Strange things, often unexplainable, happen on the road.
That one morning, a peculiar email text message came in from an unfamiliar phone number. Actually, several will arrive.
The first asks, you’ve had something 2 eat?
I am in North Carolina, mobile, time pressed, bummed there’s no room for a quick stop at Chick-fil-A. And I’m pissed at myself for not printing decent directions for all the driving to NASCAR race shops that will be done today.
Normal people just erase. But I never met an email I didn't like. There is a tidal pull to respond.
(Confession: Like a true addict, I’m now replying to just about every incoming note. Even spam. Those, I answer with a customized phony “automated out of the office” response. For example, a course offered on civility and manners in the workplace warranted a rude, profanity-laced tirade. The growing collection of my responses is not for the faint of heart, a family audience, or appropriate to this particular story.)
Another text comes in:
I hope you’ve had something 2 eat?
It’s an innocent and caring question saying so much with so little. Uncharacteristically, I don’t find the time to try to be clever. I simply type “no,” and click “send.
Minutes later, the person behind this strange number asks:
Did u put clothes out fr laundry?
Huh? The number means nothing to me. It’s 917, my wife’s mobile phone exchange, but clearly not Viviane (who routinely throws my dirty crap into the machine without the need to text about it, which I’m thankful for).
I reckon I know what’s going on: this is a woman believing she’s texting her husband or significant other.
How do you know that? It could be a beautiful Soho art dealer texting her grad school roommate-slash–secret lover from a glass-enclosed high-rise office with the Central Park view. But, why even consider a woman? We all do laundry. How utterly early ‘60’s-Don Draper to go assuming. Perhaps it’s a torn son, texting a slowly fading father losing his mind to Alzheimer’s or the effects of mercury poisoning from a lifetime of lunchtime tuna fish, or whatever reason is behind the shutdown of a brain. Shoot, it could be anyone; how can you possibly guess who?
I’m with the The Wall Street Journal in the middle of an impressive shop tour at Hendrick Motor Sports. You could eat off the freaking floor, it’s so clean. They have 113 people on the payroll solely to build race car engines. There are talented guys standing at built-from-the-floor machinery, manufacturing parts from raw aluminum. They make their own pistons here in this sprawling complex off Papa Joe Hendrick Blvd. Who makes pistons from scratch nowadays? Shouldn't they come on a ship in a box from an outfit across the Pacific Ocean paying their people $2 a week?
You step into another building spacey as a gymnasium and guys are twisting metal bars to build chassis from the ground up. They’re working on spic-and-span tables they built. In another room, they’re constructing carbon fiber driver seats, precisely tuned to the contour and preference of each driver’s particular rear end. The feel is very important; more than one NASCAR star has noted you actually drive with your ass. In another room, they’re artfully shaping and wrapping silver sheet metal onto cars. More guys are behind thick glass windows running dynos to check the freshly made motors' horsepower.
Lining the walls, are straight rows of gleaming engines - a tight intestinal mix of metal and wires and hoses and belts - proudly labeled “Hendrick Motorsports” on the heads. Young guys outside in oppressive 98-degree heat are being video taped running pit stops, the car squealing to a stop just like Sunday in front of 160,000 screaming fans, air guns whining, seven intent men scrambling over the faux retaining wall to change four fat tires and dump a canister of fuel in less than 14 seconds.
Back inside, computers are everywhere. Except the nerdy Banana Republic-outfitted people you’d expect aren’t running them. Next to one laptop sits a 16-ounce water bottle, filled with thick brown fluid. An abnormal bulge in the lower lip above the soul patch of the dude tapping data into the nearby module provides the clue. Yes, Nancy Drew, that is Spittle! Someday, when Congress really gets rolling, repeatedly expectorating on the job will be considered sexual harassment. But until that dreaded day, have at ‘em, boys!
Indeed, in this War Games-like computer room next to the heralded million-dollar “seven post” rig, which through the window you see shaking the crap out of a No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet on hydraulic pads replicating the race track, another data inputter is diligently filling his bottle with Skoal spit. (Copenhagen spit is much darker; Skoal is frothier).
This is something I can not escape. Whenever I hear the song, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” I think of Papa Joe Hendrick. And vice versa. There is no logic to this. Wherever he laid his hat, was not Papa Joe’s home. But body chemicals have aligned. Synapses are wired. The die is cast, and the papas melded. Uncontrolled thoughts haunt me.
We continue this overwhelmingly impressive tour of the extraordinarily impressive operation begat by Papa Joe. I’m no Tech-head. But this is cool stuff. There is no way another patriarch, Bill France, Sr., could have imagined the sport he created six decades ago would become this weighty, professional, significant. It is to be reckoned with. Amid the rich experience of taking in Hendrick Motorsports, there’s no time to consider the odd email messages from someone wondering if I’ve been fed and will have clean clothes.
What to do? It’s rude to be typing on the blackberry when the fine folks at Hendrick have put aside priorities like keeping Jeff Gordon in first place to host a pair of sweaty Yankees clueless in NASCAR Country. But I use the Blackberry a lot. So much, that people close to me wish to shove it where the sun doesn't shine. On the hand held, I can be dartingly quick, a thief in the night. Muscle memory takes over.
To the question of whether I've left clothes for the laundry, I tap out:
I forgot. The medication is taking its toll. I just haven't been myself lately. I wonder if any of this is worth it.
I sling the Blackberry back into the holster, a modern day (read: soft, sad) Jesse James. Seconds later, my belt vibrates.
U are a funny person, about medication and d effect its been having on u latekly, u made me laugh, about if worth it, onlytime will tell.
Only time will tell…where this is going. Indeed. But there’s scant time to process this in touring the Hendrick Museum, saying goodbyes, and now driving to meet J.D. Gibbs for the continuing NASCAR education of a big-time reporter representing a business publication whose skeptical editors need convincing this sport is worthy of ink. (To be honest, maybe we’d do better without the coverage. The prevalent sports business stories of the day concern doping, fixing games, gambling on fixed games, killing dogs fighting for sport, and burying said dogs in your back yard; NASCAR is thankfully immune to all of this, our big controversy being if Goodyear is making a hard enough tire compound and if Joe Gibbs Racing, currently running Chevys, will be called on to bring Toyota the glory it seeks in stock car auto racing.)
I’m unsure of the route to Joe Gibbs Racing. I declined on the GPS at Enterprise; accepting the device would have given the young inquisitive peppy kid with the khakis and the clipboard while more reasons to ask, while he inspected the car, unwanted questions like where I am from and did I use GPS back home. So I'm without GPS because Enterprise insists on inspecting the freaking car for dents before you leave. There is no Papa Joe Gibbs Avenue, which would have helped immensely at this point. I’m cruising along a Carolina county road at 70 mph perhaps in the wrong direction in a rented Kia minivan that drives like a boat. They saw me coming a mile away. I’m reading the tiny rental car map, Creedence on the radio, and though I’m lost, and likely to get to the shop after the next interview has started, there are worse ways to make a living, and I can't resist a little knee-driving to text back:
I feel I am funnier -- detached and whimsical -- as time goes on. Flipness is a preferred alternative state. Perhaps things are less important. I sense mortality. Do you?
I miraculously find the correct road, and the correct leafy business park, and we meet J.D. Gibbs in the operation's impressive facilities. When I was a kid, a “JD” meant juvenile delinquent. This J.D. is straight as they come, an honorable man with an under-appreciated sense of humor, playing the self deprecating card on the down beat and often. Sitting in a conference room decorated with trophies, J.D. says he came from a long line of PE majors. Folks chuckled when he went into NASCAR but they laugh no more, he notes.
J.D. has four boys, all younger than my daughter, who recently came home from sleep-away camp wearing a home-made necklace given presented by a 17 year old boy who closely resembled Ziggy Marley with a hug that lasted a second too long Then and now, listening to the slim youthful motorsports executive in the chief’s quarters of his race shop, I feel old, obsolete, on the sidelines of life scratching at potential that continues to elude me.
Some guys are born on third base with scant prospects for ever making it home. You get the sense J.D. has grown beautifully into his present role running a team that might once again field this year's Nextel Cup champion. I’m considering a life I know nothing about and wondering when the Journal's “So is Joe Gibbs Racing going with Toyota?” question will come. The guys at Hendrick had been talking as if it were a done deal, the money is right, it’s all about people anyway and Gibbs has the talent, mail it in, send Papa Joe across the Pacific for the reception.
Toyota doesn’t come up. Someone didn't do his homework or is bashful, not a condition to suffer when representing a national newspaper. J.D. pontificates generally on the state of the sport, peppered with playful jibes of how the money goes to NASCAR, and I’m looking in a wide-eyed cartoonish exaggeration at his wrist to see if he’s wearing a Rolex, tell me with a straight face who’s getting rich on this deal, truly, and before long the aimless shooting of the breeze is over, and now I sit stuck in the Charlotte airport bar draining watery supersized beers and awaiting the next mysterious text message.
The beers keep coming but the Blackberry leaves me high and dry.
She, or he, or it, hasn’t responded. The trail has gone cold.
My guess is it is a she. The husband has come home. The wife casually mentions how fun and unexpected and amusing their texting was. He goes suddenly pale, clueless, maybe panicking, because a man will immediately jump to “cheater” when confronted with the thought of his wife having a new heterosexual relationship that doesn’t concern him, just as the brain wires can automatically make you think Papa Joe was a rolling stone.
I imagine it doesn’t take long for the couple to figure out she was mistakenly corresponding with a stranger. That probably doesn’t sit well with the husband, who saw his wife’s bright-eyed delight in corresponding with a stranger. He is probably steamed, and in his seething infuriation, may even be plotting how to get into her phone and find me. They shoot horses, don’t they? I’d get worse.
Or, alternatively, maybe this is what’s happening. He’s immediately devising a plan, for later that evening, when the lights go down, to parlay his wife’s playful curiosity and temporary belief in his own poorly hidden vulnerability into the many splendored things that can happen deep in the night between a husband and wife, even if they still barely know one another.
Andrew Giangola’s critically acclaimed new book, "THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans” is available wherever fine books are sold.