Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bob's Party Bus

Bob’s Party Bus
            Talladega Superspeedway has a notorious reputation as the loudest, most raucous party stop on the NASCAR circuit.  It’s also the place where Kevin Kent was sent to surrender to Christ.
            And if that’s not enough of a man-bites-dog story, before Kevin Kent went stone cold sober on October 6, 2007, dedicating himself to Jesus in the middle of the throbbing infield after 31 years of drinking and drugging, he was the good-time ringleader and captain of an amazing psychedelic bus that had probably served up more suds than Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
            After his spiritual awakening at Talladega, Kevin became a brand new man.  His one-of-a-kind party bus still draws crowds at the races.  It’s just taken on a different role, now helping to tell a remarkable story of grace accepted and redemption pursued.  The bus remains an amusement park-worthy attraction thousands of fans experience – covered inside and out in drips and streaks and splatters of florescent paint, colorful gobs slung on the walls and seats and floors, as if Jackson Pollock worked at Earl Scheib Paint & Body.  When darkness falls over the race track, fans still wait their turn to climb aboard, putting on 3-D glasses to view a twisting, oozing menagerie of electric blues, hot pinks, ruby reds, canary yellows and lime greens, a demented mix of color in a shifting landscape that throws anyone walking through the bus into a trippy, 60’s frame of mind.  Kevin continues to be a fixture by the back emergency exit at the end of the tour, wearing a coat and hat speckled in neon paint.  But instead of handing out beads and booze, he offers Bibles and church service DVDs.
            “Before I was saved, this bus was the scene for one non-stop, hard-core party,” he said. “I used to put pasties on girls coming through.  Now I give them my testimony.  You could say we went from The Pastey Bus to God’s Bus.”
            The 1960 Chevrolet had been shuttling Indiana school kids before it was purchased by Kevin’s friend, Bob.  “About six of us got an assortment of paint and just let it rip,” Kevin says. They feverishly coated the bus top to bottom in a freaky free-hand style acidhead Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters would have approved.  When the black lights were installed and 3-D glasses brought in, the old Chevy became a favored party destination, particularly at Michigan International Speedway in the late 1990’s.  Word spread, and Bob’s psychedelic bus became the place to visit in the infield. 
            In 2002, an aggressive cancer snuck up and took Bob’s life.  Kevin purchased the bus from his friend’s estate. “I wanted to keep Bob and his dream alive, so I bought it and simply named it, ‘Bob’s Party Bus’.”  Kevin and the bus would make regular pilgrimages to NASCAR’s two summer races in Michigan
            The legend of the psychedelic bus grew, as did Kevin’s appetite for beer.  He could drink four or five cases a weekend.  He had started drinking when he was 14 and never let up, even after getting kicked out of school for good at 16, and being convicted of DWI several times. Drinking led to drugging, and over the years, getting blotto as often as possible cost Kevin his driver’s license, two marriages and a few jobs.  But he had no intention of stopping. 
            In the infield of Michigan, Kevin roamed freely with a drink in his hand, except for one spot.  He’d always come across a hot band playing catchy music and having a good time.  He stayed away.  “They were a Christian rock band, and I knew Christians never had any fun. I didn’t need to know about God, and I kept my distance,” he said. 
            At the 2007 August race in Michigan, he noticed a guy named Mike unloading a trailer for the band.  He offered to help.  Mike was fine on his own; he only had one box. “What? I’m not good enough to carry your box?” Kevin joked. 
            The men hit it off, and Kevin invited Mike and a band mate to see the magic bus.  Naturally, they were impressed and returned with the rest of the band that evening.  Each band member autographed the inside of the bus.
             On Saturday night, a fellow in the band who went by the name of Preacher Man Berry told Kevin that a big-time racing executive would be at the concert to hand out shirts, sign autographs and thank the fans.  Kevin spotted the exec at the show and invited him to see the bus. The buzz had spread further than anyone imagined and the exec was eager to check it out.
            Kevin and his friends cleared everyone out to give the executive special tour.  They chatted and snapped a few pictures.  On the way back to see the band, the executive told Kevin he needed to take his amazing party bus to Talladega.  
            “I’ve always wanted to go, and I have a friend down there, but I can’t do it,” Kevin said.
            “You didn’t hear me.  You really need to get this bus to ‘Dega,” the executive repeated.
            Kevin gave the same answer.  The executive asked why.
            “This bus doesn’t do to well on gas.  And we need to eat.  It costs a lot to get down there and back, and I just don’t have the money,” Kevin said.
            “What about if I split it with you?”
            An offer like that was the last thing in the world Kevin expected to hear.  Too shocked to even speak, he nodded eagerly.  The executive took out his wallet and handed Kevin $500. 
             Kevin was in awe of the gesture.  He had found a steady job as an Iron Worker in Ohio, but he feared how much the trip would cost.  And the bus needed immediate repairs.  He sputtered, “I’m really not sure, my wife is gonna kill me…”
            Before he could finish, he was handed another $200. 
            “I really want you to come to Talladega, and hope this will make her happy,” the executive said.
            Kevin couldn’t thank him enough.  But what the executive said next surprised him even more.
            “Thank you for being such a good fan.” he said, extending his hand.
             Kevin looked him in the eye as they shook. 
            “I’ll be there,” he said.
            “I know you will.”
            The motorsports executive didn’t know it at the time, but his extraordinary impromptu gesture likely saved Kevin Kent’s life.  
            Even as his drinking escalated, Kevin worked non-stop over the next month to prepare the bus for the long haul to the deep South.  He got new tires and added a generator and air conditioner.  He’d heard about the awesome bunched-up restrictor plate racing at NASCAR’s longest track, but he was more hopped up planning how he’d cut loose in the party capital of NASCAR.  “I was so excited knowing that I’d be able to go crazy.  And once we got there, party I did: Thursday, Thursday night, Friday and Friday night,” he said.  
            Everyone in ‘Dega who saw Bob’s Party Bus loved it. The story of the bus spread to the other camps.  Big crowds were flocking at the entrance with fans calmly lining up for the incredible tour.  One of the fans who’d mounted the bus, Mark, was a member of the Christian band, The River.  Saturday morning, within earshot, Mark told Kevin’s wife, Debbie, he wished Kevin would stay sober.   “He’d be so much more fun, don’t you think?” Mark said.
           It wasn’t an angry challenge or an aggressive intervention, more the tone of a caring person disappointed with the way someone’s life has turned out.  Now, Saturday night in Talladega is like Fat Tuesday in New Orleans.  That didn’t seem to bother Kevin.  For the first time since he was 14 years old, he decided not to drink.  “I really didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.  I just decided not to have that first drink, and the night unfolded. Amazingly, it was the most fun in my life I had ever had.  Without a single drink, I had a blast.”
            As day turned into night, Kevin was chatting with Wes, another member of the band.  Kevin casually mentioned he was thinking about getting a Bible.
            “I’ll see what I can do,” Wes said, before the men went to sleep.
            On Sunday morning, Kevin woke up with a headache.  “I’d been drinking so much my body just assumed it had to feel horrible in the morning,” he said.  He and Debbie had such a good time with Mark and Wes of The River, they decided to head over to the church service the band organized between the track’s first and second turns.  Wes spotted them and announced he had a Bible for Kevin.   
            This wasn’t a spare Bible gathering dust on a shelf.  It was the Bible Wes’s  kids had used through five states, the Bible he had taken around the world twice on his mission trips, the one Wes had received after he accepted Christ into his life.
            Kevin couldn’t accept Wes’s personal Bible.  But Wes insisted.
          “God has answered my prayers.  He’s led me to give this to you.  Take it,” he told Kevin. 
           With tears of happiness in his eyes, Kevin accepted the Bible.  At the church service, he raised his hands and told God he was sorry for all he had done in his life.  He prayed, “Jesus, please forgive me, I’m giving my life to you.”  He saw a bright flash, more intense than lightning or a welder’s flash, brighter than anything he’d ever seen.  When the light was gone, he could see more clearly, as if God had removed the plastic from his eyes. The air even tasted better.
            “At that moment, God removed my desire for alcohol and drugs. He took away the anger from my body, and I began to love my family even more, with all of my heart. He helped me love from the inside out and not the outside in. The song Amazing Grace is the story of my life – I once was lost, but now I see,”
             Kent, who is now 47, has been clean and sober since that weekend in Talladega.  He’s still not sure why one of the top officials in motorsports was so strident about him taking Bob’s Party Bus to Talladega, putting his life on a new path, other than it was God’s will.  “Can you think of any other reason?” he asks.  Bob’s Party Bus is still mobbed at a half dozen Sprint Cup races each year.  It’s easier to find than ever, now bearing a 30-foot cross illuminated with color Christmas lights visible clear across the track.  The bottom is rusting badly, and Kevin is praying for additional divine intervention.
            “You could say we did a conversion on the bus, from R-rated to G-rated,” Kevin noted.  “It’s still Bob’s Party Bus but with a different purpose – to share the love of God with other people.  When people come to visit the bus, I have their attention, and can witness that there’s much more to life than alcohol and drugs.  I share my testimony with them so they know what God can do in their lives. I’ve replaced booze on the bus with Bibles. Anyone who needs one is welcome.”

Reprinted with permission from THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans (Motorbooks) which is available at many online bookstores.

Monday, October 21, 2013

My Doctors Only Want to Talk NASCAR

The NASCAR season is a traveling circus from February through November.  For ten months, a dedicated group of people pull off a Super Bowl on steroids just about every weekend.  Even after the champagne flies to crown a new champion in Miami around Thanksgiving, there will be scant rest for the weary.  Each series has awards banquets, and Daytona is looming over everyone’s head like a safe dangling on piano wire.  Following the longest season in professional sports, the only real vacation for thousands in the NASCAR industry is around Christmas, where all versions of Ricky Bobby’s baby Jesus are celebrated. Then we prepare for a new season.  For my family each year, a late-December respite in Vermont is the much-needed so-called battery charge.  
One particular off-season ski trip was my chance to move beyond “intermediate” skiing.  Out on the slopes, the sun was disappearing behind the formidable mountain.  I was successfully closing out Day One, and would have four more to improve the old technique. 
For the proverbial Last Run of the Day, Viviane and I come across a black diamond called “Superstar.”  Just seeing that name gets my adrenaline pumping: strong and confident notions of red, white and blue achievement, Superman, Wonder Woman, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps in their USA Speedos.  Superstar!  If my run were televised, Jim McKay would in a canary yellow blazer describing it. 
Viviane is smooth and light on her skis.  She describes my style as Jean-Claude Killy on the green bunny runs and Jerry Lewis on the blacks.  Today, Jerry is a no show.  I haven’t gone down once.  The legs feel good.  It’s time to master the elements, blast past the fat part of the bell curve and enter the rarified realm of the expert skier.  I am a super star.
I point a pole to the beckoning trail sign.  Viviane nods, and a bad idea builds momentum with the trail’s steep decline and wind-blown moguls. (Are the scary bumps called “moguls” because they mimic Donald Trump’s hair?)
My wife is out in front, deftly finding her way down the difficult slope.  I pick up too much speed and try to cut back in a groove between slick moguls, a move that would have looked good on the chalkboard.  Too bad we’re not in a classroom, but skidding down an iceberg.  My skis hit a rut and jerk to the side.  My top heavy body surges in the other direction as if launched from a circus cannon.  Except my arms aren’t stoic at my sides.  This is a flailing, out-of-control, agony-of-defeat cartwheel.
            NASCAR drivers see crashes happening in slow motion.  Wayne Gretzky explained when he scored a goal, time slowed, and the puck appeared the size of a pizza pie, the goal as wide as the Hoover Dam.  None of that here.  It’s an instantaneous, oh-snap blur, white canvas screaming toward my face.  Greg Louganis couldn’t have hit the surface at a more precise 90-degree angle.  It sounds like chomping a mouthful of Cap’n Crunch.  I bounce like a Super Ball.  On the second revolution, my head smacks the rock-hard mountain like a bowling ball dropped from a roof.  Finally, silence.
            It is a sad reflection of our You Tube culture that laying there, thankfully breathing (albeit stunned) and reassured my skull was not split like a rotten pumpkin, I wonder if anyone on the chair lift captured my spastic circus-act flop.  Please tell me no one camera-phoned this. I’m destined to be an internet laughing stock.  Without royalties.
There are no cameras or giggling.  I’m alone, in one piece.  This can’t be that bad.  The morning papers said a Manhattan window washer survived a 47-story fall.
All my digits are moving.  But as the commercial says, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
That initial crunch wasn’t the give of snow.  It something in my shoulder breaking. 
My wife kept her wits and balance, and had pulled to a stop below.  The grade is too steep for her to come up. All is OK, no worries, I reassure her with a lefty Super Star-like thumbs up.  The covenant of marriage allows making claims to your life partner that you do not believe.  She tells passing skiers following her gaze up the mountain, “Oh, he’s fine.  He’s just catching his breath.”
All I can do is flash a dumb smile and that thumbs-up with the arm I can move.
“Baby, just put your skis on and ski on down!” she urges.
Maybe an expert skier could do that. I’m an eternal intermediate, forever checking that middle box on the rental line, a reckless overachiever who flirted with bragging rights for super-stardom beyond his proficiency and paid the price.  The run couldn’t have been named “Devil’s Emergency Room” to scare me away?  I try to stand, but the shoulder is shot.  I slide on my bottom across the slippery surface, faster and faster down the steep hill. This is not going to end well.  I dig boot heels into the ice, and lurch to a stop.
The mountain is quiet, save my gasping.  I lean on my good shoulder and crawl, inches at a time, across the mountain, toward the woods.  Isn’t that where animals go to die?
Someone, it’s a ski instructor, is waving his poles and shouting down from the lift. “Do you need me to radio for help?”
Up there, I’ve looked down at the meek humiliation of the daring and the clumsy, those unfortunate injured skiers who are strapped in and carted away on the Red Cross sled.  Yeah, call it in.  Now I’ll know how it feels to be present for your own funeral procession.  Like driving a stock car at the track in Charlotte, which had different ending of hearty slaps on the back and a framed photo on fake marble, I’ll check off another bucket-list experience.
Viviane says they closed Superstar after my crash.  Too treacherous; an out-of-control intermediate from the city was nearly killed.  My fast-fading manhood is revived.  Yes, it was the ferocious mountain, not me.  Mother Nature won today’s battle, the war is mine.  I am a superstar…until I find out Viviane was conjuring a well-meaning fib, something a married woman says with noble intentions but nary a shred of truth. 
The doctor examining me says he’ll take x-rays but it looks like a broken collar bone.  “What do you do for a living?” he asks, sounding not that interested. 
“I’m with NASCAR,” I tell him.  He smiles, makes eye contact for the first time, and asks if Jimmie Johnson is going to win a third championship.
In the mirror, I basically have no right shoulder.  The disappearance of a frequently used body part is sickening.  My arm is dangling low like an ape’s, the shoulder having apparently said, hasta la vista.  The surrounding skin is already yellowish green.  I want to puke.
“This looks pretty bad.  Do I need surgery?”
“I don’t think so,” he says.  “I want to know this.  Earnhardt moving to Hendrick: is that going to change the competitive balance in the sport?  I mean, Dale Jr., Gordon, Johnson – that’s like a Murderers Row or the Purple People eaters.  What a lineup!  They’re gonna dominate!” 
I’m in starting to shiver, slipping into shock maybe.  The dull pain is starting to spread to my chest.  I’m wondering if they’ll screw rods into my body like some of the drivers I’ve talked to, or if I’ll be limping around like the Hunchback of NASCAR in New York.
“Do I have to stay in the hospital?” I ask.
“We’ll fix you up here, and you’ll be out in just a few.  There’s quite a separation in the bone break.  You must have hit pretty hard.  Hey, I’ve seen some hard hits in NASCAR this year. I couldn’t believe Gordon walked away from that lick in Pocono.  How about those HANS devices and new softer walls?  They’re really making NASCAR much safer.”
“This hurts a lot.  How long will the pain last?”
“Oh, it’s like any bone break,” the doctor says.  “We’ll give you some strong medication.  Did you know Dale Senior broke his collarbone at Talladega, the car just flipping like crazy, and then he drove the next week with that broken collarbone?”
 “Yes, he actually won the pole and the race.  Watkins Glen.  Road course.  Toughest course to drive, I’d imagine, with a painful injury like that. Doctor, I’m on the first day of a five-day vacation.  Do I have to go home?  We can get back to New York in about five hours.”
“It’s up to you.  Frankly, you’ll at first be uncomfortable wherever you are.  You can stay in the lodge.  Hey, speaking of New York, that track NASCAR was building is not going to happen?”
This dance goes on until the doc gives me a sling and bottle of horse pills.  He tells me to see an orthopedic surgeon back in New York.  “I’d bet that doctor will want to operate. If I were you, I’d avoid surgery. You could place one end of your collar bone on one side of the room, and the other end on the other side, and the bones will find each other.  The collar bone is a truly amazing thing.  You should be OK in a few months.”  
He was right.  I got better.  (The collarbone can find anything; too bad it can’t go work for the CIA and find bin Laden.)  I was in tip-top shape but then gruesomely rolled an ankle at Texas Motor Speedway.  What used to be a jutting ankle bone at the bottom of my skinny chicken leg soon resembled the kind of plump tomato my grandmother would have proudly thrown in the pot for Sunday’s sauce.  You hit 40, and you become spastic.  Your body grows hair in odd places and progressively falls apart.  TV commercials offer electronic devices to alert the authorities when you become incapacitated.  I can accept that.  Harder to deal with is how I’d viewed those who get hurt on business trips as losers.  I’m in that club, too.  Not exactly on the bucket list.
Each NASCAR track has a well-staffed mini-hospital in the infield.  It’s meant for drivers, not clumsy, aging, accident-prone PR people.  I hobble to the Infield Care Center for an ace bandage and a tape job. I’m hosting CNBC and the New York Daily News, will be on the ankle all day, and need to stabilize it.  The Speedway doctor won’t tape me without taking x-rays.  Sure enough, the tip of the fibia is broken.  The doc shows the film – a chunk the shape of India floating beneath the shin bone.  The kind, gentle and efficient folks at the Texas Motor Speedway Infield Care Center strap on a metal boot, hand me crutches, and suggest I see an orthopedic specialist back home.  “I know,” I say.  “I bet they’ll want to operate.”
The busted ankle brings out the best in service companies.  Avis fetches my car at the hotel, no charge.  Continental bumps me to first class with curb-to-gate wheelchair service.  I make a mental note to fake an injury before a future trip.  In light of recent events, pretending won’t be necessary.
I return to New York to see another doctor.  You can guess what happens when he hears I got hurt at a NASCAR race.  The orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village secretly wishes he were Tony Stewart’s jack man:    
Clumsy PR Guy:  So, it’s broken. Bummer.  But there’s no ligament damage, right?
Doctor:  No, none.  What amazes me is how fast those drivers go when they are so close to one another. Extraordinary, isn’t it.
Clumsy PR Guy:  What about the tendons?
Doctor:  The tendons are fine.  You don’t have to worry about that.  They say it’s the roar of the cars and the whole massive feel of it. You go to a race, and you are just blown away and hooked.
Clumsy PR Guy:  I have been elevating the leg and keeping ice on the ankle. How long should I do that?
Doctor:  As long as needed.  I hear NASCAR is still looking at building a track in the New York area.  Jersey?  Near the Meadowlands?  Out on the Island?  No, no, Staten Island. Yes, that’s it.  Is it true?  That would be great. That sport really needs to be here in New York.
Clumsy PR Guy:  Unfortunately, there’s not enough political support, and that’s not gonna work out.  Listen, getting back to me and the ankle, I imagine there’s some sort of physical therapy ahead?
Doctor:  You will absolutely need rehab.  We can make a recommendation – plenty of good places.  It really seems to be a sport that has caught on like wildfire. I have a friend at ABC, who was a big skeptic but is now completely sold on it.  They show your races, right?
Clumsy PR Guy:  Yes, ABC is a partner, and NASCAR is very popular.  I sit at a computer all day.  My main exercise is hitting the send button on email.  So I like to run at night. When will I be jogging again?
Doctor:  Should be a few months.  Just between you and me, it gets pretty wild at some of those tracks, huh?  What’s it like?
Clumsy PR Guy:  It’s fun. The fans are a panic. I writing a book on them.  There’s a fan who took the NASCAR flag to the top of Mt. Everest.  Another guy walks around at the track naked except for a Goodyear tire and Tom Sawyer straw hat.  Come to think of it, he walks a lot, and I’ll be walking a lot.  I can do that with the cast you’ll give me?  No crutches?
Doctor:  Yes, of course. I don’t understand Staten Island. Why didn’t they just didn’t go buy the land at Grumman airport out on the Island? It’s totally available.

This is a top ankle and knee guy in New York magazine’s list of the city’s best doctors. He’s in demand and hard to reach.  I was able to see him instantly.  You see, his assistant is a Sprint phone-carrying NASCAR fan.  She saw “NASCAR” on my email requesting an appointment.  I was promptly slotted in.  Getting my first preference for follow up appointments was a snap.  I just had to answer a few questions about what Dale Jr. was like, and does he really have a girlfriend?
Who says they don't love NASCAR in New York?

Reprinted from THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY, which is available online and wherever fine books (and some really crappy ones) are sold.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Imagine Lennon’s Autograph

I’m a big Beatles fan. No matter what challenges the day presents, those marvelous collection of tunes – really, any one of them beside “Mr. Moonlight” – will turn my frown upside down.

Unfortunately, the four mop-topped lads from Liverpool didn’t produce in my father the same serotonin kick. Back in the day, dad would storm into my room to make me lower “that Devil’s music.” 

(Of course, “Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby," "Here Comes the Sun," "In My Life," and "Here There and Everywhere” are the soundtrack to many a basement satanic ritual.  Any impressionable kid hearing those songs has no choice but to begin hunting down and sacrificing small animals to drink their blood.)

One night, dad gets home from work and reports, “I got you the autograph of that bum, John Lennon.  He came in to buy a car.  A station wagon.”

I am absolutely beside myself.

Really really!!! Let me see it!”

My father fishes into his wallet. Lennon’s signature is scribbled on the blank side of his “Midtown Chevrolet” business card. This was the tail end of the era when big gleaming American cars dominated the roads. Dad sold cars at an expansive Chevy dealership on Broadway and 57th Street smack in the heart of Manhattan: gleaming ‘Vettes, Monte Carlos, Camaros, and Impalas were displayed behind over-sized plate glass windows on the second floor overlooking Broadway. Today, the space is the bland home to a nondescript chain drug store selling makeup, potato chips and flu shots.

The autograph sure looks real. But is this some sick trick?

I can barely sputter out the words: “How do you know it was really him, John, the Beatle?!”

“He was pale and had long hair and glasses and was with an ugly chink,” my father says. 

Bingo.  That would be Yoko.  Our own Archie Bunker had nabbed a Beatle signature. (I would later do the research and the timing worked - it was right before Yoko sent John packing with their assistant May Pang to head for LA for the fabled “Lost Weekend.” One account even confirmed they were looking for a wagon.) What a momentous day in my young life. Jimmy G. secured a BEATLE AUTOGRAPH.  And given it to me.

My father may have loathed the man, his music, even his taste in women. But he thought enough to humble himself for that signature. From time to time, beneath the gruff crudeness and defensive characterizing of people would appear a heart of solid gold.  Ok, maybe gold-plated.

Now that he’s gone, these periodic fleeting gestures are what stay with me. 

The memories are all I've got.

You see, I lost Lennon's autograph.  Imagine no possessions.  It's easy if you can.