People ask me all the time, Katie, when did it start for you. When did you know you were going to be a racer. And my answer is simple. It all goes back to the Great Tricycle Race, summer of ’77.
I am not from Sacramento. This is where the race was held, along the bicycle paths along the Sacramento River, sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America. My parents are highly ranked in this church. I was baptized in this church. I was brought up to believe that my older brother was a Lotus 7A. But this is another story.
Let us go back to the tricycle race. It was a race for children and adults, too, for some reason. I believe that the adults were workers who volunteered their time at the races at Laguna Seca and Sears Point. This was their payback. They couldn’t race on a track, but here, ride your own tricycle. Race against children. This is how it was back then.
People ask me all the time, Katie, you were only 7 years old. That’s awfully young for that level of intensity. How did you prepare, mentally, physically.
Let’s say that our training regimen back then was unscientific. We trained daily in the summer months and after school in the fall, winter, and spring when weather and lighting allowed. We did not have the high dollar equipment like some kids do today. Our chosen vehicle was a Big Wheel, crude even in those days, made entirely from plastic, with a red body, yellow handlbars, blue adjustable seat back.
We trained with heart. I see this lacking in the children of today. We didn’t train for glory or for ribbons. We rode that Big Wheel, my little sister Maggy and me, because we loved it. It was actually Maggy’s Big Wheel. I never had a Big Wheel of my own. I never carried a grudge, no, because my sister Maggy and me, we shared. I see this lacking in children today, only now they don’t want Big Wheels; they want Hummers and cell phones. It’s completely different today.
If someone were to ask me, Katie, going in, knowing what your competition had, and what you had, were you ever intimidated, I would have to say that no, I was not. We had no idea what we were up against. Again, as I say, riding was our passion. You have to understand the neighborhood in which we lived. We grew up in the ‘burbs of Pleasanton, California. The Golden Ghetto, some call it. When I say that no one rode Big Wheels, no, that’s not true. In our neck of the woods, everyone rode Big Wheels. They were a part of our culture. Were they top dollar performance machines, no, but they were our physical, emotional and even artistic outlet at the end of the cul-de-sac.
There is no coasting on a Big Wheel and to stop quickly requires a quickly executed maneuver of back pedaling the front wheel, and grabbing the side brake. It’s amazing to watch, and quite harrowing the first time performed, but once it’s in your muscle memory, it’s just like riding a bicycle. People say, did you learn that from Fangio, and I have to say no, this was a technique we learned on the streets, handed down from the ten year olds to the eight year olds and so on.
So, you’d have a situation where maybe Scotty flat spotted his Big Wheel’s front wheel so bad, now there’s a big hole in it, and this upsets the balance of the Big Wheel, it’s bouncing down the road now, he’s lost his acceleration, he’s not going so fast, but does he complain, no. No, he doesn’t complain, because he’s still riding. That’s what it’s all about. You get out and ride in the summer’s night, you pedal with all that is inside you, you feel the ache in your muscles, the burning of your lungs as you breathe in the summer night, this endless summer, 3rd grade is a dream to you now, your hands gripped tight around the handle bars, tassels flowing in red, white and blue streaks, and you draw circles on the pavement, in random formations, chased by mosquitoes, until your mom yells out the window that it’s time for bed. And you wake up in the morning and it starts all over again.
So when I said that we weren’t intimidated, no, that’s not true. We just didn’t know what we were in for when we arrived at the venue. This turned out to be no walk in the park. This was a huge event sponsored by the SCCA, my parents’ church, with corner workers, a podium, an announcer’s booth, live music, barbeque stand, scores of spectators, some related, some actual fans, and of course, let us not forget the competition.
This was different than the cul-de-sac. There were kids warming up on the course in warm up outfits with stripes down the legs. Some were doing jumping jacks. Their tricycles were made out of the lightest alloy steel of the day. Dads stood on the side lines with stop watches, their mothers with clip boards. No Big Wheels.
Let’s move on to the adult category: grown adults, riding three-wheeled vehicles with gears, like the kind you would see on a ten speed bicycle. We all would compete in one single race.
I walked with my father as he approached one of the adult competitors who was fine-tuning the front cog set. “I see your rig has gears,” said my father. “That’s amazing. You build this yourself?”
“That’s right, John.” My father was a member of the press. He was at the races every weekend. Everybody knew him. “Check this out,” said this man, in tight cut-off shorts, and socks pulled up to his knees, as he demonstrated a few clicks of the shifters.
“Is that your kids’ trike?” said the man, pointing with his head to my sister’s Big Wheel sitting on the lawn. “They’re gonna race THAT, John? Come on.”
“Hey, we’re all here for fun,” said my dad. The man chuckled.
Mom was setting up our pit with a cooler filled with Coca Cola. I couldn’t hear exactly what Dad said to her, but two words I remember were “Oh no.”
It was time for the qualifying session in heat of this Sacramento summer. This was an endurance event, with two drivers per team. Maggy and I had agreed in our team meeting that we would do two laps each, and then switch. We qualified dead last, but given our equipment, I heard my Dad say, he was not surprised.
“Next year,” he told my Mom. “They deserve better than this.”
It was a Le Mans start and Maggy was our designated team leader. It was her Big Wheel, after all.
The crowd of drivers, children and grown ups, stood behind the white line, ready for action. A man in a white shirt and hat, and dark sunglasses stood on the large podium, holding a pistol aimed towards the sky. He said, “On your marks! Get Set!” and then there was the sound of a gun blast. When I opened my eyes, there was my sister running for her Big Wheel, behind a flurry of legs and pony tails.
“Run, Maggy, run! yelled my mom.
“Look at that!” yelled some of the other kids. “She’s on a Big Wheel!” They sneered and snorted.
I would like to drag this story out with a dramatic play-by-play as we slowly used our team work to bridge up to the front, narrowly grabbing victory.
But it wasn’t like that. The truth of the matter is, and I beg you to forgive me what may sound like conceit, for never in my life have I experienced this level of competitive domination. It was within Maggy’s first lap that she had moved up to the front of the pack and then my next two which gave us a solid lead.
This wasn’t easy. It would take Maggy’s two laps for me to recover from the physical exertion in the scorching heat. The sun’s rays burned our skin, turned it dark brown. We did not wear sunscreen back then. We developed our own natural pigmentation. Who was to know that this was “sun damage”.
Back then, athletes didn’t drink water. Nothing tasted more satisfying than nature’s sweet diuretic: a Styrofoam cup of ice and Coca Cola. The sweat poured into my eyes and what I can remember with much clarity is the longing to rest in the shade. The trickling of the Sacramento River off in the distance beckoned me to jump in. But the commotion of the other parents and spectators screaming for their athletes, their heroes in the park, called me to complete the mission.
The Kelly Girls took the checkered flag, lapping the entire field several times.
Of course the victory was controversial. We arrived with the most under-prepared vehicle in the park, a child’s toy, as it were. Now we stood at the top of the podium, our heads still reaching the knees of our nearest competitors. Our pictures were all over the next issue of The Wheel, San Francisco Region’s newspaper (San Francisco Region is our local church’s branch), edited by my father, but this was merely coincidence. There were the interviews, the autographs, all from one life changing tricycle race.
If you were to ask me if the fame ever went to my head, well, I cannot deny it, yes it did. At first, I was bitter that although we were the fastest team there, still, the trophy they had awarded us was for the Fastest Girl’s Team. They gave the Fastest Overall trophy to some grown ups who had finished well behind us, simply so that they could take something home, because we would have otherwise won every division.
The victory went to my sister’s head almost immediately. Entering the race a shy and humble five year old, she was now tugging on the pants leg of the event’s director. “Where’s my trophy, where’s my trophy!” my sister demanded, in front of the spectators and racers. She was entering Kindergarten, and now had become too verbose for her own good.
It was a quick rise to stardom and the streak lasted only two more years. No one ever came close. The final year, there was the annual barbeque, but no tricycle race. The Kelly Girls would win anyway, so why bother. We all went swimming instead.
Our fame was fleeting. The trophies became covered in dust, stored deep somewhere in a closet I have not looked in nearly twenty years. Friends down the street never were that impressed. They didn’t ride their Big Wheels for trophies. What are you going to do with a trophy, they wondered. What’s it good for? I didn’t have an answer for them, and stared at it for a few seconds longer before shrugging it off to go play some more outside.
Some people ask me if I ever feel remiss that I have never recaptured that glory. Look at all the times I’ve tried and I’ve failed. I’ve taken some gambles. I’ve had victory at my fingertips, but not in my hands. Most of the time, I’m never even close. I’ve had my share of heartaches, but thirty years later, I still hold on for the day when I feel that magic again. I never lost the fire. I might be too big for a Big Wheel, but even now as I pedal on on my bicycle, in my mind it’s always summer after dinner, and I’m on Maggy’s Big Wheel chasing the sunset and I’m singing to myself, rock on little sister, rock on.