Monday, September 24, 2012

Hearts Big and Brave

NOTE:  Craig Reda passed away this past weekend, with Jackie by his side.  Here is their story from The Weekend Starts on Wednesday. We love you, Craig.

His name is Craig, and he “lives” just down the road from Bob’s Party Bus.  His neighbors at the track, who visit bearing strong peach-flavored drinks in mason jars, call him “Braveheart.”  It’s the beard and charged-up Zeus hair.  His wife Jackie will sometimes call him “babe.”  She is a beautician who wears long flowing flower child dresses, serves food and drink like a one-woman 24-hour diner, and correctly refers to herself “the hostest with the mostest.”  I’m happy to call Craig and Jackie my friends.  
The couple from Frankenmuth, Mich. (a place not to be forgotten since Jackie presented and "forced" me to break in a Frankenmuth Brewery shot glass) collects NASCAR signatures on the inside of their converted yellow school bus.  More than a hundred cover the cream domed ceiling.  There are shiny black names of Goodyear tire changers.  There’s driver David Starr and crew chiefs Harold Holley, Brad Parrott and Todd Parrott.  There are John Hancocks from track workers and guys who used to sling gas cans for Jimmy Spencer.  It is a roster of marvelous signatures forming a tapestry of lives intersecting at the race track, some scribbled with the fine-art intricacy of Arabic, some in chunky bold caps, could be a back-of-the-pack, over-the-wall jack man not getting much attention but now the recipient of a special moment immortalized on the sloped roof of the 1972 Ford bus, courtesy of two down-home NASCAR fans. 
I had been taking pictures of buses in the infield at Michigan International Speedway, and between turns two and three I spotted a large “3” carved in wood, mounted on a picnic table attached to the top of a school bus.  Most fans who buy an old bus for the races re-paint the hull, usually the color of a favorite driver.  This one proudly holds its original yellow.  I head over and through the open rear emergency exit see a gent sporting a bushy pony tail.   He’s kneeling on the shag to put on a new record – yes, a grooved black vinyl platter on a real turntable next to long row of albums housed in flaking covers with photos of the Allman Brothers, Creedence, Mott the Hoople, Led Zeppelin, Foghat, Neil Young, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who. 
“Hey man, I’m taking pictures of buses.  I dig them, can I take a shot of yours?” I ask. 
            With an easy smile, Craig Reda waves me in. He’s a carpenter who has built a few churches.  I had already detected a mellow, charitable, judicial, Jesus-like presence, and that, along with Craig’s barely tamed Woodstock era ‘do, may explain why I was slipping into hippie speak, leaking out “Hey man can you dig it” intonations and tie-dyed inflections you’d imagine from Sadie Atkins and Squeaky Fromme on Charlie’s Ranch.
Far out.  
Craig saw the bus abandoned in the woods in 1995, found its owner and bought it for a few hundred bucks.  It was to be used to transport tools and materials for his construction business.  A race at Michigan was coming up, and the Redas brought the bus into the infield.  “Three laps in, Jackie announced, ‘This is our race bus.’”  Craig put in a queen size bed, a sofa, a deck on the roof, and the stereo below.  The signatures were an idea that took a life of its own once a few guys from Roush Racing signed.  Craig pulls out a marker and asks for mine, too.  I protest.  Well, it was a half protest.  OK, it was an extremely lifeless rebuff.  I say “no, no I can’t, no thank you” in a lame, uncommitted way to ensure I’d get to sign.  Never turn down a chance to be on TV to give an autograph.  
Craig doesn’t have to work hard to lead me to an open spot, and Jackie easily talks me into specially signing a die-cast car for an eight year-old in the camper across the way.  I proudly squeak out my name with a moist Sharpie, thereby devaluing the NASCAR-licensed merchandise.  But what the heck, it’s invigorating to be seen as “someone” and at the same time I want to take a shower. 
The prevalent feeling is odd discomfort to be considered a minor celebrity among the population of several camping slots on the big backstretch at Michigan.  To all their friends, Craig and Jackie introduce me as a NASCAR PR Director, as if I’m a dignitary from an important faraway government.  Jen Ireland is a Dale Jr. fan from Traverse City who’s been a regular at the track since she was two years old.  Pete Monahan lives on a 1961 Crisscraft boat, only touching dry land during the summer for the races at Michigan.  His girlfriend Erin Glauch sits on the horse saddle mounted next to the Reda’s wooden bar next to the bus, grabbing the horn when laughing to keep from falling off.  A parade of friends will drop in throughout the weekend, taking a seat at the bar to catch up since the last race, ask how good is it to be back, and isn’t your worst day at the track a thousand times better than your best day at work?
With the fans out in these parts, you’re introduced as a NASCAR executive and it’s as if Oprah has instantly become your aunt.  There is prevailing faith you can grant special wishes and impart general wisdom.  Folks hang on your every word.  To work for NASCAR is to be seen as pulling levers behind the curtain at Oz.  For a fringe player  like me to be paid somber respect like this is a tribute to the honor and appreciation NASCAR fans have for the sanctioning body even while all the thanks goes to them; that’s the twisted part of a NASCAR PR guy hit up for an autograph, the fan is the star here. 
            You bet, these folks are highly impressed with NASCAR.  They are here to see a race put on by NASCAR in the Kingdom of NASCAR and are grateful for the presence of an employee in a NASCAR shirt wearing credentials that say NASCAR.  But then you become friends with these fans, and you do the ordinary things friends do and joke around about the stuff friends kid about.  You love them for the normal reasons any friends converge; the Redas are fun people with big, generous hearts and a knack for making you laugh.  And you also get mildly annoyed at the routine minor perceived transgressions among friends.  Like snoring.
            Jackie had generously invited me to crash on her couch, a world-class idea following spirited revelry for Craig’s 50th birthday. As the clock flirts with 4 a.m., I sink into a surprisingly comfortable sofa next to the stereo in the rear, ready to chainsaw a stack of logs.  We’re on our backs cracking each other up like 12 year-old kids up way too late at sleepaway camp when Jackie, whose voice was now crushed auto glass soaked in whiskey, issues a warning: “Andrew, it is deathly hot in here.  I’m taking off my clothes.”
Cool and quiet, the Redas plunge into deep sleep.  Within minutes, a foghorn sounds.  Then another.  Inside the bus, it is like angry dueling foghorns.  One trying to outperform the other in a longstanding global grudge match.  Craig lets out a prodigious full-air gurgling blast that could have burst his uvula.  He may swallow his tongue, I’m thinking.  His whopping wail is like a taunt, prodding and coaxing Jackie to return volley.  And his beloved wife of 18 years doesn’t disappoint, coming with aircraft carrier guns ablaze, unleashing a fearsome cruise ship-worthy blast that would have blown the Gorton’s Fisherman from his boat. 
I don’t recall sleeping much, and at the first glint of light peeking through the bus curtains made of aprons rescued from a Frankenmuth German restaurant, I nearly tumble out the back exit in order to freshen up and meet a CNBC crew for interviews with Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and our vehicle partners as media here in Michigan are doing the “fate-of-Detroit-in-NASCAR” story.  (Chevy, Ford, Dodge and Toyota sell a heckuva lot of cars to NASCAR fans, and are getting a significant return in the sport.) 
That evening I return to see the Redas, and our deep sleepers just eat up the eyewitness account of the grudge match and how the Gorton’s dude is now hard of hearing and soaking wet after their blasts knocked him off the fish stick boat and me from the bus at the crack of dawn. 
“Yeah, if Jackie wakes me up, I’ll just turn her over, and she does the same for me,” Craig says, sipping homemade wine from an old man he does work for.   He met Jackie on Ladies Night at a local German beerhouse nearly two decades ago. “She was the funniest, prettiest loudest girl in the bar.  I could hear her over the band. I was single with a boy and she fell in love with my kid…and me, too, I guess.”   They’re now inseparable.  During a race weekend about the only time you won’t see them nearly attached at the hip is when one trudges toward turn three for the bathrooms and showers.  In fact, Craig was offered a garage pass on a Saturday but declined because he didn’t want to spend a few hours away from Jackie.
I’m not the only NASCAR person observing this true love story while welcomed with open arms into the wide and expanding circle of Craig and Jackie Reda.  They’re good friends with Michigan International Speedway President Roger Curtis, first meeting in 2006 when security stopped their bus entering the track gates.  Craig wondered which rule he’d broken.  He pushed open the tall double door like a driver picking up a kid on the way to school, and the new track president bound up the stairs, introduced himself, and thanked them for coming to the race.  “Right there, we knew Roger was a different breed,” Jackie said.  
At his June 2009 Sprint Cup race, as Curtis worked the infield, catching up with friends and thanking new fans for their patronage, he rolled up to the Redas campsite in his Chevy Tahoe.  He motioned for the Redas to jump in.  They got a big surprise when Curtis pointed the vehicle onto the track and floored it.  “He was laughing the whole time, saying, ‘Oh boy, we’re gonna get in trouble for this!’” Jackie said.  Track security came blasting onto the scene as the president and his fan friends barreled around the oval.  The men in badges started to reprimand Roger, then realized it was the boss man wheeling this late-night hot lap.
Curtis once came by the camp site for one of Jackie’s steaks.  He asked Craig to name the one thing that would markedly improve his fan experience.  Reda has been at these races since getting the bus in 1995.  His friends like Jen Ireland, a fixture in the infield a lot longer, remember when “European sun bathing” was allowed for the ladies.  There’s a lot of history at the Reda’s bus.  This was a no brainer.  “A Big Screen TV right over there,” Craig said, pointing to the outside wall in the middle of the 2,200-foot backstretch. 
The next race, pulling the bus into his spot, Reda looked up and there it was: a giant screen right where he wanted it.   It was of course for every fan’s viewing pleasure but damned if Craig didn’t accept it as a personal gift from Roger Curtis, the darn coolest racing executive around, especially when Roger stopped by, elbowed him in the ribs and said, “Hey, what do you think of that!” 
Of course, it was a typical Curtis upgrade for the entire back half of the infield.  For his pal Craig Reda, Curtis had something more personal in mind, showing up on the night of the carpenter’s 50th birthday celebration at his camp site with a sheet cake made to look like a race track.  Roger and Craig locked elbows and fed each other the way newlyweds will do before smashing it into one another’s faces, which they did as well.
            “Roger sees his job as ‘How do I make you happy?  What can I do for you today?’” Craig said.   For his part, Curtis says he’s simply a fan at heart who has never let a pursuit of “market share” cloud a much more important goal: making every single ticket holder’s experience memorable.  From his office in the administrative building, Curtis can see the seats he had as a fan for so many years near the start-finish line.  He remembers what it’s like to buy a ticket simply to have a blast at the track…and what it’s like to be caught in traffic afterwards.  His first time at Michigan, it took seven hours to make it to the highway, an untenable situation he’s helped fix.
Also in Craig and Jackie’s NASCAR circle is International Speedway Corp. PR man Lenny Santiago and Michael Printup, president of Watkins Glen International.   After spending time with fans at Craig’s birthday bash, Printup has a handful expecting to drop the green flag, drive the pace car and sing the national anthem.   Printup, who was asked to run Watkins Glen in summer of 2009, is learning how to delight and amaze fans at the knee of Roger Curtis, so expect he unexpected.  At the next road course race in western New York, if you see a long-haired guy resembling Braveheart shouting, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” with a smiling woman in a flowery sun dress by his side, that may be Craig Reda.  The honor will be well deserved.