{ On Being a Daughter }
story and photos by Jessica Knight

zoomWhen I was sixteen, my father taught me how to drive a manual-transmission car. He insisted that I understand the mechanics behind the transmission—how pushing in the clutch disengages the gears, how shifting from one speed to another engages a different sized gear, which in turn affects the power and speed of the car. We sat in the driveway in neutral for ten minutes, where he had me rev the engine to "get a feel for it." And I listened, trying to hear whatever music put that half-smile on his face. When we finally went out on the road, he was able to maintain the same sort of analytical calm that he always has, even in the face of the violent bucking of his beloved car as I attempted to coax it into motion. Quietly: "Give it more gas, more gas," or, "Okay, push in the clutch, push in the clutch."
   When, after only two more lessons, I told him I needed to go somewhere and he said, "Well, go ahead, take the car," I was excited and incredibly nervous, but more than anything, in awe of the fact that he apparently trusted my ability more than I did myself. In the strained world of fathers and adolescent daughters, this was a banner day.
   As a man who enjoys military history and air shows, I've always thought that having three daughters must have left him with a certain longing, a longing that our eager-to-please-but-dumb-as-a-rock Shetland sheepdog, as his only familial male companion, could not fulfill. He had spent his boyhood hunting and blowing things up with his brother—safe to say, I think, that it held little resemblance to the childhood of his three girls. This is not to say that we were not raised even-handedly, in a fairly gender-neutral way, no small feat in a society that begins the indoctrination of its children into camps of masculinity and femininity at a terrifyingly young age. We weren't coerced into believing that we loved ponies, nor were we forced to exist in unnaturally pink bedrooms. The benign Lego was our favorite, and we were encouraged in math and sports (although my sister's brief career in pee-wee soccer and my near-scarring experience on the middle-school field hockey team were disappointing even to us). But on the rare weekend that my sisters and I manage to converge collectively on our parents' Philadelphia home at once, our father is all too often abandoned for bra shopping and other such activities that are not only culturally but biologically forbidden to men.
   So, for Father's Day, my mother, sisters, and I all pitched in to buy him a day at the Dover Downs racetrack, where he trained with professional NASCAR drivers and then spent the afternoon on the track himself. As gifts go, it was fairly exorbitant, but we felt we owed it to him. Here was a way to give his usually ignored masculine ego a pat on the back, and celebrate his intense love for driving, something that would under normal circumstances bore my sisters and I to sleep. One day in August, we joined together in a pilgrimage to Delaware, to spend the day basking in the world of powerful engines and large tires, making up for the antique car shows we didn't want to visit and the football games we didn't want to watch.
   My father loves cars, which is to say that my father loves cars. His own little roadster has taken that special place in his heart that would usually be reserved for the child who graduates from medical school or is elected senator. It performs. It achieves. So while I think he was a bit nervous from the start, my father was very excited at the prospect of driving a professional racecar. I, however, was looking forward to the event from a comedic standpoint. What this comes down to is the admittedly biased association I tend to make between things so blatantly macho (not to mention deeply Southern in heritage) and the unenlightened and culturally base. What I expected (and secretly hoped for) was a production worthy of the FOX network, complete with some scantily clad Yasmine Bleeth-type prancing among the cars with a checkered flag. What I saw was a smooth, professional outfit. The cars were loud and fast. But the lesson I learned is this: NASCAR is not about being macho, per se. It's about being insane.
   Dover Downs, lovingly referred to as the "Monster Mile," is home to the famed Winston Cup. It's an oval, one-mile track with a terrifying twenty-four-degree slant. Walking into the track on a fairly gloomy day, we were immediately confronted with a large white cross bearing the words "RIP #3" in memory of NASCAR's golden child, Dale Earnhardt. Not exactly a comfort, especially when coupled with the loud roar of the cars that greeted us. On this particular day, there were about twenty-three people driving. After signing in, the drivers were loaded into a van and brought to the pit area of the track. The spectators—friends and family of the drivers—were also loaded into vans. I happily climbed into the front seat, only to regret it five minutes later as our tour guide/driver tore around the track at seventy miles an hour, turning around in his seat to smilingly explain how professional drivers go "this fast, times two plus a half." In a conversion van full of middle-aged women and overweight teens careening around an angled track, professional speed minus a half divided by two was just plenty.
   After a harrowing three laps around the track during which our driver explained the geography of the racetrack (which I could unfortunately pay little attention to, as most of my energy was spent cringing and squeezing the seat), we arrived at the pit area in the center of the track. The drivers were in the media area receiving their classroom training. The cars were all sitting out, and the friendly pit crew encouraged everyone to check them out, even to climb in. I was disappointed to find that because I was wearing a skirt, and because the cars have no doors and require a slick, Hazard-County-style entry, I wouldn't be able to climb in to one. But one of the men in the pit crew solved that problem by unexpectedly whisking me off the ground and sliding me into the car before I could blink.
   The cars are very small—claustrophobia-type, panic-inducing small—and very hot, with naked-looking controls and large, metal support bars crisscrossing the passenger area. Death machines, really. Sitting in the #44 car, I was suddenly a bit less excited about our brilliant Father's Day idea. I mean, we'd given the man a gift that required him to wear a flame-retardant jumpsuit.
   Eventually, the drivers came out into the pit carrying their helmets and looking jumpy and excited. They would drive two at a time, with a pace car leading the way. My father first went out as a passenger with one of the professional drivers. He climbed out of the car grinning from ear to ear but visibly nervous. ("That was fast," was his only comment.) When it came time for him to drive, we watched nervously as he climbed into the car. My mother, sisters, and I sat smiling and waving, all the while having the most disturbing and macabre conversation: "God, what if he has a heart attack?" "What if sweat drips in his eyes and he can't see?" "That other driver is some cocky kid. What if he tries to pass him and smashes into him?" I could only hope that he wasn't sitting in the car thinking these same things, that he was as excited as we were uneasy.
   His ten laps went quickly, and while he didn't reach anywhere near the speed that the pros do, it was fast enough for us. We watched from the roof of the media building in the center of the track, snapping pictures and cheering him on amid a lot of other nervous, gum-snapping and cigarette-smoking wives, girlfriends, and children. When he pulled back into the pit, he was greeted with shouts and smacks on the back from the pit crew: "Good run, man, good run!" While he said he would have liked to go a bit faster, he obviously had a great time, and the ride back to Philadelphia was spent rehashing the details of the track, each curve and acceleration. We listened as eagerly as we might have to a bedtime story as children.

Last week, a friend who is considering buying a new car asked me to take him out for a driving lesson. We sat in my car in Homewood Cemetery, and I found myself saying things like, "Okay, just rev the engine and listen, just try to get a feel for it," and "A little more gas, more gas." I could hear myself slipping into character, taking on my father's quiet demeanor and calm voice. By the time we left the cemetery, he was driving, maybe not quite like a racecar driver, but he was driving. My dad would have been proud.

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