I remember my first grand prix. My family loaded up our 1974 Chevrolet Impala and drove the hour and a half to Montreal. It was June 1984, and I was about to experience the Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. I was 13 years old.
That first race changed me. Like most teenage boys I loved cars. The sounds, the smells and the speeds of these machines were enough to make a young man’s heart pound out of his chest. It was a three day adrenaline rush unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It wasn’t like my first kiss…it was better! I instantly loved racing and everything that went with it.
The trip to Montreal became an annual pilgrimage for my family. I remember the car rides to and from the track. I remember passing through the obscure border crossing at Trout River, New York; there were a few houses nearby, a building with a couple Canadian border agents and another with the American agents, nothing else. I remember my mother telling the same story of how her grandmother and grandfather left Quebec to start a new life in northern New York State as we passed through their old hometown. My brother and I would interrupt her midway through the story we’d heard countless times with embellished tales of my great-grandparents’ harrowing journey out of St. Martine, Quebec to a new life thirty miles away in Malone, New York. We even took to calling the little town “our homeland” and “the old country.” Mom did not appreciate our humor.
I remember the subway ride from the parking lot in the outskirts of Montreal to the racetrack on the island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. If we were late and the cars were already on the track we’d run to the subway, dragging lawn chairs, sunscreen, rain gear and coolers. It was torture knowing the cars were out and we weren’t there to see them. I remember my mother complaining that her “short legs” (she was 5’ but my brother and I teased her claiming she was 4’12”) couldn’t keep up with my father’s near sprint speed. I remember the Metro ride in jammed packed subway cars with passengers decked out in their favorite team gear. It was all so exciting!
And, of course, I remember the races. I’ve seen many grand prix since that first one in Montreal. But looking back I remember the moments with my family. As an adult, I have a better appreciation of what it took to get a family of four there with a single income. It was too expensive to stay in a hotel, too expensive to buy lunch at the track, andtoo expensive to keep hydrated with beer, water and soda. We managed, though. Mom packed lunches and snacks. We lugged coolers of beer (lots of beer) and soda. And we drove back and forth, all three days. Dad allowed us one souvenir. I still have most of them.
Most importantly, I remember good times with my family. We created memories that will last a lifetime. And this year we’ll do it again. It won’t be Montreal, though. It will be Baltimore. We won’t be dragging coolers of beer and sandwiches and we won’t be jammed packed in subway cars. But Mom and Dad will make the 10 hour drive to Baltimore and we’ll enjoy another grand prix just as that thirteen year old boy did all those years ago. We might even find a way to work a story about St. Martine into the weekend.
Shawn Herne is the Chief Curator for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.