Sunday, December 12, 2010

Gavin DeGraw: One of the NASCAR Family

The phalanx of young women in a state of toe-tapping anticipation is, on balance, a wholesome display of American youth in hip-hugging jeans and fruity lip gloss. They stand in neat rows in front of the stage at the Hard Rock Café in New York’s Times Square. Eyes lined various shades of bewitching black are trained on the empty seat at the piano in the center of the dramatically lit stage.

Gavin DeGraw, the talented singer-songwriter soon to take that chair along with the adulation of fast-beating hearts, is backstage in the venue’s Green Room. The 31-year old performer has had a number-one hit single which served as the theme song to the popular TV show, “One Tree Hill.” He played to 60,000 in Denmark. His most recent album comfortably settled in the Billboard Top 10. Yet the pre-concert backstage scene isn’t the clichéd booze-and-babes bash you might expect a handsome pop star to be enjoying. Nikki Sixx he’s not.

Instead, Gavin’s dad and manager, Wayne, and his mom, Lynne, sip sodas and nibble on past-the-expiration-date cheese and crackers. Their other son Joey, who plays guitar and sings with Gavin, is tag-teaming with his younger brother in a game of who-can-top-this banter of funny pop culture references and goofy non sequiturs revealing hyper DeGraw brains never at rest. The prevalent sound in the sealed-off VIP room is Gavin’s laughter, which often follows his own quirky one-liners.

But that’s excusable. Gavin is a sweet-voiced funny dude, and if anyone has the right to enjoy his own jokes tonight, it is artist filling a ballroom with adoring girls wearing their grooviest outfits just for him.

Gavin DeGraw is at home when kicking back with family and friends. This is the company he values most when preparing for a special 2008 Champions Week concert in honor of Jimmie Johnson’s third-consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. With an apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and a social calendar that includes taking in live music whenever possible, Johnson and his stunning wife Chandra are friendly with DeGraw. In fact, on the liner notes of his album, Free, Gavin thanked Jimmie, along with Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers and Carl Edwards.

Backstage, one of Gavin’s equally famous pals pulls out a new Carl Edwards phone, the kind with the driver’s picture emblazoned on the shell. The guy with the phone, Gavin’s friend Carl Edwards, declares in gee-whiz exclamation, “It’s actually pretty cool to have your picture on your own phone…a ‘Carl Edwards phone,’ I guess.”
Gavin glances at the device Carl is palming in his strong hands and shoots an exaggerated double take.

“Dude, that is you! Oh man, when you said ‘a Carl Edwards phone,’ I thought you meant it had your picture in the phone!”

A common misperception among regular people who have to do their own laundry and bus their own plates following dinner is that celebrities, when getting together, engage in meaningful and interesting discussions. Sting’s plight for the rain forest, Madonna’s fake English accent, Alec Baldwin’s political blogs, Angelina’s expanding third-world brood, and Bono’s crusade to fix the third, second and first world, may have helped create that erroneous impression. In reality, this is the conversation of famous people: a mostly forgettable jetsam of the regular and the mundane. I quite like it.

(During my first Champion’s Week in New York as a NASCAR employee, I had the pleasure of sitting with NASCAR legend Bill Elliott on a short bus coming returning to the Waldorf=Astoria from Lincoln Center. As the vehicle crawled down through rush-hour traffic, Bill stared out the window processing the exotic store-front facades slowly panning past our window. He robotically said: “Chyn-eeeze foooood….Eye-tal-yan food…Vietnameeeeze Food….French foooood…Jap-AN-eeese food….Kore-eeean fooood….” Bill noticed my befuddled stare. He admitted Dawsonville and its surrounding counties didn’t offer even a small percentage of the culinary variety of this small stretch of Broadway.)

Tonight at the Hard Rock, the conversation bounces around topics of mutual interest to young men with the world at their feet. Carl needs to find the right words to introduce Galvin on stage. The driver was selected to do the honors not only because he’s a deft public speaker. (This is a man who flew out to California to introduce the “Price is Right” Grand Showcase without looking like a nimrod.) His sponsor Aflac is hosting the Fan Fest, he owns a record company, Back 40 Records, and one of his label’s acts will open the show.

As Carl jots notes on a scrap of paper, the boys talk about life on the road with family. Gavin’s dad is his manager and of course brother Joey backs him on guitar; Carl’s mom is a fixture at NASCAR races. Carl wonders if Gavin can play one of his all-time favorite songs, Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which he attempts to sing, making it clear why Edwards races cars for a living.

They chat about a mutual desire of retiring to a Midwestern farm. Edwards owns a 200-acre farm outside of his hometown of Columbia, Missouri, where DeGraw wants a place, too. Plows and cows get the boys animated, and the level of excitement increases when the discussion turns to electronic gadgets, particularly the coolest one in our midst, Gavin’s watch, equipped with a device which, in case of emergency, can be pulled to alert local authorities. “Fifty grand if you set it off accidentally,” he declares, proudly faking a pull.

Then again, the hottest gadget could be a camera – not much bigger than a pack of smokes – wielded by a rangy gentleman in faded embroidered jeans and tight wool knit cap. He’s airy and graceful on his feet, could be a dancer, moving in, cutting laterally, and backpedaling away, as if carried in the unpredictable tide of the ocean, holding this new contraption known as a Flip camera steady a few inches in front of his face while he bobs about to stream the conversation to a site called This backstage bantering on the joys of Missouri farming and James Bond timepieces will be seen by more than 20,000 Gavin DeGraw fans in many different time zones, cyber flies on the wall of the Hard Rock Café.

The guy with the web cam offering the voyeuristic cyber-experience is Stanton Barrett – photographer, art gallery proprietor, internet content provider, Hollywood stuntman, Godson of Paul Newman, and Indy Car and NASCAR Nationwide Series driver.
Gavin first connected with his “good buds” Stanton and Carl when he sang the National Anthem at the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series race to start the season at Daytona. But that wasn’t his initial introduction to NASCAR. Born and raised in the Catskills Mountains of upstate New York, Gavin’s dad Wayne was a tough prison guard who loved fast cars and melodic tunes. Wayne introduced Gavin to NASCAR at the area’s short tracks and taught him piano.

Therefore, Gavin knew a bit about the sport before belting out, in front of 100,000 fans, the line “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” – a perfectly synchronized lead in to the most fantastic coda to any song he’d ever performed, the deafening roar of a fighter jet squadron streaking over Daytona International Speedway. When the green flag dropped, Gavin would discover there’s nothing like attending a big-time stock car race in person, especially the start of the season at Daytona. Once able to witness NASCAR up close and in person, he became a fan.

Traveling with his mom and dad in a bus he calls “a submarine on a highway,” DeGraw was “blown away by the whole aura of family which surrounds this sport.”
He met NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France and his sister Lesa Kennedy France, who runs the largest speedway operating company. He learned how their grandfather got on a plow and helped move the dirt to build a massive high-banked track many claimed was an outlandish, impractical, unworkable dream. He liked how Big Bill France put his head down and persevered, defying daunting odds and numerous setbacks to create an entire sport, just as he had worked his fingers nearly to the bone learning his craft in the honky tonk bars and sometimes empty coffee houses of New York, and when others had their doubts, also found success. He saw the way drivers’ families gather in the motor coach lot during race weekend, the wives, kids and their dogs playing together. He got the chance to see the Waltrips, the Wallaces, the Labontes, all those families at the center of the big, colorful traveling circus.

“I got to watch the race in the Office Depot pit when they were sponsoring Carl Edwards,” DeGraw said. “ I climbed up on the box, and Carl’s mom was up there. Right then it struck me: this is such a cool sport I wanted to be part of. There was Carl’s mom, and he was totally embracing her being there. Out of all the sights and sounds of Daytona, that’s what I’ll remember most – watching the race in the pits with a driver’s mom.

“Since when did it become cool to not have a great relationship with your parents? I feel I am so blessed to be experiencing all this in my career, and traveling with my parents and brother. That’s what I like most about NASCAR. All these families, doing what they love, and doing it together.”

Maybe I was wrong. Between the banter and joking, some celebrities do have important things to say.

The show was about to start. Carl Edwards jammed speaking notes he wouldn’t use into his pocket. He bounded off for the stage. Gavin grabbed an acoustic guitar and disappeared into a side room to warm up his voice. I went out to the floor where a young girl spotted my “VIP ALL ACCESS” pass.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m Gavin DeGraw’s dad,” I lied.

“Really?! Can you take me back stage?”

“You really don't want to go,” I said. “It’s definitely not what you think it is.”

For more stories about NASCAR, Andrew Giangola’s book, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans is available wherever fine (and lousy) books are sold.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An Annual Thanksgiving Tale

I don't cling to many traditions. But there is one I'm following -- sending out this story every year.

When you see Frosty, and Rudolph, and hear the radio stations go all Christmas all the time, and you get my sordid little tale, you know it's THE HOLIDAYS.

This isn’t a Thanksgiving recipe. It’s more a series of events that became a recipe for disaster.

You see, my wife and I like to spend weekends on Eastern Long Island. It’s nice to get away from the concrete jungle of NYC for peaceful time at the beach. Nothing beats salt air and the squawk of the sea gulls, especially when the beach is empty.

Out east, our place is tiny -- about as big as the John in Dale Jr.’s motor coach. Our kitchen is large enough for a child with an EasyBake oven, and we have no family in the Hamptons. So we don't cook. We go out.

One particular Thanksgiving, for turkey dinner, we head to a mom-and-pop diner we’d patronized before. It's actually near Riverhead Raceway. Viviane likes the diner’s rustic feel, and I prefer the small-town prices compared to Southampton’s shi-shi designer joints with small portions on the menu and large portions of jewelry on the patrons.

This particular Thanksgiving, as my wife and young Gaby (before rock and roll, and plans for a full-sleeve tattoo on an arm) settle into our booth, things feel disjointed.

The restaurant seems…well, different. Two cheery corn-fed squeaky-clean buxom-blonde peach-cheeked teenage Christian girls immediately slap down plates of steaming turkey, spilling over with rich gravy and fluffy trimmings. No menu, they just bring piles of food brought with midwestern wholesome cheer.

Looking around, the other patrons quietly enjoying their dinners are a bit, well…different. Disenfranchised, could you say?

Now, my family isn’t dressed for the Prom; Riverhead is still largely a blue collar town, and yours truly has on sweats that have been near the tide but not the Tide, if you know what I mean. I’m in need of a haircut, presently resembling Boris Said with Bed Head.

But even I look generally more presentable than the others. The men wear greasy caps and scraggly growth on weathered faces. The women appear as if they’ve been around the block several times at a high rate of speed. We are in Kansas no more.

Indeed, as our wide eyes scan the room, it becomes clear to each of us about the same precise moment that the Giangolas are enjoying a soup kitchen-style Thanksgiving dinner with the homeless.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cookin’ on the High Side with Mario Batali and Rachael Ray

It’s 3 a.m. at Texas Motor Speedway, and Mario Batali’s red pony tail is flapping in the breeze. He’s gunning a golf cart over an uneven gravel road carving through the track’s throbbing shantytown of RVs, trailers, motor homes, and repainted school buses.

“We’re on a mission to find the real Americana,” Batali says, and he’s taking his good pal along for the ride. On the back of the zigzagging cart, a laughing Rachael

Ray is blowing kisses to fans shouting, “We love you Rachael!”

Packed into the infield are thousands of camping and recreational vehicles of varied shapes, sizes and payment schemes. Some are hitched to huge cylindrical metal smokers cooking sizzling slabs of choice American beef, which catches the attention of the super chefs driving past converted old school buses with crushed velvet sofas bolted onto the roof and sleek new Prevost motor coaches that require a jumbo mortgage.

The cart’s headlights catch the reflection of silver beads hanging from the horns of a wildebeest’s head which is mounted to a school bus painted silver to resemble a 40-foot long Coors Light can.

The beads are everywhere. Fans whooping it up in all directions are awash in them – glittering strands of silver, ruby, pearl, aquamarine, cherry cola, emerald green. Some are the size of marbles, others as big as golf balls. A life-size John Wayne cutout is adorned with several strands. Gold ones for the Duke, who is standing in front of scaffolding three stories high with a jerrybuilt viewing platform up top along with a bright neon sign proclaiming, “The Redneck Taj Mahal.”

Across the way, “Sweet Home Alabama,” the one tune that from the opening guitar lick can take a juiced-up assemblage of fans into blissed-out nirvana, is blasting from a cooler equipped with giant speakers. A dozen young men and women are swirling around the amazing cooler-slash-boom box. They’re engaged in a sort of rhythmic tribal dance, slowly wind milling their arms as if swimming leisurely through the smoky balmy Texas night.

The state of innovation in America may be declining overall, but an impressive spirit of can-do invention is on display throughout Texas Motor Speedway. A host of creative contraptions like the spindly erector-set village of scaffolding, the juke box producing southern rock and cold beer, and the smokers made from rusty underground propane tanks are helping fans view the track, cook, dance, play music, and dispense adult beverages. An enterprising fan will probably one day invent a device that does all of the above in one contraption you can hook to your Ford F-10 and tow to the races.

At the helm of the golf cart, Batali, a gregarious man with a heavy foot and military-strength RADAR for locating a good time regardless of the hour, veers down a road doglegging to the left. He drives a few hundred feet and instinctually pulls up to a western saloon. It’s an ingeniously constructed replica of a dusty storefront, the kind of plywood structure you’d see on a Hollywood lot with a hand-painted sign announcing, Me Til Monday Saloon.

“Me till Tuesday,” Batali says.

Rachael Ray doesn’t hear that because she’s off the cart before her good friend and sometime partner in crime brings it to a halt. The insanely popular chef, award-winning TV talk show host, magazine publisher, cookware entrepreneur and best-selling author busts through swinging saloon-style western doors onto an elevated black-and-white tiled dance floor.

In the middle of the floor, the object of everyone’s attention, the thing that dominates a scene with plenty of side-show diversions of eye-candy, is a gleaming stripper’s pole.

Rachael Ray marvels at the silver pole.

It seems to rise improbably from the floor, but after a moment’s reflection you can’t imagine the Me Til Monday Saloon or the raceway without it.
Rachael eyes the DJ booth and the giddy beaded dancing women and the rough-edged, crew-cut boys intent on their affection, and she exclaims in a raspy whiskey-and-sandpaper voice that’s fading fast, “We’re in the middle of a race track! These people know how to bring it!”

“Raych, the infield is the heartbeat of NASCAR,” Batali shouts. “We happen to be in the geometric center.”

This comes from experience. Batali has been to nearly 50 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races since Rich Bodmer, a friend from The Sporting News, brought him to an event at Dover International Speedway.

The globally renowned uber-chef, who darts in and out of Greenwich Village traffic on his Vespa, immediately “fell in love” with the speed of the sport, along with the drama-laden cat-and-mouse games drivers and crew chiefs will play to outfox the other teams.

Batali has been known to bend the rules – of what a restaurant should serve and how a restauranteur should act. He takes off-putting parts like beef cheeks and squab liver, and from the seemingly inedible cast-offs makes incredibly delicious dishes served in restaurants cranking rock and roll music way too loud. He wears shorts in the winter.

When you’re with Batali, the notion that some rules apply exclusively to other people starts to make sense.

It’s no surprise his favorite driver-crew chief tandem is Johnson and Chad Knaus, the duo in the garage known to be most adept for taking periodic expeditions into the gray areas in NASCAR’s black-and-white rule book.

But the combination of creative wits at war and creative techniques to push cars to breathtaking speeds was only part of the sport’s appeal to Batali.

NASCAR is famous for its multiple-day tailgaters, and the chef, who had recently returned from Spain where he and another famous fabulous New York running mate, Gwyneth Paltrow, shot a highly rated PBS series, Spain on the Road Again, naturally wanted to assess the foods of NASCAR and its fans as well.

“I got to Dover and expected hot dogs and hamburgers,” he said. “What I saw and tasted was surprising and delicious. The fans were making crab soup, crab cakes, crab stuffing, pasta with crabs, and lasagna with crabs. These were almost luxury food items being made right in the camp grounds. It was a real eye opener.”

Batali next went to Pocono Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Talladega Super Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway. He found delightful regional variations and hard-core race fans doubling as “obsessive foodies.” He saw each track expressing the region’s food. In Pocono, they were cooking venison and quail.

At New Hampshire, it was lobster and chowder. In Texas, beef and brisket were all the rage, and at one camp site, he saw an entire steer on a spit, barbecued for 48 hours then carved with a giant sword and served on white bread.

“That, my friend, is impressive, and you see that kind of cooking creativity all over the circuit. I like to say, NASCAR is a microcosm of the James Beard Society. It’s like going to a three-day rock concert with great food – Woodstock meets Mad Max meets the Super Bowl meets the Iowa State Fair. I’ve gone to a lot of sporting events, and I will tell you NASCAR fans are not only having more fun, they’re also eating better than fans in other sports.”

Batali has seven strong-selling cookbooks, and the NASCAR experience motivated him to write one of them, Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style, the first major cookbook attached to the sport. Batali developed recipes like Eggs in Hell, Speedway Guacamole, Restrictor Plate Chili, and Brickyard Barbecued Game Hens to capture the taste, texture and smells of the racing culture. The second-generation Italian-American boy from Seattle who went to high school in Spain is now as comfortable and familiar in tapping the cuisines of Renaissance Tuscan aristocracy and modern day Spanish field workers as he is in channeling the cooking styles of NASCAR fans in the campgrounds of races across America.

“I see myself as an interpreter of 3,000 years of cultural and gastronomic history,” Batali said. “I’m blessed because I don’t have to come up with too much that’s new and revolutionary. I’m someone who explains to people how they can make dishes that have been part of other cultures for many, many years.”

He happens to be very good at it. Batali’s record in “Iron Chef,” a televised 60-minute cooking competition among the world’s top chefs, is an astounding 31 wins and three losses. While the taste of food is subjective, and cynics would contend critics can be bought and swayed, that kind of winning record against the titans of the culinary world suggests Batali may be the best chef on the planet.

So when Texas Motor Speedway pitched him on the “Asphalt Chef,” a culinary battle at the race track pairing top chefs with NASCAR drivers, Batali accepted, and roped in his friends Rachael Ray and Tim Love, a meat-loving Texan who favors cowboy hats, western shirts, dusty boots and Crown Royal whiskey.

Love is no cooking slouch; he grills a mean rattlesnake, has an Iron Chef victory to his credit as well, and he’s well known in the Lone Star State.

But his celebrity Q factor is nowhere close to that of Batali, who has the rare distinction of being able to truthfully open a conversation by saying, “When I was on Oprah…” Yet in pop culture awareness, Batali is still a notch below Rachael Ray. Through her food and talk shows, lifestyle magazine and products now including a personal brand of dog food, Ray exists in the upper echelon of celebrity, able to elicit shrieks and tears from grown men and women through merely showing up in a public place. The dogs probably recognize her, too.

The Asphalt Chef competition was held next to a large pool in the shape of Texas below the condominiums overlooking Turn 2 of Texas Motor Speedway. Track executives have completely lost their minds, said people who comment on these kind of things when the announcement was made about new luxury condominiums to be built at the speedway. Today, the condos are worth more than a million dollars each.

While a band played light Texas blues and well-heeled corporate guests and friends of the speedway settled into their chairs at the Lone Star Clubhouse, the cooks were told the secret ingredient – hot chili peppers.

A 20-minute time clock was activated, and the teams scrambled for their ingredients, fired up the grills, and began chopping and marinating. Batali was paired with Juan Pablo Montoya, the Formula One superstar who had shocked the motorsports world by jumping to NASCAR. Montoya looks sharp in his chef’s smock, though he’s not smiling, probably because he hates to lose, whether it’s the Daytona 500 or tiddlywinks, and who wants to get up in front of a group of rich people, out of your element, not only losing but appearing foolish in the process. Juan’s eyes are locked in concentration on a pepper he’s slicing.

Rachael Ray was matched with Carl Edwards, who informed his partner he doesn’t grill, can barely prepare toast, and pulls the cheese off his pizza as part of a health kick ruling out nearly all foods outside of soup. “Carl tells me all this with a big smile on his face as if it’s good for our team,” Rachael later explains.
Tim Love, toting a bottle of Crown Royal, cooked with fellow Texan Bobby Labonte. The duo’s rib eye steak marinated in Coca-Cola with shrimp, cannoli beans, basil and chili peppers drew strong reviews. Bobby earned extra points for working his sponsor into the recipe.

The judges swallowed any concerns that blood from a grater-induced cut on Carl’s finger might have made it into his team’s dish. There had been a catch can at the bottom of the grater Carl didn’t see. The driver was grinding the cheese with a strong sense of purpose but nothing came out. So he ground the cheese faster and harder. Carl is one determined dude, and he finally just bore right into his finger. The judges overlooked that and thoroughly enjoyed Carl and Rachael’s chili and spicy quesadillas, heavy on the onion and garlic.

But Mario and Juan Pablo ruled the night. Their winning dish was an impressively presented Vietnamese-Colombian surf and turf consisting of a flank steak with red curry and a summer roll featuring Napa cabbage with shrimp, chili peppers, scallions and cilantro cooked in orange juice.

Batali denied that the dish’s fancy name and multitude of ingredients contributed to yet another Iron Chef triumph. “Juan Pablo and I won for three simple reasons,” he said in accepting a faux gold medal for his efforts. “Tim was drinkin’, Carl was bleedin’ and we were cookin’.”

Despite Edwards’ cheese-grating mishap, the professional cooks were impressed by the NASCAR drivers’ determination and sportsmanship. “These guys are not just danger mavens. They’re cool, and they’re real people, not like many celebrities today,” Batali said. “I don’t care where you live or how much money you earn, I judge anyone by two things. First is your attitude toward food – the ability to enjoy and share delicious things. Second is the way you treat busboys. I look at a lot of celebrities and they don’t make the cut by that standard. NASCAR drivers do.”

Human decency, generosity and community spirit are traits also shared by the hundreds of NASCAR fans Batali has met. His late-night jaunt with Rachael Ray in Texas reminded him of exploring the infield at Talladega at a time way past most folks’ bed time.

“Some fans had created a whole bar scene with a parquet wooden floor and Tikki lamps. They’d ring a bell and serve gumbo to anyone who wanted it. Anyone! I love that about these fans everywhere you go on the circuit. They epitomize the essence of good cooking: making something delicious and sharing it with your friends.”

Just as a friend introduced Mario to NASCAR, he was able to sell his good friend Rachael Ray on the sport. “I sincerely had the best time of my life at the track,” Ray said in the shred of her voice remaining. “I’m just upset it took me 40 years to discover all this. I’ll be back.”

Mario Batali and Rachael Ray are world-famous figures, wealthy beyond the dreams of most NASCAR fans. Yet, they are celebrities of the people. In the morning, they arrived at the racetrack in a private helicopter. But by nightfall, they were among the fans, passing good jokes and even better bottles of wine, and tearing it up in a golf cart on the way to the most extraordinary western saloon imaginable. They found the geometric center of the sport and are now proudly part of it.

Published with permission from The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans (Motorbooks), which is available on and wherever fine (and ridiculously insipid) books are sold.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Matter of Life and Death

Maybe it’s the countless hours they spend huddled around campfires. Or maybe it’s because so many of them enjoy fishing, and we know how fishermen exaggerate. The wealth of priceless raw material available—the daily soap opera in the garage, the late-night revelry in the campgrounds—certainly contributes to it. Whatever the reason, 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. (Oh, yeah, and the track that was supposedly built on an Indian burial ground.)

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 NASCAR 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 menacing black No. 3, a flapping pennant seen at this track and wherever the circuit visits, then and always.

This particular 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 America 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, as 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 may have 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, irreversibly dead. Nothing would change that. You can book a church and call in 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 fans proudly at attention, hands over hearts and then lifted to the sky cheering military jets screeching past. Gentlemen started their engines. The 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 bottle of champagne was 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.

This story is the epilogue in "The Weekend Start on Wednesday" (Motorbooks, 2010). It is shared here with permission, and may be quoted with proper attribution to the NASCAR Library Collection book.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

There's Nothing Flat About Tireman

Throughout history, a host of useful and important inventions have come from unplanned accidents.

In China 2,000 years ago, legend has it 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. And now he has the most photographed valve stem on the circuit.

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 in seedy German strip clubs before the madness began.

Talladega 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 by Andrew Giangola is available on, the NASCAR.COM SuperStore and wherever fine (as well as crappy) books are sold.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Smoke Wins and So Does Spencer Roy

It’s fitting that as the traveling circus stops in Richmond this weekend we hear from Stephanie Roy, the Tony Stewart-loving mom whose son Spencer spent a memorable Make a Wish with the two-time NASCAR champ at Richmond International Raceway, chronicled in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday.

Stephanie had previously taken a big one for the team by getting Smoke’s tattoo on her arm. Spencer had asked to be branded with his favorite driver, but he was just a young boy. So mom caught Smoke at an autograph signing, got him to plant one on her bicept, found a nearby tattoo parlor, and made Tony’s signature permanent, all before dinner time, suprising her delighted son to no end.

Well, following Smoke’s big momentum-building win in the red Office Depot Chevy last weekend in Atlanta, Stephanie wrote to us with good news. Here is her email:

I wanted to let everyone know that we were all sooo excited to see Tony win Sunday nite; it was AWESOME!! And also, that we got some important information yesterday.

When Spencer was at Duke University Hospital in May 2008, they took some samples from him to be tested. Two years later, we’ve now gotten the results back.

Spencer has been diagnosed with Timothy Syndrome, a very rare form of long Qt syndrome.

They only know of 20 people in the whole world with this, and Spencer makes 21.

After reading everything about it and talking with his doctors, this has been one of the answers we've been looking for throughout 14 years of Spencer’s life...and it happened to come immediately following Smoke's win in Hotlanta.. I think that is what is making this so ironic: Smoke gets a win that was long over due, and we get questions answered that have been long over due.

We still have a long road ahead. But Spencer is a very strong-willed young man and will not let anything slow him down. He started high school yesterday, all dressed out his new Tony shirt and hat looking good!
When he got home, I asked how his first day went, and if he learned anything.

His response was, "OMG there are sooo many girls."

I cracked up laughing. Then he announced, "Yep and I’m goin’ to ask one out"

"Oh," I responded. "Do you know her name?"

"No," he says. "Not yet."

So as you can see, he still loves the ladies....just like Tony. Hahaha

If you get a chance, please let Tony know we were all excited for him on Sunday, and we’ve had a great start to the week as well.

So there you have it. Please, if anyone sees Smoke at the track this weekend, let him know about his and our friend Spencer Roy’s good news. Maybe Smoke will even lend a line for Spencer to use to get that date. Good luck, Spence!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Holy Bidet! Holiday Disptach from Venice

Oh, the irony.

For long-awaited vacation, NASCAR guy goes to Venice, the city without cars.

Yep, there are zero automobiles in the stunning lagoon city the Italians built on the Adriatic to fend off the Barbarians.

But that's where our family went on summer holiday. To get around this town, you walk, or board a Gondola, Water Taxi, or the Vaporetto, those ubiquitous water buses cruising the canals. Get sick, and there are ambulance speedboats.

(For taking my break in a city without streets or cars, please allow me to extend fast apologies to Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Darrell Waltrip, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Jim Hunter, my favorite personalities in this sport, for their plain-spokeness, torpedoes-be-damned vision, and attitudes unaffected by the winds of political correctness.)

Venice's architectural treasure trove of well-preserved medievel buildings flush against the winding grid of canals will remove your breath. "Epic," as the kids say on Facebook.

At every turn, there's another unexpected find. You can't take a bad picture. Just point the camera, press the button, and you've got a postcard.

Suffice it to say, Venice is like nothing you've seen. Just go there someday, if you can.

As a personal plus, the apartment we lived in for a week, allowing me to discover my true inner Guido, had a bidet. And that alone is life altering. (Cue Mad Man's Don Draper describing daisys and a soft summer breeze.)

Depite Venezia's wondrous, historic ambiance, the soaring chapels and countless mask shops (Gaby bought one to wear when she plays bass on stage), the restaurants with aloof waiters who deliberately puff their cigarettes before sauntering over to present the check, the gondola captains in black trousers and striped shirts favoring their romantic cargo with Italian songs, etc. etc., my favorite Venician moment wasn't soaking in any of that, or slurping pasta lathered in black squid ink, or watching glassblowers ply their ancient trade, or waking up to the clang-gong-dong, clang-gong-dong bells atop the churches outside our bedroom, or any of the continual unexpected glimpses of beauty everywhere.

No, this trip, the enduring memory was relaxing in the town square's local cafe, sipping Venezian Cappuccino. A lithe Italian girl in a tight mini-skirt struts by, her four-inch stilleto heels clacking against the old stones, and Gaby declares: "Is that a HOOKER?"

My daughter's voice -- a mixture of childish innocence and hard-boiled mean-streets-of-New York City skepticism -- booming off tiles set hundreds of years ago in this unique city of my home country, made the whole trip worth it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

JetBlue: Good PR or Bad PR?

Everyone’s an armchair PR expert.

Even our blue-haired aunts with scant knowledge of the game of high-stakes, world-class reputation management will say, “as long as they spell your name right,” when weighing in on a peculiar situation that produces gobs of ink, not necessarily for all the right reasons.

Yet in stories corporate flacks don’t plan, what constitutes positive coverage? What makes a brand mention negative?

The line isn’t as clear cut as you may assume. It’s often fuzzy...and intriguing.

When the shit hits the fan, and the fan is a General Electric model, I like to know how pros in the field perceive the overall “impression” for GE. In thse sort of situations, I go to sharp-witted colleagues who share my kooky gallows humor in an exercise called “Good PR or Bad PR?”

For example, the terrorist released to cheering flag-burning crowds is wearing a Nike T-shirt, the bold swoosh clearly visible in a wire photo seen around the world.

For Nike: Good PR or Bad PR?

Lest you believe our e-mail parlor game for a virtual posse is a cynical endeavor among a heartless group, you're only partially correct.

Good PR or Bad PR doesn't only produce sorely-needed levity in a world gone mad. The exercise spawns creative and surprising insights…as with JetBlue.

I don’t have to recount the incidental details of Steven Slater, the fed-up flight attendant who concluded one particular trip from Pittsburgh – and a two-decade airline career – in a blaze of glory reverberating from A1 of The New York Times to Japanese TV news.

You undoubtedly know the pertinent facts: the surly passenger’s bag-bonk to the head (items in the overhead bin do indeed shift during flight); the final near-giddy, now-famous, profanity-laced, adios muchachos PA announcement infinitely more entertaining than any connecting flight information; two beers swiped, carry-on bags hastily grabbed, emergency chute activated for a glorious amusement-park swoon down toward unemployment.

That these details are a now-familiar rehash is half the point here.

How the heck does news like this travel so far and so fast?

What’s the tipping point for the bizarre to go main-stream?

How does a disenchanted and dangerous JetBlue employee become an overnight working-class folk hero?

And more importantly, for Jet Blue, Good PR or Bad PR?

According to Ken Ross, who oversees communications at Netflix: “Good PR for JetBlue. Alert flight attendant decides to test functionality of escape slide under real-life circumstances. Slide deploys properly and provides safe escape...inspires confidence that in a real emergency, equipment would work...good PR for JetBlue.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is world-class spin.

Reading Ross's take, Tod McKenzie, former senior Public Affairs exec at PepsiCo added: “Said attendant also demonstrates JetBlue's commitment to fostering positive employee morale by celebrating small triumphs with a Bud Light.”

Others, like Showtime PR boss Chris DeBlasio, wondered, "Was it necessary for some media accounts to include the fact that the accused was found in bed with his partner at a seaside apartment in Rockaway?"

To which Pete Millerman, a writer in Brooklyn responded, “From a 'good journalism' standpoint? It was completely superfluous reportage - the type of thing a principled copy editor or journalism professor would red 'x,' or call you out on. From a perspective of picking up the NY Post and reading the news? It was a hilarious and awesome tidbit, made the story juicier, fleshed out the whole scenario in another dimension, and added to our already vivid mental picture of the maniac's personality.”

Mindy Kramer, Director of Public Relations at Office Depot, just wanted to know, “Why was he allowed to have two carry-on bags? I mean come on, that's just not fair.”

The arrest photo nabbed the attention of Molly Choi, who runs marketing and for Cape Classics, an importer of fine wine: “Is Slater giving that tattooed cop directions on how to fasten his seat belt by inserting the metal buckle till he hears a click, and adjusting it by pulling on the loose end of the strap?”

Our PR Peanut Gallery buzzed with jokes and astute observation...much like the rest of the country.

Some noted JetBlue is a fun, clean airline, offering complimentary in-flight DirecTV, which provides a wide image-halo berth when an employee has a bad-air day.

Ironically, passengers at 38,000 feet would watch the bemused Slater neighbor interviews, the psychiatric breakdown sound-bytes, and the late-night free-for-all meltdown recaps.

On balance, it’s presumably good PR, so long as the DTV signal is clear and the viewing passengers’ free nuts and diet Coke are well within their “to be consumed by” date.

My overall take is Good PR – at least in the groundswell of support for the man the Post dubbed “wing nut,” particularly in cyberspace, where legal restrictions of the “ongoing investigation” have muted the usually chatty Jet Blue social media mavens.

But Slater himself (“Jet Blue-Natic” in another Post headline) doesn’t need spin. The foundation for his sainthood has been set already. By his former employer.

When a flight makes global news, it’s usually tied to catastrophe or passengers locked on the tarmac for half a day without water or Facebook.

And when a departing employee becomes known worldwide, he’s likely fleeced millions, manipulated an industry, or truly “gone postal.”

By those measures, Slater’s potentially dangerous but in-the-end relatively harmless actions, are downright refreshing; a happy ending, in more ways than one.

He went bonkers in the maniacal high style you'd expect from Will Ferrell in Anchorman's film cousin Flight Attendant. If anything, during the sweltering summer of Satan’s lair, Americans want to be entertained.

The Slater narrative on the tarmac of JFK in front of his gleaming, modern terminal in an otherwise dirty, crowded, ill-designed airport – grabbing the farewell frosties, jumping into bed with his partner immediately after an operatic “take this job and shove it moment” – helped expand the story and earn the Daily Double -- simultaneous covers of the New York Post and the Daily News.

But do not underestimate the assisting power of the JetBlue brand – those clean, fun, youthful, slightly rebellious pioneers cracking jokes as we streak across the harshly unfriendly skies while watching free television!

Imagine a ValueJet flight attendant cursing out coach and busting home via the deployed chute after a non-water landing. Don’t think she’d be the object of fawning t-shirts and adoring fan pages.

In a New York Times column dissecting JetBlue's Slater response, Stuart Elliott reported “the tone of comments about JetBlue, as elicited by the Zeta Buzz online media mining technology, was 70% positive and 30% negative on Wednesday, compared with 59% positive and 41% negative on Tuesday.”

Comments about Slater were even more glowing -- at 93% positive, according to Zeta, which was better than both the New Orleans Saints after winning the Super Bowl and one Chesley B. Sullenberger III, of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame for successfully landing a US Airways bird downed by geese on the frigid Hudson River in January 2009.)

So, good for Jet Blue. For doing nothing -- except giving Americans free onboard TV and building a great brand. You've unexpectedly attained Good PR.

As for our peanut gallery’s suggestions to JetBlue?

The best advice may have come from J. Christopher Kervick, a Connecticut judge. “The PR depends on what they do from this point forward. ‘We care about our employees and are making the full array of employee assistance programs available to him, etc. While we regret any inconvenience to our passengers, we believe they can certainly all understand the day-to-day pressures our flight attendants are under.’ That kind of thing.”

That kind of thing indeed. If any of us grow mad as hell, can’t take it anymore, and go out in a blaze of glory in a certain region of New England, may be wind up in front of this wise judge.


Andrew Giangola is author of the critically acclaimed new book, THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans, available online and wherever fine books are sold. He is currently attempting to contact Steven Slater to write his life story, GOING OUT WITH A BANG (double entendre intended).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


From time to time, we see examples of over-the-top fan devotion.

Judy Barr, a huge Tony Stewart fan from South Carolina, wrote this letter to Gillette, explaining a very peculiar situation related to racing and shaving and goose bumps and prickles…well, let’s just let Judy explain it.

Here’s her letter to the NASCAR sponsor and maker of a razor Judy uses often with frustrating results:

July 27, 2010

I have a “prickle problem” caused by goose bumps popping up on my legs when I watch NASCAR races. Can you help me?

You see. When shaving my legs, I use a Gillette Fusion razor because it is endorsed by my favorite sport/drivers (and the NASCAR logo on the handle is pretty cool). The problem I have is: the Gillette Fusion is not prickle proof. And I can't stop watching NASCAR. I'm in a prickle, you could say.

I can’t help being prickle prone. They come because of the goosebumps I suffer when exposed to any kind of NASCAR coverage. I cannot dreprive myself of NASCAR and since this isn't France, I certainly must shave. I have learned that I cannot shave my legs on race day simply because it is a waste of time. The prickles will percolate.

This past Sunday, is a perfect example of powerfully preposterous prickles. I shaved my legs prior to getting ready to go to work, believing I would be okay until the fly over or when the green flag dropped, since I would have limited access to NASCAR while at work. When I got out of the shower, I had a Twitter message on my phone from a spotter telling his followers to turn on ESPNU. I did as told and watched as one of my NASCAR driver favorites was elk hunting. I was fine with him shooting the elk right there on TV; I was not prepared for the NASCAR coverage that followed. I had nothing but goosebumps; the goosebumps led to prickles on my legs not even 15 minutes AFTER getting out of the shower.

Come on! This is driving me to the point that I do not want to shave my legs, especially on race day.

Is there anything out there that is prickle proof? (I have searched long and hard to find a prickle- proof razor and have come up short.) Will the fine folks at Gillette please help me find the razor to beat all razors on race day?

I am out of options and would appreciate your feedback on how to attain a Prickle Free Race Day. I feel if you are able to assist with "5 o'clock shadow," my prickle problem should be easy to fix as well.

(Unfortunately goosebumps cannot be controlled, and I refuse to live in a world without NASCAR.)

I thoroughly enjoy the Gillette Young Guns and Gillette Fusion commercials. It is because of these commercials that I have searched you out to assist me with my Prickle Problem.

If you have any solutions to my NASCAR - Gillette Fusion problem, or would like for me to test drive new options for a better prickle-proof razor, please feel free to contact me directly.

Sincerely yours,

Judy Barr

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Real American Idols

In separate incidents this weekend at the Coca-Cola 600, two fans recognized me as “the guy who wrote the NASCAR Fan book.”

That’s an uplifting jolt for a formerly nondescript civilian.

But also very depressing.

I will never be able to urinate in public again.

I joke.

It was actually a weekend more serious than frivolous as NASCAR honored the fallen men and women of our armed forces during our annual Memorial Day race.

I was humbled to have been invited to Charlotte Motor Speedway's Medal of Honor dinner to speak about The Weekend Starts on Wednesday along with one of the remarkable fans featured, Cpl. John Hyland, who lost a leg in Iraq and would sing the national anthem prior to one of the sport's biggest races of the year.

The stage up in the Speedway Club featured three comfy chairs set for an “intimate discussion” in an Actor's Studio-type atmosphere. What I didn't know was the low-slung cushiony chairs were on brass wheels on a very slippery floor.

I’m always excited to talk about my book, so when introduced by Doug Rice, who would call Sunday's race on the radio, I bound up to the stage like a giddy contestant on The Price is Right. I flop into the chair...which flies back as if it were shot from a cannon. I yell, WHOAH and dig my heels in. The chair miraculously stops two feet from the back of the stage and a good drop which may have killed me.

There are only 90 living Medal of Honor recipients, and three are being honored tonight. One soldier, Bob Maxwell, smothered a grenade in eastern France in Sept., 1944, saving his platoon. Had he picked up the grenade, Bob explains, it likely would have detonated, killing him and his unit. So he dove on it. Amazingly, Bob survived the injuries and walks with only a slight limp.

Another Medal of Honor hero singlehandedly took on 13 enemy combatants in a Korean foxhole, killing every one of them in brutal hand-to-hand combat.

“I jumped in the hole and scared the devil out of them,” he explained. He impaled one surprised Asian fellow with his rifle and shot the rest.

The story is told in a way that has everyone laughing. If I tried for a year, I wouldn’t do it justice.

Surrounded by this into-a-nearby-phone-booth, awe-inspiring, Greatest Generation heroism, it would have been the lame PR guy killed amid the excitement of speaking publicly after his freaking chair slid off the stage.

Thankfully, the seat that became my ride stops a few feet before I would have plummeted to my premature demise.

After a fun and entertaining Q&A with Cpl. Hyland, a genteel older lady whose wool blazer sported several glittery red, white and blue American flag pins, as well as a larger clear rhinestone pendant reading, “It's Not the Destination It's The Journey,” asks me to sign her Medal of Honor book, a well-done coffee-table compilation of those honored. She mistakenly believes I'm a war hero (even though I'm clearly a p-ssy from Long Island). Waddaya gonna do. I sign.

Real book signings of the tome for which I'm responsible will happen at the track and local mall. Cpl. Hyland joins one, and does a slew of media interviews. He is feted at the Speedway Club, meets VIPs, and is introduced at the driver's meeting. All of that is a prelude to THE moment -- performing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Over eight years, I've had many memorable experiences doing PR for NASCAR. Sunday was tops. Declaring in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday I would do my darndest to get Cpl. Hyland to sing at a track (without a clue how to do that) and then seeing John (standing courageous and tall, serious and focused and intent on staying in the zone when "Taps" finishes so he can hit that first note with perfect pitch) in his smart dress blues belting out a heartfelt, beautiful, melodic version of "The Star Spangled Banner" brings me to tears. I'd like to thank Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray for making it OK for a grown man to ball his eyes out at a race track when something really good happens to you and your team after you've worked so hard for it.

"I didn't get to leave Iraq on my own two feet," Cpl. Hyland said. "To walk out on stage under my own power, in my hometown of Charlotte, singing for my country, my sport and all the fallen heroes, was amazing."

Get this: Corporal Hyland is actually a Sergeant. The Army Scout for the elite First Calvary division was promoted after being blown up on Sept 11, 2007.

Now you or I, we get a promotion and insist on the use of our new title. We change our busines cards and get it inscribed on the office door. We correct people who repeat our "old" affiliation. Corporal is just fine by John. "It's what I was when I got hurt," he says.

He nailed a very tough song in front of 130,000 or so at the race, about six million on TV and 3.5 million listening on the radio, doing so after a long day of commitments in the blazing North Carolina sun and the usual 30-some odd pills taken every few hours.

Even after swallowing the back section of Walgreen's several times a day, watch closely and you see the soldier wincing in pain. The titanium leg attached at the army hospital outside San Antonio is actually his good one. The leg they saved hurts like hell. When Cpl. Hyland changed in the NASCAR radio hauler, he showed his remaining foot, metal rods and screws visible through the skin. The look of it is painful. But he never, ever complains.

Cpl. H makes it around the track pretty well. You'd never know there's a huge rod going thru his pelvis, one side to other, basically holding together his torso.

Hollywood types enjoy coming to our races, and we saw the lovelier than lovely Jessica Biel a few times as she promoted the new "A Team" movie. John hadn't made a single demand all weekend long. It was time for his first one: just ten minutes alone with Jessica in the hauler. Any hauler.

"John is a chick magnet," I told the lovely Ms. Biel. "But I think it's because of all the metal holding him together."

Actually, it's his bravery that draws the women. Chicks dig guys who dive on grenades, and kill a foxhole-full of bad guys, and are blown to shit but then walk into the limelight under their own power to honor God, country, their families, their sport and, most of all, themselves.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fans from Book to Field a Team in King's Cup

Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, and A.J. Allmendinger have no idea what’s in store for them on the track tomorrow.

When these top NASCAR drivers strap in their go karts on Tuesday to run in “The King’s Cup – Karting for a Cause,” Richard Petty’s annual event helping the Paralyzed Veterans of America, they’ll be going up against a group of fans featured in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans.

Steve Deuker (“Ryan’s Hope”), Natalie Sather (“This Girl Wants to Be Jeff Gordon in a Skirt”), Kenny Gregory (“The Fathead Guy”), and Judy Barr (“The Summit of Fandom”) will be racing for the team, “The Weekend Starts on Wednesday Chapter Buddies." They’ll go up against the NASCAR drivers and 30 other teams vying for the King’s Cup” at Victory Lane Karting in Charlotte.

The Weekend Starts on Wednesday features two wounded veterans – Cpl. John Hyland and Sgt. Russ Friedman – so we wanted to honor the Paralyzed Veterans of America and have a little fun racing,” said Steve Deuker, who organized the Chapter Buddies team.

Deuker, a lifelong racing fan who traveled to Charlotte from Minneapolis with his wife Christine to attend the NASCAR Hall of induction ceremonies, watch the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Challenge at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and run in the King’s Cup, is pumped up after running 50 laps in a stock car at Carolina Speedway’s Dirt Track Racing School in Gastonia.

“What I like about this event is you can run against NASCAR drivers and other fans,” Deuker said. “NASCAR fandom is made up of such diverse occupations and lifestyles. Being in this book, we’ve formed lifelong bonds with other remarkable fans, including two military heroes. It’s going to be unforgettable racing with them while helping wounded warriors.”

Deuker likes his chances for fielding a competitive team, even with the varying experience of his drivers.

Kenny Gregory, known to fans as “The Fathead Guy,” for bringing life-size, driver stand-ups into the infield, has participated in two kart races in Pennsylvania. However, he finished last both times. “They used a sun dial to time me,” Gregory said.

To make up lap time, Deuker is looking to Natalie Sather, who won a national go kart title, and was the first woman to win a major sprint car championship, taking the ASCS Midwest points championship in 2007. Sather currently drives the Lady Eagle Safety Wear, K&N, Bell Helmets #94 for Sellers Racing in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series.

Sather, who grew up racing go-karts on dirt, jumped at the chance to get back in a go-kart for a great cause – even with a broken wrist suffered April 17 at South Boston Speedway.

When she was 17, Sather was involved in a spectacular T-bone wreck in a sprint car which put a 10-inch pin into her leg. Eight years later, her wreck at South Boston wasn’t nearly as violent. But the spin happened so quickly, it managed to snap her wrist right off the wheel.

Sather pitted and then drove sixty more laps with one arm.

“The adrenaline was pumping and it was hard for me to think about my wrist,” the 25-year old driver from Fargo recalled. “I was hurt, mad and upset, and wasn't going to give up easy. When people found out my wrist was broken, they were shocked I kept going, and to be honest so was I,” she said with a laugh.

Following surgery three weeks ago, Sather had a special brace made. She’s dosing on bone-building vitamins and uses a bone-stimulating machine to close a 2-millimeter gap in her wrist. She’s raced two times since the operation.

“The King’s Cup is about having fun, raising money for the PVA, and some healthy competition,” Sather said. “Well, not too healthy, because anyone who knows me, knows I'm extremely competitive.”

The Weekend Starts on Wednesday author Andrew Giangola will be in New York and unable to drive for The Chapter Buddies (because he is in New York, not from New York).

“Me being in New York is beneficial for the team, because the only thing I drive is my wife crazy,” Giangola said.

To take his place, the book’s author recruited Michael Cherry, a driver with Revolution Racing in the Whelen All American Series, as well as a serious go kart ringer. Last Friday, Cherry beat NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse in the Aflac 200, a go kart event held by Aflac and NASCAR Fuel for Business, a consortium of B2B partners.

The King’s Cup takes place from 4:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Up to 30 teams will compete in the endurance karting event. The top 15 squads will qualify for the two-hour endurance feature race. NASCAR drivers sponsoring teams through their foundations include Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, and Elliott and Hermie Sadler.

Last year’s championship team, The Kurt Busch Foundation, will return to defend its title after The King gives the command to start the engines and waves the green flag.

“Our veterans have made it possible for us to do what we love,” said Petty, the long-time spokesperson of PVA, a 64-year old organization founded by spinal cord-injured service members who returned home from World War II. “This event is a great way to kick back and have some fun, and it’s a great way to give back to those who have given so much for our country.”

“Richard Petty is a great champion for our members and their families and we deeply appreciate all that he and his family do for us,” said Gene A. Crayton, national president of Paralyzed Veterans.

Tickets are available for $25 online at or at the event. All proceeds will benefit the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Sprint, Best Buy and Reynolds Consumer Products are among the sponsors of the event, and Freightliner is bringing several of their hauler drivers to participate as well.

A silent auction will include more than 70 items, such dinner with the King and autographed sports memorabilia, including a copy of The Weekend Starts on Wednesday, signed by the author and chapter buddies, along with Tony Stewart, who wrote the Foreword, and Kyle Busch, who penned the Afterword.

To learn more about The King’s Cup - Karting for a Cause, please visit

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Papa Was A Rolling Stone

Strange things, often unexplainable, happen on the road.

That one morning, a peculiar email text message came in from an unfamiliar phone number. Actually, several will arrive.

The first asks, you’ve had something 2 eat?

I am in North Carolina, mobile, time pressed, bummed there’s no room for a quick stop at Chick-fil-A. And I’m pissed at myself for not printing decent directions for all the driving to NASCAR race shops that will be done today.

Normal people just erase. But I never met an email I didn't like. There is a tidal pull to respond.

(Confession: Like a true addict, I’m now replying to just about every incoming note. Even spam. Those, I answer with a customized phony “automated out of the office” response. For example, a course offered on civility and manners in the workplace warranted a rude, profanity-laced tirade. The growing collection of my responses is not for the faint of heart, a family audience, or appropriate to this particular story.)

Another text comes in:

I hope you’ve had something 2 eat?

It’s an innocent and caring question saying so much with so little. Uncharacteristically, I don’t find the time to try to be clever. I simply type “no,” and click “send.

Minutes later, the person behind this strange number asks:

Did u put clothes out fr laundry?

Huh? The number means nothing to me. It’s 917, my wife’s mobile phone exchange, but clearly not Viviane (who routinely throws my dirty crap into the machine without the need to text about it, which I’m thankful for).

I reckon I know what’s going on: this is a woman believing she’s texting her husband or significant other.


How do you know that? It could be a beautiful Soho art dealer texting her grad school roommate-slash–secret lover from a glass-enclosed high-rise office with the Central Park view. But, why even consider a woman? We all do laundry. How utterly early ‘60’s-Don Draper to go assuming. Perhaps it’s a torn son, texting a slowly fading father losing his mind to Alzheimer’s or the effects of mercury poisoning from a lifetime of lunchtime tuna fish, or whatever reason is behind the shutdown of a brain. Shoot, it could be anyone; how can you possibly guess who?

I’m with the The Wall Street Journal in the middle of an impressive shop tour at Hendrick Motor Sports. You could eat off the freaking floor, it’s so clean. They have 113 people on the payroll solely to build race car engines. There are talented guys standing at built-from-the-floor machinery, manufacturing parts from raw aluminum. They make their own pistons here in this sprawling complex off Papa Joe Hendrick Blvd. Who makes pistons from scratch nowadays? Shouldn't they come on a ship in a box from an outfit across the Pacific Ocean paying their people $2 a week?

You step into another building spacey as a gymnasium and guys are twisting metal bars to build chassis from the ground up. They’re working on spic-and-span tables they built. In another room, they’re constructing carbon fiber driver seats, precisely tuned to the contour and preference of each driver’s particular rear end. The feel is very important; more than one NASCAR star has noted you actually drive with your ass. In another room, they’re artfully shaping and wrapping silver sheet metal onto cars. More guys are behind thick glass windows running dynos to check the freshly made motors' horsepower.

Lining the walls, are straight rows of gleaming engines - a tight intestinal mix of metal and wires and hoses and belts - proudly labeled “Hendrick Motorsports” on the heads. Young guys outside in oppressive 98-degree heat are being video taped running pit stops, the car squealing to a stop just like Sunday in front of 160,000 screaming fans, air guns whining, seven intent men scrambling over the faux retaining wall to change four fat tires and dump a canister of fuel in less than 14 seconds.

Back inside, computers are everywhere. Except the nerdy Banana Republic-outfitted people you’d expect aren’t running them. Next to one laptop sits a 16-ounce water bottle, filled with thick brown fluid. An abnormal bulge in the lower lip above the soul patch of the dude tapping data into the nearby module provides the clue. Yes, Nancy Drew, that is Spittle! Someday, when Congress really gets rolling, repeatedly expectorating on the job will be considered sexual harassment. But until that dreaded day, have at ‘em, boys!

Indeed, in this War Games-like computer room next to the heralded million-dollar “seven post” rig, which through the window you see shaking the crap out of a No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet on hydraulic pads replicating the race track, another data inputter is diligently filling his bottle with Skoal spit. (Copenhagen spit is much darker; Skoal is frothier).

This is something I can not escape. Whenever I hear the song, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” I think of Papa Joe Hendrick. And vice versa. There is no logic to this. Wherever he laid his hat, was not Papa Joe’s home. But body chemicals have aligned. Synapses are wired. The die is cast, and the papas melded. Uncontrolled thoughts haunt me.

We continue this overwhelmingly impressive tour of the extraordinarily impressive operation begat by Papa Joe. I’m no Tech-head. But this is cool stuff. There is no way another patriarch, Bill France, Sr., could have imagined the sport he created six decades ago would become this weighty, professional, significant. It is to be reckoned with. Amid the rich experience of taking in Hendrick Motorsports, there’s no time to consider the odd email messages from someone wondering if I’ve been fed and will have clean clothes.

What to do? It’s rude to be typing on the blackberry when the fine folks at Hendrick have put aside priorities like keeping Jeff Gordon in first place to host a pair of sweaty Yankees clueless in NASCAR Country. But I use the Blackberry a lot. So much, that people close to me wish to shove it where the sun doesn't shine. On the hand held, I can be dartingly quick, a thief in the night. Muscle memory takes over.

To the question of whether I've left clothes for the laundry, I tap out:

I forgot. The medication is taking its toll. I just haven't been myself lately. I wonder if any of this is worth it.

I sling the Blackberry back into the holster, a modern day (read: soft, sad) Jesse James. Seconds later, my belt vibrates.

The response:

U are a funny person, about medication and d effect its been having on u latekly, u made me laugh, about if worth it, onlytime will tell.

Only time will tell…where this is going. Indeed. But there’s scant time to process this in touring the Hendrick Museum, saying goodbyes, and now driving to meet J.D. Gibbs for the continuing NASCAR education of a big-time reporter representing a business publication whose skeptical editors need convincing this sport is worthy of ink. (To be honest, maybe we’d do better without the coverage. The prevalent sports business stories of the day concern doping, fixing games, gambling on fixed games, killing dogs fighting for sport, and burying said dogs in your back yard; NASCAR is thankfully immune to all of this, our big controversy being if Goodyear is making a hard enough tire compound and if Joe Gibbs Racing, currently running Chevys, will be called on to bring Toyota the glory it seeks in stock car auto racing.)

I’m unsure of the route to Joe Gibbs Racing. I declined on the GPS at Enterprise; accepting the device would have given the young inquisitive peppy kid with the khakis and the clipboard while more reasons to ask, while he inspected the car, unwanted questions like where I am from and did I use GPS back home. So I'm without GPS because Enterprise insists on inspecting the freaking car for dents before you leave. There is no Papa Joe Gibbs Avenue, which would have helped immensely at this point. I’m cruising along a Carolina county road at 70 mph perhaps in the wrong direction in a rented Kia minivan that drives like a boat. They saw me coming a mile away. I’m reading the tiny rental car map, Creedence on the radio, and though I’m lost, and likely to get to the shop after the next interview has started, there are worse ways to make a living, and I can't resist a little knee-driving to text back:

I feel I am funnier -- detached and whimsical -- as time goes on. Flipness is a preferred alternative state. Perhaps things are less important. I sense mortality. Do you?

I miraculously find the correct road, and the correct leafy business park, and we meet J.D. Gibbs in the operation's impressive facilities. When I was a kid, a “JD” meant juvenile delinquent. This J.D. is straight as they come, an honorable man with an under-appreciated sense of humor, playing the self deprecating card on the down beat and often. Sitting in a conference room decorated with trophies, J.D. says he came from a long line of PE majors. Folks chuckled when he went into NASCAR but they laugh no more, he notes.

J.D. has four boys, all younger than my daughter, who recently came home from sleep-away camp wearing a home-made necklace given presented by a 17 year old boy who closely resembled Ziggy Marley with a hug that lasted a second too long Then and now, listening to the slim youthful motorsports executive in the chief’s quarters of his race shop, I feel old, obsolete, on the sidelines of life scratching at potential that continues to elude me.

Some guys are born on third base with scant prospects for ever making it home. You get the sense J.D. has grown beautifully into his present role running a team that might once again field this year's Nextel Cup champion. I’m considering a life I know nothing about and wondering when the Journal's “So is Joe Gibbs Racing going with Toyota?” question will come. The guys at Hendrick had been talking as if it were a done deal, the money is right, it’s all about people anyway and Gibbs has the talent, mail it in, send Papa Joe across the Pacific for the reception.

Toyota doesn’t come up. Someone didn't do his homework or is bashful, not a condition to suffer when representing a national newspaper. J.D. pontificates generally on the state of the sport, peppered with playful jibes of how the money goes to NASCAR, and I’m looking in a wide-eyed cartoonish exaggeration at his wrist to see if he’s wearing a Rolex, tell me with a straight face who’s getting rich on this deal, truly, and before long the aimless shooting of the breeze is over, and now I sit stuck in the Charlotte airport bar draining watery supersized beers and awaiting the next mysterious text message.

The beers keep coming but the Blackberry leaves me high and dry.

She, or he, or it, hasn’t responded. The trail has gone cold.

My guess is it is a she. The husband has come home. The wife casually mentions how fun and unexpected and amusing their texting was. He goes suddenly pale, clueless, maybe panicking, because a man will immediately jump to “cheater” when confronted with the thought of his wife having a new heterosexual relationship that doesn’t concern him, just as the brain wires can automatically make you think Papa Joe was a rolling stone.

I imagine it doesn’t take long for the couple to figure out she was mistakenly corresponding with a stranger. That probably doesn’t sit well with the husband, who saw his wife’s bright-eyed delight in corresponding with a stranger. He is probably steamed, and in his seething infuriation, may even be plotting how to get into her phone and find me. They shoot horses, don’t they? I’d get worse.

Or, alternatively, maybe this is what’s happening. He’s immediately devising a plan, for later that evening, when the lights go down, to parlay his wife’s playful curiosity and temporary belief in his own poorly hidden vulnerability into the many splendored things that can happen deep in the night between a husband and wife, even if they still barely know one another.

Andrew Giangola’s critically acclaimed new book, "THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans” is available wherever fine books are sold.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The book, The Beatles, and more in my interview with PR WEEK

In PR WEEK, our humble author manages to plug a friend’s web site, a Beatles song, the book of course, and kiss major boss butt in a few short lines.


Habits: Andrew Giangola, NASCAR, director of business comms

April 01, 2010

Morning ritual: Banter with my wife about the fiscal recklessness of patronizing Starbucks, not our own coffee machine. I then proceed to take the dog to Starbucks.

Required reading: The New York Times, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today (dead tree versions). I also make sure to check out NASCAR Scene Daily, NASCAR.COM, the Drudge Report, the PRWeek Breakfast Briefing, and

First PR job: I was a PR manager for Pepsi-Cola.

Proudest career achievement: The publishing of my book, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans.

Favorite city to travel to for business: Talladega, AL. To a New Yorker, this always feels like a trip to Mars. I mean that in the most positive way, of course.

Most regrettable career moment: Remaining on the telephone and going off message to tell the Associated Press that a new Pepsi spot with Magic Johnson, who had tested positive for HIV several months earlier, was “not on the front burner.”

Most distinct aspect of your personal office: It has a striking resemblance to a locale for the A&E television show Hoarders.

Best career advice you've ever given: Find a job reflecting your fiery passion(s).

The first person you would call in a crisis:
Ken Ross, VP of corporate communications at Netflix. He is a wise friend who is battle-tested. He spun it when Pepsi set Michael Jackson's hair on fire.

Mentor: Jim Hunter, VP of corporate communications at NASCAR. He shows that you can never go wrong in being direct, honest, plain-spoken, and true to yourself.

Ideal job, if not in PR: Paperback writer.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Finding My Mojo in La-La Land

This trip out west was slapped together quickly. First came the idea for a book signing at IMPULSE, the gift shop of Auto Club Speedway, in the Inland Valley due east of Los Angeles. Now I’d had a few private book signings with friends, which were an absolute blast. But I’m leery and wary and suspicious of the standard “book store signing.” The idea of sitting in a folding chair at a table stacked with your books, waiting for strangers to walk up and ask for your autograph seems terribly ostentatious. And cheesy. And a prescription for disaster.

Among various concerns, there is: Who the hell am I? And why would anyone want my signature?

Sure, I had signed a fan’s bare butt at Daytona. But that was on top of an RV in the infield during a crazy Daytona 500, in tight seamless context with the locale and race at hand.

When the track said they’d allow Barbie Robbins (a.k.a., Junior’s Baby88 Girl), along with Tava Miyata (the “Good Vibrations” chapter) to join the book signing, I was in. Sharing this experience – my first public signing – with fans featured in the book would very cool and entirely appropriate.

Barbie lives life out loud. Everyone at the track seems to know her. When the local ABC affiliate came to do their requisite “crazy NASCAR fan” story, they were the bee to her honey. Tape rolled and Junior's Baby88 Girl screamed and shouted about the book she’s in – my book. That just warms the cockels of my innards. Barbie is an absolute pisser who jumps up and down with joy every time Junior’s car passes. On Sunday, also known as Race Day, she is sad, because that means her time at the track is almost over.

Tava likes to have fun (she would show up at our book signing with Mexican coffee – your standard joe spiked with tequila and kaluha – as well as a Bud Light for Barbie). But outwardly, Tava is much more reserved. She’s a business owner and mother of twins who took over Wayne Miyata Surfboards when her dad passed away. A Giangola sandwich between slices of Barbie and Tava bread would be memorable. Plus, unlike most of the fans in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday, I’d only interviewed these ladies by phone; I desperately wanted to meet them in person. I was looking forward to the signing even if no one showed up.

The event was set for the morning of the Auto Club 500 race, and then, as we say in Brooklyn, bada bing, bada boom, Sirius invited me to be Mojo Nixon’s co-host for an hour of his national radio show. The Race Gods were saying, “Go west, young man.”

On the way to la-la land, because I’ve been a traveling fool, I was bumped to First Class. No better feeling in the world than to be a Chosen One. You’re jammed into one of those narrow lumpy seats in coach, and a Flight Attendant whisks open the curtain, marches toward the back of the plane, and asks, "Are you (YOUR NAME HERE)?" At first, panic sets in. Your stomach is in your throat as you’re realizing, “Oh Jeez, the FBI is at the door, all those emails joking about the bomb in my Converse high tops have finally caught up. I’m headed for Gitmo.” (Personally, I’m a poor swimmer; I can’t breathe during the crawl without feeling like I’m drowning. I will not be able to handle my face forced down into a flushing toilet.)

But, then, alas, then Flight Attendant is escorting you to First Class...and you can just FEEL the sharp dagger stares of hatred from 200 resentful people stuck in steerage.

That's life, right? Enjoy your bag of 5.2 peanuts, folks, and tip a toast to me in the front row with your 3.6 ounces of diet Coke in the short plastic cup. I will return your toast from the province of the rich folk with a tip of my Chardonnay.

Able to spread out without the proverbial fat guy in coach spilling into my seat, I made notes for the Mojo show. Arriving in LA, I felt hopelessly unprepared, fat, old and pale. In New York, I could not for the life of me find a place to get a spray-on tan. There were no appointments for botox. Avis was out of convertibles. But I was set on doing the best I could as co-host with Mojo, who was a cult figure on college campuses nationwide in the '80’s with songs like, “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with my Two-Headed Love Child,” “Don Henley Must Die,” and of course, “Elvis is Everywhere.”

In the track’s media center, a good 20 yards away from his stuffy radio booth, you can hear Mojo Nixon’s loud voice. He’s a vibrating, pulsating, force field of energy, funny observations, semi-risque riffs, double entendre comments, and southern-fried colloquialisms.

Do you try to match Mojo’s energy? Or be the more placid straight guy? In the back of the room, listening to Mojo exorcise his mojo, I instinctively knew I’d have to get into fourth gear quickly and was glad I had the foresight to have consumed four cups of coffee earlier at Denny’s.

My notes would be useless. They were stuck together because I’d spilled the syrup from my first Grand Slam all over them. At two minutes to air time, Denny’s value meal and the Indian chef’s special from the previous night decided to have a food fight in my stomach. I was thinking this might not end very well.

Worse, than puking on Mojo’s console, what if he didn’t want me here? My appearance on his show for a full hour to yap about my book and NASCAR fans wasn’t his idea. I was worried the music and radio legend might wind up being dismissive or even resentful some schmucky guy from New York flew in to glom onto his show.

But Mojo is a man of the fans. He instantly welcomed me with a warm handshake. On air, he laughed at my silly jokes, and was genuinely interested in how I connected with those in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday. We took fan calls, including one from Tire Man, checking in from Alabama to explain the most photographed valve stem on the circuit.

The hour went fast. I wanted to say so much more. When we opened up the phones, I asked for a pscyhologist or psychiatrist -- or one who played one on TV to call in. Jimmie Johnson's wife was having a baby, and the talk among motorsports pundits was the new arrival could be a chink in Jimmie's armour. I went against the grain, explaining when I had Gaby -- or rather, when Viviane gave birth to our daughter, as I was off in the corner reading the newspaper -- it made my life better. I became a more complete human being. It rounded me and gave me important perspective. That makes me better at my job. Maybe Jimmie would be better at his. I asked for a psychologist to call in with a view.

Mojo looked at me like I had several heads. Jimmie is already otherwordly after winning four straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Are you looking for a psychologist or a psychotic, he asked. Mojo knows his audience a lot better than I do. My last long-form interview was with NPR. This was a different audience.

(Later, I'd get a note from fan who wanted me to know what I said about Gaby was the best part of the show.)

Trying to keep pace with Mojo felt like running a marathon as a sprint. “Come outside,” Mojo said when the hour was up, and in the cool California air, he gave me tips for engaging callers and moving in and out of commercials. You’ll be fine, he said.

You see, the show was a try-out of sorts for me; perhaps NASCAR and Sirius will work out a radio show all about the fans. I’m a PR guy, a sometime writer, a clueless New Yorker in NASCAR Country. I’m not sure radio is in my future. It’s in the hands of others, and will require sponsorship. If Sirius gives me the nod, I’ll give it a shot. As David Lee Roth said, “Sometimes you have to lead with your face.”

For one afternoon, I had a blast as co-host of a national radio show with an American icon. The entire hour with Mojo, I had this shit-eating grin on my face. (If Mojo heard that, he might say, Why is this type of smile called “shit eating”? If you actually ate feces, would you be SMILING? It has to be the dumbest expression coined since humans moved from grunts to spoken language. Yeah, that’s what he’d say.