It’s funny how we measure our lives in summers. Perhaps it’s because summer is for many people a time of leisure. From the time we set foot in the kindergarten classroom until we pick up the high school diploma that spelled out our freedom, summers were vacation time, down time.
It’s the time when hard-working folks take their well-earned vacation time to spend with their families at the beach, the mountains, Grandma’s house. Those days so often become the mile markers in our lives. For me, the summer I was 17 stands out as one of the best of my life. Brief and shining, it marked my almost-freedom, but also the security of knowing I still had another year of high school, one last year before I had to really grow up.
Then there was the summer I sprained my ankle at vacation Bible school. And the summer after I graduated from college which I spent pursuing a dream, working in the Braves’ farm system as a fan relations intern. There are other important memories in my life, but so many of the best ones begin with “The summer I…”
Like the summer I got dragged to a NASCAR race.
It’s funny, because that summer changed me in ways that I didn’t understand at the time. The summer I worked for the Braves was 1995, and that was the summer I learned about NASCAR.
I didn’t like it. For one thing, it wreaked havoc on our attendance. I was working in Richmond that summer, and the fall race coincided with the playoffs. The racing won. Not only that, but there were racecars everywhere. Or at least, it seemed like everywhere… everywhere I wanted to be. When I finally looked at one, it was a bit of a letdown. I don’t know what I expected, but that stark cockpit wasn’t it. I didn’t get it.
The summer I got NASCAR was two year later. I was living in New Hampshire, and my dad and a family friend had four tickets and three people. They didn’t want to waste the ticket, so I went. I figured there had to be more to it than drinking beer and crashes. And there was.
Not only that, but after struggling to make it in baseball and finding doors closed, it was NASCAR and another summer that would open a door for me.
Although the NASCAR season is nearly 10 months long now, it’s easy to think of those seasons as summers. Perhaps it’s because of the escape racing brings from Monday. Maybe it’s because summer is the best time to go to races. I’m sure it has a little bit to do with being a schoolteacher in my case. Summer is as much a time for me to recharge as it is for the kids. And what better way to recharge than in racing? And so, I divide racing into summers.
There was the summer my cousin Meghan and I painted the wagon, for one. If you’ve never been to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, you’ve probably never gotten a really good look at the big hill outside of turn 4. If you have, and have parked at the top of it, you know what I’m talking about. It’s not that big on Sunday morning. It is on Sunday night. Lots of fans have wagons they use to pull their gear up and down that hill.
Meghan and I decided, after hauling the cooler up it a couple of times, that we needed one. We found a childhood leftover somewhere and undertook the task of decorating it. Spray paint does wonders, I can tell you. And wagon wheels look pretty cool when painted with the nuclear fallout logo.
So we could paint a wagon. What we couldn’t do was drive one. It might not seem that hard, but try it sometime with the wagon loaded with at least two full coolers and other assorted flotsam, pulling it down the steepest hill you can find. It’s that hard. We flipped that thing at least twice that I can remember. We got a lot of comments about it, too, because we had stickers all over it for a variety of drivers, many of whom people just didn’t like.
There was also the summer the brakes on my car breathed their last in the parking lot at Loudon. And the summer we left the track late after a hospitality function and took oh, half an hour to locate my car on what was surely the blackest night in New Hampshire history.
The summer we lost Adam and Kenny was awful beyond words, though it was also the summer the rainbow appeared over turn 3 the day Kenny Irwin was killed in that corner. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
It seems like the best times of my life are summers, and especially NASCAR summers. Kenny Wallace told me one time that he likes summer because it reminds him of when he was a kid. He’s right… but sometimes in one of those summers there is a still greater gift.
Remembering them, I am that kid again, or that young adult, or the person I became over the course of those summers.
We tend to measure or lives in summers. That makes these summer days priceless beyond measure. Drivers, perhaps will measure it by what they did this off week: The summer we raced legends, the summer the baby was born, the summer we went to Italy. Race fans might look back on it as the summer Kyle Busch was nearly unbeatable in a Nationwide car, the summer Jimmie Johnson got his first road-course win, the summer an underdog won at Chicago. Maybe even the summer you painted your wagon in crazy colors and flipped it twice.