have eaten enough lifetime laps to dispel concern over any pause-related atrophy behind the wheel. Instead, I dwell on those two years where instead of unloading our trailers as the sun began to set, we sat in our respective bubbles, isolated from any shared experience other than the fear and anxiety about what the future might hold.

I don’t know how many more seasons I have with my father at the race track. It’s a lot to ask a man entering his 70th year on this planet to haul his bones cross-country and endure the stress and pressure that can come with a full day of banging off curbing and counter-steering out of corners. What I do know — and what I feel more than the smothering weight of those two good years we lost together — is that even on the most perfect of laps, the timer staring me in the face only ever runs forward.

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