Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Other Side of Smoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spencer laughed and turned to another photo of Tony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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