We started off slow, in the church parking lot. From there, we graduated to an elementary school, then a community college and, finally, the open road. Yes, I am giving my 16-year-old daughter driving lessons. She’s doing fine; good, even; great, really. It’s me who’s struggling. It’s not that she’s terrifying me; it’s that she’s not doing anything to terrify me at all, ever, and yet I’m jammed with fear and anxiety anyway.
I expect her to be herky-jerky on the brakes and put me halfway through the windshield. When I think she should slow down, I mash my right foot into the floorboard, and my right hand just about rips the grab handle off the car ceiling as I tell her as gently as I can, “Brake, BRA-ke, BRAKE BEFORE WE ALL DIE, BRAKE!”
She has never come close to running a red, never come close to rear-ending a car, never done anything remotely justifying my reaction. Every single time, she stops early and gently, and yet I kept flipping out anyway. “I am braking,” she finally said, and I’ll be darned: She was. She is so gentle on the brakes I couldn’t, and still can’t, feel us slowing down. How she learned to do that I have no idea.
She—I’ll call her Maria Andretti Crossman—has also made it clear she doesn’t need me to point out what color stoplights are. “I can see the light is red; you don’t have to tell me,” she said, the tone in her voice overflowing with I’m-not-a-baby-anymore-Dad! exasperation.
Who’s teaching whom, I have thought more than once.
I’m learning—or trying to. I haven’t slammed my foot into the floorboard in weeks, and I graduated from saying, “The light’s red,” to thinking it as loud as I can. Proof that that works: She hasn’t run one yet.
Professional Driving Lessons for the Road—And Life
I realized along the way that maybe, just maybe, I’m not the best teacher for this situation. Then a solution as obvious as a Mack Truck barreling toward us on a one-lane road dawned on me: As a NASCAR writer for more than 20 years, I have access to the greatest drivers in the world. I can ask them for advice to pass along to my daughter.
So, I did—and a funny thing happened. In addition to giving Maria driving lessons, I’m learning how I teach, how she learns and how to use that knowledge to get where we’re going, whether it’s in a car, a job or a career. The lessons happen seemingly every time she puts the car in drive, slowly accelerates and comes to a soft, gentle, complete stop.
Lesson No. 1: Learn by doing.
When I first started covering NASCAR, I could not understand how drivers could race so close to the wall and each other for hours on end. I still don’t understand, but at least I know they did not start out able to do that. They learned through trial and error. Even the great Jeff Gordon—a four-time champion, one of the most transformative figures in NASCAR history and, like me, the father of a teenage daughter—crashed and wrecked a ton of cars early in his career. He became great because his team owner, Rick Hendrick, had the patience to let Gordon learn from those mistakes.
A few weeks ago, as Maria drove, some idiot wandered out into the road and just stood there. It was night, the road was poorly lit and a car coming from the other direction was going to arrive at the idiot at the exact time we were. I didn’t know if Maria could process all of that—I barely could—so yelling was my natural reaction. “STOP!” I bellowed.
I regretted it immediately, and not just because I startled her when she was trying to drive, but also because I didn’t give her a chance to deal with the problem herself. When I asked Gordon for advice to give to Maria, I didn’t tell him about the idiot in the road, but his answer sounded like I had. “Be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “This comes with time and experience, but it’s never too early to start the process. Knowing what others around you are doing and anticipating their next move can help prevent possible accidents from occurring.”
That applies to work as well. Our surroundings have changed considerably in the last three years. There will be times when yelling “STOP” from the passenger seat is the right call—if a meteor is coming at us or I see Taylor Swift tickets lying in the road. Other than that, I should let her figure it out herself because, after 16 years of being her dad, I know that’s how she learns best.
Lesson No. 2: Don’t be in a hurry.
I haven’t written on deadline much lately, and I’m glad of it. I covered the Daytona 500 many times. The deadline anxiety started when I woke up that morning and kept going as I drove to the track, waited in traffic, walked to the media center, etc. It exploded when the race ended. Every word, sentence and decision about it weighed 10,000 pounds.
Hours later, when I crawled into my hotel room bed, falling asleep was a challenge—my hands would be clammy, my heart pounding, my breathing shallow. My mind would be racing, out of adrenaline, out of elation that it was over, out of fear that I wet the bed on the story.
When Maria pulled into the driveway recently, my hands were clammy, my heart was pounding, my breathing was shallow and my mind was racing. If I was feeling pressure, I knew she must be, too. For Maria, every turn, brake, acceleration and decision about these actions must weigh 10,000 pounds. It didn’t help that I was watching, piling the anxiety of being scrutinized on top of the anxiety of learning a new skill.
I have years of experience dealing with deadline pressure. This is all new for Maria. The key, in driving, in writing, in work, in life, is not to let the pressure force you into bad decisions. “Try not to rush any decision when driving,” Gordon told me to tell Maria. “As a new driver, others around you will understand if you take extra time when changing lanes or pulling out of a driveway—so make good decisions, not quick ones.”
This made me think of my first day at Sporting News, a national magazine for which I worked for 13 years (and covered the Daytona 500 many times). I arrived there after spending six years in daily newspapers, going as fast as I could every day. My new boss gave me a project, I told him I’d get it done right away, and he told me not to.
He told me to do it well, not quickly.
It’s a lesson I have to repeat to myself over and over, especially as a freelancer.
Lesson No. 3: Pay attention to what you’re doing.
Jimmie Johnson is arguably the greatest NASCAR driver of his era; only Gordon is in that conversation. Johnson won seven championships (tied for most with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and 83 races, including two Daytona 500s, one of which I covered. Like me, he has two daughters, though his are several years younger than mine.
When I asked him for driving advice, he sounded like he was imagining riding shotgun to his girls. He offered what he called a “dad layup” by advocating distraction-free driving: phone down, radio volume low, over-caffeinated friends not invited, etc. That’s great advice that carries over into the workplace in the attention economy. There are a million things clamoring for our attention. We work best—no, we live best—when we eliminate as many of them as possible.
The only problem: Early on, at least, I was often the distraction, whether it was by encouraging her to brake, telling her the light was red or yelling, “STOP,” when there was an idiot in the road. I have since learned to shut up.
Lesson No. 4: Play by the rules—except when you don’t.
I’ve driven with enough NASCAR stars to know it’s better to listen to their advice than to emulate them. While driving a rental SUV, Carl Edwards sped into the tunnel that goes under the track at Daytona International Speedway. He blasted out of the tunnel’s uphill exit and launched us into the Florida night. We landed about 45 feet later and stopped near a parking attendant. “You again,” the attendant said.
I didn’t realize until I started teaching Maria that I set almost as bad of an example. I treat most traffic laws as suggestions: I don’t come to complete stops, I use my turn signal only when I think of it, which isn’t often, and I don’t drive the speed limit. As Johnson said: “We’re not going to be the one in the fast lane going slow.”
Nobody would argue, except maybe Maria. She is a lifelong, rule-following, black-and-white, oldest-child literalist. Whatever the speed limit sign says, that’s what Maria drives. A road near our house turns slightly, and the speed limit drops from 45 to 35, a completely unnecessary change. Exactly one person—Maria—follows it, and often the car behind her gets so close we could join their conversation. That makes her nervous, and at some point, she’ll make a mistake because of it. So far, I am fighting the urge to tell her to break the speed limit, even though I know I should.
But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t advocate she break the law in any other circumstance. I wouldn’t tell her to disregard her boss’ directive because nobody else followed it. I wouldn’t say it’s OK to blow off her homework because all of her classmates were. “Everybody else is doing it” is an ugly reason to do something, and I’d laugh (lovingly) at her if she used it with me in defense of anything… except breaking the speed limit.
The best thing about parenting is this confusion will continue on a variety of topics until I die.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by sumroeng chinnapan/shutterstock.com.