A relationship that's on (a slot car) track

Cars were integral to Rob Hayes's childhood.

His dad was a Ford Motor Company executive who enjoyed some success racing roadsters across southern California's dry lakes. In the mid 1960s, Rob and his dad discovered slot-car racing and would search out tracks wherever the family vacationed.

Now Mr. Hayes wants to share this father-son passion with his own five-year-old, Henry. He went so far as to pump out the badly flooded basement in his Cambridge, Mass., condo in order to set up an elaborate slot-car, model racetrack.

"I'm trying not to say anything like, 'Henry, this is what we do,' but instead, 'I'm going to go down in the basement Tuesday night, and if you want to come down, great,' " Hayes says. "I want to make it as easy and as attractive as I can, but it has to be his choice, otherwise he won't race."

Hayes, director of public information at Berklee College of Music in Boston, says he's hooked on slot-car racing and will continue regardless (he's director of the Miniature Auto Racing Club of New England). Happily, though, Henry has shown an interest in racing the palm-size cars, which zip around an electrified track.

An especially gratifying moment for papa Hayes occurred earlier this year when he was hosting a club race. Henry was doing well using an extra-strong traction magnet, which helps hold the car to the track. But given the chance to earn some points competing with a regular magnet, he took the challenge.

"I got ridiculously happy," Henry's dad says, not because of his finish [fifth], but "because despite being pretty competitive, he didn't want an unfair advantage." This was a sweet payoff for a dad's gentle nurturing.

Slot cars aren't Henry's only interest. He is more athletically adept than his dad was at a similar age, and he's taken an interest in playing baseball and has talked about playing hockey.

But Hayes encourages his son's penchant for building by purchasing construction-type toys. Currently, father and son are working on a robot and a model aircraft carrier.

The ship overtaxes Henry's ability to handle small parts, he says, but the project - when done in installments - is still satisfying. "I love just being able to sit down next to him," Hayes says. "It's like reading him a book."

The 200-piece model is put away again and again. At first, Mr. Hayes says he thought, "We shouldn't have gotten this thing. We'll step on it by accident before we finish it."

Now, however, he sees the process of father-son interaction as the reward, not the model's completion. "I don't care if we're still working on it when he's 20; it's OK," he says, "as long as Henry's still interested."

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