Never Stop Driving #5: Pure terror on four wheels

Happy Friday,

I’ve never been so scared sitting in a car as I was this past January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Was I in Christine, you ask, the famously psychopathic Plymouth Fury from the Stephen King novel? No, it was a similarly devilish car known as a midget. These pint-size, overpowered open-wheel racers run in the greatest event you’ve probably never heard of: The Chili Bowl.

Impulsively, I rented a midget, even though I’d never before even sat in one, and entered the race. My blow-by-blow report, which first appeared in the May/June issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine, is here, and I’d love your comments. During the Chili Bowl, I learned a lot about myself, namely how concerned I was about saving face.

Larry Webster Midget Race Car Chili Bowl 2022
Your humble author at the wheel of a midget race car during the 2022 Chili Bowl. Cameron Neveu

I get butterflies at the start of every race, come to tears when I crash, and am overjoyed when I turn a good lap. I’m addicted to the highs and lows of motorsports competition. Where else, besides racing, can we experience this fullness of life in an activity that, at the end of the day, has no consequence?

I arrived in Tulsa, went to the indoor track, and watched practice rounds, the drivers sliding in the clay while freely and aggressively banging into each other. It looked hugely dangerous for a rookie like me. That’s when I realized just how woefully unprepared I was. I’ve done dozens of races cold, including the Baja 500, where I achieved a class win, and the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, but the Chili Bowl was something different. I feared, for the first time, either harming myself or another competitor because my inexperience could cause a wreck.

Larry Webster Chili Bowl 2022
A very enthusiastic flagman launches a heat race during the 2022 Chili Bowl. Cameron Neveu

Was this rational? Probably not, but since I had never before had that feeling, I thought I should heed it. I would have backed out if not for my 13-year-old son, who joined me in Tulsa. Sammy is as passionate about dirt oval racing as I am about sports cars. Besides having a good time together, what lessons did I hope he might learn? One was the idea that we’re all going to feel uncomfortable from time to time and the balance between a calculated risk and recklessness is different for everyone. When I explained all this to him, including my fear, he just looked at me quizzically. He probably was thinking, “Tell you what, old man, just let me drive.”

Sam Webster Midget Race Car Chili Bowl 2022
This is my son, Sam, making the case that he should be behind the wheel instead of me. He had a point. Larry Webster

What was the worst that could happen to me besides an unlikely injury? Well, I could crash or I could be embarrassingly slow. Would it be so bad for my kid to see his old man fail? Definitely not.

My Chili Bowl experience reminds me of the premise behind Saving Sailing, a book that explains the difference between chartered and chosen time. Chosen time is a prescribed experience like a movie, while chartered is unplanned and looser, more like our week in Tulsa. The author,  Nicholas D. Hayes, argues that chartered time usually forms tighter bonds. Without being told, my kid jumped right into the team, sweeping after races, cleaning the cars, and bravely getting selfies with all the NASCAR drivers in attendance.

Sam Webster Chili Bowl 2022
Sam, this time as crew chief. If memory serves, he told me I would have to skip dinner unless I finished the heat race in one of the top four places. I finished in fifth. Cameron Neveu

This all brings me back to our cherished cars. Other activities undoubtably offer similar family opportunities, but color me grateful for all the positive benefits of the automobile. I’d love to hear how cars have impacted your family. Please share in the comments.

Have a great weekend. Do I need to remind you to get out and drive?

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