On a family trip to the Southern U.S., my father lived his NASCAR dreams at Charlotte Motor Speedway—at 150 mph

If you’d asked me when I was a kid about the trip my family took to Charlotte Motor Speedway, I would have told you my dad signed up for a NASCAR driving experience, then drove the car so fast he got yelled at. I probably would have snickered in appreciation at the memory. If you’d asked why all our family vacations seemed to magically end up at a racetrack, I would have rolled my eyes and said it was because that’s what my dad wanted and the rest of us just went along with it. And as for why my dad was so obsessed with stock-car racing, that dates back to when he used to drive at local tracks around my hometown. I never knew what he loved about it, or why he quit driving when I was about five, because who thinks to ask their parents these things?

My dad, Mike Proudfoot, grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., like I did. He started racing as a teenager because his older brothers, Gary and Guy, were into it. It was just so much his thing, it’s difficult for him to even pinpoint why he loved it. “I think it was just doing what you wanted to do,” he says. “Living on the edge. It’s kind of like that T-shirt: ‘If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up space.’” He never felt much fear, but he doesn’t know whether that was the invincibility of youth or if the all-consuming nature of the sport simply blotted out everything else. “Once the green flag dropped, there was no issue with danger. You didn’t have time to think about it. All hell broke loose—it was like a bomb going off when everybody started moving around you,” he says. “You nail that throttle and that’s it, you’re going for it.”

In 1969 or ’70, when he was in his early 20s, he bought his first race car, a “modified,” to run at the dirt track just north of the Soo. He told the credit union he needed the loan—the car cost $2,500 with a trailer—to reshingle his mother’s roof. He can recite from memory the clipping he has of a Sault Star article announcing his debut: “Rick’s former model will be handled by young Mike Proudfoot this year.” When I ask my dad what made him good at racing, he hedges, mentioning—for the first of several times—that he wasn’t a success. Then, finally, he concedes, “My preparation of a race car was impeccable.” This makes perfect sense. My dad has always kept meticulous to-do lists and plans out every busy day or road trip like a military campaign. I do it, too.

Racing was intimidating because he was a young hobbyist competing against full-time, professional drivers who knew all the intricacies of the track. He coped with the intimidation by eagerly soaking up advice from anyone who would talk to him. When he painted his car green to match the truck he borrowed from his brother to tow it, he learned a rookie racing lesson: “Don’t paint your car green—it’s bad luck,” he chuckles. “Nobody would park beside me in the pits.” Each week, he would make $100 working at a gas station and $125 racing. It didn’t cost much to run his car because his boss gave him free gas and access to a garage where he could work on the car in the evenings. My dad never won a race, but he finished in the top four once. “I always told them if ever I won, I’d take the checkered flag and go home with it,” he says. “I’d drive out in the parking lot and they’d have to pick up my car out on the road.”

He sold the modified after racing it for two years, and didn’t own another race car until the early ’80s. But in between, when he and my mom, Molly Mislan, started dating and then married, their social lives revolved around racing. She really wasn’t into cars, but she liked the friends they hung out with, and racing was what my dad loved, so that’s just what they did. When I was two or three, my dad bought the second and last race car he owned, splitting the $7,000 cost with a partner. This one was a “late model” for racing on asphalt, and even though I wouldn’t have been older than five when he sold it, I remember it in little sensory snapshots. It was white with neon-green accents, No. 22, and it had my name, my mom’s and—when she came along—my sister Lindsay’s painted on the rear driver’s-side panel. Sitting in the wraparound seat felt like being cradled in a giant teaspoon, and I remember the cool weight of the nylon harness and metal clasps against my body.

My mom trusted that my dad knew everything there was to know about racing, and that cancelled out worries about safety—until one particular race. “He went around the other end of the track, and all of a sudden he disappeared. He went down the embankment—probably not a huge embankment, but to me…” her voice trails off in a shudder. I was three years old, and my mom was expecting my sister. “I think it was because there was a young kid involved: ‘Holy crap, this is a totally different story now. You could get killed—this is dangerous,’” she recalls.

My dad remembers that race, too, albeit somewhat differently. One of the veteran drivers warned him about that side of the track, but he ended up skidding about 20 feet backwards into a ravine. Suddenly, he was looking at the nose of his car pointing skyward and a light on his dash indicating the engine had shut off. “I remember staring at that red light and saying, ‘Oh,’” he says, cackling. “It happens so quick you don’t really have time to have it bother you.”

My dad quit racing not long after that, but he says it was about money and time, not safety. He was working as a mechanic, and my mom looked after us full-time in those days. We needed things, or the house needed work, and getting out of racing was the only way to create a little breathing room. “I had two children,” he says. “I had to get hold of my life.” He sold the car to a guy who raced it for a few years and did quite well. My dad says it was an easy decision, that it was only going to frustrate him to keep trying to make racing happen. But it wasn’t easy to leave it behind. “Not that I was a success, but I did have raw talent,” he says. “Even now, at 67, if I won a lottery, I’d still buy a race car, because until they told me, ‘Listen, old man, go home,’ I’d be back at it. It’s just something in your blood that you just love.”

Every Sunday while I was growing up, the NASCAR race of the week was on TV in our house, with the volume turned up loud enough to feel like you were sitting in the grandstands with your ribcage rattling. The huge garage in our driveway, where he worked on cars for friends and clients, had cable so he wouldn’t miss anything when he went to and from the house. His black-and-orange fire suit hung for years on the wall in our rec room like a museum exhibit, alongside his sleek black helmet. “You always figure they’re gonna phone you on Sunday morning for the Daytona 500 and ask if you want to drive a car for them,” he says.

Virtually every family vacation involved a race track. We had an RV, and we always found a campground with a pool so my mom could devour books in a lounge chair while Lindsay and I played, and my dad would magnetically drift to the closest speedway. His racing obsession always seemed to shape these trips, but the rest of us had fun in our own way.

One summer, we visited friends in Florida, and we passed through North Carolina on the way home. My dad had read about the Richard Petty Driving Experience somewhere, and the moment he mentioned it, my mom was sold. “I just thought it was an important thing for him, and I thought it would be funky,” she says. “He always wanted to be a race car driver. It was like, ‘I’m sorry you couldn’t be a race car driver, but go be a race car driver for a day.’”

Charlotte is one of the cathedrals of motorsports, a 1.5-mile oval with turns banked at 24 degrees—a soap dish with seating for 134,000. The Driving Experience debuted in 1992, and we were there the following year, when I was 13 and Lindsay was nine. They offered a “rookie experience” priced around $250; I knew at the time that was a lot of money for my family, so this must be something that really mattered. We all took a van tour of the track, and it seemed to take all morning for my dad to go through the registration and safety training. Normally, the rest of us would have been rolling our eyes at being dragged to another race track; instead, we were all swept up in giddy excitement for him.

The Driving Experience used a lead-and-follow format, in which race fans drove a stock car solo, following an instructor in a pace car. My dad remembers that in the pre-driving class, the instructors emphasized staying two to three car lengths back. Students had to follow the instructor’s tire tracks, and if they did a good job, the instructor would reward them by gradually picking up speed.

I can picture so clearly the beige, black and orange fire suit my dad put on, because for years afterwards, I saw him wearing it standing next to one of Richard Petty’s cars in a photo on his bedside table. When he settled into the cockpit, he felt like the car had been custom-built around him. “Everything felt perfect. I felt like I’d been in the car 100 times,” he says. “So that’s why I didn’t mind winding it up a bit.”

“Everything felt perfect. I felt like I’d been in the car 100 times. So that’s why I didn’t mind winding it up a bit.”

My dad accelerated out of the pit–s as quickly as he could with the pace car in front of him. When he hit turn one, he was amazed by how the right-side floor of the car climbed into a sharp angle as he curled into the turn. “It was incredible. You come out of the banking and the back stretch flattens out, and you just accelerate right to the floor all the way down,” he says. “And then you go into the next banking and you’re going great speeds.” He remembers that his laps averaged 126 to 128 mph, and he recalls someone telling him that meant he must have reached about 150 miles per hour down the back straightaway. His eyes could only process the track in front of him and the blurry scraps offered by his peripheral vision; his hearing simply disappeared. “I found it extremely quiet out there,” he says, “like somebody muted everything.” That’s exactly what it had felt like when he raced.

I have no clear memory of seeing him drive, and neither does my mom. My sister recalls standing along the fence in awe. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, is he ever good!’” Lindsay says. She can also picture him pulling into the pits after his seven laps were done. “I remember it really, really well, him getting out after, because he had—can I swear for a second?—he had a shit-eating grin on his face for half a second, until the guy tore a strip off him.” It wasn’t the instructor who yelled at him, but rather the man in charge of the driving program. He had a British or Australian accent, my dad recalls, and he said something along the lines of: “You think you’re pretty smart, eh?” The instructor had signalled in the rear-view mirror that my dad was following too closely, and while they liked to say that if you didn’t get at least one “wave-off,” you hadn’t made the most of your driving experience, they weren’t happy that he’d kept the pedal pinned.

Out there on the track, it had just felt so good driving the car so fast that he couldn’t make himself care about the consequences—but he also didn’t really think he’d get dressed down. The guy was loud and angry, and we were all watching. “It did bother me, because I felt like my first chance at driving a race car, I irritated somebody,” my dad says. When I ask him to clarify, he explains something that had never occurred to me in all the times I’d thought about that day. “Well, you always live with the dream that somebody’s gonna come up to you and say, ‘Hey, you were good! Why don’t you come and drive for us?’ And it pretty much dashes your hopes of ever being what you want to be when you know damn well that you pissed someone off,” he says. “It’s a childish thing, what I’m talking about right now, but that’s the way it was.”

Left out of the cheeky, sardonic version of the story I’ve always told about this day is the combination of ecstatic pride and raw, protective sadness I felt. It was like I’d watched my dad get yelled at by his boss after doing something honourable. Even without understanding the true meaning, I knew this was a coulda-been-a-contender moment for him. The fact that he’d been reprimanded both burnished that dream and ruined it. On some level, I hoped my family would tell me I’d remembered it all wrong, that there was no need for the melancholy because it had just been a great day with a funny plot twist. But my mom confirmed that we all felt the same way. She and my dad have been split up for a dozen years and they’re both happily remarried, but she tears up while we’re talking. “I was mad at him, like, ‘Why do you have to be such a jerk? Why couldn’t you just follow the rules?’” she says. “But at the same time: ‘Please don’t embarrass him, please don’t spoil this for him. It’s a dream. Don’t do this in front of the kids. Can’t you just let it go?’”

My mom’s most vivid memory of the day is my reaction, which I don’t remember at all. “You went bonkers,” she says. “‘My dad’s a good driver! My dad just wanted to race!’ You were really mouthing off.” I wasn’t the type to explode on strangers, but my mom thinks I was so upset, I couldn’t hold back. Lindsay remembers being distraught to the point of tears.

By the time my dad smoothed things over with the people from the track, he’d shrugged off his own embarrassment to reassure us expansively: Oh, come on—it’s fine! Don’t worry! My mom figures we might have been five minutes down the highway before he started to rebuild the day as a funny tale of speed and rebellion—the one the rest of us eventually went with, too.

But what that day became was the first time I can remember seeing one of my parents as vulnerable and human. I’d never before considered that anything in life might not have turned out the way they wanted it to, because it had never occurred to me that there was anything beyond their control. But I still understood, standing there along the infield wall watching him drive, that I was seeing my dad come back to himself, returning to something important that had been packed away with his fire suit and helmet. It felt like a day that mattered—and then fell apart.

There are a couple of things that make my dad feel better about how it played out. One was the wife of the guy who yelled at him taking my dad aside to explain that they’d had a couple of wrecks and that’s why her husband was so bent out of shape. He also remembers the instructor saying he was fine with my dad’s driving because he could see he was comfortable with the car. And when he got a look at the video he’d purchased of his driving experience, he realized they’d edited out the reprimand after he roared back into the pits. It was like it never happened. “I knew right then that they knew he was in the wrong,” he says. “I was OK after that.”

I was a little afraid to ask, even more than 20 years later, what I really wanted to know: Was he happy with how that day turned out? In the end, was his chance to drive at Charlotte what he’d wanted it to be? “Oh yes,” he says. “Yes, I was happy with it as far as it being a very good experience driving a NASCAR car.” I can’t tell if that’s an honest answer. I hope it is, with a childish sort of hope I wouldn’t have thought I was still capable of. It might be true that he ended up finding exactly what he wanted that day, in spite of the awkwardness. Or he might be doing the same thing he did a long time ago, when he sold off his last race car: He might be setting himself aside for me, because that’s just what you do for your kids.

Photo Credits

Illustration: Tavis Coburn
Photographs: Courtesy of Shannon Proudfoot