The Special Events Center at the Greensboro Coliseum wore the sharp, acrid cologne of burnt rubber and gasoline, despite the enormous white floor fan keeping the audience crowded into the cavernous chamber from succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning during the King of the Concrete go-kart race on Dec. 17.
Part of me — that sickly green serpent named Resentment, curled up in the back of my mind, intermittently hissing deep anxieties with the flicking of its forked tongue — despised being there.
My introduction to go-karts came back in the mid-’90s.
I was an awkward, chubby bookworm living at the end of a gravel road in the northwest corner of Greensboro. I had few friends. The kids populating the new cookie-cutter subdivision up the street were more acquaintances than chums, and we hung out only infrequently.
One of them — a buzzcut kid I’ll call Sid — received a go-kart as a gift, I think for his birthday, if memory serves.
The go-kart captured the super-rad, Xtreme ’90s zeitgeist more than any toy, a graduation from Power Wheels to something more infinitely badass. I asked Sid if I could take it for a spin sometime.
Sid told me if I came around again, he’d stab me.
I dashed down the gritty road back home, blubbering tears of horror coated with the sting of social rejection. This led inevitably to a dramatic confrontation between parents, and Sid presumably received some punishment for his threat.
I never really hung out with Sid after that, partly because I was afraid, but largely because I realized he was a jackass.
Fast-forwarding to the night of Dec. 17 — did my prepubescent experience of being bullied color my perception of the event?
I’m no Carl Jung, but I’d say so.
Because to me, the crowd represented a bunch of Sids: Adult Sids, lady Sids, screaming-kid Sids, all amped up anticipating the thrill of watching men the size of horse jockeys — good lord, racer Sids — careen around a tiny oval in souped-up versions of the kart Sid Proper threatened to kill me over.
What happened right before the crews hauled on the engines’ cords uncoiled Resentment and sent it spitting venom.
First off, the emcee bizarrely prompted the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, that jingoistic creed I hadn’t heard in public since fifth grade. I did not add my voice to the throng.
Call me contrarian.
Then — as if to further underline the “under God” addition to the pledge — an explicitly, almost aggressively Christian prayer, recounting Jesus’ death on Calvary and thanking Him for bestowing upon us the great sport of kart racing.
Call me skeptical.
Finally, a prerecorded country version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” complete with dobro, fiddle and dusty-voiced, baritone twang.
Call me elitist.
Call me insecure.
But I felt like I didn’t belong.
Regardless of my feelings, once the races were underway, to my surprise, all those negative vibes melted away with the caterwauling howl of four-stroke engines.
The 50-lap race went by quick, despite occasional crashes ushering in caution periods, including one within the first lap. Considering the arena, these were 50 short laps. A mandatory, 10-minute pit stop to tweak and modify the karts occurred halfway through the race, evening the field a bit.
It seemed like no one could beat Bob Baker that night.
Baker had won eight previous King of the Concrete titles, including five in a row. He was quoted before the race as saying, “If I can win this race right here, I’m gonna retire from racing.”
Through most of the race, Baker and his bright red No. 31 held a wide lead over all the competition.
But if anyone could catch him, it would be Cameron Carter of Belews Creek in the white No. 171.
Carter needled Baker a few laps after halftime, bumping Baker’s rear, trying to work his way to the inside of the curve. But Baker maintained his lead.
The No. 16 kart wiped out on the back straightaway towards the tail end of the race, and with seven laps to go and the green flag waving, Carter kept making moves towards Baker’s inside, while Baker shook him off for a time.
But three laps to go, and Carter took the lead, working his way inside on the last turn, and even I couldn’t help but cheer.
The checkered flag flew, and Carter rode his victory lap, fists pumping in the air, a new King of the Concrete.
“We’ve come here so many times for this race, and we finally got it,” Carter said to the emcee.
His family huddled around him — Dad in a wheelchair, infant daughter in his arms, “Baby Mama” beaming beside him.
Then Carter, ever full of surprises, added a final twist.
“I got one last question I wanted to ask,” Carter told the crowd.
Handing off his daughter, Carter dropped to one knee and turned to Baby Mama.
“Baby Mama, I want you to marry me,” he proposed.
Women gasped. Baby Mama accepted to riotous applause.
The love exuded by this country kid for his sport and significant other, culminating in maybe the greatest moment of his life, sent Resentment slithering back into its crevice.
Since go-karts led directly to this instant, I found myself forgetting old wounded pride. In the light of love, I could even forgive.