I have this running joke that I grew up white trash. It’s not quite true, but it’s not quite a lie, either. I experienced plenty of privilege, but we also couldn’t afford daily school lunches or family vacations or new cars or, for a long time, a place to live. Existence was an exercise in what I came to call slapdashery, the art of making something work to get you by — like making a box of Hamburger Helper last three days for three people, or doing your dollar-store makeup in the dark on the bus to school because you’d slept in a car, or using a friend’s pool party as an excuse to wash your hair more than once a week. I’ve come a long way since then, but every so often, I become very uncomfortably aware of my upbringing — and the Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix brought out a lot of complex emotions in full force last weekend.
It sounds silly to just now have some sort of existential crisis about F1's exclusivity, after years of following and covering the sport. The Miami GP wasn’t the first time I’d attended a race on someone else’s dime via a press trip. It wasn’t the first time I’d worked in an F1 media center. It wasn’t the first time I’d failed to recognize a celebrity. It wasn’t even the first time I’d been treated to hotels and dinners far swankier anything I’d ever spend money on myself.
But for some reason, this race is the one that got me. I was invited as a guest of Red Bull — the culture arm, not the racing division — to experience a little taste of the off-track nightlife, so it was technically less a press trip to a race than it was a trip to a city hosting a race, and despite the fact that I was still up early working at the race track each day, there was something about the whole “going out to a nice party” thing that got me.
I’ve written about it on Jalopnik before, but I’m a firm believer that you can go to an F1 race on a budget — you just have to pick the right race and know how to prepare accordingly. I spent all the money I’d saved in high school — $2,500 — on one massive summer of race-watching, where I traveled from Montreal to Austria to England for both F1 and Formula E, and still managed to have the money left over for two weeks in Paris.
It wasn’t glamorous. I bought my Canadian Grand Prix tickets during a Black Friday sale, where General Admission tickets were as cheap as $50 for a full weekend. I either stayed in 12-person-per-room hostels or camped at the track. I’d go to great lengths to sneak food and alcohol through the gates to avoid spending money on exorbitantly priced track food. No, it was never exactly cheap, but it always felt attainable.
Miami was the first time I felt differently. I don’t know if it was the $600 GA tickets, the $18 margaritas, the $150 parking passes, the Corvette I had as a press car, the $700-per-night hotels, the paddock loaded with celebrities, or the fact that I wasn’t paying for this out of my own pocket that suddenly touched on a lot of my long-forgotten insecurities, but I was suddenly terribly aware of myself, my presentation, my upbringing, and the fact that I was wholly unable to relate to any of these people. No matter how well I had dressed for the day, I was still wearing an ensemble from Target and had done my own awful manicure in a Starbucks while I waited for my Airbnb to be available. Even with a laptop in my bag, everything I had in my possession was still just a mere fraction of the cost of someone else’s purse or another person’s left shoe. I felt like I was in middle school again, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible so that maybe no one would notice I could only afford one hoodie and a pair of jeans each year.
I’ve taken a lot of pride in the way I’ve grown as a person since I graduated high school, and it’s rare for me to suddenly feel out of place; even if I don’t look the part, I know I’ve earned my right to be there, that my very essence as a person will provide me a unique perspective on what I’m covering and is therefore valuable.
But as the weekend progressed, I found myself struggling more and more. People would ask if I’d seen a certain celebrity in the paddock, but I didn’t really grow up with pop culture; movies and magazines cost money, and I wasn’t really allowed to watch television. I never knew who the heartthrob of the week was growing up, nor did I understand why an athlete was considered an icon. I didn’t have reliable internet access until I was well into high school in an era where your ability to be On Line dictated your ability to maintain real life friendships. I didn’t have those popular frames of reference, and it’s something that will forever prevent me from forming basic connections with people. It’s also prevented me from ever feeling like I deserve the luxury of sitting down to just watch something for enjoyment’s sake. It hurt growing up, and it hurt all over again in Miami.
It’s one of those things that’s so hard to articulate. From an extremely practical and logical perspective, my life would not have benefitted from, say, watching The Office as it debuted on TV. But when you’re barred from accessing a massive cultural touchstone because you just can’t afford it, you quickly realize how deeply that touchstone influences the fabric of daily life. When you’re barred from accessing pretty much all cultural touchstones, you may as well have grown up on a different planet.
I was desperately aware of the fact that my whole sentiment was a little bit goofy. I wasn’t at the Grand Prix as a fashion statement or as a gossip blogger. I was there as a journalist and longtime race fan who worked her ass off to be where she is at 25 years old. But I’d forgotten how deeply those childhood financial insecurities were lodged in the core of my being. I’ve been so used to being in my element at the race track that it was off-putting to feel like I didn’t belong. I spent a long time feeling that way. I spent a long time unlearning those feelings. And there they were, back with a vengeance.
As F1 continues to grow in America and the sport continues to add high-profile events like Miami and Las Vegas — and as I continue to cover that growth — I’m sure these feelings will continue to burble up. I’m sure I’m going to continue to feel out of place. But after a long weekend of bathroom mirror pep talks, I’m up to the challenge, and I know my coverage will be all the better for it.