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.
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