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MPM2Nite: Remember When?

Folks who’ve been reading (enduring?) my missives a long while know that I don’t frequently do columns that are autobiographical in nature. I figure you’re here at Frontstretch to read about racers and racing – not writers. But as I searched for something to write about this week, I was led in this direction by one of my colleagues, Jeff Meyer’s, recent decision to take a hiatus from his popular Voices From The Heartland column. Jeff gave the reason for his decision as no longer having the same interest or passion about our sport given the changes made over the last few years, and the resultant less than compelling racing we’ve endured since Brian France went from the Boss’s Idiot-Boy son kept safely out of the way in Hollywood to the Boss. (Trust me, if Clarence and Little Stevie were to stage a mutiny and replace the Boss with Justin Timberlake, the results couldn’t be any worse for the E Street Band.)

Well, Jeff isn’t alone in his declining interest in the sport. I hear from fans who feel the same way all the time. I see evidence of the sentiment in declining TV ratings and empty seats at the track. I hear it at the local taprooms, where conversation about NASCAR, once a staple that occasionally got so heated fistfights loomed (I do tend to hang out in the worst sort of joints, where the beer is cheap and the women are cheaper) has all but tapered off. And I feel it myself. There were countless pretty Sundays last year I just wanted to chuck it all, go ride the Harley, or head down the shore for a weekend instead of watching a single-file parade.

So why do I keep doing this job? I get asked this question all the time. Usually, the wording is along the lines of, “If you hate NASCAR so much, why do you write about it?” (I’m going to have to admit that “NASCAR, Love It or Leave It” attitude has always gotten my Irish up.) Let’s make one thing clear: I don’t hate NASCAR. I hate current NASCAR management and what they have wrought. I, in fact, love stock car racing in its purest form – and I have for decades. I’m still convinced if Brian France were given a new job description that involved his taking the orders for the deli at lunchtime, other NASCAR officials could pull us out of this tailspin. And I remember when….

I remember when the start of the season was something my friends and I started counting the days down to as soon as we sobered up after the New Year’s parties. (Which admittedly sometimes took until mid-January.) We’d start our betting pools and debate endlessly over the phone who had the best chance to win the 500. Friendly rivalries were a natural occurrence back then. My brother-in-law Kenneth P. has been one of my best friends since the early ’80s, long before he started even dating my sister. (Or maybe it took me a while to realize he was dating my sister… I dunno.) Kenny was a diehard Darrell Waltrip fan in that era; I’d been a fan of Bill Elliott since 1979. While Darrell was stacking up championships, Bill was winning Daytona 500s. Every February, I’d hope DW would never win a Daytona 500, and Kenny hoped Bill wouldn’t win another one. In 1985, when Bill won all those races, DW still won the title. Kenny was insufferable for the following year, so I was really counting down the days to Daytona that season. Most of us would call out sick the Thursdays of the 125s, we were so reluctant to miss a minute of the action – and the racing didn’t disappoint.

Nowadays, the season kicks off at Daytona, then moves on to Fontana and Las Vegas. As I see it, that’s one of the stupidest moves NASCAR has made in this era. Talk about a momentum killer at the start of the season – especially given the late start times for West Coast events. Back in the day, the season started at Daytona, then moved on to Rockingham, Richmond, Atlanta, Darlington, Bristol, North Wilkesboro and Martinsville. Talk about a great slate of races! Before the first pitch was thrown out in MLB, fans’ fascination with the NASCAR season had been heated up white hot.

Kenny and I would always try to hit the Richmond race as our first event of the season, as Dover and Pocono were just too far away to wait. Luckily, we had an ace in the hole in that regard. I have four sisters, all of whom I love dearly. I’m a year older than Maryellen, who is 18 months older than Jeanne, who is 18 months older than Donna. Our tail gunner Charlie was Kat, who is four years younger than Donna. In the early ’90s, Kat and her husband moved to Richmond. As DINKS (dual-income, no kids) back then they had a magnificent house about 20 minutes outside of city limits.

Kenny and I heard Kat was moving to Richmond and immediately hollered, “Road trip!” Now, Kat is no great NASCAR fan. She feigns some interest because of my obsession, but as the only family member not living in the greater Philadelphia area she loved having mom and her siblings visit. If attending a race was going to get big brother and Kenny to come spend a long weekend, she was going to find tickets for the race.

Newer fans might find this hard to believe, but it was once quite difficult to get tickets for Winston Cup races. Families had had renewal rights for generations and clung to them like heirlooms. But for various reasons, sometimes they couldn’t attend, so Richmond would sell those tickets as “non-renewable.” Kat actually snuck through a chained fence to get the tickets to the first race we attended as her guests, and she’s usually a pretty straight shooter. Eventually, she developed contacts to make sure there were always four or five tickets available to those races.

Kenny and I would take half-days Friday, jumping in the car and driving down to Richmond and Kat’s palace. Now back in those days, there was no GPS. He’d man the wheel while I’d navigate, using an Exxon road map replete with greasy KFC fingerprints after the first ride. We’d have Bruce, the Dead Jimmy Buffett and REM cranking for the ride, and a few libations to pass the time. (Don’t yell at me… I was just navigating… poorly at times as we always seemed to take an extra lap of the Washington Beltway.) Naturally, seeing my sister was a thrill, and she’d cook spectacular meals while we’d stay up late catching up. But Sunday was the big deal. That first year, we followed the herd and got caught in miserable traffic. I do recall cracking a beer in the backseat and having a fellow in a pickup truck rushing over to ask if I could spare two beers, one for him and one for his buddy. They were already out of brew and hadn’t even reached the track. Poor planning on their part, I’d say. In exchange, he promised to lead us to a secret parking area where we could avoid much of the post-race traffic. The deal was struck, and from that very first year our party would park behind the MAB building across from the track’s main entrance. You had to walk a ways, but we were all young back then. Post-race, we’d take the backstreets until well clear of race traffic, me again serving as navigator while Kenny criticized my incredible ineptitude at the task. Yeah, we’d cruise through a few sketchy neighborhoods, but we were usually home in a half-hour, well before most fans had even cleared RIR’s parking lot.

The big thrill, of course, was the quality of the racing. Richmond was on a roll in that era, and many of the best races I’ve seen in my life were at RIR. February in Richmond can be tricky… and downright cold. I recall one event – Terry Labonte won, so it must have been 1995 – it actually hurt to sit on the concrete slab that was my seat as a howling wind lowered wind chills into the teens. But nobody gave a damn. If the air was cold, the racing was hot, and we were all on our feet between caution periods, anyway. Even Kat was caught up in the moment, cheering on the leaders who were normally running side-by-side, inches apart for lap after lap. At RIR, it didn’t matter if you were a Yankee. If you were a race fan, you were a friend, and the electricity in the crowd was contagious. I remember one race when the pretty young lady seated beside me insisted on hugging me (and everyone else within reach) every time Dale Earnhardt passed for the lead. I remember screaming, cheering on Dale all afternoon which Kenny found tremendously amusing. I wasn’t a fan of Earnhardt in that era, but I really, really like blonde women with big racks and Southern accents hugging me. How much? I gave her my last beer. Poor planning on my part, I’d say.

Our Richmond trips were not without incident. I upset some uber-Baptist Henrico County sheriff’s department police lady by exiting the track with an open beer. (Alas, no comely blondes seated beside me that day.) She pointed to a trash can with her night-stick and told me to throw it away. I did… after I’d stood there and chugged it down to the last drop, of course. She was of the mind to arrest me, but her partner pointed out if they arrested everyone violating the open container law, they were going to need a lot of buses to transport us all… so I went free.

Another time, the day of the ultra-cold race I decided that that I needed to take Kat and Rob to a nice dinner on the way home in exchange for their hospitality. As I remember it was a raucous dinner, a great meal, and thankfully quite warm inside which made it all that much better. When the check arrived, it was a bit higher than I expected but the food and service had been great and I could feel my fingers again. I laid down my credit card… and that’s when a confused waitress told me the establishment didn’t accept them, as noted by a postage stamp-sized sign in the door. Around me I could see other panicked diners facing the same dilemma, frantically searching for ways to pay for their meal. Luckily for me, I tend to travel with a decent amount of cash just in case I find a project car along the way, so between Ken and I we scraped up enough money to pay the bill (Kat caught the tip) because back in that era, your ATM card was useless if you were more than 25 miles from home. Nowadays, wait-people still look at me weird when I sit down at a new place and ask if they take plastic… but I never want to be piling quarters into stacks to pay for dinner again.

Unfortunately, Rob’s job meant he and Kat had to move from Richmond to Atlanta, home of another fine track but a bit far for a long weekend’s drive. I haven’t seen her again since. (Yes, of course, actually I have. We just haven’t gone to any more races together. She lives in Chicago now, and why would I drive halfway across the country to go to a race at Joliet?)

Fast forward to 1997. A fellow by the name of Mike Calinoff read your humble scribe’s letter posted in the late and lamented Winston Cup Scene paper. He decided he wanted to give me a go as a writer for the newspaper he was publishing back then. The pay wasn’t great, in fact I think I lost money on the venture, but it came with a promise of garage area access for the races. Together, we started the first of many NASCAR websites he owned and operated. In 1998, we decided that we were going to kick things into high gear. If the race was within driving distance of his Charlotte apartment, I was going to be down south covering the event while he worked as a spotter (first for Brett Bodine, then Ricky Craven and eventually Matt Kenseth).

Daytona wasn’t within driving distance, so the first race I covered was Rockingham, the second race of the year. Garage access was cool. I was still new enough at the game, I was like a golden retriever puppy bounding into the garage wanting to run in every direction to take it all in. But Mike had a special surprise for me. I had been (doubtless without Bodine’s knowledge or NASCAR’s approval) promoted to “Assistant Spotter” for the Paychex team. My tasks were menial: I had to run and find Mike bottles of water when he got thirsty, and using a marker, I’d note the number of laps left to run in 10-lap intervals late in the race. Because I was listening to both the MRN broadcast and the team radio over my headset, I’d also let Mike know if a car was experiencing mechanical issues ahead of Bodine’s car. Then, I’d drive Mike home. Normally, he was so worn out after spotting a race he’d be asleep before we left track property.

It was a rare privilege. I don’t care what you paid for your ticket, there’s no seat better in the house than atop the spotters’ stand at places like the Rock, Martinsville, Darlington and Bristol. It’s a view damn few fans or media members ever get to experience, and one I doubt I will ever be able to enjoy again. But I’ll never forget those afternoons with a hawk’s-eye view of the action.

Down in the garage, I tried to do the job while Mike was busy. But I was crushed to learn that just because I had a proper media credential didn’t mean Earnhardt was going to have a private half hour chat with me to give me a front page story. The guys who would talk to me when they weren’t busy were team members, the guys who didn’t get the glory; the tire changers, the transporter drivers, the mechanics and the rest. I started a series of “Behind the Scenes” interviews, and the guys seemed to like that. They could see their name, their wives’ names, what they did, the sacrifices they made and their lives outside of racing on the internet on or in the paper. Even after all these years, the guys I interviewed for “Behind the Scenes” remain some of my best and most loyal sources for the inside scoop.

Like those Richmond races, travels with Calinoff were not uneventful. It was a gamble every week that I was going to get past security to the spotter’s stand wearing my official team uniform shirt and headset, while Mike dressed up in his street clothes but with a proper credential. Kyle Petty’s spotter in that era, who was the size of a mountain, almost decked me when Bodine got into Petty one race. He wanted to know if I was blind. I finally had to tell him my mike didn’t even work. He was going to have to hit Mike. Another time, we all packed into the elevator at Bristol for our ride down out of the stratosphere, and the combined weight tripped a breaker on that elevator so we were all trapped between floors. Remember, this was by and large a group of largish men who’d been standing sweating in the sun all afternoon (and only one of them had a loyal gopher to go find water) plus, we were packed in there like sardines. Imagine finding yourself buried under a cubic ton of dirty socks and drawers….

Then, there was the Friday night after qualifying at Darlington that first year. Storms had been threatening all day, but they got qualifying in. Mike and I were headed back to Charlotte afterwards… and he was hungry. It was a challenge to find the right place to stop because it was Lent, and as a Catholic I don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. I can’t do pizza because of food allergies, so Mike finally suggested a place he knew with a good salad bar. I’d forage through the salad bar while he had a steak. While we were having dinner a wild thunderstorm, maybe the worst I’d seen in my life, commenced outside. I mean, it was raining so hard you couldn’t see the car in the parking lot. The winds grew increasingly violent, and then the rain turned to hail the size of golf balls. Mike was methodically enjoying his dinner while I was picking up on the anxious vibes of the rest of my fellow diners. Then, the lights went out and the manager was screaming for all of us to get down under the tables and away from the windows because a twister had been sighted in the area. I didn’t need any more coaching. Grabbing my beer, I was under that table and praying like I’d never prayed before. I remember that telltale freight-train sound not far away and fumbling for a cigarette. Meanwhile, Mike was calmly reaching up from under the table to reach more french fries.

The twister bypassed that restaurant, but set down with devastating and deadly consequences not far up the road – though we wouldn’t learn that until we saw the 11 o’clock news that night. As we left to head home, I remember telling Mike that I wasn’t sure I could drive. He punched me in the left arm and told me, “It was just a tornado. That crap happens down here sometimes.” He then took note of the hood, roof and decklid of the purple Cavalier rental car I’d hired, laughed and told me that he sure hoped I’d sprung for the optional accident insurance. I had, but it was a tough sell back here in Pennsylvania trying to explain why the once pristine if hideous rental unit I was returning looked like it had been beaten with a ballpeen hammer stem to stern. I think I’m still on Enterprise’s Double Secret Probation list.

It’s odd for me this season because I’ve been getting a lot of emails and comments on my columns asking me if I’ve gone soft. Some even accuse me of going over to the dark side. That’s not the case. It’s just I realize now that the end of my career is a lot closer than the beginning. If things don’t improve real soon… maybe even closer than I realize. By April I ought to be my usual cranky, cynical, negative self grinding my teeth looking for more invective to sling NASCAR’s way, accusing them of everything short of buggering lambs in the control tower while they drive our sport down the way the Union Army leveled Richmond on May 10th. But not only is my career more in the rearview mirror than through the windshield… so is my life. There’s only so many more shore weekends and Harley rides I’m going to pass on to get pissed off, even if I do “pissed off” pretty well. I used to love the start of the stock car race season the way I love cold beer, Harley Davidsons, and fast, loud classic cars… just not so much anymore. So Jeff, save me a rocking chair on your back porch and throw another six-pack in the fridge. They can take our sport away from us, but they can’t take the memories away as long as we can remember when….

And, oh, the stories we could tell,
And if this all blows up and goes to Hell,
I can still see us sitting on the bed of some motel,
Listening to the stories we could tell…

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