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.