Friday, January 29, 2010

Jack is Back

When Miss Sprint Cup, Anne Marie Rhodes, announced she wasn't returning for the 2010 season after three splendid years as one of the most photographed faces in NASCAR, I sensed the proverbial house of cards beginning to fall.

You see, before my own "Clueless New Yorker in NASCAR Country" stories at the very end of The Weekend Starts on Wednesday, Anne Marie was the final fan chapter. Her story stands, of course; little girl loves NASCAR, gazes into Victory Lane to see Miss Winston, and grows up to get her dream job as Miss Sprint Cup. Anne Marie did an amazing job, and won the hearts of many fans. But she's no longer Miss Sprint Cup this year, when the book hits, something I'd blindly assumed would happen.

Like many of the fans I profiled, Anne Marie impressed me. She's a graceful, beautiful, earnest, hard-working, good-natured young lady who loves God and her country and NASCAR. I'd like and admire her even if I hadn't written about her. But I'd be lying to not also recognize I was crushed she'd not be on the circuit, able to talk up The Weekend Starts on Wednesday 2/47 for our ten-month season. Please don't hate me for my sugar plum fantasies of Anne Marie bringing my book into victory lane during the winner-jumps-out-of-the-car TV shot.

What got me on edge was then hearing about Jack Hege. He's the first chapter, the story of a young man falling in love with NASCAR on the beaches of Daytona and then, like a migratory bird, heading from North Carolina to Florida each February, to attend the Daytona 500. He's done it astounding 51 years in a row.

Anne Marie, the final chapter, had chosen to move on to new adventures (she's a talented painter and I can't wait to see some of her work; maybe we'll get to preview it here). And then I heard Jack Hege, chapter one, wouldn't be attending the Daytona 500.

My lord, I thought, I'm a curse.

Was being featured as a remarkable fan in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday like getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated? The Giangola jinx? My book wasn't even at retail and the first and last fan each looked to be inching away from NASCAR. Would everyone in between follow? Tire Man would hang up his Goodyear and show up in the infield in regular clothes? Mike Wright switches from the King to Bobby Allison? Junior's Baby88 Girl shows up at Auto Club Speedway in a Jeff Gordon hat? Tom Cruise starts attending X Games instead of NASCAR races? Miss USA sashays out in a racy Formula 1 outfit?

Well, that's not the case. Anne Marie remains a big NASCAR fan, and Jack is back! Our season opener on Valentine's Day will be 52 years in a row...53 if you count watching the last race on the beach. (Check out his chapter, "A Moment in the Sun" for the tale of his buddy pulling onto the race course, with several cars following down the beach....they had to turn around and come back!)

Last year, Jack, 82 at the time, had his tickets but didn't want to drive to Daytona. Dustin Long, the motorsports reporter for the Greensboro News & Record wrote about an amazing streak of ultimate fandom about to end. A local resident saw the story, offering to accompany Jack to Daytona. In a Krispy Kreme donut shop, the two men hit it off, and Jack had a traveling partner.

Well, Dustin came through again. His recent follow up piece on Hege likely to watch the race on TV made it to an old friend of Jack's from more than 50 years ago. Once more, Jack has a ride, and will be trackside for the Great American Race.

If they want to put The Weekend Starts on Wednesday on the cover of Sports Illustrated, maybe we can break that curse, too.

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