“Well, the (fill in sponsor/manufacturer/model here) ran great today. My super, amazing crew chief made some great calls and the guys did a great job on pit stops that got us to the front. I’d also like to thank (insert 10 other sponsors here), my Mom, and all my fans!”
How many times a year have you heard this speech in Victory Lane and shaken your head at how scripted it is? I’d have to say, in the average Cup season, about 36. The reason Victory Lane sounds and looks scripted is because it IS. And for good reason, there are a lot of people who pay a lot of money or supply a lot of equipment who expect a return on their investment: photos of the team wearing their hat, gathered around the trophy and a thanks on national TV to impress their corporate clients. NASCAR wants the publicity photos of driver and crew hosing each other with champagne. The team owner wants his own photos. The ceremony takes forever; the five minutes you see on TV can stretch to a half-hour or more while all the sponsors get taken care of. While everyone is complaining about Joe Driver not being spontaneous enough, I always figure, the poor guy is saying what he’s paid to say. He’s just spent four hours in that car and he’d probably like a cold Gatorade, a trip to the restroom, and a couple of aspirin about now, so you can’t really blame him if it comes out boring and scripted.
But if you look in that driver’s eyes, the windows to his soul where the competitive fire burns as bright as ever, you may see a different story. You may see tears of joy at a first trophy in the big leagues. You may see the gratitude to everyone who is responsible for that win or championship that has only come with a lifetime of hard work. And sometimes in Victory Lane, you might see something that is not a part of any script, not for any kind of publicity, not even planned. Sometimes in Victory Lane, you might see something very special indeed.
It happened this weekend in Charlotte. When Casey Mears won his first Nextel Cup race, the festivities were emotionally charged from the start. An obviously jubilant Mears climbed from his car, grinning from ear to ear, forgetting just for a moment to put on his sponsor’s hat. Confetti was plastered all over his sweaty face, and Mears didn’t even wipe it away for awhile. “I can’t believe I’m here,” he repeated over and over again in interviews, and you knew it was true.
Mears, who probably understands the significance of winning on Memorial Day weekend more than many, accepted congratulations from his crew and peers in stride, still grinning and soaking it all up. Crew members from other Hendrick Motorsports teams came, and proud parents Roger and Carol. Rick Hendrick was among the first people there, and his congratulations made Mears visibly proud. There were no tears of joy… until another driver came barreling onto the scene and nearly tackled Mears to the ground with a fierce hug and a grin that equaled the winner’s. This wasn’t about being a good teammate, although Jimmie Johnson is that to Mears as well; this was about being his best friend since Mears was just 12 or 13. This was about knowing what Mears went through to get to this point, because Johnson went through so much of it with him. And then the tears came.
Johnson, a driver often criticized for his apparent lack of emotion, looked as though he couldn’t have been happier if he’d won the race himself. The moment, although broadcast to the homes of every race fan still awake to watch, was private; Johnson’s words were quietly spoken into Mears’s ear and completely spontaneous. Tears sprang to the newest winner’s eyes. The two drivers shared all the closeness of their years in a few seconds, and neither looked like he wanted to let go. Asked about their friendship and subsequent victory celebration, Mears said simply, truthfully, “He’s my brother.”
The truly memorable victory celebrations are few and far between, and probably vary as much for each fan as the fans themselves vary. But there are some that stand out in my mind. The first, and one of the first times I was drawn to NASCAR racing itself, was two different brothers, these two related by blood as well as the invisible bond they shared. Darrell Waltrip was a three-time Cup champion with 84 wins under his belt when his little brother, in the midst of the longest winless streak ever to start a career at the Cup level, first tasted victory. Michael Waltrip won The Winston (now the Nextel All-Star Challenge) in 1996 after racing his way in, and his older brother, who knew what it meant to him, grabbed him in a tearful bear hug. In that instant, he was no longer Jaws, the brash, outspoken driver, but content to simply be Mikey’s big brother.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first career Cup race at Texas in 2000, the rookie was suitably proud of himself. The team had bounced back from a rocky start of the season to cover the field that day. When the red car pulled into Victory Lane for the first time, a man in black was not far behind. Nobody but nobody was going to get in the way of Dale Earnhardt as he made a beeline to the car. Junior later said that the words spoken there, while maybe not prolific, said volumes. “I love you,” was the gist of it, along with the first of what should have been many congratulatory bear hugs. No matter what he had accomplished on the racetrack, and that list is long, Earnhardt was not a driver in those moments; he was simply Junior’s proud father. Perhaps it is because Junior won’t, can’t, ever have a celebration quite like that again that makes it stand out.
As the 2004 season came to a head in the first Chase for the Nextel Cup, one win was never celebrated in Victory Lane at all. There was no champagne, only tears, as Martinsville winner Johnson was told that instead of a week of celebration for his win, it would be a week of mourning 10 of the Hendrick Motorsports family killed in a plane crash on their way to the track. The celebration one week later, when Johnson won again at Atlanta ran the entire spectrum of emotion. Johnson sat in the car for a long time before climbing out, speaking with Rick Hendrick on a cell phone and fiddling with a drink and his hat. Johnson smiled brightly, but his eyes were filled with tears, and his voice shook. Every crew member from each of the Hendrick teams was in Victory Lane that day, and they visibly drew comfort from one another. Every hat was on backwards in tribute to “Little Ricky” Hendrick, who always wore them that way. It was the first time all week anyone could recall seeing Brian Vickers, Ricky’s best friend, smile.
So, while it is true, and for good reason, that many, if not most, victory celebrations are a bit bland, there is always real emotion there. It may not come out in the interviews or the photos (and after striking the same goofy “we’re number one” pose for the 15th time, can you really blame anyone?) but it is there. Sometimes it comes out in spontaneous spades, and those are the ones we’ll always remember.