Friday, October 17, 2014

There’s Nothing Flat About Tire Man

Throughout history, a host of useful and important inventions have come from unplanned accidents.
In China 2,000 years ago, a cook mixed charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter.  The concoction exploded in vivid colors.  Fireworks were invented, and life immediately got better for teenage boys.
In 1879, a researcher spilled a chemical on his hand.  He went off to lunch, forgetting to wash his hands.  The bread he munched on tasted unusually sweet.  The world would get its first artificial sweetener, saccharin.
Penicillin was discovered by chance in 1928 when a British scientist was experimenting with bacteria in petri dishes.
            And so it was for Chris MacNicol, who for five dollars purchased Joe Nemechek’s right front qualifying Goodyear tire at the 2004 Daytona 500.  The tire was heavy.   MacNicol put it down.  Looking at that wheel, he had an epiphany.  Wearing only shorts, he sat in it.  When he got up, the tire stuck.  Hilarity ensued.  Fans gathered around.  Photos were taken, autographs signed.  Tire Man was born.
Most celebrities need a build up to develop their base.  It’s usually gradual. The biggest stars of modern times, The Beatles, played for years in relative obscurity before the madness began.  Tire Man, however, happened instantly.  Fans saw the buff dude in the Goodyear Eagle and frayed straw hat and instinctively called out, “Tire Man!”  He was an immediate Pied Piper for the enthusiastic NASCAR masses, who formed a bellowing impromptu circle in the infield.  A Florida state trooper was called in to investigate the ruckus.  She approached the well-built young man mugging for the cameras in a role he’d been waiting his whole life to fill. 
Picture the scene: female state trooper in her snappy uniform, addressing 30-year-old Chris MacNicol, ostensibly naked, save a race car wheel.
“Please tell me you have something on under that tire,” the officer said.
“Why don’t you look?” Tire Man suggested.
The cop was flustered and embarrassed.  Here was this good-looking muscular guy, could have been a Chippendale’s dancer, his formidable, well-rounded pecs dancing a happy jiggle when he laughed.  They didn’t cover this in the training academy.
            Tire Man respects the law.  His dad is a retired cop.  He wasn’t about to let the trooper lose face, particularly in front of dozens of preening fans awaiting the outcome of this peculiar showdown.  He reached into the Goodyear.  A hush settled over the crowd.  He yanked up his shorts.  Major cheers.
The state trooper tipped her cap and moved on, utterly relieved with the quick and suitable ending, escaping the awkwardness of hauling in a guy, for what?  Wearing nothing but a Goodyear?  Was she supposed to impound the tire and take it back to the NASCR R&D Center for inspection?
On the day Tire Man was born, so many fans wanted their photos taken, it took Tire Man and his dad six hours to walk from turn four to their campsite in turn one.  Chris sensed what Superman felt wearing that cape. He innately knew he’d be inside this tire at other tracks…especially his beloved Talladega Superspeedway.
“He put on that tire, and the whole thing was absolutely immediately hilarious,” said his dad, Bruce MacNicol. “It was the best scene at any sporting event I’ve ever seen.  All the women wanted to know what he had on underneath.  Chris said, ‘an inner liner.’ A few of the ladies got a little risqué, but it was all in good fun.”
Tire Man’s supportive wife wasn’t there, and maybe that was a good thing.  “As lucky as I may be to be married to the guy, I have not yet ventured to the track to see him wearing the tire ‘live,’ though he has put it on at home and modeled it for me,” Tonya said.  “The funniest part is seeing pictures of Chris, and in the background there’s a large crowd taking even more pictures…and then there’s the line of people waiting to meet him.  Just amazing!”
Tonya and Chris met in college, where he was pursuing his degree as an exercise physiologist.  Chris had back problems, and took to swimming.  Tonya was a life guard, and they’d swim together when Chris wasn’t doing cannon balls off the diving board.  It took more than four years, but he made her laugh till her sides hurt, and finally got his girl.  
Even though Chris is hoofing around the track mostly au natural, posing for pictures with scores of strange women of unknown repute, Tonya completely supports her husband’s alter ego.  “Chris is not shy about anything. He loves the sport of NASCAR and anything that puts him in the center of it.  I love the whole idea of Tire Man, because I know Chris loves it.  He is such a people person, and whatever he can do to make people smile makes him the happiest.  I look at his website and Facebook page in awe of the friends he’s made and the loyalty they show. The man they see is the same one I’m at home with every day, who makes me smile and makes me crazy all at the same time.  I have nothing but pride when I hear someone say, ‘That’s your husband?  I just saw him at the track.” 
 “I just love making people laugh,” Tire Man says.  “I was the class clown, the guy always doing the stupid stuff no one else does.  I’m kinda like Mikey, the kid in the TV commercial, who will eat anything.”
If you take an informal poll of NASCAR fans, many have seen Tire Man, in person or through internet photos or in features in NASCAR-friendly outlets like The Sporting News or SPEED. When ABC News’ Prime Time Live ran an in-depth series on NASCAR, they found Tire Man.  Even Will Ferrell, appearing on talks shows to promote his film, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, remembered venturing out into the infield late at night and marveling at this gregarious guy in a straw hat with a tire around his waist.
During the week, when Tire Man goes back to his civilian “Clark Kent” persona, he is a sales rep for a medical supply company, specializing in breathing devices.  At the company’s annual sales meeting, a photo of Tire Man went up on the big screen to motivate hundreds of managers from all over the country.
 “It’s an amazing and diverse bunch that congregates around Tire Man,” says Tire Man, who like Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley, frequently slips into referring to himself in the third person.  “I have met everyone from CEO’s to the gainfully unemployed. But for five days twice a year, we hail from the same place and hoot and holler side by side.  After doing this a few years, I’ve built a lot of friendships and going to races is really like a reunion.”
Tire Man is built like a bull that goes to the gym.  Still, the first time wearing the wheel, he was supporting its full 45 pounds against his skin.  “I suffered a severe tire rub in my right quarter panel,” he says.  He still has a scar on his hip where the tire sat that day. 
He went home, got out a saw horse and circular saw and went to town on the tire.  There was all kind of noise, and smoke and rubber all over the place but also a method to the madness.  Tire Man sliced away some rubber to insert pipe insulation.  He drilled holes for U-bolts attaching to two-inch heavy-duty Dickies suspenders.  The tire now hangs from the suspenders, steadied against his hips.
The trickiest part is going to the bathroom.  Tire Man has to lean back and use a side wall for required stabilization and leverage.  “At every race, someone will inevitably walk in the bathroom, and you’ll hear, ‘Holy S--t!'”
Even before the creation of Tire Man, Chris showed his devotion to NASCAR in curious ways.  About a year after he married Tonya, Dale Earnhardt won a race.  Chris celebrated by diving into the biggest mud hole that he could find. 
“You guessed it - off comes the wedding band,” Tonya explained.  “Apparently Chris searched for nearly four hours for that ring before having to come home and confess what had happened.  Bystanders took pictures, and he came home with a stack of photos showing him digging through the mud pit looking for his wedding ring.  I just had to laugh.  I guess everyone must have anticipated I was going to make his life miserable. They took pity on him and posted messages to me on his website vouching for how long he had searched and how sad he was.   Needless to say, the ring he wears today is from Wal-Mart.”
Tire Man wasn’t always so passionate about NASCAR.  Although his dad was a drag racer in Detroit and a friend of NASCAR driver Benny Parsons (the two men belonged to the same Masonic lodge in the Motor City), he grew up indifferent to racing.  In fact, he’d never been to a NASCAR race until college, making his first trip to the track under mild duress while at Jacksonville State University
“My teammates on the baseball team wanted to hit the race at Talladega.  To be honest, my first reaction was, ‘I’m not watching that crap.’ I just had no idea, and like a lot of people resorted to the stereotype that it’s not a sport, and would be boring.  I had no interest at all.”
The fellas talked about how cool the race would be.  Their resistant teammate was not swayed.  Instead of Rusty and Dale at Talladega, it might was well have been Anthony and Cleopatra at the Metropolitan Opera.  There was nothing intriguing about hanging around a race track.  It sounded like a colossal waste of time.  Then his buddies promised a big party.  Bingo; that was the magic term the gregarious, outgoing class clown needed to hear.  Now they were speaking his language.  Six strapping ballplayers loaded into a pickup truck, heading for the Alabama border.   
            “From the moment we rolled into Talladega, I was hooked,” he said.  “I went just to hang with the guys.  Seeing those cars going ‘round and ‘round, I started to ask questions, learning about the drivers and their history.  It really grabbed hold of me.  And to be 19, in the middle of that huge party.  Oh, man, I was in heaven.” 
Since 1993, Tire Man hasn’t missed a single Talladega race weekend.  There have been big parties and sad, poignant times as well.  “In the infield, if you go to the second to last light pole on Talladega Blvd. headed towards turn 1 and 2, you will find a memorial plaque for Steve Citrano embedded in his camping site,” Tire Man explained.  “Stevie Wonder, we called him, because he was mechanical genius. Stevie was always fixin’ someone’s motor home and most of the fixin’ was on his own which kept breaking down on the way to the track  About five years ago, we lost Steve to a diabetic induced coma.  We found him on Sunday morning before the race. That race was rained out and finished on Monday.  We stayed and watched the race in his honor, then somberly packed his things and left the track.  At every race, we display checkered flags at his plaque, because Stevie Wonder has finished his own race.”
Tire Man started taking his dad, Bruce, to races in 1995.  At first they rolled out sleeping bags and slept under the stars in the bed of Bruce’s Ford Ranger pickup truck. He now travels in style to races at Daytona, Atlanta, Bristol and Talladega in a 35-foot Fleetwood RV with comfortable beds and satellite TV.
Tire Man and his dad have spent some of their closest times at the track.  Chris is considering tires for his two boys, six and four.  “Maybe a bicycle tire!” he says.  Eternally level-headed Tonya is putting a kibosh on that for now.
 “One day, I do want them to see the reaction their dad gets at the race track,” she says.  “I think Tire Man encompasses everything about Chris.  It’s really his character, his charisma, his charm that draws people in.  Anyone can throw on a tire – but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to like the man wearing it.  When people meet Tire Man they are definitely meeting Chris – the guy that loves to smile, loves to laugh, loves NASCAR, and loves his family.” 


For more stories like Tire Man’s, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans is available online at places like amazon.com.

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