Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"J-Bird" and the NASCAR obsession

As I noted in my previous post, I come from a car-obsessed family.  While this is mostly the work of my dad, I must take part of the credit (or blame)—and that is in the area of NASCAR. From the time I was about nine years old, watching NASCAR races became a non-negotiable part of every Sunday afternoon between February and November.

Really, it started as a father-daughter bonding thing.  Every Sunday without fail, my dad and I would sit in front of the TV, turn on TNN (anyone remember TNN? Apparently, it's back.), and check out the latest action from Daytona, Darlington, or wherever the NASCAR boys happened to be that weekend. And for the three hours the race was on, there’d be nothing else—no work for him, no homework for me. Just fun times talking about the cars, the drivers, and the action on the track. For the first time, really, I wasn’t just a little kid—I was my dad’s buddy, and that made me feel really special.  My dad, ever the Thunderbird guy, would call me “J-Bird,” like the T-Birds we watched on the track.

When he suggested that we go to Dover, Delaware for a race in mid-1995, I think I might have been the happiest kid in the world.  I will never forget the first time walking into the racetrack, standing up against the catchfence, and feeling the force of the cars going by at nearly 200 mph. Still have the tickets from that day in a scrapbook. With the exception of one year, we’ve gone to at least one race in person every year since then.  I still love the feeling of those cars going by, but since my dad and I live far apart these days, I really love the ability to go to a race with him.  I feel like I’m my dad’s buddy again.

What keeps me a NASCAR fan is that it is a sport that incites deep passion.  Because there are 43 cars on the track, with differing levels of driver skill and equipment quality, victories are hard to come by.  A little anecdote: when I was 12, my favorite driver was Bill Elliott, and with fewer than ten laps to go in the Daytona 500, he was leading. This was 1997, and he had not won a race since 1994.


So I freaked out, to put it mildly. After three years, my guy was finally going to win a race, and the biggest race of the year to boot!  Well, sadly, this story did not end well for me. He got passed by three other drivers with just a few laps remaining and finished fourth. I was disconsolate and showed my displeasure by locking myself in the bathroom and refusing to come out of a decent period of time.  (Was I prone to melodramatic gestures? Maybe.  Do I regret doing this? Absolutely not.)

The real kicker? Bill didn’t win another race until 2001. Yup, seven years between victories. There were many happy tears cried the day he finally broke that streak.

And while the victories are so much sweeter in NASCAR than they are in other sports, the losses are especially tough to take.  Unfortunately, the potential for great tragedy is always there, and the pain of those losses is amplified by the passion one feels for the sport and its competitors.  Having gone through the loss of one of my favorite drivers to an on-track accident, I can tell you it makes you all the more appreciative of the days where the action is intense but everyone stays safe.

Well, when those engines fire up again this weekend for the first time since last November, you better believe that I’ll be calling up my dad to talk racing.  It’ll feel good to kick off another NASCAR season.

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