Friday, December 9, 2011

I Am A Superstar

Until the accident, a late-December respite in Vermont was the much-needed so-called battery charge for our family.

One particular ski trip was my chance to move beyond “intermediate” skiing. Out on the slopes, the sun was disappearing behind the formidable mountain. Closing out day one, I’d have four more to distinguish myself and improve my technique.

For the proverbial Last Run of the Day, Viviane and I come across a black diamond called “Superstar.” Just seeing that name gets my adrenaline pumping: strong and confident notions of red, white and blue achievement, Superman, Wonder Woman, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps in their USA Speedos. If my run were televised, Jim McKay would be in a canary yellow blazer describing it.

Viviane is smooth and light on her skis. She describes my style as Jean-Claude Killy on the green bunny runs and Jerry Lewis on the blacks.

Today, Jerry is a no show. I haven’t gone down once. The legs feel good. It’s time to master the elements, blast past the fat part of the bell curve and enter the rarified realm of the expert skier. I am a super star.

I point a pole to the beckoning trail sign. Viviane nods, and a bad idea builds momentum with the trail’s steep decline and wind-blown moguls. (Are the scary bumps called “moguls,” because they mimic Donald Trump’s hair?)

My wife is out in front, finding her way down the difficult slope. I gather too much speed and try to cut back in a groove between slick moguls, a move that would have looked good on the chalkboard. Too bad we’re not in a classroom but sliding down an iceberg. My skis hit a rut and pull to the side. My top heavy body surges in the other direction as if launched from a circus cannon. Except my arms aren’t stoic at my sides. This is a flailing, out-of-control, agony-of-defeat cartwheel.

NASCAR drivers see crashes happening in slow motion. Wayne Gretzky once explained when he scored a goal, time slowed, and the puck appeared the size of a pizza pie, the goal as wide as the Hoover Dam. None of that here. It’s an instantaneous, oh-snap blur, white canvas screaming toward my face. Greg Louganis couldn’t have hit the surface at a more precise 90-degree angle. It sounds like chomping a mouthful of Cap’n Crunch. I bounce like a Super Ball. On the second revolution, my head smacks the rock-hard mountain like a bowling ball dropped from a roof. Finally, silence.

It is a sad reflection of our You Tube culture that laying there, thankfully breathing (albeit stunned) and reassured my skull was not split like a rotten pumpkin, I wonder if anyone on the chair lift captured my spastic circus-act flop. Please tell me no one camera-phoned this. I’m destined to be an internet laughing stock. Without royalties.

There are no cameras or giggling. I’m alone, in one piece.

This can’t be that bad. The morning papers said a Manhattan window washer survived a 47-story fall. All my digits are moving. But as the commercial says, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.

That initial crunch wasn’t the give of snow. It something in my shoulder breaking.

My wife kept her wits and balance, which kind of describes our marriage, and had pulled to a stop below. The grade is too steep for her to come up. All is OK, no worries, I reassure her with a sprightly lefty Super Star-like thumbs up, confidently gesturing like a downed lineman pinned to the stretcher as he's carted off the field to the crowd's roar of sympathetic approval and relief the game will again resume. Yet I do not feel confident and am rather worried. The covenant of marriage allows making claims to your life partner that you do not believe. She tells passing skiers following her gaze up the mountain, “Oh, he’s fine. He’s just catching his breath.”

All I can do is flash a dumb smile and that thumbs-up with the arm I can move.

“Baby, just put your skis on and ski on down!” she urges.

Maybe an expert skier could do that. I’m an eternal intermediate, forever checking that middle box on the rental line, a reckless overachiever who flirted with bragging rights for super-stardom beyond his proficiency and paid the price. The run couldn’t have been named “Devil’s Emergency Room” to scare me away? I try to stand, but the shoulder is shot. I slide on my bottom across the slippery surface, faster and faster down the steep hill. This is not going to end well. I dig boot heels into the ice, and lurch to a stop.

The mountain is quiet, save my gasping. I lean on my good shoulder and crawl, inches at a time, across the mountain, toward the woods. Isn’t that where animals go to die?

Someone, it’s a ski instructor, is waving his poles and shouting down from the lift. “Do you need me to radio for help?”

Up there, I’ve looked down at the meek humiliation of the daring and the clumsy, those unfortunate injured skiers who are strapped in and carted away on the Red Cross sled. Yeah, call it in. Now I’ll know how it feels to be present for your own funeral procession. Like driving a stock car at the track in Charlotte, which had different ending of hearty slaps on the back and a framed photo on fake marble, I’ll check off another bucket-list experience.

Viviane says they closed Superstar after my crash. Too treacherous; an out-of-control intermediate from the city was nearly killed. My fast-fading manhood is revived. Yes, it was the ferocious mountain, not me. Mother Nature won today’s battle, the war is mine. I am a superstar…until I find out Viviane was conjuring a well-meaning fib, something a married woman says with noble intentions but nary a shred of truth.

The doctor examining me says he’ll take x-rays but it looks like a broken collar bone. “What do you do for a living?” he asks, sounding not that interested.

“I’m with NASCAR,” I tell him. He smiles, makes eye contact for the first time, and asks if Jimmie Johnson is going to win a third championship.

In the mirror, I basically have no right shoulder. The disappearance of a frequently used body part is sickening. My arm is dangling low like an ape’s, the shoulder having apparently said, hasta la vista. The surrounding skin is already yellowish green. I want to puke.

“This looks pretty bad. Do I need surgery?”

“I don’t think so,” he says. “I want to know this. Earnhardt moving to Hendrick: is that going to change the competitive balance in the sport? I mean, Dale Jr., Gordon, Johnson – that’s like a Murderers Row or the Purple People eaters. What a lineup! They’re gonna dominate!”

I’m in starting to shiver, slipping into shock maybe. The dull pain is starting to spread to my chest. I’m wondering if they’ll screw rods into my body like some of the drivers I’ve talked to, or if I’ll be limping around like the Hunchback of NASCAR in New York.

“Do I have to stay in the hospital?” I ask.

“We’ll fix you up here, and you’ll be out in just a few. There’s quite a separation in the bone break. You must have hit pretty hard. Hey, I’ve seen some hard hits in NASCAR this year. I couldn’t believe Gordon walked away from that lick in Pocono. How about those HANS devices and new softer walls? They’re really making NASCAR much safer.”

“This hurts a lot. How long will the pain last?”

“Oh, it’s like any bone break,” the doctor says. “We’ll give you some strong medication. Did you know Dale Senior broke his collarbone at Talladega, the car just flipping like crazy, and then he drove the next week with that broken collarbone?”

“Yes, he actually won the pole and the race. Watkins Glen. Road course. Toughest course to drive, I’d imagine, with a painful injury like that. Doctor, I’m on the first day of a five-day vacation. Do I have to go home? We can get back to New York in about five hours.”

“It’s up to you. Frankly, you’ll at first be uncomfortable wherever you are. You can stay in the lodge. Hey, speaking of New York, that track NASCAR was building is not going to happen?”

This dance goes on until the doc gives me a sling and bottle of horse pills. He tells me to see an orthopedic surgeon back in New York. “I’d bet that doctor will want to operate. If I were you, I’d avoid surgery. You could place one end of your collar bone on one side of the room, and the other end on the other side, and the bones will find each other. The collar bone is a truly amazing thing. You should be OK in a few months.”

He was right. I got better. (The collarbone can find anything; too bad it couldn't go work for the goverment and find Amelia Earhardt.)

I was in tip-top shape but then gruesomely rolled an ankle at Texas Motor Speedway. What used to be a jutting ankle bone at the bottom of my skinny chicken leg soon resembled the kind of plump tomato my grandmother would have proudly thrown in the pot for Sunday’s sauce. You hit 40, and you become spastic. Your body grows hair in odd places and progressively falls apart. TV commercials offer electronic devices to alert the authorities when you become incapacitated.

I can accept that. Harder to deal with is how I’d viewed those who get hurt on business trips as losers. I’m in that club, too. Not exactly on the bucket list.

Each NASCAR track has a well-staffed mini-hospital in the infield. It’s meant for drivers, not clumsy, aging, accident-prone PR people. I hobble to the Infield Care Center for an ace bandage and a tape job. I’m hosting media, will be on the ankle all day, and need to stabilize it. The Speedway doctor won’t tape me without taking x-rays. Sure enough, the tip of the fibia is broken.

The doc shows the film – a chunk the shape of India floating beneath the shin bone. The kind, gentle and efficient folks in the Infield Care Center strap on a metal boot, hand me crutches, and suggest I see an orthopedic specialist back home.

“I know,” I say. “I bet they’ll want to operate.”

The busted ankle brings out the best in service companies. Avis fetches my car at the hotel, no charge. Continental bumps me to first class with curb-to-gate wheelchair service. I make a mental note to fake an injury before a future trip. In light of recent events, pretending won’t be necessary.

I return to New York to see another doctor. You can guess what happens when he hears I was hurt at a NASCAR race. The orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village secretly wishes he were Tony Stewart’s jack man:

Clumsy PR Guy: So, it’s broken. Bummer. But there’s no ligament damage, right?

Doctor: No, none. What amazes me is how fast those drivers go when they are so close to one another. Extraordinary, isn’t it.

Clumsy PR Guy: What about the tendons?

Doctor: The tendons are fine. You don’t have to worry about that. They say it’s the roar of the cars and the whole massive feel of it. You go to a race, and you are just blown away and hooked.

Clumsy PR Guy: I have been elevating the leg and keeping ice on the ankle. How long should I do that?

Doctor: As long as needed. I hear NASCAR is still looking at building a track in the New York area. Jersey? Near the Meadowlands? Out on the Island? No, no, Staten Island. Yes, that’s it. Is it true? That would be great. That sport really needs to be here in New York.

Clumsy PR Guy: Unfortunately, there’s not enough political support, and that’s not gonna work out. Listen, getting back to me and the ankle, I imagine there’s some sort of physical therapy ahead?

Doctor: You will absolutely need rehab. We can make a recommendation – plenty of good places. It really seems to be a sport that has caught on like wildfire. I have a friend at ABC, who was a big skeptic but is now completely sold on it. They show your races, right?

Clumsy PR Guy: Yes, ABC is a partner, and NASCAR is very popular. I sit at a computer all day. My main exercise is hitting the send button on email. So I like to run at night. When will I be jogging again?

Doctor: Should be a few months. Just between you and me, it gets pretty wild at some of those tracks, huh? What’s it like?

Clumsy PR Guy: It’s fun. The fans are a panic. I writing a book on them. There’s a fan who took the NASCAR flag to the top of Mt. Everest. Another guy walks around at the track naked except for a Goodyear tire and Tom Sawyer straw hat. Come to think of it, he walks a lot, and I’ll be walking a lot. I can do that with the cast you’ll give me? No crutches?

Doctor: Yes, of course. I don’t understand Staten Island. Why didn’t they just didn’t go buy the land at Grumman airport out on the Island? It’s totally available.

This is a top ankle and knee guy in New York magazine’s list of the city’s best doctors. He’s in demand and hard to reach. I was able to see him instantly. You see, his assistant is a Sprint phone-carrying NASCAR fan. She saw “NASCAR” on my email requesting an appointment. I was promptly slotted in. Getting my first preference for follow up appointments was a snap. I just had to answer a few questions about what Dale Jr. was like, and does he really have a girlfriend?

Who says they don't love NASCAR in New York?

For more stories like these, Andrew Giangola’s critically acclaimed book, THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY, is available online and wherever fine books (and some crappy ones) are sold.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Other Side of Smoke

When little Spencer Roy was 6, he wanted a tattoo. Not one of those temporary Cracker Jack ones. No, he asked for a real tattoo – needles in flesh. A Tony Stewart tattoo.

That was, of course, out of the question. There are laws. But the boy’s mom, Stephanie, had an idea. She watched every NASCAR race at home with Spencer, and Tony was her driver, too. Mother and son named their cat, “Tony Stewart.” The family’s pet fish is “Tony Stewart.” Step out of their shower, and your wet feet meet a Tony Stewart bath mat. You don’t have to be a mentalist to guess Stephanie’s computer password. Then there are the Tony Stewart cars and cups and flags and stickers throughout the house.

Considering the various and sundry ways the Tony Stewart name infests the Roy’s home, the idea of branding a family member’s skin “Tony Stewart” wasn’t so outlandish. Maybe Stephanie, as an agent representing the Roy clan, would get the tattoo.

A race was coming up a Martinsville, Virginia, Stephanie’s home track. The Roanoke mom knew Tony would be doing an autograph session in the Salem Civic Center. She showed up, inched to the front of the line, and offered her bicep. This wasn’t the first time Stewart had been asked to sign a body part. He laid pen to flesh with big, confident strokes – a John Hancock with verve and flourish, the kind of assuredly bold signature you’d expect from a driver Stephanie and Spencer love because “he will move your butt out of the way or put you into the wall if he has to.”

Stephanie found a phone book and a tattoo parlor. For forty bucks and a little bit of sting she could again show how far she’d go for the boy suffering a serious heart condition who she loves so much. It took about 20 minutes to make Tony’s signature permanent. Stephanie had to keep hitting the brakes she was driving so fast to get home. Little Spencer was just tickled pink. To this day, he’ll gleefully lift his mom’s shirt sleeve to show total strangers the tattoo of the only driver in NASCAR who matters.

Six years later at Richmond International Speedway, courtesy of “Make A Wish,” a wonderful organization helping children with life-threatening medical conditions, Spencer got his chance to meet the driver on his mother’s arm.

Tony Stewart met Spencer and Stephanie Roy at his motor coach in the drivers and owners lot before September’s Chevy Rock and Roll 400 race. Stephanie came prepared with orange fingernails with jet black tips and the number “20” etched on. Stewart showed up wearing his orange fire suit and a big smile. He greeted Spencer with a fist bump and began to treat the boy like a long-lost friend.

Spencer flipped his program open to Tony’s page, pointing to his man.

“Who’s that goofy guy?” Tony asked. “You picked the ugliest guy in the whole book!”

Spencer laughed and turned to another photo of Tony.

“You’re laughing, but I don’t get better looking in any of these photos, do I?” he asked. “No wonder I don’t have a girlfriend.”

Stewart spent 15 minutes making Spencer crack up while signing a heap of paraphernalia handed over with assembly-line precision by his PR man Mike Arning.

Bad weather was headed for Virginia as tropical storm Hannah moved in. The 37-year-old two time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion did a rain dance jig, attempting to ward off the precipitation so Spencer Roy would be able to see his first NASCAR race. Stewart promised the boy if he won the race, and he had every intention of doing so, he’d climb the fence at Richmond just for him. Together, they’d celebrate in Victory Lane.

A hospitality tour was waiting. Stewart’s PR man motioned to the group, reminding the driver of obligations backing up. Stewart said goodbye to Spencer, then found a way to kick start a conversation he didn’t want to end. The cycle of attempted goodbyes followed by more joking repeated itself a few times. Finally, after a series of high-fives, it was time to go.

“Remember: after the race, Victory Lane,” Stewart said as he walked away.

Spencer and Stephanie had seats directly in front of the No. 20 pit stall. Spencer was physically in Virginia but more accurately in heaven, throwing up his hand every time Tony’s race car flew went by.

The boy had been a NASCAR fan almost his entire life, and only had two drivers. First was Ernie Ervan, known to some as “Swervin’ Ervan, the driver of Philip and Georgia Gregware, who lived above the Roys and took care of Spencer for several years when Stephanie worked weekends. Phil’s nickname was “Curly,” but before Spencer could talk, he couldn’t say that. He just called Phil “Ernie.”

When the real Ernie retired from NASCAR in 1999, Spencer immediately switched allegiances to Tony Stewart. The boy’s medical condition, Prolong QT and mydocardial disease of the muscles, makes comprehending complex things difficult. While traditional learning – the Pythagorean theorum and the Magna Carta, and the arcane a + b = c equations and historical events each of us suffered through and mostly forgot – is difficult, Spencer has strong intuition and is sharp as a tack. Watching the races on TV with the Gregwares (every Sunday the families would share a home-cooked meal and the race), Spencer would pick his own driver. Spencer liked Tony Stewart’s personality, his driving style, everything about the guy.

After adopting Tony as his driver, he’d followed him on TV for years. Now he was at the track in Richmond, watching this momentous freight train of race cars zooming by, close enough to make his wheel chair shake. It felt to Spencer like the whole earth could be thrown off its axis. Could goose bumps have goose bumps on top?

Spencer wanted Tony to lead the pack. He was rooting hard, encouraging Tony to go faster and faster as the laps ticked off. Stewart had a solid car and was running up front. He was in contention. Would he take the checkers, climb the fence, and meet Spencer in Victory Lane?

As the laps wound down, it was turning into a battle between Tony and reigning NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. The Home Depot and Lowe’s cars battled on the final laps in a thrilling bumper-to-bumper duel. They tore around the three quarter mile track, Stewart on Johnson’s bumper, Stewart moving along side on the banks, even with Johnson, enough the momentum he carried through the turns faded and his rival burst ahead on the straightaways.

The cat and mouse game continued for several thrilling laps. The crowd of more than 90,000 was on their feet. Spencer’s arm shot up each time Tony rocketed past, right on the No. 48’s tail. But this day, this race, was not to be for Spencer or Stewart. They couldn’t catch Jimmie Johnson, and Tony finished second.

Spencer was crushed. He didn’t make it to Victory Lane. He was quiet and withdrawn, not himself for an entire week. But as the days passed, who won at Richmond didn’t seem to matter as much. The end of the race faded in his mind. Spencer Roy’s weekend in Richmond holds a sharper, more intense memory that grows in prominence as other recollections fade. Spencer had met his hero, and he was larger in life than even in the boy’s grandest dreams.

Monday, October 31, 2011

America’s Anchor Finds his Slice of Heaven

When American Presidents visit war zones, NBC anchor Brian Williams often tags along. It’s a humbling responsibility to beam the first draft of history from hot spots around the globe. The downside of these hastily scheduled trips, beside stinging windstorms, lousy hotel room pillows and time away from the family, is missing NASCAR races.

But Williams always brings a piece of his beloved sport with him. For instance, when President Obama first toured Baghdad, he spoke to military personnel at the Al Faw palace, built by Saddam Hussein and now occupied by the U.S. military. Williams decided to mark the territory in a fashion any fellow fan would understand. He plastered a Dale Earnhardt “3” sticker onto one of the palace’s outside walls.

“As far as I know, it’s still there, on the wall of a guest house on the bank of a skanky man-made lake,” Williams said. “I figured it’s about time the Iraqis knew about the real ‘Intimidator.’”

This was not an isolated incident. Williams goes nowhere without a supply of black No. 3 stickers in his bag. He has to replenish the stock frequently, especially since he slaps a number three decal on every car he rents.

“My goal is to eventually sticker the entire U.S. rental fleet,” Williams explained. “Half the time I turn the car in, the rental guy thinks it’s an official number, some code from corporate headquarters, and it stays on the car. I have to admit, when I’m driving, I keep an eye out for my Dale stickers. Haven’t seen one yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

Whether it is stickering deposed dictators, rent-a-cars and his own Mustang GT, injecting racing analogies into election night coverage, or extending a business trip to attend a dirt track race, Brian Williams could be the NASCAR fan wielding the largest and most persuasive megaphone. His appreciation of racing has percolated since his dad introduced the young boy to Joie Chitwood’s Thrill Shows and local dirt races near their home in upstate New York where NASCAR’s Bodine brothers ran. Listening to the throaty engines and crunching metal during beloved Demolition Derby nights ignited in Williams a life-long passion for fast cars going in circles.

“It’s plain and simple: I like speed,” he said. “Just give me the first turn at Talladega, when they come around at speed on the second lap. I defy you to replicate that feeling anywhere else in life. You don’t know if it’s your heart thumping or the eruption of all that American horsepower coming around that turn. These are full-blooded, normally aspirated American-built cars doing exactly what they are supposed to do, driven by men whose bravery is never fully discussed or recognized. And I love every second of it.”

The greatest blessing in anchoring NBC Nightly News, Williams declares, is the opportunity to meet people he truly admires. Among the world leaders, captains of industry, humanitarians, scientists, and rock stars he’s broken bread with, none ranks higher than Dale Earnhardt. Williams was able to meet and grow close to Dale after taking a job with NBC News in 1993. “Call it one of the perks of knowing the president of NBC Sports,” he explained.

At the 1998 Daytona 500, Williams took his 10-year old son, Douglas, to meet Dale. “My son asked Dale if he could put his hand on the number three machine – which is what Douglas always called it, ‘the number three machine.’ Without hesitation, Dale said, ‘Absolutely,’ and led us through a scrum to the car. He told my son, ‘If we win, you come back for the trophy presentation.’”

Dale wasn’t asking, he was ordering Douglas to do this.

Of course, Earnhardt dramatically won the race. The fans went bananas. Earnhardt did a few celebratory doughnuts in the infield grass. The Racing Gods must have been making up for the two-decade curse because his spins in the grass took the uncanny shape of the number “3.” Brian and Douglas Williams watched as a group of fans ran to the beaten up turf. Some jammed chunks into their coolers. Others laid their bodies down in the deep tire tracks, communing with the celebratory ruts.

Victory Lane was rocking like a van on Lover’s Lane.

Earnhardt memorably shouted, “Daytona is ours! We won it, we won it, we won it!” Dale found time during the rollicking celebration to call over Brian and Doug to pose for pictures. Those photos, along with Dale’s No. 3 die cast car, and hats he signed are proudly displayed next to signed letters from past U.S. Presidents in Williams’ Rockefeller Center office.

“He was that kind of guy to remember us at such a big moment,” Williams said. “The King, Mr. Richard Petty, opened the door to drivers carefully crafting a media image, and Dale took that to a new level. Dale realized ‘the Intimidator’ was a title that worked for him and the sport. He knew the value of that iron-headed reputation and how to market it. But he didn’t always follow that image in his personal life. He made it very big but never got rid of that regular guy side, fixing ball joints and front ends. And he had a marvelous soft side few saw. I'll always remember his smile more than any glare. He had a warm, crinkly, wry smile, and loved to tease people. Dale started racing when the family was down to its last can of beans, and he clearly relished becoming a successful, self-made businessman.

By the end, he was very happy with where he was. He’d tell us, ‘If I die racing, please understand that I died doing what made me happy.’”

Three years after standing in Victory Lane with his son and his racing idol, Williams was on vacation watching Earnhardt’s final race on television. “Having seen him flip seven times and walk away, I didn’t think anything of his last-lap crash at the Daytona 500,” he said.

Soon after, word came through NASCAR had lost its greatest driver. Williams rushed back to his New York office. A host of messages were waiting for him. One was absolutely haunting. “There was a voice mail on my answering machine – it was Dale checking in to say hello, wanting to know if I was coming to Daytona. It stunned me. I put the message on an audio CD. To this day, it’s hard to listen to.”

Many in the media – clueless about NASCAR but hip to Williams’ curious passion for racing – came to him for comment. “It was one of those Margaret Meade moments for mainstream media, as if they were discovering a new civilization: ‘Brian, tell us about those NASCAR fans and NASCAR Nation.’ I was a rare member of mainstream media asked to explain the meaning of it all. I wrote an essay about Dale for Time magazine. It was a horrible week.”

It’s been said NASCAR needed Dale Earnhardt’s passing to reach its full potential for coast-to-coast popularity. Following the tragedy at Daytona, many new fans discovered big-time stock car racing. For Williams, some of the old magic disappeared.

“It’s not that the sport immediately changed. It’s just that my guy was gone. I still look for his car when they come around on the first lap. I’m still subconsciously scanning for the black No 3. I am hopelessly devoted to his memory.”

Following Earnhardt’s death, Williams ventured deeper into the roots of the sport, the racing that first sparked his love of automobiles, those small local tracks he loved as a kid and now could sample during his journalistic travels. The steel-skinned newsman becomes earnestly poetic when discussing small-town racing.

“These tracks are glowing islands of light, smoke, and noise that dot the countryside and roar to life on Friday and Saturday nights where fans encounter the sport in its purest form,” he said.

Growing up in Elmira, N.Y., Williams first attended races at the Chamon County (SP?) Fair Grounds. His family moved to the Jersey shore, where the inquisitive and well-read teenager became a regular at Wall Township Speedway, Flemington Speedway, Stafford up in Connecticut, even heading up to Portland, Maine for short track races.

“Ours was a pure American home – the garage was for stuff, and the driveway was where you kept your car so everyone could see how you rolled. You kept meticulous care of that machine, and on Saturday, everyone could see you washing it.”

As Williams rapidly ascended to the pinnacle of TV journalism, he bought a summer cabin in Montana and became part owner of a dirt modified team. He’d already driven Talladega, reaching a very impressive 181.5 mph. He makes a point of emphasizing the additional half mile an hour in recounting the feat. “That’s the definition of being alive,” Williams proclaimed.

With his place out west, the east coast news man could get seat time running dirt on Friday nights at a small dirt track outside Bozeman ambitiously called Gallatin International Speedway, feeling the heat coming up his legs and a special kind of claustrophobia sliding into the turns.

“A dirt modified car is a different animal, 800 horsepower monsters, really,” Williams said. “Your whole life is one controlled skid. Asphalt is great – it’s sticky and fast and hot and lot of fun. But dirt is a whole different experience. I have so much respect for dirt drivers. And as a fan, you can measure your good time by the amount of track you wear home on your body.”

Scruffy, dirt-kicking, splintered-grandstands, small-town NASCAR appeals deeply to Williams, who was once a volunteer firefighter and maintains his Irish-Catholic working class roots. He is known mostly for work performed solo behind a desk while wearing an expensive suit, but he appreciates the camaraderie and profound bonds forged among sweat-stained men on a team getting dirty to pursue a common goal.

“The sport of NASCAR is a reflection of America, a place with a real romantic side, which I see in hard-working people asking to be entertained at a small race track on a Friday or Saturday night,” Williams said. “NASCAR is a great slice of America. If I have a layover for a weekend, I will always find out where the small tracks are. There, I feel at home, watching working mechanics, contractors, firemen, builders, school teachers by day, and on the weekend driving a car put together with chewing bum and bailing wire. All available money goes into car, and if they’re lucky, they can steal away Monday night in the garage to pound out Saturday night’s dents.

“NASCAR fans don’t ask for much. They save up all week for a few hours of entertainment. They find being at the track preferable to sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater. It’s like being in on a wonderful secret –sitting in the infield, the smell of the track, the lights coming up. It’s just a hugely patriotic crowd – a tough, largely working class crowd, but don’t get me wrong, decent people. During the National Anthem before the engines fire, you can hear a pin drop. The fans come out to see family and neighbors running super stocks, modifieds, just basic entry-level stock car racing on a dirt track, on a Friday night, capping off a long work week. I tell my children not to root too loudly against any given driver, because that might be his wife, mother, or kids sitting directly in front. It’s a true slice of heaven.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

Houston, We Have Fan

COL. DOUG HURLEY IS PILOTING THE SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS, WHICH LIFTED OFF THIS MORNING EN ROUTE TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION. DOUG WAS ALSO AT THE CONTROLS FOR THE ENDEAVOUR FLIGHT. TODAY'S LAUNCH MARKS THE FINAL MISSION OF THE 30-YEAR U.S. SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM. HERE IS DOUG'S CHAPTER IN THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY:

It’s not unusual for a NASCAR fan unable to tune to a race – maybe he’s on the job or waiting to get root canal – to sneak a quick online update. One fan, Doug Hurley, a Colonel in the Marine Corps, got his NASCAR fix at work on a laptop computer in a unique place – 250 miles above the earth moving at 17,500 mph in zero gravity.

Hurley, the pilot of Space Shuttle Endeavor, hadn’t missed a race in eight years since being introduced to NASCAR at Watkins Glen and feeling a rush of excitement he could only call “indescribable.” He wasn’t going to let a small thing like manning the controls of the most complex machine ever built get in the way of finding out how Joey Logano did at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s not a very well-kept secret at NASA that I’m a pretty big NASCAR fan,” Hurley says. The second line of his official NASA biography states, “Recreational interests include hunting, cycling and attending as many NASCAR races as possible.”

While training in Star City, Russia with cosmonauts preparing to work on the International Space Station, the Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel watched NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on the Armed Forces television network deep into the night. On board the Endeavor, he took DVD copies to two of the most notable races in the history of stock car racing – the 1979 and 1998 Daytona 500s. He’s lobbying to have these classic races included in the permanent library on board the International Space Station.

Hurley grew up in Apalachin, NY, a town so small it had no stoplight. On cloudless nights, he’d gaze at the wide sky, densely speckled with the twinkling lights of stars from galaxies billions of miles away. Doug was only two years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but remembers news clips of Sky Lab missions sandwiched between the Saturday morning cartoons.

“As a young boy, you think, ‘Wow, that would be pretty neat to go there and do that,’” he said.

He liked what the military stood for and to help pay for college enrolled in the Navy ROTC, program at Tulane University. During college, he spent a week at a Navy jet base in Jacksonville and got to ride in a fighter plane.

“That was the defining moment. I knew what I wanted to do.” Hurley excelled as a Naval Aviator and a test pilot. He was the first Marine pilot to fly the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.

Despite his fondness for speed, Hurley never paid much attention to NASCAR, even though he’d lived 45 minutes south of the road course at Watkins Glen. That changed when his cousin Nanette began dating Greg Zipadelli, then Tony Stewart’s crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing. Nan and Doug had spent many holidays and summers together as kids and remained close as adults. He jumped at her invitation to watch the race from Zippy’s pit stall at the Glen.

“From the moment I heard the first engine roar to life, I was unequivocally, unbelievably, completely and totally hooked on the sport,” Hurley said. Since then, he’s attended more than 20 races and holds season tickets at Texas Motor Speedway.
Nanette and Zipadelli are now married with three kids, but Tony and the crew chief he called “the big brother I never had” have parted ways. After a stellar decade with the No. 20 Home Depot car, including two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2008 season to form his own team, becoming the most successful driver-owner in NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the title in 1992. The separation was a tough, emotional time for Zippy.

“Loyalty is a big thing with Zippy, and he decided to stay with Joe Gibbs, who gave him a huge opportunity. That’s where his heart was.”

Most No. 20 fans also guided by their loyalty simply followed Stewart to this new No. 14 ride. Hurley stuck with Zippy and his new driver, teenage phenom Joey Logano, nicknamed “Sliced Bread,” as in “the greatest thing since…”

“Joey is amazingly grounded for a person his age facing tremendous challenges and responsibility,” Hurley said. “If you compare him to Zippy or me, we were selected for our jobs – Greg as crew chief and me into the astronaut program – in our early ‘30s. Joey is 19 and handling the pressure of big-time auto racing very well. At the outset, there was skepticism about his abilities in a Cup ride, but his true talent quickly became apparent. NASCAR banned testing for 2009, which was the right move to save costs, but it hurt newer guys like Joey. And then you have him going into a new car much different than the NASCAR Nationwide Series cars he was driving. Considering all that, he’s figuring out a lot of things pretty quickly. Joey’s been blessed with tremendous talent and the help of a core group of guys who have been with Zippy from the beginning. He and Zippy have been a great team, which they proved when Joey became the youngest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire in 2009. Joey battled hard all day and Zippy made a great call to win the race. I’m predicting Joey is going to do very well in the ears to come. Plus, he is just a super nice guy. He’s got solid support from his parents, and it shows.”

Hurley, who is 42 and favors the flat-top hair style reminiscent of the flight directors and fly boys chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, sees many parallels between the sport he loves to watch from the pit stall and his own job strapped into a rocket soaring toward the wide blue yonder. “My background is as a fighter pilot, so the speed, the adrenaline rush, the eye-hand coordination is somewhat similar. A big part of the excitement for me is getting so close to the action. Fans can feel a bit of that, sitting off the turn with the cars coming right at you. They can get some of that speed adrenaline rush a fighter pilot feels.”

In some ways, NASCAR drivers face tougher challenges than astronauts, Hurley says. It’s a surprising perspective from a decorated Navy test pilot snapped up by the astronaut development program as soon as he was eligible, a four-time recipient of the NASA Superior Accomplishment Award who helped orchestrate the mind-boggling tasks of an upside down rendezvous with the International Space station, five space walks, the replacement of half dozen 250-pound batteries in the unforgiving blackness of space, and the transfer home of a Japanese astronaut.

“The biggest difference is NASCAR is much more in the public eye than what we do as astronauts and what I did as a fighter pilot,” he said. “When we launch shuttles into space, of course that’s highly publicized, but months of training are largely done without constant scrutiny. NASCAR drivers live in the limelight virtually year-round. Being in a dangerous, high-pressure environment, it’s not easy to manage outside eyes prying in.”

There are obviously many differences between astronauts and race car drivers. Flirting with danger – the lurking, unpredictable set of unseen circumstances that can snuff a life out in a blink – is not one of them.

Hurley was avidly following NASCAR when drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. were killed over a nine month period from 2000 to 2001. He personally strapped the STS 107 crew into the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry over the southwestern United States in 2003.

“Nothing prepares you for losing seven friends in an instant on a national scale,” he said. “NASA had a tough decision after the loss of the Columbia just as NASCAR had a tough decision after losing its most famous and maybe greatest driver. Where do you go? What do you do? The right answer is you fly again, and you race next week. You just make sure you’ve learned from the previous events so it won’t happen again.

“The danger of what we do is always in the back of my mind. But I think human space flight is better from the Columbia accident, despite losing seven people who can never be replaced. It’s the same with NASCAR. We lost Dale Earnhardt Sr., and will never get him back. But some very positive things came from that tragedy. The sport made significant improvements to the cars and tracks and has never been safer.

“What happened with Dale and the Columbia are eerily similar. We’d seen foam fall off the Shuttle for years. We tolerated it. NASCAR had some bad accidents that seemed like freak occurrences. It took a huge event in both cases to bring about productive change – losing the most famous driver in what looked like an innocuous crash and the Shuttle burning up over Texas after a piece of foam dislodged. But some pretty smart people worked hard to fix the problems. And we’re much safer as a result.”

Just as NASCAR is seeking expansion opportunities, so is NASA. Missions are being planned for the U.S. to return to the moon and possibly beyond to Mars. Perhaps one of our own remarkable fans will be at the controls. Whatever is next for Doug Hurley, all of NASCAR Nation wishes him “Godspeed.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why Is Kenny Gregory Wearing a Shit-Eating Grin?

When the Joy Mining Machinery Toyota Tundra makes its debut tonight in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway, one fan in attendance will wear an extra wide grin.

Kenny Gregory, known in the infield at "The Fathead Guy" will be wearing that shit- eating smile (even though, he points out, no one has ever been known to have exibited any form of happiness immediately after swallowing human feces).

Kenny names Kyle Busch, who owns the ruck, as his favorite NASCAR driver.

But tonight, even more important, is the Joy Mining logo on the Kyle Busch Motorsports truck's hood. Gregory spent 35 years working for the Franklin Pa.-based Tool and Die Maker. He retired in 2003, and saved up enough to now travel the NASCAR circuit, taking his life-size Fathead driver stand-ups to up to 25 NASCAR races a year.

(Either Gregory saved a ton of bread, or it will come out in a few years he's the next Bernie Madoff. Whatever the case, mazel tov, Kenny, you love the racing, the fans love you, and you deserve to be at each and every race.)

Many fans know Gregory as a gregarious and tireless networker in the campgrounds, using the Fatheads to stimulate conversation, debate and new friendships. Kenny was the same at work, receiving several awards for cost saving for the company of 8,000, which is a leader in developing equipment to extract underground coal and other bedded materials.

Tonight, 2009 and 2010 World of Outlaws Late Model Series (WoO LMS) champion Richards will be at the helm of the Joy Mining Machinery Toyota Tundra Gregory will be pulling for.

"We look forward to providing Josh Richards and Joy Mining Machinery with all the tools necessary to develop from NASCAR rookies into household names,” team owner Kyle Busch said in a statement.

There has always been a strong connection between the men and women who work in the mining industry and racing, especially uber-fans like Gregory, so the association makes sense. (Many fans know the story of The Lucky Penny Girl, Wessa Miller; her dad Booker is a retired coal miner.)

"When Josh starts winning races, you can bet his Fathead will be right there at my camper along with Kyle, Jeff, Jimmie, Tony, Junior, Danica and the others," Gregory said.

Known as "The Fathead Guy," Gregory's full story is documented in the NASCAR Library Collection book, THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY, which is the perhaps the best book none of you have read, and will make for excellent source of heat when the Chinese finally take over.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Goodbye but not Farewell (or something like that)

Ranking life's bittersweet days, this one, my final day at NASCAR, easily shoots to #1 with a bullet.

After eight-plus seasons helping to tell the NASCAR story, I've accepted a great opportunity as VP, Strategic Communications for IMG College.

As you may know, college sports are booming – with radiological meltdown to the left of us, wars to the right, our President even found time to fill out his Brackets. This is a chance to take a leadership role with a fast-growing organization transforming the business of college sports. Being Italian, I fully respect an offer not to be refused.

I'm about as excited as one can get nowadays without the authorities being alerted and the building sealed off.

It's not easy to leave NASCAR, especially amid a thrilling season that has 'em cheering in the press boxes. I genuinely love our sport (jeez, their sport in a few hours); heck, I slept with the fans in their converted school buses and wrote a book about it!

From my first race in 2003 at Talladega (hallelujuah, can it be scripted any better), I've smoked the proverbial exhaust and savored every hit. I am blessed to have been surrounded by extraordinary people who may have talked a bit funny to this New Yorker (and me to them as well) but who leave a mark nonetheless.

NASCAR was not a Dickensian gig: It was the best of times, it was the best of times.

There is no breed quite like NASCAR fans. Show me another place on earth with as many empty beer bottles and as few fights as a NASCAR race.

One fan contributing to that heap of empties -- now recycled at an impressive rate, mind you -- calls me "Lucky Dog." The source of my good fortune is the mere fact I work for NASCAR.

He's right about the nickname. Everyone who works in this industry owns it, too, contributing to a continually unfolding great American entreprenerial success story that happens to bring joy to millions.

I will always treasure my Lucky Dog status. My enthusiasm for the sport won't ever wane. I will continue to root for the courageous drivers and hard-working people who bring this immensely enjoyable traveling circus to millions every week for 10-month stretch.

In the meantime, to those partners, colleagues, and media members who have heard this news and have written or called to playfully declare that I am a "jerk," "ass", "peckerhead" or various other body parts that shall go unmentioned, thank you, I am flattered. I will miss you, too. I sincerely hope we can stay in touch, particularly if you owe me money.

As of April 25, I can be reached at andrew.giangola@imgworld.com

I wish each of you, and everyone involved in this wonderful sport, and those who watch, good health and continued success.

As the great Warren Zevon said, Enjoy every sandwich.

Andrew Giangola

Gaby Giangola's horror novel, CYANIDE SMILE is available on lulu.com. Just click:
http://www.lulu.com/content/e-book/cyanide-smile/9918315

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Matter of Life and Death

Maybe it’s the many hours spent huddled around campfires telling stories. Or because so many NASCAR fans enjoy fishing, and we all know how fishermen exaggerate. The priceless raw material out there – the soap opera playing out in the garage, the late-night revelry in the campgrounds – certainly contributes to it.

Whatever the reasons, NASCAR fans have amazing stories to tell about other fans. There are some bona-fide whoppers.

In sifting through tales of out-of-the ordinary NASCAR fandom, it’s difficult to separate historical truth from possible urban – or in this case, shall we say “rural” – legend.

It’s fitting the most fantastic story I’ve come across, which several high-placed industry sources confirm to be true, originates at Talladega Superspeedway, the track known for the highest speeds, most spectacular wrecks, and biggest, rowdiest fan parties.

Talladega is NASCAR’s largest track, a 2.66-mile tri-oval ringing a large, raucous infield. Tens of thousands of fans come to ‘Dega in RVs, campers and converted school buses, often arriving at the track days before the race, and once there, flying their flags proudly. In fact, when fans set up camp in the infield, the first task is to mark their turf and announce an allegiance by raising their NASCAR flags.

At one Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega not too many years ago, a fan was raising the banners of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and of course his dad, the late great Dale Sr., the ubiquitous black No. 3, a flapping pennant seen at this track and wherever the circuit visits, then and always.

The fan happened to be performing this flag-raising ritual during one of the fierce storms that will, with little warning, tear across the Alabama countryside. This time, the rain and winds were no surprise. The fan saw the sky darken and greenish-black clouds gathering wrath in the distance, low, fast and fierce, like the flyover to come on Sunday. He’d be damned if a little weather was going to prevent the flags of the Earnhardts, NASCAR, and the U. S. of A. from going up before the cars hit the track for qualifying.

In the driving rain, the fan was securing his metal flagpole. An apocalyptic crack of thunder, loud as if the sky had split apart, erupted. It came with a brilliant flash of blue-white light. The searing bolt of electricity beamed into the flagpole.

Even a mild lightning strike generates nearly a billion volts of juice. This unlucky fellow holding the pole was instantly fried to death by the sizzling laser. His buddies inside the camper heard the thunderclap and a thud – the body hitting the ground. They ran outside to discover their burnt and lifeless friend. They waited out the storm, and following a brief discussion featuring mild dissent quickly dismissed, the group made an improbable decision: to dig a shallow grave there in the infield and continue their race weekend plans. After all, “it’s what he would have wanted,” they agreed. One mumbled a joke about it being the NASCAR version of the movie, Weekend at Bernie’s. Since none of the crew had any special religious convictions, did it really harm anyone, including the deceased fellow’s family, to delay a funeral, anyway? Their friend was horribly, tragically dead. Nothing would change that. You can book a church and get flowers and cold cuts anytime in modern day America. After the race, they’d take care of grim details no one wanted to think about just yet. Until then, a race was to be run.

The weather cleared. A southern belle proudly belted out the National Anthem with 180,000 people proudly at attention, hands over hearts then lifted to the sky cheering military jets screeching past. Gentlemen started their engines. The roaring pack of 43 cars freight-trained around the track. There was the requisite big wreck. And one happy driver surged first to the checkered flag.

And then, after the last drops of adult beverages were sprayed in a banshee Victory Lane celebration, a few hundred yards away, the boys dug up and cleaned off their friend. They solemnly reported the death to local authorities. Not many questions were asked. An open-and-shut case of death by lightning strike. No one’s ever charged Mother Nature with murder. Tough to prosecute that one. The boys lowered their flags and drove home with a little more room in the pickup truck than when they arrived a few days earlier.

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans" by Andrew Giangola (Motorbooks, 2010)

Monday, April 4, 2011

The 21 Coolest Things About NASCAR

NOTE: This article appears in the premiere issue of SPORT LIFE magazine, now available in many book stores.

In so many ways, beginning with its moonshine-soaked roots, NASCAR is different than the traditional “stick and ball” sports. Here are 21 points of differentiation…and reasons to get a ticket to experience a great American sport.

A chess match at 180 MPH: 43 of the world’s most fearless drivers gun their growling beasts around high-banked tracks at hair-raising speeds, wedged closer than you get to your neighbor when parking at the Wal-mart. When they’re up to speed on that first lap, the thundering procession shakes you to the core. “I get goose bumps so bad, I can’t shave my legs before a race,” says Judith Barr of Lexington, SC.

Sensory overload: You don’t have to be a gear head to succumb to the rush from the massive display of American horsepower that whooshes past so fast it could dry your hair. “Absolutely freaking nothing beats the assault on the senses like 43 cars roaring around a race track,” says Amy Marbach of badgroove.com. “Attending that first race in person burned NASCAR fandom into my heart and soul.”

Unparalleled access: Fans can purchase garage and pit passes to get up close to the drivers. Those intent on nabbing an autograph usually succeed. Even from the King, Richard Petty, always on the scene in his trademark shades and Charlie 1 horse cowboy hat.

Trespassing welcomed: Try to go on the field before the Super Bowl. You’ll be arrested. But fans can walk the track before the Daytona 500, or any other NASCAR race for that matter.

The Pits are anything but: Seven highly trained professional athletes scramble “over the wall” to change four Goodyear Tires and dump in 18 gallons of Sunoco Green E15 fuel in less than 14 seconds. It’s crazy, chaotic, and completely choreographed.

A Family Sport: Where else could you spend four hours with your family on a Sunday afternoon and not hear a word they say. (“If you don’t like the family you came with, you can be adopted in no time, jokes Julie Geary, a Tony Stewart fan from southern NJ. “You can have a whole new family before the race is over!”)

Family Feud: Let’s face it. Many drivers, who travel the circuit together week after week, don’t particularly like one another, and will occasionally use a bumper to demonstrate this. Several simmering feuds from the 2010 season portend to boil over this year. “Every driver will remind you of someone in your family; there’s lots to love, and they will drive you crazy, too,” notes Judy Diethelm of Nashville.

No Secrets: Watch NFL coaches on the sideline covering their mouths with their clipboards or baseball pitchers putting mitts over their faces during on-the-mound conferences. In NASCAR, there are no secrets. Heck, fans can listen to all driver-crew chief conversations on Scanners. “There's no other major sport where fan can hear live communication between teammates, during the competition,” observes sports writer Hampton Stevens.

B.Y.O.B. NASCAR tracks allow fans to bring their own alcohol into the venue.

No Time Outs: The action never stops. And there are no interminable, momentum-killing breaks to review a call on replay.

‪The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: Super Chef Mario Batali said NASCAR is “the Super Bowl meets Woodstock meets the Iowa State Fair.” Indeed, fans start arriving at the track on Wednesday, get the party rolling, and by Sunday afternoon, a pretty good race breaks out.

The longest season in professional sports: Don’t believe your mother. There is no such thing as “too much of a good thing.” NASCAR races for 10 months – a 100,000-person rolling barbeque moving from state-to-state February through November. Fans sweat out a two-month off-season and then get busy for Daytona again.

Watch history being made: While NASCAR is rich in history and tradition (hey, we have drivers of yesteryear named “Fireball” and “Coo Coo”), the sport continues to forge new history. Current champion Jimmie Johnson has won an unprecedented five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series titles during the most competitive period in the sport's history. Making the full field his personal lapdog is an astounding accomplishment.

Drive my car: Few of us can dunk a basketball or wallop a golf ball 300 yards down the fairway. But regular fans can drive it like they stole it in real stock cars at racing schools on the same tracks NASCAR drivers mix it up. Says Chris Stuart of Charlotte, NC: “I have so much more appreciation NASCAR drivers after trying to wrangle a NASCAR stock car...coolest experience ever!”

An Affordable blast: Ticket prices to a race are inexpensive compared to most pro team games. And parking is free. Grandstand tickets for the Daytona 500 are $55. Fans can pre-order $45 seats at the road course in Watkins Glen, NY. Texas Motor Speedway offers backstretch tickets for $20.

Neither Home nor Away: Most sporting events feature two teams, creating a divided crowd. In NASCAR, there’s no home or away team; 43 drivers race to the checkered flag on the same field of play. Ten fans together could be rooting for 10 different drivers.

Miss Sprint Cup. And Miss Coors Light: Any girl who is hot when covered head to toe in fireproof Nomex, is, well….really, truly, genuinely, extremely hot.

A sea of motor homes: The infield is a throbbing shantytown of RVs, trailers, motor homes and repainted school buses, thousands of camping vehicles of varied sizes, shapes and payment schemes. “You can drive your home to the race,” says Chris MacNicol, a.k.a. “Talladega Tireman,” who goes to the track naked except a Goodyear Eagle around his waist.

The Smells: From the late-night campfires to burning rubber on pit road, the smells of NASCAR are totally unique. “The high octane fuel and burning rubber in the pit area and garage – which is our locker room – smells a lot better than old sweat socks and jockstraps,” says long-time fan Paul Harraka, Sr. of Wayne, NJ.

Duty, Honor, and God: From the Stealth Bomber to the Thunderbirds, NASCAR's awe-inspiring pre-race flyovers signal the sport’s diligent support of the U.S. military. War heroes and fresh-faced privates mingle on pit road. There’s even an invocation often praising Jesus Christ. Even if you’re not a Christian, you have to respect NASCAR not caving into the sanitizing forces of political correctness.

NASCAR Nation: Camping in the infield, grown men wade in inflatable kiddie pools. During rain delays, mud wrestling contests occur. Every fan you meet out there would give you the shirt off his back…if he were wearing one. Junior fans aren't necessarily sending Jeff Gordon fans holiday hams, but they all get along. NASCAR and its fans are an altruistic sports community which rallies around good causes, always willing to give back, help and share its good fortune. Put another way: Show me a place on earth with as many empty beer bottles and as few fights as a NASCAR race.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nursing Junior to a Championship

Some people live to save the world.

Barbie Robbins lives for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Once time, Junior wrecked and was shaken up. Barbie, who was at home, thousands of miles from the race, put on a nurse’s outfit. She wanted to channel healing vibes to her number-one driver.

Every morning, the 49-year-old Californian wakes up underneath a collage of Dale Jr. photographs pasted above her bed. Before shedding her No. 88 pajamas, Barbie bee-lines to the computer to vote for her man in the NASCAR Most Popular Driver contest. She punches up her MySpace page, checks the guest book for new NASCAR friends and gazes at the latest Dale Jr. photos posted.

In one shot, the driver is sleeping peacefully in his race car. Thought bubbles, like those in cartoons, rise from his head to a superimposed cloud framing Barbie’s smiling face. A photo of Dale’s car speeding past the start-finish line has the caption, “Junior looks at Barbie.” A shot showing Junior with chin on clenched fist, deep in thought, is captioned, “Hmmm…should I call Barbie?” A photo of Junior appearing surprised is tagged, “Is that Barbie?” In another one, NASCAR’s biggest star is with fellow driver Tony Stewart who exclaims “Look Dale, there she is again. I think Barbie is stalking you!”

Barbie sends daily notes on the life and times of Dale Jr. to dozens of friends met on the web. On race day, members of the virtual club sit with their laptops in front of the TV telecast, typing bulletins to one another. If Junior is rammed by another driver, Barbie will fire off sailor-worthy cusses. She’s known online, and among many in the physical world, as “Junior’s Baby 8 Girl.” Some in her San Diego neighborhood call her “NASCAR Chick.”

Most days, she puts on a Dale Jr. t-shirt, which had been ironed and carefully set out the night before. She selects a Dale Jr. hat. There’s a set rotation – on Sunday night, shirts and hats are matched to days of the week. She has been unable to find Junior Under ‘Roos and will take any leads offered. At the corner store in her San Diego neighborhood, the counterman catches a glance of her NASCAR garb and long Stevie Wonder-style braids and invariably shouts, “Hey, NASCAR Chick!”

Barbie Robbins, formerly of Chicago, Illinois and a nondescript civilian life, now of San Diego, California and a minor celebrity in her neighborhood and Auto Club Speedway 104 miles due north, became Junior’s Baby 8 Girl after seeing the driver in a TV interview.

The attraction was mystical and instantaneous. The Sicilians, as any fan of “The Godfather” knows, have a term for such otherworldly instant connections: “The Thunderbolt.” The thunderbolt is deeper and more complex than what Americans might call “love at first sight.” This is not puppy dogs and floating hearts. The thunderbolt is serious, life-altering destiny not to be messed with.

In Sicily, the Thunderbolt is called, “lu lampu.”

In San Diego, Barbie Robbins told the TV screen, “Damn, he fine!”

The hour she first believed, she watched Dale Junior answer the reporter’s questions, slightly impatient, index finger prone to reach up and clean his ear, a plain spoken North Carolina boy saying “y’all” and “ain’t” whenever he darn well pleased, a regular dude of unkempt rugged good looks who’d rather be hunting or fishing than facing questions about the so-called Earnhardt family legacy.

Barbie saw beautiful unvarnished authenticity in a glossed-up world populated with too many candy-ass pretty boys, and was zapped by the thunderbolt. She started tuning to NASCAR races to see the free-spirited cowboy ride. He was courageous and could drive that car. He had his own chocolate bar. She hates chocolate. It was the sweetest candy she’d ever tasted.

Junior’s Baby 8 Girl is never to be bothered on Sunday even during family emergencies, always eager to display the Dale Junior tattoo covering one shoulder blade and to speak wistfully about the “Junior Nation” one coming to the other. She never shies from a chance to promote the individual who is the object of many of her waking thoughts and desires. And some while she’s asleep. Ask Barbie about her life, and she’ll flatly tell you, “It’s all about Junior!” There’s a twinkle in her lagoon-green eyes, and she’s not joking.

Junior’s Baby 8 Girl wasn’t the kind of woman to go trawling for celebrities occupying a central position in her life. It was out of character for her to feel an intimate connection to any pop culture icon – those distant figures of tabloid renown captured and co-oped by the media to sate the public’s insatiable appetite for unconsummated fantasy, tart gossip and computer wallpaper.

The possibility of Barbie connecting with a NASCAR driver was more remote. It wasn’t because most African American women in Southern California have little in common with the front men of a sport rooted in Carolina moonshine. It’s just that while Barbie had watched Indy Car with cousins, she wasn’t much of a race fan. She wasn’t opposed to it. Racing was cool, but there were so many other things to do on a Sunday afternoon. Beside, she actually prefers connecting with people personally in the flesh, over a Bud Light and a Newport, rather than plumbing the lives of public figures through supermarket checkout magazines.

Then came the lu lampu. She didn’t plan it. No one asks for the thunderbolt. Now there’s an unmistakable connection, a spooky empathy at play.

“When Dale Junior does an interview, and I see he’s sad, it makes me sad,” Barbie said. “I will pick up on his moods and will really feel the same way.”

After Dale Jr. left the team formed by his father – which after Senior’s passing was run by his step mother Teresa – to join the NASCAR powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, Barbie noticed the driver was relaxed, freed from the politics and pressure of the family business. The days following his shocking move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to join Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at a new team brought relief to the driver and his biggest fan.

“Watching Junior talking about his new team in the press conference, you could just see how happy and excited he was. And so was I.” As she likes to say in her emails, “Life is Gr88t!!!!”

Even cocooned in her car on the freeways of California, Junior Baby 8 Girl is identified by a batch of Dale Jr. bumper stickers drawing odd looks. “Sometimes on the highway, a driver will pull alongside. He’s seen my Dale Jr. stickers. The look on his face, says, ‘That is not her car.’ Yes, it’s my car, and I’m a NASCAR fan! I’m a redneck with a permanent tan! But when I get to the track, I’m just another race fan, fitting right in. I’m probably the most crazy fan, like an Energizer bunny but doing all I can to not jump over that fence and grab onto Dale Jr.’s car. But I’m still just a fan. Every other NASCAR fan I’ve met has been awesome. They don’t care if I’m black, pink or orange. I’m not into black or white. I’m into Green. Number 88 green! That’s all that matters”

Getting close to the driver of the number 88 green car is the weekend’s main goal. “I have my Junior Station set up where I lay out my hoochie outfits, oops, I mean respectful, family friendly NASCAR-themed clothing,” she says. To look her best, Junior’s Baby 8 Girl sits for eight hours to get her hair specially braided. Getting ready for the drive north, she cranks up Jackie Wilson’s “Baby Workout.”

Grilled foods are wrapped in foil. The ice chest is filled with Bud Light. Most of the beer will come back, since NASCAR fans offer theirs to her all weekend. “NASCAR tailgating rocks,” she said. “Oh my god, two times a year, drinking beer at 8 a.m., it’s the only way to party. Those other so called big sports events have nada on NASCAR.”

She loves seeing the new crop of Dale Junior t-shirts and having her picture taken in his colors. She once bought a bunch of new tees in the parking lot and began dancing for fans snapping her picture. She didn’t know it, but the goods were illegal knock-offs. The police snuck up and busted the counterfeiter. Nearby at her SUV, Junior’s Baby 8 Girl was posing in her new wares. She explained it was her car, she bought the shirts not to sell but for herself as she is the biggest Junior fan. She said the photos were not to encourage the sale of illegal merchandise but to promote her favorite driver. No, she was not being compensated.

Yes, she does this at all the races. Yes, OK, it’s a little over the top. No, she’s not kidding about all this.

The cops shook their heads and pulled away.

She’s found a niche, making dozens of friends at the track, on a first name basis with Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker, a familiar face to some of the team crews. Yet still feels on the outside, nose pressed against the glass. Myriad web sites, fan magazines, TV and satellite radio coverage bring fans their NASCAR fix whenever they want. But not all the time, any time. Life beckons. There’s a job to go to, assignments looming, appointments to make, groceries to buy, a boy to raise. Thankfully, her son drinks the NASCAR Kool-Aid, too, and they’ve not missed a single race at Auto Club Speedway since 1998. Pit passes bring them close to the drivers. At one race, Junior nearly bumped into them before the drivers’ introductions.

“I reached out and touched Junior for a hot second, rubbed his arm, spoke to him,” she said. “I said, ‘I want a hug,’ just to let him know, ‘Dude, I love ya, I’m always loyal, dedicated and right there with ya.’ His smile was priceless.” Telling this story, her eyes filled with tears.

Try to squeeze Peyton Manning’s shoulder before a game. You’ll be handcuffed and thrown in jail. The chance to get up close is what Junior’s Baby 8 Girl likes most about the sport. But as near as she can get to the drivers, it’s only twice a year. When race weekends start, and she’s at work punching information into the computer, there’s no way to know what’s going on in the race shop and at the track. The data entry position is a job, not a career. Her dream is employment at NASCAR, winding up on the inside, a life with no barriers to knowing what’s happening with Dale Junior exactly when it’s happening. She brings her resume to each race she attends. You never know.

At work cut off from NASCAR on a Friday afternoon can make a fan like Barbie very frustrated. She sometimes has a premonition, like before the race at Talladega. She felt something wrong and snuck a peak at the internet. Dale had blown a tire during a practice run and crashed. A feeling of dread washed over her.

The online NASCAR network kicked into gear. Friends with jobs allowing them to follow NASCAR on SPEED or Sirius sent news. Junior was fine – checked out in the infield care center and released, walking to the garage to set up the backup car.
This time, Barbie could leave the nurse’s outfit in the closet.

-- Published with permission from THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola (Motorbooks, 2010) --

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What Would Morgan Shepherd Say to Charlie Sheen

If you can forget for a moment his five innocent children, Charlie Sheen’s televised national meltdown makes for riveting entertainment.

(How absolutely nutty must wife number three be if CHARLIE gets custody of the kids? He admits to ingesting more drugs than humanly possible and claims to be an extra-terrestrial warlock with an extraordinary brain, Adonis DNA and Tiger blood. And the crazier wife more dangerous to the kids? What must she be like? Extra-extra terrestrial?)

Now, one of my all-time favorite movies is NETWORK. As today's major networks suck on Charlie's teet for unpasteurized Rant Milk that translates into easy ratings, you can see a lot of Martin Sheen's son in Peter Finch’s stark-raving-mad television character.

Charlie, too, is mad as hell; at what, who knows, because surrounded by his "Goddesses" in an oversized home filled, he says, with peace and love and good food, he also claims to be a winner. In fact, a bi-winner! (Charlie’s answer when asked by ABC's 20/20 if he’s bi-polar.)

I’m glued to all of it, checking Twitter by the hour to see if @CharlieSheen has posted.

I need a break, and a shower, and something to uplift my spirit and restore faith in all that is decent and good in people who are of this world and have human blood, and go home to one woman, and won't likely be carted away to the hospital any time soon for ingesting a briefcase full of cocaine with half the cast of Debbie Does Dallas.

I got what I needed, and it came from an unlikely source, NASCAR driver Morgan Shepherd, who is the polar opposite of Sheen, most notably in his faith and humility and charitable nature.

Morgan went to Sin City and put on his Superman outfit.

I'm going to rip the story right from Faith Motorsports, because they tell it so well --

“Shepherd catches shoplifter: Most NASCAR drivers don't come to mind when you think of Las Vegas crimefighters, but then again, most NASCAR drivers aren't 69-year-old Morgan Shepherd.

The veteran of 44 NASCAR seasons was getting out of his rental car in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store Monday evening just minutes away from Las Vegas Motor Speedway just as three men burst from the store's entrance with security forces trailing behind. Thats when Shepherd, a daily jogger and fitness perfectionist, sprang into action.

"I just got out and took off after them," Shepherd said. "I caught one of them just as they were getting ready to hop a little wall at the end of the parking lot. I yanked him down and got on top of him."

Shepherd said in a matter of seconds a Las Vegas police officer pitched the ageless NASCAR driver a pair and handcuffs and continued pursuit of the other two suspects, along with the store's security force.

"I cuffed him and sat on top of him," Shepherd said. "The police department officers showed up and asked if I could hold him a while longer while they ran down the others. I told them he wasn't going anywhere."

Shepherd said while the young shoplifter pleaded with him to let him go and about the possibility of going to jail, Shepherd used the time to lecture the youth about his poor choices.
(Faith Motorsports)(3-1-2011)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Moment in the Sun

NOTE: ON SUNDAY, FEB. 20, JACK HEGE OF LEXINGTON, NC, WILL BE ATTENDING HIS 53RD CONSECUTIVE DAYTONA 500. AUTHOR ANDREW GIANGOLA HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEND THE 2009 GREAT AMERICAN RACE WITH JACK. HERE IS HIS STORY, WHICH BECAME THE LEAD CHAPTER OF THE BOOK "THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY":

Before the 51st running of the Daytona 500, eighty-two year old Jack Hege was led into the “driver’s meeting” – a mandatory gathering of drivers and crew chiefs, attended by dignitaries as well.

This fascinating pre-race meeting before NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races is unique in sports. Before battling on the track, the competitors file into a room and sit next to one another like fidgety students in the auditorium poised to bust out on the last day of school. Military heroes and the rich and famous attending the race are first recognized. The NASCAR race director then recites the rules of the road for the particular track – pit road RPMs, yellow line regulations, double-file restart pointers, and the like. The meeting that started off like the Academy Awards finishes like a local city council zoning meeting. Chapel follows.

The rookies generally sit in the front. One notable exception was when Pamela Anderson was Grand Marshal and strutted in wearing a white leather micro skirt that was a violation in the garage area, and probably the entire county. That was the first known driver’s meeting in which veteran drivers Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived 15 minutes early and were spotted in the front row.

Here at the Daytona 500 pre-race meeting, a wide-eyed Jack Hege was led to the V.I.P row of folding chairs facing the drivers and crew chiefs. He was next to NASCAR Champion Bobby Allison. A few seats away, a grinning Tom Cruise caught the eye of his buddy Jeff Gordon and nodded in conspiratorial assent as if his Days of Thunder character Cole Trickle was getting ready to rumble this afternoon. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was to Jack’s right. Singer Gavin DeGraw shook Jack’s hand. For the son of a chicken farmer who worked 46 years in textile factory, this sure was an unusual place to be on a Sunday morning.

While Jack Hege had attended every single Daytona 500 – an astounding 51 in a row – about this time, he’d usually be seated in the grandstands off turn four. Jack wasn’t even sure a driver’s meeting was held prior to the inaugural “Great American Race” on February 22, 1959.

If there was, it surely lacked the pomp, circumstance and boldface celebrity presence infusing with a palpable buzz the hanger we was in. Yes, it’s a good bet Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were not introduced alongside Lee Petty and Red Byron at that race in ‘59.

Jack took his V.I.P. seat after chatting with Raymond Parks, the first NASCAR championship owner from the sport’s inaugural 1948 season. Parks sat stiff and upright in his seat, patiently listening and saying little. He is 94 years old; his wife Violet now does most of the talking. Parks was the best-dressed man in the room, in a dapper suit and snazzy fedora, reminiscent of how a half-century ago the once-prominent Atlanta liquor-store merchant who sold his spirits on both sides of the law brought formality to a rag-tag sport in financing many of its early drivers, including Byron, who raced in the 1940’s and ‘50’s and won the first NASCAR championship. Jack Hege attended many of those races. Sixty years later, looking around the packed room, he thought, I’m one of the few original fans left. Everyone else is gone.

Sandwiched between big-name athletes and A-list celebrities who jetted in to Daytona, Hege’s hang-dog face alternated between wondrous disbelief of his role in this unexpected scene and the blunt satisfaction of being recognized for a well-deserved lifelong achievement.

Adhering to Daytona 500 tradition, Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, began the meeting by announcing the dignitaries on hand. After recognizing actor Gene Hackman, he thanked one of the sport’s most loyal fans, Mr. Jack Hege, for attending every single season opener. The drivers and crew chiefs, NASCAR executives, captains of industry, Grammy-nominated singers, Heisman trophy winners and NFL coaches exploded in applause.

Hege froze for an instant – as if the room’s boisterous decibel surge had shorted his hearing aide – then smiled and nodded. Despite his outward embarrassment, Jack believed there was no more devoted NASCAR fan than he. Were any other men or women present at the birth of NASCAR still showing up and rooting for whoever was running up on the leader’s tail? And now the competitors he admired were saluting one humble fan’s contribution the sport. Hearing the applause, Jack was an old man living a little boy’s dream. Moments later, Tom Cruise would get an equally boisterous reception. But Jack Hege had arrived in NASCAR.

Walking slowly on sore knees towards his seat across from pit road, the same section through the years (“because that’s where the action is”), Jack recalled the infield at the new Daytona International Speedway as a no man’s land. There were no media centers, speedway clubs or mini grocery stores. The grandstands were a mere 15 rows high. Even row three, where he sat in 1959, offered a clear view across the track. The infield was nothing but dirt and a large rectangular lake running parallel to the long backstretch. The lake within the track was formed after millions of pounds of soil were dug out and piled high to create the track’s formidable banking. The three-story banks tilted 31 degrees, as steep as dirt can be stacked before running downhill.

Jack opened his eyes wide and said, “The cars running on them banks would shoot down the backstretch, come apart and go crashing off the track. They had boats on standby in case a car went in that lake!”

Before starting his incredible Daytona 500 streak, Hege watched NASCAR races on nearby Daytona Beach. The cars ran south for two miles on A1A and took a sharp left turn through rutted sand onto the wide, level beach. They ran north on the smooth, hard-packed sand before taking another quick left onto paved A1A where the cars reached speeds of 150 mph.

“There were no grandstands at the first beach races. You’d stand five or six deep and had to watch for cars coming and then run,” Hege said. “There were no loudspeakers. We’d listen to the race on the radio.”

In 1958, Jack’s friend Jimmy Meyers drove down to Daytona in his new two-door Chevy hard top. Fans parked their cars on the beach, in the center of the race course, and watched from the grass-covered sand dunes. Before the race was over, Jimmy wanted to return to the motel. He pulled his car onto the course and gunned it ahead of the field. Instead of turning left onto A1A, Jimmy kept driving up the beach. Two drivers followed. They drove behind Jimmy for a half mile before realizing they were off the course and turning back.

“NASCAR raced stock cars right from the dealer’s lot. Jimmy had a white car and there were no logos on the back anyway. It was easy to mistake him for a racer,” Hege said.

Jack and friends from Lexington would pile into a half dozen cars and drive down to Daytona Beach in one shot. Jack always had a Chevy – a ’55 Bel Air that could do 110 mph, a ‘58 Impala, a ‘62 Impala two-door hardtop.

Hege was in relatively good health, but he didn’t want to drive to the 2009 Daytona 500, which would have been his 51ststraight season opener. Though he had five race tickets, the streak appeared to be coming to an end, and it made the local newspaper. Greensboro resident Ron Collier was among dozens of fans who saw the story and contacted the paper, offering to accompany Hege. Collier met Hege at a Krispy Kreme donut shop. The two men hit it off, and Collier agreed to chauffer Jack to the race, bringing his son and friends, and keeping the streak alive.

When Jack was behind the wheel, the Daytona trip took nine hours. “You could do it in eight, but you’d get caught,” he says. There was no interstate system; the caravan from Lexington took two-lane highways all the way to Central Florida.
At those beach races, just about anyone who wanted to cheat Bill France and his merry band of speed demons out of eight bucks could duck onto the beach for free.

Hege knew part of his ticket money went to the beloved daredevils fishtailing in front of the breaking surf. He always paid, but when his Chevy passed through the opening in a line of men Bill France paid to stand watch on the beach, two or three friends were hidden in the car’s trunk. “Racing was a poor man’s sport,” Hege said. “Bootleggers got together and ran. People wanted to see it, but about a quarter of them didn’t want to pay. And they didn’t.”

Up until the 1980’s, Hege – and all fans – paid for the tickets with cash. NASCAR founder Bill France’s wife, Annie B., who handled the track’s financial matters, wouldn’t accept credit. If a family couldn’t pay for the tickets with cash or a money order, she reasoned, they couldn’t afford it. Instead of a day at the races, the money was better meant for food and clothes. Everyone who knew Annie B. says the Speedway wouldn’t exist if not for her dedication to the fans and diligently caring for the finances of a growing family business.

Each year, Hege’s ticket order was taken by Juanita Epton, known to everyone as “Lightning.” Juanita’s husband gave her that nickname. He said he never knew when she’d strike. “Betty Jane France {wife of Bill France Jr., the second president of NASCAR} warned me if anyone came to the window and asked for ‘Juanita,’ be extra nice because they’re from church,” Lightning said. She knew Jack as “Thomas J. Hege,” the name she’d enter into her ledger when he called, one of the track’s first ticket renewals each year.

Jack, who never married, had extra money and time to follow NASCAR throughout the southeast. He was a regular at tracks like North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and Martinsville. Once, on the way to the North Wilkesboro race, Jack discovered he was carrying the wrong envelope containing tickets to the Martinsville event. There was no time to turn around to retrieve the proper tickets. He proceeded ahead to the track. “The ticket manager saw I was in reservations, and got me four new tickets,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I enjoy going to the races. People appreciate you and treat you right.”

Over the years, Hege has crossed paths with individuals of interest and note. He shook the hand of George Wallace when the Alabama Governor attended the 1972 Daytona 500. Three months later, Wallace, who was running for president was paralyzed in an assassination attempt. He had lunch at the Red Lobster with L. G. DeWitt, owner of Rockingham Raceway. The night driver Tim Richmond moved his sponsorship from Folger’s to Old Milwaukee, he found himself having a can of beer with the sensational driver with the perpetual tan outside the motel of the press conference.

“Tim was a charger, the kind of driver I liked. He reminded me of Curtis Turner and Fireball Roberts. He had too many girlfriends and died of AIDS not too long after that.”

With a career and life taken away too early, Richmond never won at Daytona. Even if he did, for Hege, it probably wouldn’t have topped the first Daytona 500, still fresh in his mind for its three-way photo finish.

“We came from the beach to this giant new track,” he explained. “Everything was so new. And then after five hundred miles, there was nothing like that finish. It was so close, no one knew who won for three days. They had to look at photos to see it was Lee Petty.”

Prior to each race, Jack spends a week in Daytona Beach, always at a beachfront motel. He drives up and down the coast highway, keeping an eye on the world going by his window, noting developments large and small, new palm trees planted, a burger joint he hadn’t seen, motels built and destroyed. Taking all that time off, he worked the Monday after the race. By parking a mile away from the track, he could avoid the worst traffic. He did the driving while friends slept hunched against the doors. Back in Lexington, he grabbed two hours of sleep, and went to work.

No one slept the night of the 2001 race. As Michael Waltrip surged to the checkered flag, Hege watched a last-lap wreck putting Dale Earnhardt Sr. into the wall. After the smoke cleared, Jack walked to his car. He’d seen worse crashes, like when Lee Petty went airborne over the wall, landed in a ditch outside the track, and lived to tell the tale.

On the car radio, he heard the news. Over and over again were replays of Mike Helton’s heartbreaking announcement: “NASCAR has lost Dale Earnhardt.” Jack’s favorite driver was gone. “We listened to the AM radio all night long. They were going without commercials. Every station had fans calling in, paying tribute. It was like the loss of a president.”

Hege is reminded of “Senior” in today’s hard chargers like Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart, all cut in the up-on-the-wheel, no-holds-barred mold of the sport’s earliest competitors. As Hege slowly moved through the wall-to-wall crowds in Daytona’s Fan Zone, he said he missed small-town feel of the sport and the reckless flamboyance of yesteryear. He chuckled in the memory of driver antics that were downright crazy.

“Curtis Turner had engine trouble at Rockingham, smoke pouring out. Did he slow down? No. He drove the car until it exploded. He then got in his airplane and took off from the speedway. He flew that plane under the power line going from the infield to the press box. The FAA grounded him for that.”

Flamboyant wheelmen with a devil-may-care attitude weren’t the only risk takers. In the early 1960’s, a group from Wisconsin spent the night on Daytona Beach. Four fans slept on quilts on the sand next to their Oldsmobile convertible. When morning came, only three were left. The tide had carried one person away. “When I left the beach the night before, they had their guitars out. They were singing and dancing and drinking,” Hege said.

The Daytona 500 is such a monumental event in sports, and I felt truly fortunate to spend its 51st edition with Jack Hege, the man who’d seen them all, and this time was duly honored for his devotion. If Jack stays healthy, I hope he will continue to come back and share with others his personal slice of the colorful history of a sport that’s come so far.

Before we said goodbye, I had one final question for Jack. I wanted to pinpoint the one particular thing that drew him to Daytona every February like a migratory bird.
Hege didn’t pause at all. “Everyone wants to see and do something different, I reckon. And racing has been that. You want to see and do it all.”

No one can say they’ve seen everything. But from experiencing first hand the pioneering races on the beaches of Daytona, where fans popped from the trunks of cars, to today’s events drawing 200,000 fans in person and a TV audience of millions more around the world, it’s safe to say no NASCAR fan comes closer to seeing it all than Jack Hege. The smart money says, come mid February next year, he’ll be headed toward Daytona, like a migratory bird, pointed through a hard-wired instinct to where it feels right.

For more stories like Jack’s, THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans (by Andrew Giangola, Motorbooks) is available on the amazon.com, the NASCAR.COM Superstore and anywhere fine books are sold.