Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Nursing Junior to a Championship

Some people live to save the world.
            Barbie Robbins lives for Dale Earnhardt Jr. 
            Once time, Junior wrecked and was shaken up.  Barbie, who was at home, thousands of miles from the race, put on a nurse’s outfit.  She wanted to channel healing vibes to her number-one driver.  
Every morning, the 49-year-old Californian wakes up underneath a collage of Dale Jr. photographs pasted above her bed.  Before shedding her No. 88 pajamas, she bee-lines to the computer to vote for her man in the NASCAR Most Popular Driver contest.  She punches up her MySpace page, checks the guest book for new NASCAR friends and gazes at the latest Dale Jr. photos posted.  In one shot, the driver is sleeping peacefully in his race car.  Thought bubbles, like those in cartoons, rise from his head to a superimposed cloud framing Barbie’s smiling face.  A photo of Dale’s car speeding past the start-finish line has the caption, “Junior looks at Barbie.”  A shot showing Junior with chin on clenched fist, deep in thought, is captioned, “Hmmm…should I call Barbie?”  A photo of Junior appearing surprised is tagged, “Is that Barbie?”  In another one, NASCAR’s biggest star is with fellow driver Tony Stewart who exclaims “Look Dale, there she is again.  I think Barbie is stalking you!”
Barbie sends daily notes on the life and times of Dale Jr. to dozens of friends met on the web.  On race day, members of the virtual club sit with their laptops in front of the TV telecast, typing bulletins to one another.  If Junior is rammed by another driver, Barbie will fire off sailor-worthy cusses.  She’s known online, and among many in the physical world, as “Junior’s Baby 88 Girl.”  Some in her San Diego neighborhood call her “NASCAR Chick.” 
Most days, she puts on a Dale Jr. t-shirt, which had been ironed and carefully set out the night before.  She selects a Dale Jr. hat.  There’s a set rotation – on Sunday night, shirts and hats are matched to days of the week.  She has been unable to find Junior Under ‘Roos and will take any leads offered.  At the corner store in her San Diego neighborhood, the counterman catches a glance of her NASCAR garb and long Stevie Wonder-style braids and invariably shouts, “Hey, NASCAR Chick!” 
            Barbie Robbins, formerly of Chicago, Illinois and a nondescript civilian life, now of San Diego, California and a minor celebrity in her neighborhood and Auto Club Speedway 104 miles due north, became Junior’s Baby 88 Girl after seeing the driver in a TV interview.  The attraction was mystical and instantaneous.  The Sicilians, as any fan of “The Godfather” knows, have a term for such otherworldly instant connections: “The Thunderbolt.” The thunderbolt is deeper and more complex than what Americans might call “love at first sight.”  This is not puppy dogs and floating hearts.  The thunderbolt is serious, life-altering destiny not to be messed with. 
In Sicily, the Thunderbolt is called, “lu lampu.”  
In San Diego, Barbie Robbins said to the TV screen, “Damn, he fine!” 
The hour she first believed, she watched Dale Junior answer the reporter’s questions, slightly impatient, index finger prone to reach up and clean his ear, a plain spoken North Carolina boy saying “y’all” and “ain’t” whenever he darn well pleased, a man of unkempt rugged good looks who’d rather be hunting or fishing than facing questions about the so-called Earnhardt family legacy.  Barbie saw beautiful unvarnished authenticity in a glossed-up world populated with too many pretty boys, and was zapped by the thunderbolt.  She started tuning to NASCAR races to see the free-spirited cowboy ride. He was courageous and could drive that car.  He had his own chocolate bar.  She hates chocolate.  It was the sweetest candy she’d ever tasted. 
Junior’s Baby 88 Girl is never to be bothered on Sunday even during family emergencies, always eager to display the Dale Junior tattoo covering one shoulder blade and to speak wistfully about the “Junior Nation” one coming to the other.   She never shies from a chance to promote the individual who is the object of many of her waking thoughts and desires.  And some while she’s asleep. Ask Barbie about her life, and she’ll flatly tell you, “It’s all about Junior!”  There’s a twinkle in her lagoon-green eyes, and she’s not joking.
            Junior’s Baby 88 Girl wasn’t the kind of woman to go trawling for celebrities occupying a central position in her life. It was out of character for her to feel an intimate connection to any pop culture icon – those distant figures of tabloid renown captured and co-oped by the media to sate the public’s insatiable appetite for unconsummated fantasy, tart gossip and computer wallpaper.  The possibility of Barbie connecting with a NASCAR driver was more remote.  It wasn’t because most African American women in Southern California have little in common with the front men of a sport rooted in Carolina moonshine.  It’s just that while Barbie had watched Indy Car with cousins, she wasn’t much of a race fan.  She wasn’t opposed to it.  Racing was cool, but there were so many other things to do on a Sunday afternoon.  Beside, she actually prefers connecting with people personally in the flesh, over a Bud Light and a Newport, rather than plumbing the lives of public figures through supermarket checkout magazines.  Then came the lu lampu.   She didn’t plan it.  No one asks for the thunderbolt.  Now there’s an unmistakable connection, a spooky empathy at play.  
“When Dale Junior does an interview, and I see he’s sad, it makes me sad,” Barbie said.  “I will pick up on his moods and will really feel the same way.” 
After Dale Jr. left the team formed by his father – which after Senior’s passing was run by his step mother Teresa – to join the NASCAR powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, Barbie noticed the driver was relaxed, freed from the politics and pressure of the family business.  The days following his shocking move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to join Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at a new team brought relief to the driver and his biggest fan. 
“Watching Junior talking about his new team in the press conference, you could just see how happy and excited he was.  And so was I.”  As she likes to say in her emails, “Life is Gr88t!!!!”
            Even cocooned in her car on the freeways of California, Junior Baby 88 Girl is identified by a batch of Dale Jr. bumper stickers drawing odd looks.   “Sometimes on the highway, a driver will pull alongside.  He’s seen my Dale Jr. stickers.  The look on his face, says, ‘That is not her car.’  Yes, it’s my car, and I’m a NASCAR fan!  I’m a redneck with a permanent tan!  But when I get to the track, I’m just another race fan, fitting right in.  I’m probably the most crazy fan, like an Energizer bunny but doing all I can to not jump over that fence and grab onto Dale Jr.’s car.  But I’m still just a fan.  Every other NASCAR fan I’ve met has been awesome.  They don’t care if I’m black, pink or orangeI’m not into black or white.  I’m into Green.  Number 88 green!  That’s all that matters” 
Getting close to the driver of the number 88 green car is the weekend’s main goal.  “I have my Junior Station set up where I lay out my hoochie outfits, oops, I mean respectful, family friendly NASCAR-themed clothing,” she says.  To look her best, Junior’s Baby 88 Girl sits for eight hours to get her hair specially braided.  Getting ready for the drive north, she cranks up Jackie Wilson’s “Baby Workout.” Grilled foods are wrapped in foil.  The ice chest is filled with Bud Light.  Most of the beer will come back, since NASCAR fans offer theirs to her all weekend. “NASCAR tailgating rocks,” she said.  “Oh my god, two times a year, drinking beer at 8 a.m., it’s the only way to party.  Those other so called big sports events have nada on NASCAR.”
She loves seeing the new crop of Dale Junior t-shirts and having her picture taken in his colors.  She once bought a bunch of new tees in the parking lot and began dancing for fans snapping her picture.  She didn’t know it, but the goods were illegal knock-offs.  The police snuck up and busted the counterfeiter.  Nearby at her SUV, Junior’s Baby 88 Girl was posing in her new wares.   She explained it was her car, she bought the shirts not to sell but for herself as she is the biggest Junior fan.  She said the photos were not to encourage the sale of illegal merchandise but to promote her favorite driver.  No, she was not being compensated.  Yes, she does this at all the races.  Yes, OK, it’s a little over the top.  No, she’s not kidding about all this. 
The cops shook their heads and pulled away.
She’s found a niche, making dozens of friends at the track, on a first name basis with Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker, a familiar face to some of the team crews.  Yet still feels on the outside, nose pressed against the glass.  Myriad web sites, fan magazines, TV and satellite radio coverage bring fans their NASCAR fix whenever they want.  But not all the time, any time.  Life beckons.  There’s a job to go to, assignments looming, appointments to make, groceries to buy, a boy to raise.  Thankfully, her son drinks the NASCAR Kool-Aid, too, and they’ve not missed a single race at Auto Club Speedway since 1998.  Pit passes bring them close to the drivers.  At one race, Junior nearly bumped into them before the drivers’ introductions. 
“I reached out and touched Junior for a hot second, rubbed his arm, spoke to him,” she said.  “I said, ‘I want a hug,’ just to let him know, ‘Dude, I love ya, I’m always loyal, dedicated and right there with ya.’  His smile was priceless.”  Telling this story, her eyes filled with tears.
Try to squeeze Peyton Manning’s shoulder before a game.  You’ll be handcuffed and thrown in jail.  The chance to get up close is what Junior’s Baby 88 Girl likes most about the sport.  But as near as she can get to the drivers, it’s only twice a year.  When race weekends start, and she’s at work punching information into the computer, there’s no way to know what’s going on in the race shop and at the track.  The data entry position is a job, not a career.  Her dream is employment at NASCAR, winding up on the inside, a life with no barriers to knowing what’s happening with Dale Junior exactly when it’s happening.   She brings her resume to each race she attends.  You never know.
At work cut off from NASCAR on a Friday afternoon can make a fan like Barbie very frustrated.  She sometimes has a premonition, like before the race at Talladega.  She felt something wrong and snuck a peak at the internet.  Dale had blown a tire during a practice run and crashed.  A feeling of dread washed over her.  
The online NASCAR network kicked into gear.  Friends with jobs allowing them to follow NASCAR on SPEED or Sirius sent news.  Junior was fine – checked out in the infield care center and released, walking to the garage to set up the backup car. 
This time, Barbie could leave the nurse’s outfit in the closet.

Reprinted with permission from The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola (Motorbooks)