Sunday, October 16, 2005

NASCAR And Me ...

I left the Chicago Tribune in 1997 to take a job with Thomson Newspapers.

The office I went to work for didn't produce a daily newspaper. Rather, we published specialty sections that newspapers bought and ran inside their own pages. I always told people it was the same idea as Parade magazine.

When I interviewed, we discussed my taking over the entertainment publication, or the health publication, or the kids publication.

After I tendered by resignation at the Tribune, a package arrived in the mail, and I learned that I'd be editing a home technology section and a NASCAR section.

What?

NASCAR?!

At the time, I wasn't entirely sure what NASCAR stood for, but I knew it was racing.

I'd never watched a race in my life. Not even the Indianapolis 500, which isn't NASCAR.

Oh well. I'd be thrown into situations before, and as I once wrote in a cover letter, "It was a sink-or-swim situation. I discovered that I am an excellent swimmer."

So. NASCAR. Gentlemen, start your teasing.

I received many tongue-in-cheek queries about my would-be wardrobe of tube tops and cowboy boots. My big hair days were long behind me, but perhaps I'd have to stock up on Aqua-Net again. When people weren't chuckling at their own amusement, they'd make disparaging comments about it not being a real sport, how it's boring to watch.

After I'd gone to my first race, I'd get defensive when I'd hear them. "You can't say anything until you've been to a race," I'd tell them. And it was true.

On TV, yes, it seems inane. Cars driving 400 laps in an oval. Whatever, right?

But in person, the energy is amazing. NASCAR fans are fervent. They're all really excited to be at a race. The few who are lucky enough to get into the garage area (because they know someone who works for a sponsor, usually) are like kids at Christmas. The drivers, who are essentially rock stars in flame-retardant jumpsuits, are very gracious, taking the time to meet fans, sign programs, pose for pictures.

Henry, my writer, had been to plenty of events and met plenty of drivers, and several of them would say hello to him, wave him over to their trailers to chat. (Henry's the most affable person I've ever met, but I was still surprised that these drivers would invite him over like he was a long-lost friend.)

And if you're standing nearby when a crew member hits the ingnition on one of the cars, you feel it in your chest. And you best be wearing earplugs.

And yes, there are a couple drivers who don't appear to be on the verge of winning any awards for physical fitness, but most of them are in incredible shape. They have to withstand a lot of G forces in those cars at those speeds on those turns. Not to mention the conditions inside the cars. The cabin temperatures are well over 100 degrees and they're suited up from head to toe. (By the way, in case you never noticed, there are no bathroom breaks during a race. It's not much of an issue, really, as drivers are sweating buckets inside those cars. It's not like they have the A/C cranked. But drivers have told me: if you have to go, you just go.)

NASCAR fans are very, very loyal. Sponsors know this. If you love Ricky Rudd and Ricky Rudd is driving for Tide, you buy Tide. That's it. Tony Stewart drives for Home Depot. You won't see a Tony Stewart fan at Menards or Lowes. Menards courts Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans.

I met Jr. once at an event at Woodfield Mall. It was the grand opening of a virtual NASCAR racing outlet, and Jr. and his father, the late Dale Earnhardt, were there. If you know anything about Woodfield Mall, right now you should be saying, "NASCAR? At Woodfield Mall?!" I know. I never understood it either. When I think of the epicenter of NASCAR culture in Illinois, I don't think "Schaumburg!" But there we were. And there were fans there who had been waiting all day - literally since the moment the mall opened - to get a glimpse of Dale. Some of them asked me to get things signed for them, which I couldn't do. Others asked me what it was like to talk to him. And when Dale walked out into the center of the mall, the crowd went nuts. Flashes flashed like it was a runway in Paris. Dale walked around on top of the brick wall circling the space, shaking hands with fans.

I don't even remember him saying much of anything. He didn't have to.

I was there as a member of the press, a favor to a friend who was doing the PR for the event and needed to get people there to cover it. I was reluctant when he first called me, but Henry, my writer, said, "It's almost impossible to get one-on-one time with Earnhardt. You have to take it." But he warned me, "He doesn't really like the press. If you ask a question he doesn't like, he'll refuse to answer it or tell you it's stupid. Or he might just walk away from you."

Swell. But I got my 10 minutes with Dale, standing near his car's simulator. Someone wanted me to race against him. I said, "No." Dale asked why not. I said, "Because you're Dale Earnhardt, and I'm not insane." One of his people pulled him away for a photo op or some such, which was fine. I got a few quotes to use for a story. Justin, my marketing guy and a race fan in his own right, and I stood there talking for a moment when Dale reappeared at my side.

He'd come back. Just to chat.

He was terrifically charming. I told him that I'd rented a Monte Carlo to drive out from Chicago. "But it's white," I said. "I couldn't get black." He didn't mind. He nudged me with his elbow, winked at me, and said, "Good girl." He posed for a picture with me. Put his arm around me. Really nice guy.

The next day, I called Henry to tell him how it went. "You're so wrong about him," I said. "He was perfectly charming."

With a bit of disgust, Henry said, "It's because you're a woman."

Maybe. Sometimes it pays to be a woman in a man's world.

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