One Minute for George

Sadly, karting recently lost one of its best friends. George Smith was the NHKA’s starter back when we ran the full road course at NHMS. We’ll be marking his passing and honoring his memory Saturday morning at Canaan.

I met George when he and Angelo put together my first kart ten years ago. I didn’t know George very well or very long. I was just getting into karting as he was heading out. But in true George style, he took a moment to hold the door for me and welcome me with a few laughs.

I loved going to that kart shop, and not just because it was net door to a Dairy Queen. First off, George and Angelo together were a riot! They’d totally play off each other to take the stuffing out of anyone for the slightest little anything. Angelo would toss some topic out there, then George would stop dead in his tracks with an expression of mock disbelief. Then, with a deep roll of his eyes and an “here we go!,” he’d take off his ever-present hat to wipe his forehead and face of the make-believe sweat caused by the steaming pile of stupid that had been dumped at his feet.

The main reason I loved going to the shop was for how much I learned about working on my kart. The last mechanical thing I had learned was how to hold a flashlight for my dad, which judging by all the yelling, I never mastered. So to me, George and Angelo were like a couple magicians exiled to the dusty clutter of that Quincy garage for showing everyone how to do all the tricks.

When I say I was an odd fit in racing, what I’m trying to get across is that if a prairie dog wearing a helmet walked through the door of the shop it would have seemed less out of place than me. But George and Angelo needed only a couple cautious sniffs to accept this weird, arty, baby-toting, firehose of questions. Not only did they make me feel like I belonged, they made me feel like I always had – a long-lost friend who they needed to catch up on all the hilarious idiocy that had transpired while I was away.

More than make me feel I belonged at the shop, they made me feel I belonged in the sport. When their help enabled me to have some early success, they must have talked me up in the pits. I didn’t see or hear this, but as I met new people at the track, they’d often say, “Angelo and George were telling me about you.” Given the previously mentioned prairie dog problem, this was big. You see, at the time, I thought I had started racing because, well, I wanted to race. Later I realized what I actually needed was a community. Their vouching for me paved the way.

As much as I liked George, there was something about him I couldn’t figure out at the time. Why was he always around? He didn’t seem to be Angelo’s employee, and was at the shop too often to be considered a visitor. He often worked on karts, but he didn’t race himself. And he was always at the track as NHKA’s starter – where he coined the phrase known to veteran road racers across the country, “One minute to the one minute!”

At first I chalked up his presence to a helpful nature and love of racing. But something else emerged as I pieced together his backstory. George put his son Mike into a kart for the first time when he was about nine years old. They worked at it, improved and had lots of fun together. They ran well, moved up the ladder, kept working and kept improving. They joined up with Angelo’s team and hit the road, racing at tracks like Daytona, Mid-Ohio and Road America, maybe even allowed themselves to dream “the dream.” By the time Mike reached his twenties, it was clear that fabled paid ride to the big show wasn’t going to materialize, just like it hadn’t for so many other talented racers. Suddenly a Saturday night hanging out at home with friends seemed like a lot more fun to Mike than another 22-hour haul out to some track in Indiana. And just like that, it was done.

I don’t think George stuck around in karting because he was lost, bored or nostalgic. I think he was grateful for all the time, adventures and memories the sport gave him with Mike. Racing for so long at the upper levels forges a unique father/son connection that only comes from years of close collaboration in an intense environment. I’m sure George considered those years the best of his life. So I believe he stuck around karting because it was important to him that other dads and kids got to have this incredible shared experience too.

This gratitude and generosity – a compulsion to pass along what karting gave to you – is the beating heart that keeps fresh blood pumping through the sport. I see it all the time, expressed in lots of different ways. It’s my favorite thing about the sport, and it was George who showed it to me first. Which is why for me, George Smith is karting.