Labor Day is always a melancholy holiday for me. It’s not because the weekend marks a symbolic end to summer, nor is it because it marks the beginning of a new school year (the moans of children are often difficult to hear over the cheers of their parents). What makes Labor Day so depressing to me is the fact that this was the time of year when Virginia Howell – my mother and one of the most dedicated NASCAR fans I ever knew – died from lung cancer at the age of 69.
I’ve written at length over the years about the role both of my parents played in my life-long relationship with NASCAR, but it was my mother who taught me about the meaningful (and sometimes quite complicated) nature of the driver/sponsor/fan triumvirate. Her loyalties were legendary within my family, and the example she set went on to inspire others once they discovered this thing called stock car racing.
My mother never smoked a day in her life, yet this most horrific of cancers took her from us on Sunday, September 13th – a morphine-soaked week after Labor Day – in 1998. This may sound like ancient history to some readers, but my memories of that time continue to haunt me once the end of summer rolls around. While some might fondly recall the anticipation of a new school year, I remember an early-morning telephone call from my father on September 7th suggesting that I head home to say goodbye. The drive from Northern Michigan to Northeastern Pennsylvania never seemed so rushed.
All of 1998 seemed rushed to me. I had been at a new job (the teaching position I currently have) since the previous summer, and I was still celebrating the bloom of recognition that comes with the publication of a book (which came out around the same time I began the new job). My 1998 had been filled, until Labor Day, with conference lectures, media interviews, book signings, and awards – all extra tasks tossed on top of my regular, full-time teaching schedule.
Not that my work with NASCAR took a back seat to my busy life that year. While I wasn’t traveling as much as I did when writing my book, I was still getting to as many races as possible, staying current with the sport, and making connections for future projects. As the month of July approached, I was planning trips to Pocono, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, and Michigan. And then, my mother’s health failed.
Discovery of seemed to be leukemia put my mother in the hospital just before July 4th with a less-than-hopeful diagnosis. I immediately traveled to see her and spent time with my family at her bedside while she underwent a very difficult course of treatment. The medication made her weak and even more susceptible to illness, but it didn’t deter her from focusing on more important things in her day-to-day life, like NASCAR.
My father lined up VIP passes for the Cup race at Pocono on July 26th. We both assumed we wouldn’t go, given that my mother was still recovering from her bout with leukemia and that she’d need us to be close by. Maybe we thought too highly of ourselves because when local attention shifted to the upcoming race, my mother all-but-demanded that we attend. Her thinking was that SHE would most certainly go if she were able to, so why should we sacrifice such an opportunity just to sit around the hospital with her? My older brother arranged for a large television set to be brought in, and our mother was able to enjoy two special treats: an afternoon of NASCAR free from our noisy and opinionated running commentary.
My mother enjoyed NASCAR, in part, because of her relationship with my father. When they were dating back in the late-1940s, they’d sometimes attend stock car races at Bone Stadium, a multi-purpose sports arena in Pittston, PA that included a quarter-mile oval. In those days, my parents also went to races at the fairgrounds in Hughesville and Bloomsburg (which hosted a Grand National event – won by Herb Thomas in a Hudson – in 1953). During later years, my parents would take me with them to the one-third-mile dirt oval at Herb Harvey’s Speedway in the small farm town of Lemon, PA, the half-mile paved oval at Shangri-La (now Tioga) Speedway in Owego, NY, and to the legendary “tricky triangle” of Pocono Raceway in Long Pond.
Those many weekends spent at such diverse tracks were special to me back then because my parents were taking me to see races in person. We’d all choke on the dust, sweat in the heat, and cheer for drivers trying to make a name (as well as a buck) for themselves. The drivers we watched during those earlier days – regional talents like George Kent, Dutch and Dean Hoag, Jimmy Spencer, and the Bodine brothers – were as recognized in our house as the names of Mike Schmidt, Franco Harris, and Julius Erving were in the homes of my classmates.
To my mother, automobile racing meant more than wins and losses; to her, racing was about the people who owned, sponsored, prepared, repaired, and drove the cars. The sport was about loyalty. If you were a driver, you should be loyal to your team. If you were a car owner, you should be loyal to your driver and crew. If you were a sponsor, you should be loyal to the team you financed. And if you were a fan, you should show loyalty to all of these entities because each was necessary to make a day at the races possible. Race teams needed race fans even more than race fans needed race teams….
My mother’s loyalty in NASCAR was to Bill Elliott. She recognized and admired his family’s talent and work ethic long before their historic Winston Cup season in 1985. Part of her loyalty was based on Elliott’s long-time dedication to the Ford Motor Company (I grew up in a rural area where families were defined by their devotion to either Ford or Chevrolet). Her only point of contention was regarding Elliott’s sponsorship deals. No matter how much she liked “Awesome Bill”, she had moral and/or ethical issues with his backing from Coors Beer.
The same issue arose when Elliott drove for Junior Johnson during the early 1990s with sponsorship from Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser brand. I was working around the sport doing fieldwork back then and had some minor affiliations with Elliott’s team, so sometimes I’d bring a Budweiser souvenir home to my parents. While my mother never refused it, she was sometimes averse to displaying it openly.
All that changed once Bill Elliott received sponsorship from McDonald’s. This deal was a match made in marketing heaven since it paired Elliott’s “aw shucks”, good-ol’-boy-next-door persona with perhaps the most famous and most-beloved “family-friendly” franchise on the planet. Not only did Elliott’s arrangement with McDonald’s enable him to draw from an entirely new (and young) audience, but it also allowed teetotalers (like my mother) to go public and openly tout their support of the No. 94 Ford Thunderbird.
This new, more fan-friendly sponsorship deal provided my mother and father with opportunities to meet Bill Elliott during some of his personal appearances at area McDonald’s restaurants. A photograph of one such encounter was published on page 72 in my book From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series (U of WI Press, 1997). Given what was going to happen just a year after the book was published, I’m certainly glad that this picture was selected to print.
Even though my mother’s battle with cancer worsened during the summer of 1998, she still made NASCAR a central part of her life. Maybe it was because stock car racing provided her with a much-needed escape from the trials and tribulations of her situation. She encouraged me to do media interviews and other public events even when it was nearly impossible for her to see their eventual results.
When her strength had improved enough for her to go home at the beginning of August, she scheduled her release from the hospital around the start of the Brickyard 400. My mother arrived home in time to see the entire race and watch Jeff Gordon continue his march toward the Winston Cup championship. Mom cheered Bill Elliott home that afternoon to a 12th-place finish.
The following morning, a blood clot had Mom in a speeding ambulance on her way back to the hospital. She’d never spend another day at home.
On the night before my mother died, my father and I took a break from our bedside vigil to allow my nieces the chance to say goodbye to their grandmother. We went into the nearby day room and found the television there tuned to that night’s Cup race at Richmond.
While we sat there watching the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400, I realized that this was exactly what Mom would want Dad and me to do. Over the course of 198 consecutive laps – nearly half the race – Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon swapped the lead seven times. That was a lot better than sitting helplessly while the woman we both loved languished in the final throes of a morphine-induced coma. My mother would have expected nothing less.
My brother and I were at our mother’s side when she passed away the following morning. Jeff Burton’s victory at Richmond was yesterday’s news, as was Bill Elliott’s 40th-place finish. As the events of the following week unfurled, I kept reaching back for happier days when I stood at my mother’s side and watched Bill Elliott win multiple times at Pocono, or when we saw Tim Richmond and Rusty Wallace win races at Watkins Glen, or those Saturday nights when we cheered for George Kent as he took the checkers at Shangri-La.
That’s why Labor Day makes me feel more restless than rested. Memories of my mother seem to fade with each passing year, and maybe that’s the curse of growing older. At least the events of NASCAR circa 1998 can provide some clarity. Jeff Gordon’s championship season of thirteen wins, seven pole positions, and average finish of 5.7 will endure on the printed page, even if his chances to make the Chase in 2012 seem to be in jeopardy.
At least Jeff Gordon is still driving the same car for the same team. That kind of loyalty in the face of adversity meant a lot to my mom. She’d be proud of Jeff for that, even though she’d still insist that Bill Elliott was the better driver….