DAYTONA BEACH – Kenny Gregory, known to thousands of fans as “The Fathead Guy” for mounting his life-size driver cutouts in the turf at his campsite, is a proud grandfather and nearly as proud to be featured in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans. Kenny gave his 14-year old grandson the book, and the boy enthusiastically shared his granddad’s chapter with the kids at school. That might have been okay in English class. But this was math. So my book was confiscated and has been effectively banned from a middle school in Sandy Lake, PA.
But that incident, putting me in the censored company of John Steinbeck and The Gay Sheikh, is no indication of the splendid week we had officially launching The Weekend Starts on Wednesday as NASCAR opened its season in frigid Daytona Beach.
There have been several positive reviews and a flurry of interesting news stories about our fan book. George Vecsey of The New York Times said I write “very nicely” – high and flattering praise from the esteemed columnist. Sports radio personality Chris Mad Dog Russo, who has made his dislike for NASCAR quite clear, read Vecsey’s piece and had me on his show. Mad Dog opened up by calling the book “marvelous.” A Hollywood producer with credits ranging from Erin Brockovich to Pulp Fiction heard the Sirius interview and inquired about the book’s film rights. The next day, in Arctic-like Daytona, a place Al Gore was clearly avoiding, seven fans from The Weekend Starts on Wednesday joined me and the lovely, multi-talented Miss Sprint Cup Monica Palumbo for an entertaining Q&A at the Sprint Experience in the track’s corporate display area. It felt like ten below, yet Tire Man from the book (and Chelsea, AL in real life) was on stage in all his glory, naked except for his Goodyear Eagle and straw hat, just as he’d been when he and I went live on “Good Day Tampa” three days earlier. (Both the Orlando Sentinel and the Daytona Beach News Journal would run photos of Tire Man.) Plus, I signed a few dozen books, two hats, and one bare butt. It was a man’s ass. You have to start somewhere.
We haven't sold many copies, but all the publicity felt good. With that beehive of activity and the demands from the old day job put to rest, I was able to take in the Daytona 500 with the fans. Having never seen The Great American race from atop an RV, I gladly accepted Kenny Gregory’s offer to climb his hauler stationed off Turn 1. As fate had it, Sgt. Russ Friedman (namesake of the spring Richmond race and subject of the chapter “Toasting a Hero”) happened to pass by, and he and his dad, a dentist from Patchogue, LI, joined me and Kenny’s friend Bill Strope on the motor home’s roof.
If you’ve read Kenny’s story, you know he’ an amazing, generous, selfless man. He puts the Fatheads in front of his site to generate conversations, and most fans – strangers only minutes before – walk away with some sort of party favor: a flashing rubber bracelet or glowing necklace, maybe a string of glittering metallic beads. During the off-season, Kenny helped arrange for his friend Bill, who’s been sick but is valiantly battling back, to get two weeks off from work to accompany him to Speedweeks. This was Central Florida, but the track was nonetheless meat-locker cold; 180,000 people, right or wrong, were getting increasingly pissed at Sen. Gore as the temperature dropped. Kenny and Bill were offering Sgt. Friedman and me their jackets, and running Bloody Marys and tall cans of Guinness and Bill’s amazing roast pork to the top of the hauler. Before long, I was clad in beads and lighted jewelry. Before leaving Pennsylvania for Speedweeks in Florida, Kenny had spent $400 on a heap of twinkling party favors.
“I call him ‘Kenny Claus’ because he brings Christmas with him to every race,” Bill Strope said as he served plates of brosciotto wrapped in warm mozzarella and plates of scrumptious pork. Sgt. Freidman, who was hit with a rocket propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents, was watching Bill being Bill, and Kenny being Kenny, and he said, “I look at these guys and it makes me feel good there are people like this. Humanity has hope.”
Hope we may have, but we still haven’t figured reliable on-schedule winter travel. Steve and Christine Deuker, featured in the chapter, “Ryan’s Hope,” called their trip to Daytona “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The Deukers departed Minneapolis for a connection in Alanta. However, their jet was diverted to Nashville during an historic storm that had canceled 5,700 flights along the east coast. Christine, who has been active in bringing together the fans in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday was making this trip primarily to attend Saturday’s launch event at the Sprint Experience. She’d be missing that. As the plane banked away from its course to Atlanta, she had to try very hard not to cry.
The Deukers would unfortunately miss the book launch with their so-called “chapter buddies” but nothing was going to keep them from the Daytona 500. Steve was first to rush off the courtesy bus to rent a car. In a straight shot, they drove 700 miles to Daytona Beach. “We remembered the story in your book about Miss Sprint Cup,” Christine told me. “Her plane was cancelled so she jumped in a rental car and drove to the appearance. We were inspired. If Anne Marie could do it, so could we.”
With tens of thousands of fans already in town for the Daytona 500, the couple’s lodging choices were slim. They settled for a motel called “The Value Place” in Sanford. Sure, the name didn’t indicate brass-buttoned bellhops and turn-down truffles on the pillow, but how bad could it be? “We walked in behind four farting Chinamen and were then told we’d have to purchase toilet paper for a dollar a roll,” Steve explained.
The Deukers’ 757 was too big to unload at the airport in Nashville so they were also without luggage. When we finally met on pit road on Sunday right before the National Anthem, they were wearing three-day old shirts made specially for the race. On the front was a picture of their departed son, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and the brick they’d inscribed for Ryan Newman, who bears a striking resemblance to Joseph. On the back was their photo with Ryan from the book, and below it the title, “The Weekend Starts on Wednesday.” It was sad to see my good friends and loyal supporters without their other clothes. However, if they had to wear any shirt the rest of their stay in Florida, or maybe the rest of the winter season, there was no better garment.
“It was the trip from hell but well worth it; we’re meeting our chapter buddies here at the Daytona 500,” Steve said with a smile.
When I spotted the Deukers and their brilliant shirts, I’d been with CPL. John Hyland (“A Purple Heart and a Titanium Leg”). We’d gotten John a pace car ride with NASCAR’s Brett Bodine earlier, and he nearly met Gov. Sarah Palin at pre-race; so the soldier who’d lost a leg was choosing to bear the discomfort of hoofing it all over this massive 2.5-mile track. The Deukers were especially excited to finally meet John, who’s been through so much after suffering his injuries and enduring dozens of operations, and now has many good things cooking with a singing career cranking up.
Last season, John and I genuinely hit it off at the race in Texas. But our bond was not the typical way you’d meet someone, find common interests and share laughs. I asked questions and CPL. Hyland talked his experiences in Iraq, the dozens of operations after the roadside bomb, the difficult transition to a new life. He talked for nearly 12 hours without a break. As a writer, it was one of the most intense and exhausting days of my life.
And now John told me a very special story about his son, Hunter. He didn’t intend for the 10-year old to look at The Weekend Starts on Wednesday. But the book was found and his father’s story read. “I went home and my boy had tears in his eyes,” CPL. Hyland explained. “Hunter said, ‘Daddy I never knew what you went through.’” CPL. Hyland confessed that when we met in Texas, he told me things he’d never said before.
Before we got to pit road, a TV crew from NASCAR Media Group was beginning work on what we hope will be a documentary on the book. This time, in front of a camera in a dramatically lit room off Daytona International Speedway’s media center, John was again pouring his heart out about September 11 (the date he was blown up), God, country and sacrifice. While this was happening, Tire Man was taking pictures with delighted ladies and laughing guys in the infield. As I ran from CPL. Hyland’s intense soul-baring interview to Tire Man’s hooting jaunt through the infield – in itself an exercise in examining the modern day female libido, social mores, and sexual puns – the juxtaposition of the serious and absurd was confusing. And then I realized this may be the best, most distinctive thing about our fan book. It uncovers all sides of the NASCAR experience.
“The tire is the boundary,” Tire Man told me. “There have been times when a cold hand comes up the rear quarter panel, and I wonder if I should take these gloves off to show my wedding band.”
This was my seventh Daytona 500. I’d seen amazing finishes, triumphs of popular drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the historic 50th running of the Great American Race. But this edition, sharing it with the fans in my book, seeing their joyous faces when close to the racecars and drivers, was shaping up to be the best one by far. I ran over to check on Mike Wright, who’s been to more than 250 races and has met Richard Petty nearly 200 times.
Mike was standing about as close as you can get to a racecar without touching it. The car was revving its engine to test their spark plugs. You feel that in your intestines. When the revving stopped, the six foot four truck driver from Virginia looked at me and deadpanned, “I’m like a pig in shit.”
Before this weekend, our fourth together at a race, Mike would call me “Lucky Dog,” since my job takes me to the races. Now he’s started calling me, “Crack Dealer.” I ran back to tend to CPL. Hyland’s interview, and over the course of the next few hours, Mike would text me a half dozen times. Just two words: “Crack Dealer.” I could picture him out there next to the pit boxes, in the garages, near the flag stand, dragging his good-sport wife Karen all over the track. Yeah, Mike even met up with the King.
It turned out to be one of the longest Daytona 500 races in history. Due to global cooling, at least this month, the track developed a deep pot hole on the turn not too far from Kenny Gregory’s trailer (and where fans have wheelbarrow races at night.) The delay in fixing the asphalt in the unseasonable conditions was a bummer for the TV audience, but near the Fatheads, with Bill Strope mixing up gallons of tangy Bloody Marys, no one at Kenny’s place was heard complaining. Seeing on his rooftop TV the close-up shots of the hole in the asphalt, I was wondering if most New Yorkers might finally “get” NASCAR.
When the action resumed, Jamie McMurray won a thriller featuring 21 different leaders. Crowd favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. charged through the field in the final laps, but McMurray, with only three previous victories in his seven year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career and now driving for a brand new team, held on to become the ninth Daytona 500 winner in the past nine years.
Before leaving the track, I stopped by Club 3, a fun bar several fans construct each year amid the RVs and converted school buses. Club 3 has its own logo, ample supplies of Alabama slammers, serious wattage in its sound system, and a gravel-voice DJ who wears a thick bushy black wig and a prosthetic bare buttocks sticking from his pants. The country and rock and roll music is played so loud, I can never find a way to ask about the point of the costume. Last year at Club 3, I’d met “The Imitator,” a Dale Earnhardt lookalike, and wanted to see if he’d be there again.
I walk into the club, and who do I encounter but none other than Tire Man, posing for pictures with Dale. It must have been 40 degrees outside, and Chris was holding his ubiquitous Coors Light, wearing nothing but Joe Nemechek’s right front qualifying tire, his red gloves, and that straw hat. I sensed it was going to be an interesting night.