I wrote last week that one thing that makes NASCAR worth watching is the moments. Those brief seconds when time seems to stop will never let you quit watching, just in case you miss one. And there have been a lot of them over the years – moments that take your breath away. Sometimes with simple beauty, sometimes with mind-numbing tragedy, but for whatever reason, there’s something defining about each one.
Some moments stand out in the mind of every fan – everyone you ask can remember where they were when it happened. Others are personal, forgotten by all but the fans to whom they meant something more.
It would take volumes to list all of the moments that fill the racing lives of everyone involved with the sport, so I’ll stick to this decade. But here are a few of my personal racing moments – the images that I’ll always remember.
I wish that the first moment that comes to mind was for a better reason, but the day we lost Dale Earnhardt pushes to the forefront, no matter what. I was watching with family, and the room was decidedly pro-Michael Waltrip finally breaking his career-long winless streak. We cheered as he crossed the finish line first. We saw the crash, of course, but it didn’t look that bad. Most fans watching that day would agree – it didn’t look that bad.
But then there was the frantic note in Darrell Waltrip’s voice that made you wonder and the automatic, shocked reaction of Ken Schrader that made you know that it was that bad. My memory of that post-race is spotty, peppered with images – Junior running, Waltrip’s victory celebration turning somber, and finally Mike Helton saying the words that I think we all knew by then were coming: “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” For me, that was the moment any shard of innocence about the sport was lost.
It wasn’t the first on-track death I’d seen. I was at New Hampshire the day after Adam Petty was killed in a practice wreck when the cold, steady drizzle never stopped on a day that was forcasted to be sunny and almost unseasonably warm. I was there when Kenny Irwin died in an eerily similar wreck in the same corner, practicing for the very next race. I remember the stunned silence of the crowd as the news began to trickle through the stands. But the moment that stands out from that day was the stunning double rainbow that appeared in a cloudless sky over turn 3. That image has never left me. We lost Tony Roper that year, too, but it wasn’t until the following spring, when we lost a man who we all secretly thought would live forever, that I finally understood that while racing is beautiful, it also takes, and what it takes is cruel and unpleasant.
Another, bittersweet, moment would come a few weeks later when rookie driver Kevin Harvick won in just his third start, beating Jeff Gordon in spectacular fashion for the win in Atlanta. Sure, the car was white now instead of the badass black it had been for so long and the number 3 replaced as well, but the same men built it and gave their all to make it a winner despite crushing grief. For them, it was time.
Not all the moments are tragic, though there would be another in 2004 – more on that later. But some have brought smiles rather than tears. How about a road course race in 2000, where a thoroughly average Nationwide Series rookie discovered what happens when you go sailing over the top of a hill only to discover that you have no brakes. What happens is, you kind of hover for a second, fly over the sand traps like they aren’t even there, and bury your car door deep in the retaining wall at what seems like about 200 mph. For an added bonus, you have no idea the retaining wall is padded with huge blocks of Styrofoam, so you’re pretty sure you’re going to die. So when you come to rest against that wall and realize that you are, in fact, still alive, you’re so thrilled with that prospect that you jump up on the roof like you just won the race. Just to make sure you look like a dork, you have a goofy haircut, too. That thoroughly average rookie driver earned a fan that day with his sheer joy. Oh, and he turned out to be anything but average, too. Jimmie Johnson has three Sprint Cup championships and is gunning for a fourth. No more goofy haircut, though.
There are so many others, and they jumble in time but not in clarity – the above-mentioned three-time champion congratulating his best friend in victory lane after his first win, looking happier than if he had won the race himself, the day Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood on his own and announced his leave-taking from Dale Earnhardt Inc., the heart dropping fear when a car first lifts off the track and considers flight, the jaw-dropping, heart-stopping finish at Darlington between Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven when neither driver gave an inch, but neither would take an inch by misdeed, either.
There is that fall day in 2004 at Martinsville when the victory celebration was quelled as race winner Johnson and his teammates were whisked away and told of the plane crash that would devastate their team. But the bigger moment, to me, came a week later when Johnson won again and the entire organization gathered in victory lane to celebrate and heal. And the stolen moment in which Johnson paused in the midst of the victory photos to wipe the tears.
I remember the feeling a couple of years ago at the All-Star race, waiting to see if a friend would get the coveted fan vote and the moment when NASCAR called three cars to tech for the night’s feature – the top finishers in the Open and the No. 78, the underfunded, outclassed entry for Kenny Wallace. If you listened on the scanner that night, you knew before they announced Wallace at driver introductions, and it was a satisfying knowledge. There was no storybook ending in the form of a win that night, but the journey was enough in that moment.
And for me, maybe the journey is the moment, in a way, for there will always be something to look forward to. It could be something big or something small, something painful or something joyful, but it will strike home like an arrow and leave you changed, somehow, with its mere existence. There’s a line from a song that says, “I had my moments.” Yes, NASCAR, you certainly have.