By Patrick Tandy
As a 24-year veteran of the Baltimore County
Fire Department, Assistant Chief Mark Hubbard has spent the better part of
his life emphasizing the importance of safety. So it was with no small degree
of caution that Hubbard and his wife considered their then-six-year-old son
Ryan's auto-racing ambitions a few years ago.
"We were cautious at first because the first
things you think of are the stereotypes – the injuries and things like
that," admits Hubbard, who began pursuing a law degree in the late '90s (he
was admitted to the Maryland Bar in December 2003) as a means to augment
his largely administrative duties in handling the Department's support services.
But as Ryan's interest took greater hold with each trip to the go-kart track,
Hubbard realized the need for a stable
– and safe – environment to regularly foster his young son's growing
The Hubbards found what they were looking for
in Quarter Midget racing, a sport that focuses on budding racers ages 5 to
15. Racers compete on tracks (approximately one-twentieth of a mile in length,
both paved and unpaved) in the vehicles (which are approximately one-quarter
the size of regular midget racers) that give the sport its name.
"I'll tell you –
some of the hits I saw [Ryan] take in lacrosse, and watching football in that
age group," says Hubbard. "Statistically, this sport is no more dangerous – and
probably safer – because they are just emphatic about
safety regulations and rules."
To be sure, safety features such as seatbelts,
roll cages, helmets and harnesses are required, and good sportsmanship is
heavily emphasized. (There are no monetary awards given; instead, winners
Moreover, family members maintain active roles. "[P]arents
are called ‘handlers' – we're like the pit crew, and it's our
job to buy the car, fix the car, adjust the car for the track conditions," explains
Hubbard, who admits his role as mechanic was a little daunting at first. "When
I first got the car, I didn't know how to start the thing; there's no Quarter
Midgets for Dummies book out there. I am not mechanically inclined, but,
you know – maybe you lean towards hobbies that you have very little
experience in, because that's what makes it a hobby. It's fascinating to
learn and watch; that's what makes it fun for me."
Hubbard admits that other parents' readiness
and willingness to help out impressed him from the start. "When we were driving
around [to different tracks], just getting a feel for it, seeing if I could
fit in, not knowing anything about mechanics, talking to the people – they
would drop whatever they were doing to talk to you, really bend over backwards
to help you. I mean, if you break a part and you don't have it, someone else
is there by your side with it. And the most amazing thing is [that] when
something happens during a race –
you would think that the other competitors and their parents would say, you
know, ‘Bad luck.' But no – they swarm out [and] they try to fix
the car as best they can and get them back on the track."
This supportive environment keeps Hubbard trailering
his son's car to Quarter Midgets of America (QMA)-sanctioned
racetracks all over Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey for
most weekends between April and October.
"They run the sport, essentially: safety rules,
insurance rules, competitive rules," Hubbard explains of QMA. "Ryan has a
driver's card; he can show up at any QMA track in the country and drive.
He's a member, he shows up, pays his entrance fee.
"The tracks are good at staggering their schedules.
For example, the ones within a hundred miles of each other – one will
race Friday night, one Saturday, one Sunday, so sometimes if I have a free
weekend we'll mix it up."
Ryan, of course, leaves the nuts and bolts to
his father; after all, he is busy learning his craft (and crafting his image).
"It's so funny to watch him," Hubbard remarks. "You
might as well turn on NASCAR on Sunday; he's got the same persona as those
drivers. I'll be very surprised if he doesn't do something in the
industry, and especially the way the industry has taken off."
In fact, Hubbard's tangential involvement in "the
industry" has carried over into his own professional life. "I teach part-time
for Loyola College and the University of Maryland," he says. "One of the
classes is a business strategy class, so we look for marketing examples of
companies that have really done something spectacular; we used the sports
industry and what publicity and marketing have done for NASCAR.
"I read something in the paper about a year ago,
where some of those NASCAR-type teams are already scouting kids as young
as eight-years-old. So it's like baseball: they're digging down deep, looking
for that talent. I've got that in the corner of my eye, looking at the big
picture – and here we are at the grassroots level."
More than two years after taking up Quarter Midget
racing, both father and son – who turns nine next month – are
still on course. "[Some racers] actually move up and stay in racing in some
way, shape or form, and others just do this while [they] are of the age and
move on," says Hubbard.
"This is an expensive sport," he admits. "I
would say, conservatively, just to get into the sport you're going to pay
five– to ten-thousand dollars [for] the car, the trailer, the parts,
the entrance fees. But once you get into it, it gets a little better."
For Hubbard, however, the investment is worth
far more than an assortment of tools and spare parts. "The discipline, the
focus, the social skills that I see him building through participating in
this – I'm very pleased with that," he explains.
"I stop and think: I can see in myself my father
30 years ago, when we were doing sports like that, and the time that he was
around Boy Scouts, Little League," Hubbard adds. "You don't think about it
at the time, but you reflect – 30 years later, those memories that
come back. And I'm hoping that we're building memories, because we spend
an awful lot of time together, and I just think that this will have a lasting
impression on [Ryan] that I hope he will give to his children."