He wasn't perfect. At all. He had two failed marriages (the second of which produced me) before he got it right with my stepmother, Kathy, a woman with the understanding and patience of a saint. They were married a shade over 19 years, together for much longer than that. And together, despite working overnight shifts at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, they completed a dream.
(Phone rings. I answer:) "Hello?"
"Skippy, guess what." (We always called each other 'Skippy', for probably 15 or 16 years, and I have no idea why.)
"I got a race car."
To me, a ten year-old kid that bled 30-weight oil and recited race statistics like Rain Man, it was the coolest thing in the world. Dude, my dad was a race car driver!
He started in 1993 at Thunder Road, running a Pinto with the number '1' on it. He chose that number because, well, he figured all he had to do was drag a paint brush one good swipe down the door and it was done. Truth is, he spent a fair amount of time making his cars look good, and did everything mechanical himself, too.
Not really knowing as much as he thought he did about minor things like engines, it wasn't always easy. But it got done. Dad ran mid-pack most of the first year, but squeaked out 10th place in points -- over guys like Cris Michaud and Joey Becker, no less -- and had a helluva great time. Won a couple of heat races, finished fourth in a feature once, all for about a $2,500 investment, including the trailer.
The next year wasn't quite as good points-wise -- 23rd -- but he finished second in a 'B' feature and got a trophy for it, and was eventually voted the "Favorite Driver" -- a legitimate, track-run, season-long fan voting -- for the Street Stock division.
He ran twice in 1995 before he sold the car and finished racing, then I came along five years later with my own cars. And of course, Dad passed his wealth of engine knowledge down to me, so things stayed pretty interesting.
But we had a helluva great time.
After I got done racing in 2004, Dad sort of stayed out of the racing loop for the most part. Then last year my son, Landon, turned two years old and they started coming to the races together while I was working as an official. This past summer with this VMM thing I've got here, the three of us went to Thunder Road together a couple of times and just sat in the stands and watched the races, and we went to the Northeastern Speedway reunion, too. We brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, gulped down a quart or two of french fries, and laughed and played and ooohh'ed and aaahh'ed at everything. Dad even took some pictures and videos for the website.
We had a helluva great time.
Around Milk Bowl time, Dad picked up a mini-bike chassis and decided he'd start himself a little gang. Within two weeks, he and his two brothers each had mini-bikes. And then we learned about Bucktona, and Dad got pumped up pretty quick about that, too. We located a car, devised a plan to get it there, and figured it would be the greatest spectacle we'd ever been a part of.
But the night before the race on October 9, maybe about 12 hours before we were planning to leave the house to get the track, I got home from work and Dad sat me down. He had just found out that day that he had lung cancer. I was a little lost with the news, but not at all surprised -- three packs a day for 30 years will do that to a man. Either way, we both decided to press on to Bucktona, cancer be damned.
And we had a helluva great time.
In the days following the race, we began all the appointments and tests and procedures that come along with cancer. It wasn't fun, but all of the doctors seemed optimistic, and the (very good) test results only backed them up. Piece of cake.
So we kept going on the mini-bikes. The more we built, the more problems we found. But parts were ordered, swears were mumbled, knuckles were hammer-beaten, you know, all the same stuff that happens when you build race cars. And the fleet grew to five mini-bikes, a three-wheeled tricycle-looking thing, a go-kart, and along with myself, two more draftees into the very exclusive club.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally got most of the fleet operational, and let 'em rip around the block one day. Six grown men, breaking all sorts of traffic laws, giggling like schoolchildren.
It was a helluva great time.
Dad went in for surgery to remove the cancerous lung two days later, one week ago today. The surgery went well, and the recovery was going wonderfully, better and faster than anticiapated.
But somewhere along the way one night, something went wrong, and now Dad's not coming home.
My sisters and Kathy and I made our peace with everything, and now we begin the next chapters of our own lives without him. It's not going to be easy.
But I'll always have the luxury of going through my memory bank and pulling up moments from nights in the pits at Thunder Road or Airborne, or of playing cards at deer camp, or of losing to him at hockey on the PlayStation (he was really good), or of learning how to properly swear, or of telling dirty jokes, or how to be a good dad to my own son, or of playing guitar, or of anything else. Dad was one of my best friends, and he knew it.
And we had a helluva great time. I love ya, Skippy.
Ronald Lynn St. Louis
Feb. 22, 1954 -- Dec. 9, 2009