Monday, October 31, 2011

America’s Anchor Finds his Slice of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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