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.

A Racer, Not a Kid

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.

'One Day a Bull Could Gore Me to Death'

"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."

But on the other hand, the elder Mirabal recognizes his son's happiness and determination and has decided all of the anguish is worth it. "When he has a good bullfight and I see him smiling in front of the bull, I think he is really enjoying life," he said.

'She Just Soared'

Should these parents just say no to their children? One mother doesn't think so -- in fact, she encouraged her daughter to soar in a way few children have.

At 7 years old, Jessica Dubroff was a pilot in training who aspired be the youngest person to fly across the United States. She had an instructor as a co-pilot, but Jessica would be at the controls, using special foot pedals and a seat cushion for height.

Jessica's mother, Lisa Blair Hathaway, said her daughter simply loved to fly. "She just soared. She absolutely loved it."

But just after takeoff 11 years ago, Jessica, her father and her co-pilot disappeared from the radar screens and crashed in stormy weather. They all lost their lives.

Remarkably, Jessica's mom said she would tell Rafita and Lizzy's parents to let their children take risks. "I do not question what she loved, how could I have second thoughts about her doing what she loved?" Hathaway said.

Hathaway feels that a parent's role is to protect their children but not to control them, and reaffirms that she would never have wanted her daughter to stop doing what she loved.

Columbia University's Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie, a pediatrician and psychiatrist, would advise parents differently, and has the physiological backup to prove it. Recent studies show that the brain does not fully develop until a child is past their teens and that one of the last parts to develop is the frontal lobe, where judgment is formed.

"I think parents have to be their kid's frontal lobes for the first 10 or 15 years of their lives," she said. "And that's really our task."

How young is too young? For the parents of a child with a special skill, on the track or in the ring, it may be the toughest question of all.