Monday, July 5, 2010

No place like Daytona

This story originally appeared July 4, 2006 in the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail

By Mike Jones
Daily Mail Staff

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR fans are a rare breed. Anyone who has ever attended a race knows that. The fans pay thousands of dollars for tickets, hotel rooms, parking and, most importantly, beer.

Bewildered outsiders don't even begin to understand. They ask why someone would shell out that kind of cash to watch cars drive in circles. What they don't realize is NASCAR is an experience that can't be explained on television. It must be felt in person.

I will never forget the first time I heard 43 cars roaring by at nearly 200 mph at Daytona International Speedway or the echoing thunder as they flew down the backstretch. The Fourth of July event at Daytona Beach, Fla., has changed somewhat since I attended my first Firecracker 400 in 1993. Track officials added lights to the high-banked oval in 1998, altering the race for both competitors and fans.

Previously, drivers weren't the only ones who sweated buckets when the green flag dropped at 11 a.m. in the 90-degree heat. Fans perspired beer faster than they could consume their cans of Miller Lite and Budweiser that are stowed in coolers under their seats.

With an 8 p.m. start now, visitors take trips to the beach or barbeque in parking lots in the morning and afternoon. Others wade in the hotel swimming pool for most of the weekend and the beer cans that line the edge of the pool document their progress.

In the 2005 edition of the Pepsi 400, rain began falling an hour before race time, prompting my father, stepbrother and me to march back to the hotel for a late-night swim. Other fans, many of whom weren't fortunate enough to have a hotel room next to Turn 4, waited out the three-hour rain delay in their seats and soldiered through the race that didn't end until nearly 2 a.m. Sunday. Exhausted fans that partied for nearly 19 hours simply crumpled in their seats and passed out moments after Tony Stewart took the checkered flag.

That wasn't the case in 2006 when the race passed rather quickly and we were able to get to bed before midnight. There were the usual drunks at the event. A Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan stumbled out of his hotel room on his way to the track and mumbled incoherently to others.

But instead of a rain soaked holiday, fans were treated that year to a cool summer breeze passing from the Atlantic Ocean as the race started as scheduled. The distinctive smell of Octane 110 firing from the exhaust pipes filled the air just moments after the command was given for drivers to start their engines. One man, spitting chew while lounging in his seat, waved the fumes toward his nose in a circular motion with a cupped handed.

Now this, I thought, is what racing is all about.

Most fans at the 2006 Firecracker 400 wore shirts emblazoned with Budweiser, Home Depot and Dodge, but some lesser-known drivers' gear was speckled in the crowd. My father, known by most of his friends as Hobie, wore a Joe Nemechek T-shirt and U.S. Army visor to support his favorite driver. Nemechek appeared to be poised for a good showing after qualifying fifth and my father was excited.

Nemechek, a native of Lakeland, had bought auto parts from my parents' store in the little central Florida town during the late 1980s while he was racing dirt bikes and stock cars at local tracks. He and his brother, John, who died in a crash at Homestead Speedway in Miami in 1996, often chatted about racing, prompting my father to root for Joe over the past 15 years.

It was a admirable position to pull for the underdog. But besides winning the 1992 Busch Series championship and a handful of Cup races, Nemechek hadn't done much in his career. Dad pulled for him anyway.

But this was to be the final time after years of disappointment took their toll. We had made a deal a few weeks earlier that he would re-evaluate that allegiance if Joe couldn't finish 17th or better in the Pepsi 400. The prized Nemechek shirt, it was agreed, would be torched in our $29.97 charcoal grill if he couldn't muster even a mediocre finish.

Just hours before the race, a good omen occurred as I met Nemechek in his "swag trailer" just outside the track. He signed a few autographs, and with a smirk and a nod, sent me on my way.

But not long after the green flag flew and Stewart jumped out to the lead, Joe began his usual descent to the back. We prepared ourselves for the impending barbeque as the laps ran down. With 14 laps left, however, Jimmie Johnson bobbled, sending his car into Bobby Labonte, who had an uncharacteristically strong run until the crash. A few laps later, a bigger pile-up collected more front-runners, catapulting Joe closer to the cutoff point.

But the late crashes weren’t enough for poor Joe. It wasn’t to be. We watched as Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers sealed the shirt's fate while Nemechek stumbled to a 19th place finish.

As Stewart climbed the fence and mingled with thousands of fans who met him at the bottom of the flagman's stand, we trudged back to the hotel room in search of a lighter and a few bricks of charcoal. Before the race, my step-brother had vowed to save the shirt regardless of Nemechek's finish. Now, he was discussing pulling for Kurt Busch in honor of his favorite adult beverage.

We toasted the memories with the shirt aflame and my father, a closet Junior fan, closed the lid, and, more importantly, a chapter. But when we reopened the grill, the name "NEMECHEK" still was legible on the charred remnants of the cloth. At that point, I doubted my father ever could give up on the driver he had cheered for more than two decades.

When we return to Daytona, I expect my father will be just as dedicated to Joe Nemechek. He's truly a rare breed.

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