Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Guatemala – The Kid From Lake Atitlan

It’s hard to believe it was almost four years ago that I sat down to watch the Samsung 500 at Auto Club Speedway – my first ever NASCAR experience. The race, some might remember, was won by Kyle Busch, his first at the Sprint Cup level, and in doing so he became the youngest driver to ever win a Cup race; a record eclipsed, coincidentally, by Joey Logano just seven short weeks ago at Loudon. But fear not, Kyle haters, as this is decidedly not a column about the guitar-smashing upstart from Sin City, nor is it an analysis of the ever-upward trajectory of Sprint Cup’s latest wunderkind: Far from it, in fact.

I had originally intended to write this column in a few weeks’ time, prior to the Atlanta race. My initial idea was to write a retrospective of sorts of my fourth anniversary covering NASCAR – a sport that in my first three decades on God’s good Earth I never had a second thought I’d come to love as much as I have. But as is often the case with life, events preceded themselves and rather than a series of random, rambling reminiscences (low points, high points and the like), this article is instead about my recent vacation before it: a trip with a completely unexpected NASCAR twist.

When we booked a holiday in Guatemala after an intense summer of long workdays and weekends in the office, our intention was just to get away from it all for a while. No meetings, no phone calls, no Blackberries chirping furiously, no inbox full of email nonsense, no religious checking of sports information… well, for me at least… and certainly no NASCAR, or so I thought.

One of seven countries that make up the Central American region, Guatemala shares a northern border with Mexico and Belize, a southern border with El Salvador and Honduras, a Western coastline with the Pacific Ocean, and has a short eastern shoreline on the Caribbean Sea to the east. Approximately half of the country’s 13 million inhabitants live in or in close proximity to the capital, Guatemala City, which ended up being our first stop.

We spent some time with friends and colleagues there, climbed an active volcano – Pacoya – to within a foot of a steady flow of molten lava (if you don’t believe me, I’ll send you a picture.) We then had a couple days in the postcard-pretty cobblestoned town of Antigua before heading out to Lake Atitlan, some 90 miles to the west of the capital city. The road to the lake is replete with hair-raising twists and turns on narrow mountain roads, complete with enough blind corners to make even Robby Gordon nervous.

It’s truly a route that can make even a hardened traveler just that little bit queasy… but it all becomes worthwhile once you reach the destination. Hailed by author Aldous Huxley, whose bibliography includes that classic piece of literature Brave New World as “the most beautiful lake in the world,” Lago de Atitlan (to give the lake its full and complete name) is 12 miles long, ranges from 4.5-7.5 miles wide and is flanked by three majestic volcanoes: Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro.

Lake Atitlan is itself is a collapsed volcano cone and if you go scuba diving (not that I did, but so I’m told) you can see the hardened lava flows on the lake’s bed. Situated in the country’s Western Highlands, an area known as the Altiplano, the lake’s edges are dotted with small villages and settlements – many accessible only by boat – populated by descendants of the ancient Maya. One such village is San Marcos La Laguna, which is where this story will start to make sense… or at least be relevant to NASCAR, I promise.

San Marcos La Laguna is a tiny town of some 3,000 inhabitants – the very definition of a one-road (no stoplight) town. Accessible via boat and a short rickety wooden jetty, the short walk into the center of the town is through tree-lined, narrow mud paths. Made up of a series of one and two story low-rise dwellings, the church and school are the two lone focal points in a place all but hidden from the rest of the world around it.

Once we arrived, the school kids were all out in the yard enjoying the warm sunshine, playing a game that involved catching a tennis ball with a miniature upturned traffic cone (for want of a better description). As we wandered through the village, I noticed two younger children, I assumed brother and sister, playing by the side of the road. At first glance, I didn’t notice, but as I looked again it was unmistakable – utterly unmistakable.

I rubbed my eyes just to check my vision was playing tricks on me (after all, we had indulged in our fair share of rum on this trip) but there was no doubt. On the breast of the boy’s perfectly fitting red-zipped sweat top was a sloping white number eight with a thick black outline. Underneath was a familiar signature….

Could it really be that this tiny kid was wearing an old Dale Earnhardt Jr. top?

You betcha.

It was, of course, too good an opportunity to miss. I motioned to the kids that I wanted to take a photo, but the little girl got all shy and ran to hide behind a rough-hewn, whitewashed wall. However, the little guy with the Dale Junior garb had no such similar fears. He was more than willing to pose, and pose he did, proudly wearing a shirt bearing the name of a NASCAR legend.

After that, there was not much to be said. You can write my Spanish on the back of a postage stamp with an oversize paintbrush and I don’t think his English was up to much. I did try to ask if he knew about NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt Jr., but he seemed more interested in me taking more pictures.

Following any sport with a degree of passion can be many things: time-consuming, intense, horrendous and frustrating to name but a few. I’m not blind to the faults prevalent in Sprint Cup – and by my relatively gentle standards, I said as much in the last column I wrote. The simple fact is NASCAR isn’t perfect and Brian France sure isn’t perfect, either. There are cracks appearing in the fabric of the sport that could turn into deep, irresolvable fissions in the time it takes to roar around a lap on the high banks at Bristol.

All that may very well be, but for a brief moment, far from my home in the cavernous concrete canyons of Manhattan, none of that mattered. My love of NASCAR had connected me with a little kid in a remote lake town in Guatemala in a way I never would have expected this time four years ago. It was a random and beautiful moment shared… and isn’t that what life is about?

One final point…

I wanted to take this opportunity to send my sincere condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Tom Murphy, who passed away so tragically in Colorado this past weekend. As someone who spent two and a half years working on the Sprint account, I saw the passion the company has for NASCAR on a daily basis – and Tom’s is a horribly sad and untimely loss for a sport that has had far too many negative stories already this season.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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