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Ah, the exuberance of youth! Austin Dillon ran across the grass, his stride vigorous, a huge grin plastered across his face. He had, after all, just won the Lucas Deep Clean 200 at Nashville. Some kind of celebration beyond the obligatory burnout was clearly called for.
He neared the huge, painted logo on the frontstretch grass, and launched himself. Arms wide, head back… really, it looked like a classic headfirst slide into first base, until he hit the ground. Turns out that paint is sticky, not slippery; instead of a dramatic slide through the grass, Dillon planted his face in the sponsor’s logo, his back bending in the direction not meant to and his legs waving somewhere close to his nose.
I laughed. The TV commentators giggled. The production truck recued the moment for replay. Probably a slew of NASCAR fans grabbed it off their DVR and uploaded immediately to YouTube. It was hilarious. Dillon thought so, too. He popped up, shook his head and started jogging back to his car, laughing the whole way.
And then I cringed. Had it been me misjudging the stickiness of grass, I’d probably be loaded up into an ambulance with a dislocated shoulder and back injuries. Here, I had just enjoyed watching this guy win his third race in the Camping World Truck Series, placing him firmly in the “to be watched” pile of hungry, smiling youngsters that hope to climb their way into the upper echelon of NASCAR, and all I could think about was that he probably wouldn’t feel the effects of that pass in the grass tomorrow morning.
In that instant, I felt old.
Not ancient, mind you, but my body has definitely been used for more years than I like to accept. I considered the other smiling faces I’ve been following lately in NASCAR… the feeling began to sink in deeper. Only five drivers in the entry list for Indy were driving when I started watching the sport. How many have retired in that time, moving into the broadcast booth, car ownership or worst of all, into oblivion…I don’t like to contemplate.
Like all major sports, NASCAR belongs to the young. Drivers just out of high school scramble to gain the attention of powerhouse racing stables, maybe spend a few years driving their butts off in the regional series and practice their interview lingo. I enjoyed watching the climb into the jungle back then; I still do to this day.
Which wide grin will win me over in pre-race interviews? Who will demonstrate nerves of steel behind the wheel or possess an explosive temper, providing entertainment on pit road on occasion? Who will win, despite an ill-handling monster?
None of that has anything to do with age, per se, but it is when we are young, before life has tested us that we are willing to toss caution to the wind, believing in our immortality. Thus, it is the young that will dazzle us with an impossible pass, squeezing into a space far too small for any vehicle, and diving into a corner a little too deep. Perhaps in the moment that we become a fan of that youth, we can believe in our own immortality, however foolish that might sound.
Thus, today I am an Austin Dillon fan. He drives the wheels off that black No. 3 truck, and leaps into the air confident that the ground will cushion his fall by allowing him to slide across the tri-oval. Perhaps the fact that it didn’t won me over a bit more. Either that, or perhaps it was the humility he displayed by being able to laugh at his own mishap.
Whatever the case, maybe I’m a bit older than I used to be when I chose my first rookie to follow, but the same things still draw me to a not so familiar face and name scribed over the driver’s door.
Enthusiasm, wild commitment, stunning ability, a little bit of a sheepish smile, and now… apparently the chance to feel a little less of my age for a moment from time to time.
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