Posted at 07:48 PM ET, 02/19/2006
In the Superstretch Stands, Chilly but Warm
I went back to meet up with my peeps back in the Allison Tower grandstand on the Superstretch for today's Daytona 500. I've had seats there since they opened in 1998.
Aside from my buddy Joe Pagels, usually the folks in the seats around ours are different every year. To my great good fortune, the Canadian couple who were there last year were back again. Duane Rodney Mainville and Barbara Hannemann from Blackfalds, Alberta, are about as much fun as any fans you'd want to meet. We had a hoot of a time last year, and again today, despite the cold, misty weather.
Duane and Barbara are Dale Junior fans. So they were a bit disappointed. But they're not Haters. They give Jimmie Johson props for winning the 500. I concur, well deserved on such a day (even if I am a Hater).
Let me preface the rest of this entry with an apology. I had hoped to blog directly from the Superstretch, but the foncard didn't work, I couldn't get wifi access and the lack of mobile phone coverage left me hangin'. And it's an hour-long hike between the Superstretch and the media center. But I'm here now, and here's my story for the day.
I started by walking across the infield to the Turn 4 tunnel, then over to the drivers' merchandise trailers. About halfway there, I discovered I'd left all of my pens back in the media center. So my trip to the trailers became a hunt for a pen for sale.
Go Navy, Go Junior
Before I could find one, I ran into a Navy journalist, Petty Officer 1st Class Eric S. Dehm. I haven't mentioned in the blog before, but I was once, too, a Navy journalist, working in Antarctica of all places in the late 1980s. I wonder if they were able to get the race in on satellite there this year. Eric and I swapped stories on our Navy experiences. He's working with the Navy recruiting detachment out of Jacksonville. They're here to help promote the #88 Navy Busch car, driven by Mark McFarland and owned by Dale Junior. Mark ran pretty well yesterday, finishing 22nd.
Another Snyder/Gibbs Connection
Next I found Ed and Anne Snyder, who've been coming to Daytona since 1980. (Again, no relation -- to myself or Redskins owner Dan.)
They run a pipe cleaning business out of Falmouth, Va., in the northern neck area.
They're huge Redskins fans and have met Coach Gibbs, who once sent them an autographed football and a Joe Gibbs Racing keychain. Gibbs is a "heckuva nice guy," say the Snyders, who are very happy he's back coaching the Skins.
I told them that I'd heard the Troy Aikman/Roger Staubach news conference in the morning. Aikman joked about the Gibbs/Redskins/Cowboys connection, especially about the illegal carburator that caused NASCAR to throw out their driver, Texas Terry Labonte's, qualifying time on Sunday. Due to the cold temps, I had pulled out my last clean long-sleeve shirt in the morning: a Redskins sweatshirt. I bumped into Troy after the presser and pointed to my shirt. He grinned and shook his head as he passed me. I know I broke the cardinal rule of sports journalism, but, after all, I'm just a blogger. It was all in fun anyway.
In Search of the Elusive Pen
I hit the merchandise trailers looking for a pen. I lost mine en route and figured what a great item to search for among the hats, T-shirts, tie-tacks, ashtrays, etc., for sale by the drivers' merchandisers.
I had no luck at the Earnhardt Senior or Junior trailers, nor with the Mark Martin or Daytona 500 merchandisers.
Fifth time was the charm for me. At the Carl Edwards/Office Depot trailer, I found a #99 Sharpie for sale for $5. A big thank you to Kyla, who was hired to work in the booth through a modeling agency in Jacksonville, Fla.. Even though she's hawking Carl Edwards gear, she pulls for Junior, her Dad's favorite driver.
Across the street from the trailers (where I found the parking prices topping out at about $60, the same as the day before), I found my race buddies Joe and Debbie buying "gearheads." Think Green Bay cheese heads crossed with the statue of liberty crown in the color gray. The hats were a hit. I've actually got one. You can get yourself one, too, at their Web site: http://gearheadsgear.com
The proprieters of the business, Venus and Tim Lee of Dallas, were a little disappointed in the sales opportunities. They say they do better at their home track, Texas Motor Speedway, where there are more kids at the races. They're also worried about the future of the business, since their product is petroleum based and costs have risen 60 percent over the past year due to the spike in oil prices.
Speedway Security on the Superstretch
I found speedway security friendly but formidable at the Superstretch entry. As we opened our bags for the obligatory search, we asked gate guards what were the most unusual objects that they had confiscated. It turned out to be two metal spoons and a fork. These guards were clearly on top of their game.
The most unusual item I saw inside that had cleared security, was Stephen Bearce's mini-"Bud keg"(?) -- I don't even know what to call it, but its got a tap and holds beer, and so now it has been dubbed.
I asked Stephen how he'd gotten it through security. He said an usher and a security guard had a debate about it. It wasn't on the "banned items" list, so in the end, they allowed it, though neither the usher nor the guard wanted to be held ultimately responsible, he said. He says he's taken the mini-Bud keg to nine other tracks and never had a problem getting it in. That includes Atlanta Motor Speedway, his home track.
Despite the Budweiser brand loyalty, Stephen's driver loyalty goes to Jeff Gordon. "Who else should I root for?" He asked. What about Earnhardt Junior? Maybe, some day. "Junior's gotta win a championship to prove himself," said Stephen. "He's riding on his Daddy's record right now. Win one and I might respect him." The gauntlet has been thrown. (Please don't shoot the messenger on this one, fellow bloggers. I report what I see and hear. -Mike)
Start Me Up
During the national anthem, grandstand fans on both the front and backstretches held up red, white or blue placards (complete with eye holes so they could see) which turned the stands around the speedway into the national colors.
After the national anthem and the opening fireworks, U.S. Air Force jets performed a flyover.
I met a few future soldiers who were in the Delayed Entry Program who were sitting in our section on the backstretch. The U.S. Army had bought tickets so that their recruiter, Army Sgt. Raymond Rodriguez, could bring the Deppers -- Kevin McDaniel and Cynthia Stratton of St. Augustine and Cortney Stephens of Jacksonville -- to the race. None of them had ever experienced a NASCAR race live before.
Kevin's date to report for duty is soonest, three days from now. He's only been in DEP for three weeks. Both he and the Sarge like Jeff Gordon. Cynthia likes Tony Stewart and Cortney is an Earnhardt fan.
My thought: Attending a live race should be a boot camp requirement. Good luck to all of the recruits. .
(I took three or four photos of these good Americans, but none of them turned out. Sorry about that. Next year maybe I'll have a real photographer with me. -Mike)
Growing Up Earnhardt
Late in the race I ran into Lee Eaton of Orlando on the upstairs Allison Tower concourse.
We talked for a while. She said she went to Oak Ridge Military Academy, a short drive northwest of Greensboro, N.C., with Kelley and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Her memories of growing up with the Earnhardts were warm and fond. Her room was just down the hall from Kelley's in the girl's dorm, and every week when Dale Sr. dropped off the kids, he always said hello.
She says both she and her mother recall Dale Earnhardt Sr. as "the nicest man" they've ever met.
Lee says Earnhardt Sr. took her and 16 other kids from the academy to their first race in Charlotte, back when it was Charlotte Motor Speedway. They were on the drill team and they performed at the race.
She says she'll send me pictures of her and Dale Jr. when he was yay high. She still calls Kelley every year around the anniversary of Daytona. "I just always want to make sure she's all right," says Lee.
And Dale Jr., even though he didn't graduate, is a big contributor to her alma mater, according to Lee.
We chatted until there were about five laps left to go. Then she went to watch the end of the race with her daughter, and I with my friends. I can't think of a more wonderful story to find at the end of a race where we celebrated the memory of Dale Earnhardt.
Thanks for sharing the memories Lee.
Posted at 07:30 PM ET, 02/19/2006
Daytona 500 Results
Congrats to Jimmie Johnson! It wasn't even close to my hoped for outcome, but he's now a Daytona 500 champion. That's a pretty durned exclusive group! At least now he'll have to park that winning car for a year at Daytona USA. ;-)
What else can I say, watching from the grandstand in the Daytona Superstretch: It was cold and mistly. My favorite driver lost favor (to put it in the nicest terms) with the fans for tripping up Jeff Gordon early and Matt Kenseth midway through.
Fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. were disappointed -- that seems to be about half of the fan base -- by his seventh-place finish. They're blaming Tony Stewart, too. What can I say? It's hard to defend the way he drove. The way he came down on Kenseth, whoops! In my heart, I can't believe he would do that on purpose, but I'm eating crow tonight.
It's been a logistical nightmare getting from the infield, back to my Superstretch seat, and back again. Sorry the blog has been dark so long today. I had no wifi, no working mobile phone coverage. I'll freeform in my next entry and tell you all about the great fans and great times we had, despite the chilly, misty weather.
Back in a flash with more.
Posted at 11:18 AM ET, 02/19/2006
A Late Start
I got a little bit of a late jump-start this morning. I was up past midnight shooting pool and sharing beverages with my buddy Joe Pagels in the Ramada Inn lounge in Titusville, Fla., after spending some time with the campers in the infield.
Joe and I worked together for about eight years at a newspaper in Washington. But we can't hang much nowadays since Joe cashed out of his northern Virginia townhome, moved to New Mexico and had a log cabin built on a little mountaintop in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. He's living his dream there now with his white german shepherd, Wolfie.
We had a few beers and won a few sloppy pool games that we played with some locals and some race fans who were also staying there. We lost just as many as we won, I'd say.
I guess I had enough beer in me to get up and sing karaoke, some Willie Nelson and some Johnny Cash. That'll give you an idea of what condition my condition was in....continue >>
Posted at 10:49 AM ET, 02/19/2006
In the Infield, It's Springer vs. Hollywood
It's David vs. Goliath in the infield.
In this case, the little guy is the tent camper; the big guy is the high-rollers in the RV's.
Neal Moran's a Brevard County firefighter who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., originally. He's been coming here for years, parking his pickup truck and pitching a tent on a 15x20 foot campsite. He was charged $600 this year, which includes the price of infield admission. The rent covers four nights, Thursday through Sunday. I think Moran got a deal, because his "next door neighbors," Jim and Eileen McComb of Fort Lauderdale, paid $700 for the same package.
While it still beats prices you'd pay to stay in the worst Daytona Beach motel during Speedweek, it's pricing out the folks who helped build the sport into what it is today. That doesn't sit well with Moran: "We're the little people. We built NASCAR. And now they're kicking us out, and that's bull----. Bill France made a promise. He said he'd keep everything there for us, that while he was alive he'd make sure we could all get in. Someone needs to hold the France family to his word."
Moran says they call their section of the infield the "Springer section," as in the Jerry Springer Show. They call the lakefront RV lot "Hollywood." It's one of the few places that my media credentials failed to get me access this week. I tried to go in to interview some of the Hollywood campers, but security wouldn't allow it....continue >>
Posted at 09:18 AM ET, 02/19/2006
Canada and NASCAR? Why not! I've mentioned in passing in some earlier posts that I've been finding a rather large contingent of Canadian fans here at the speedway. I guess I should say the contingent's larger than I would have expected. If there are any Canadians reading, they probably know what I didn't: NASCAR is huge in the Great White North.
In my trek through the infield during the Bush race today, I saw several Canadian flags proudly flying. I said hello to a few fans, but when I stopped to ask a couple of women who were watching in the Busch race on a television outside of an RV camper, I was struck again by the strange -- again, to me -- juxtaposition of an Alabaman and a Canadian sharing the experience. The two fans were Leah Cochrane, of Brantford, Canada, near Toronto, and Dawn Rowell of Fairhope, Ala. (Fairhope was damaged by the Gulf Coast hurricanes last year, but it's coming back, Dawn says....continue >>
Posted at 08:26 AM ET, 02/19/2006
Sunday's Trivia Question
In honor of the late, great Dale Earnhardt, I'll make this question a tribute to him as we mark the fifth year since he lost his life on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Dale Earnhardt is Daytona Internation Speedway's winningest driver of all time. He won here 34 times over his legendary career. How many Daytona 500's did he run in before he finally won in 1998?
I'm heading to the backstretch soon to watch the race, so I'll post the answer. You can get it by hitting "continued."
Posted at 06:00 PM ET, 02/18/2006
From the Bering Sea to Daytona
I talked today to a fan camped in the infield who traveled farther to attend Speedweek than anyone I'd met yet. Matt Baird made the trip from White Salmon, Wash., in the Columbia River Gorge.
Considering that Matt works for Trident Seafoods, trawling for pollock in the frigid Alaskan waters, I think it makes his trip that much more special. It's Matt's first Daytona 500. "I get blocks of time off, and it's something I've always wanted to do," he says.
So what's riskier, stock-car racing or Arctic fishing? Matt says you're more likely to have a fatal accident working in the commercial fishing fleet than in a race. Knock on wood.
Being a Washington state native, Matt's pulling for his home-state sensation, Greg Biffle.
Posted at 05:36 PM ET, 02/18/2006
Paying to Park
Dan Snyder, eat your heart out!
Ever since 1997, when I first started coming to Daytona for the 500 weekend, the cost of parking in private lots across from the track has been jacked up by $5 to $10 each year. I think we paid about $10 or $15 the first year on the day of the 500. Last year we paid either $50 or $60. It's usually a dime less on Busch race days.
This morning I stopped and sweet-talked a nice lot operator into letting me park for a half an hour in his lot so I could say hello to my racing buddies. His lot was asking 60 bucks a pop for the day. I saw a $50 lot right next door at the Uno's Restaurant and Ramada Inn just by the corner of Bill France Blvd., where I found my friends, Joe Pagels and his sister Debbie Cusato. They'd found a spot at the Volusia Mall for $40, still pretty steep.
Posted at 04:58 PM ET, 02/18/2006
Results: Stewart Wins Kissables in Front of 'Pinball' Finish
Tony Stewart won the Hershey's Kissables 300 today, driving around and away from the pack during an intense five-lap shootout at the end of the Busch race. In and of itself, that was really something to watch after the frontrunners had run nearly three straight laps three-wide.
It got crazier. Right as Stewart crossed the finish line, the cars running sixth and seveth got tangled up, causing a wreck that reminded me of a pinball machine when multiple balls are in play.
Cars were flying everywhere. I don't know that I've ever witnessed such a wild finish to a race. It took NASCAR officials at least 15 minutes to post the unofficial race results beyond the top five. I'm still not sure they've got it totally figured out. Fans were scratching their heads, waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting to find out who fininished where.
Earnhardt fans were disappointed. He stayed out of the pits around lap 25, gambling that he could run out front for the win, but that backfired. A series of late-race cautions left him in bad spot and he finally had to concede during the three-wide racing. In the end, he wound up driving around the wreck in the tri-oval, finishing 17th.
By the way, local Maryland "Terps" driver Donnie Neuenberger, whom I posted about earlier today, finished 25th. Nice job, Donnie!
They ran the final practice for tomorrow's Daytona 500 before the race. Check out the times here. The fastest lap this morning was posted by Ken Schrader. And here's the starting lineup for the 48th annual running of the Daytona 500.
And if you want to check out a cool, free video podcast preview, try this one from Apple: http://www.tuaw.com/2006/02/16/free-nascar-preview-in-the-itunes-store/http://www.tuaw.com/2006/02/16/free-nascar-preview-in-the-itunes-store/
Posted at 11:17 AM ET, 02/18/2006
More Speedweek Photos
Superfan Jim Ruda Jr. sent me some more Speedweeks photos. Here's one of them. Click continue for another, along with a shot I took of some fans I met under the Roberts grandstand on the front stretch.
Posted at 06:26 AM ET, 02/18/2006
Terps Driver Runs the Toughest Race
Sometimes it just pays to be lucky.
As I was heading out to interview Busch driver Donnie Neuenberger, who was raised in Brandywine and lives in Edgewater, Md., I ran into another Marylander, Jim Long of Ellicott City. Check out Jim's "do," and you'll know why I had to stop to ask him a few questions..
Not every fan is willing to go the extra mile and display "NASCAR" on his head, or, like Jim, dye his hair a different color every time he goes to a race. Still, Jim's a Maryland fan. He wants to get a University of Maryland Terrapins shell and "Fear the Turtle" put on his head for a race back home.
Donnie Neuenberger probably isn't considering a Terrapin trim. But he does wear a Terps driving suit. I asked Jim if he knew about Donnie. "Yeah, he used to do the race report on Monday's on 98 Rock (in Baltimore)," said Jim. "He's racing Busch here tomorrow?" He was surprised. He'd heard of Donnie's illness.
Donnie's on the comeback trail after hanging up his driving gloves two seasons ago to battle non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was scheduled to run the full Busch series. Instead he had to miss the action to take on the fight of his life. He endured the eight months of treatment -- he calls it "eight months of hell." Right now he's "stable," which is good enough to race.
As an independent driver, Donnie's also fighting hard to compete against the big boys on the track. He had to take a provisional for this year's Hershey's Kissable 300....continue >>