Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Wednesday July 2, 2008
This story is about NASCAR’s heart and soul. In a world where primadonna drivers and corporate sponsorships can sometimes reign surpreme, we often forget there’s still one thing, one group still responsible for the sport’s unprecedented growth. Behind the fences lie millions upon millions of fans with unsolicited, passionate love for race cars. No question, NASCAR fans endure a devotion that’s unwavering, through good times and bad — even in times when the direction of the sport is in question, it’s through their love, support, and storytelling of what they love so much which allows racing knowledge and passion to move ahead.
Bob “The Ford Guy” Whitehead was one of those special people, a well known fellow around the internet racing groups — and I am proud to say he was a friend of mine. My introduction to “The Ford Guy,” as he was known in cyberspace, was about seven years ago. Back then, we squared off with opposing views on some long forgotten NASCAR controversy on a now-defunct message board. From that point on, disagreements on race-related subjects became commonplace, but my respect for the man as a human being and NASCAR fan far exceeded any frivolous differences of opinion we had concerning our sport of choice.
At the time that I first became aware of Bob “The Ford Guy,” he was an exceptionally loyal fan of Dale Jarrett and Robert Yates Racing. His loyalty was unwavering, and he staunchly maintained that NASCAR was prejudiced against his manufacturer of choice and favored the Chevrolet brand. Though I, in principal, disagreed with his opinion and argued on occasion with him about it, I quickly learned that when debating a racing issue with Bob, I needed to do my research and be ready for a well thought out argument. Bob knew his racing, his Ford drivers, and NASCAR. He truly loved the sport, and enjoyed discussing it and backing up his opinion with fact.
Through our group interactions, I learned a good deal more about the man beyond racing. Bob was quite a whiz at computers and, in fact, was a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer. He also was a devotee of gospel music and a devout Christian. In fact, often times Bob’s sense of right and wrong in the racing world were very much intertwined with his strict Christian set of ethics. Yet, just when I thought I had the guy figured out, he would advocate that one of his chosen drivers “yank some slack out of his chain” when wronged (at least in Bob’s opinion) by someone else.
After a number of years of discussing and debating racing at different internet race sites, I knew that Bob “The Ford Guy” was one person I really wanted to meet. He quite often left me baffled — in his view, there rarely were gray areas when it came to racing — and his certainty of opinion always intrigued me. Bob “The Ford Guy” applied the same values to racing that he did to living…there was right and there was wrong, and there was no in between.
In the Spring of 2003, I extended an invitation to Bob to join me for a night of local dirt track racing at Southern Speedway in the Panhandle of Florida. Somewhat to my surprise, my offer was, without hesitation, accepted; and thus began a progression in our relationship that transcended that of two guys, passionate about stock car racing, communicating with one another through the impersonal keyboards of our computers.
When communicating through the relative anonymity of the Internet, I was fully aware that sometimes people are not exactly what they purport to be, or they are not how we imagine them to be. As such, I was prepared for the possibility that Bob wasn’t all that I assumed. But that Saturday night — between the roar of the engines and occasional pattering of soil clods thrown into the stands from the dirt cars, I learned that Bob had never misrepresented himself, his character, or his love of racing online. But still, there was more to the story that was his life than he had felt the need to share or burden others with.
Bob was a sick man, and had been coping with serious health issues since he was a teenager. For more than 40 years, he had battled a host of medical problems that had required him to take a number of medications, including steroids, simply to live. At the time I met Bob, the medications had taken a toll on his body, and it was apparent. But even as fragile as his health was, and despite the constant daily battle that he endured to stay at least semi-mobile, Bob did not dwell on his poor health — and on our first meeting, only reluctantly accepted assistance in ascending into the bleachers.
Our first night of taking in the races together was, in my estimation, a success. I knew that I had made the right decision to meet up with “The Ford Guy,” and only hoped that he had enjoyed the evening just as much. If I had just made a new racing buddy that I could enjoy the races with, I would have been more than satisfied; however, I got much more than that. I had spent the evening with a man even more bright, steadfast, and courageous than I could have ever imagined.
Although Bob had gained a love of the sport as a child going to race events at the Nashville Fairgrounds, as an adult he had rarely been able to go to tracks. I was not aware of it at the time of our first meeting, but he had not been to a race of any kind live in many years. Thereafter, Bob and I would take in a local race when we could, and made the December Snowball Derby in Pensacola our annual event. We would even bring along my wife, my daughter and son-in-law, my nephew, or a grandson or two. But every year, Bob’s health continued to decline, resulting in lengthy hospital stays and months of recuperation.
But physical ailments were no match for Bob’s mental passion for NASCAR. Throughout his lengthy illnesses, he stayed in tune with the sport and was, for the most part, able to participate in race group discussions and continue to maintain — with help from his many friends — his own group site. In fact, at one point, Bob encouraged me to write for a now defunct racing website that he had built — an offer that I was honored to accept and still appreciate to this day.
As the years went by, Bob had a real desire to attend a race at the Talladega Superspeedway, but was reluctant due to the inordinate amount of walking that it would require. Barely ambulatory and without a wheelchair, he did not feel confident that he had the strength for 10 hours of driving, all the walking, and four or more hours at the track taking in the competition live. However, my wife was able to secure the use of a new electric scooter for him to make the trip, and that was enough to be able to convince him to go. The look on Bob’s face when he saw it will always be one of my fondest memories.
The borrowed scooter, flying the No. 88 flag and decked out with Dale Jarrett paraphernalia, was officially dubbed “UPS 1” and loaded into a rental van for what was sure to be an eventful and enjoyable one-day trip from Pensacola, FL to Talladega and back. The only thing that I had not considered was the weather. As our group moved northward through the state of Alabama, the clouds became more and more ominous. Still, Bob remained hopeful, as did I. At first, the rain held off just long enough for the singing of the National Anthem and for the cars to make their way onto the track. But just two hours later, the Spring 2006 race from Talladega, Alabama was officially postponed until the following day.
Staying over for the Monday race was just not possible. My wife and another person in our party were scheduled to work the next day, and besides, we all knew that Bob did not have the strength for another attempt so soon. However, Bob did get to go to Talladega and was upbeat and gracious, even in his disappointment. Besides, we could always do it again some other time!
Well, there never was an opportunity for Bob to attend another NASCAR race. Although we did make it out to a couple of Snowball Derbys and caught an ASA race at Pensacola’s Five Flags Speedway this past year, the last two years “The Ford Guy’s” health steadily declined. He was in and out of the hospital, literally cheating death on a couple of occasions, yet we still spoke of another racing road trip … but I think we both knew it probably would never happen. Nevertheless, neither of us wanted to acknowledge that possibility. We would just wait until he got his strength back.
I was just one of many that “The Ford Guy” could count as a friend. And, as I discovered during his illnesses, a lot of people loved and cared for Bob Whitehead, and the love was reciprocated by him. He had developed friendships through his fan groups with people from all walks of life; folks that would, during his numerous hospitalizations, drive across several states to visit him and let him know how much he meant to them. Others, though having never met the man except through internet discussions, would rally around him, forming prayer groups and sending get well wishes whenever they could. And I witnessed just how much their gesture, no matter how small they may have seemed, meant to Bob.
When Bob Whitehead left us last Friday morning to be with his Lord, a segment of the NASCAR community began to grieve; and they began to support one another in that grief. It was only then that I realized just how much of an impact Bob had made on so many. In his passing, others who have never met one another came together as an extended family that would comfort each other.
Bob Whitehead was not a famous NASCAR driver — he had difficulty at times navigating his own donated electric scooter from the door of his small cottage to the mailbox — nor was he a well known NASCAR team owner. Truth be told, he struggled to just buy his medications, keep food on the table and pay the electric bill. Instead of fame, “The Ford Guy” had the respect of many. Though not a wealthy man, he had his unwavering faith and a certainty of his own eternal salvation. He was a man that had no need to take a backseat to anyone.
Bob “The Ford Guy” will be missed by so many that met him by chance, and only because of a mutual infatuation with the sport of stock car racing. Who could have imagined?
For Bob, I pray that there is stock car racing in heaven… and a Ford always wins.
Rest in peace, my friend.
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