How Young Is Too Young to Pursue a Dangerous Dream?
Are race car driver Lizzy Smith and bullfighter Rafita Mirabal too young?
Oct. 10, 2007 — -- He enters the ring for his moment of truth -- prancing, posing, even walking like a grown man. But appearances can be deceiving.
Rafita Mirabal may look like a toreador, but he is in fact a little boy in a bullfighter's costume.
When asked if he was scared of bulls, 11-year-old Rafita quickly answered, "Well, maybe a normal kid, but not me!"
When Lizzy Smith climbs into her stock car -- with a big pink No. 1 on it -- for high-speed laps around the North Carolina asphalt oval, she too looks much older than her age. Just barely a teenager at 13 years old, Lizzy competes against hard-edged men who don't think twice about spinning her into the wall.
Even though she isn't even old enough to have a learner's permit, Lizzy doesn't think she is a danger to herself or to the other drivers on the track. "Not really, since I've had so much experience," she said confidently.
Two talented kids competing in a very grown-up arena. Theirs are inspiring stories of determination, ambition and skill, children testing themselves in the world of adults. But are they too young to risk death in the sports they love?
"I love everything about [racing]," said Lizzy. "The sound of the cars and the way it smells. The burning rubber and the hot dogs and everything cooking."
Lizzy grew up in the pits and in the garage, and has been in the driver's seat of go-karts since she was 7 years old. It's no surprise that her father was a stock car racer too.
Lizzy said she's definitely a daddy's girl, and racing has brought father and daughter even closer. "I like that he's proud of me because it's cool, but I pretty much do it for me, because it's what I want to do and I like doing it."
Her father, Steve Smith, said Lizzy is a typical 13 year old girl off of the track, but is mature beyond her years on the track. "When she pulls the helmet on, she's not a kid," he said. "She's a racer, with more experience than most of the racers here."
When she races, Lizzy drives at speeds up to 70 miles an hour around the race track. "It's going to be funny when I get my driver's license," she said.
The daredevil teen has been in a couple of accidents and admitted that although she didn't get scared, she definitely was startled. Her father acknowledged that there are risks involved in racing, but said he wouldn't want his daughter to give up her dream.
"You know it's scary, but there's a price for every action and you know you have to assume the risks if you want to try to be exceptional," he said.
Seventeen hundred miles south of North Carolina, in the small town of Aguascalientes, Mexico, Rafita Mirabal and his parents struggle with those same risks. In Mexico City Rafita recently performed at the biggest bullfighting ring in the world. He did very well, and was lifted on the shoulders of the crowd as they shouted his praises.
"These are experiences that can never be compared to anything else," Rafita said. "To be carried out on people's shoulders, hearing the people shout, 'Torero, torero.'"
There are also low points. About a year ago in Texcoco, when Rafita was just 10, he was knocked unconscious when a bull hit him in the face. He was sent out of the ring in an ambulance. Rafita tried to downplay the injury when asked what it feels like to be hit by a bull six times his size. "It feels like I made a mistake, like I messed up," he said.
Just a few weeks ago Rafita was charged again by a 500-pound bull. He was knocked off his feet, and although he tried to bravely challenge the bull again, he was pummeled to the ground for a second time. Rafita's eye was cut and with tears in them he looked every bit the 11 year old boy he is.
"Yes, I know about the blows, about the risks and that one day a bull could gore me to death," said Rafita. But this doesn't stop him from doing what he loves. His father, who nervously stands watch at the edge of the ring during each contest, worries that if something terrible happens he will be blamed.
"Many times I have asked God if I am making a mistake," said Rafael Mirabal. "Should I cut off Rafa's career right there and say, 'That's it, it's over?' I've lost sleep over it and the one who is responsible in this case would be me."
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