In The Fast Lane

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Posted: September 28, 2012

From Sept. 28-Oct. 4
A couple weeks ago, I bumped – literally – into Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Hey, sorry, man,” he said. He had just wrapped up a radio interview with Sirius NASCAR reporter Claire B. Lang about winning the pole and I was her next interview. “No, excuse me,” I said, chalking up yet another experience in a surreal weekend. Image: Dale Earnhardt Jr. waits to qualify during the recent Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond.
The primary sponsor of the Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 10 car made a one-race deal with Inc. Magazine to trade primary sponsorship rights in exchange for magazine advertising space. Inc. needed a representative at the track. I write for the magazine and website … and that’s how I spent the weekend at the Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond with a sponsor’s pass to the garage area, pits, drivers’ meeting and media center, a ride in the pace car, a couple seats atop the pit box during the race … complete access to everything. For that weekend, the David Reutimann Inc. 500 Chevrolet was “my” car. Surreal. Image: Clint Bowyer wins the 400.
Even in such a competitive environment – the teams compete on the track, media compete for stories, sponsors compete for attention – I saw a surprising sense of camaraderie among the people that made up NASCAR’s traveling circus. For example, TBR mechanics borrowed tools from the Petty team and a battery from Richard Childress Racing. Many teams help each other off the track while doing everything possible to win on the track. While seemingly contradictory, that spirit of cooperation may be one of the reasons for the sport’s success. Image: The Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 10 car won’t start during a pre-race inspection, so the team borrows a battery from Richard Childress Racing.
My wife Cindy and I went to the driver’s meeting before the race. Attendance is mandatory for all drivers and crew chiefs so we saw big-name drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin … owners like Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Richard Childress… even Olympic athletes like LaShawn Merritt. When we left the meeting, Cindy noticed a guy signing autographs. “Who is he?” she asked. “Oh, that’s just Matt Kenseth,” I said. Then it hit me: Only on a day like this would I refer to the 2003 Winston Cup champion as “just” Matt Kenseth. Image: Haden and his wife, Cindy, pose for a photo before their pace car ride with Geoff Bodine — easily the highlight of the weekend, according to the pair.
Some fans complain that drivers don’t interact enough with fans: They keep moving, never make eye contact and never stop to chat. Drivers aren’t rude. They’re survivalists. I was standing beside long-time driver Ken Schrader when Jeff Gordon stepped out of his hauler. Within seconds, fans eager for an autograph started sprinting towards Gordon. “If he stops, he’ll get surrounded,” Schrader said. “That’s why guys like him always sign and walk.” You would, too. But still, every driver stopped to chat and take a photo with every uniformed member of the armed forces he saw. As well they should. Image: Drivers have perfected the art of walking, signing and not making eye contact. Here Kevin Harvick signs his autograph for a fan.
Whenever Dale Jr. is involved, everything goes up several notches. Fans flock to drivers for autographs … but Dale Jr. sparks a feeding frenzy. A woman standing beside me said, “I’m warning you: I would run right over Winnie the Pooh to get to Mickey Mouse at Disney World … so if you’re in my way when Dale Jr. walks by, you better watch out.” And I think she was serious. Another example: It’s hard to hear the fans from atop a pit box during the race. The cars thunder by just yards away, radio chatter is almost constant over your headset … but when Dale Jr. took the lead, I could still hear the crowd roar. To many fans, Dale Jr. is NASCAR. Maybe that’s why the only time he seemed to relax was when he stood with his crew on pit road before qualifying, away from any fans. For a few moments, he didn’t need to be “on.” Image: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the pole at the recent Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond on Sept. 9.
During the rain delay, I interviewed NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps in the NASCAR trailer, a vehicle famous for serving as a kind of principal’s office for misbehaving drivers. On my way in, I was introduced to Mike Helton, president of NASCAR and arguably the most powerful man in the sport. Afterward, I went inside the TBR hauler, sat on a couch in the lounge area and watched TV with drivers David Reutimann and Dave Blaney. Then Cindy and I stood on pit road with the team for the pre-race ceremonies and national anthem. Like I said. Surreal. Image: Haden’s team was No. 10 car owner Tommy Baldwin Jr. and David Reutimann.
In racing, money is everything. Compared to the larger teams Tommy Baldwin Racing’s shoestring budget means less employees, less resources, less engineering … less everything. They even outsource pit stops, hiring a crew from Hendrick Motorsports to service their car on pit road. Over the years, many teams with little money and huge dreams have overcome humble beginnings to achieve NASCAR success. (See Bill Elliott, Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick, among plenty of other examples.) I hope it works out that way for Tommy and the folks at TBR. Even though Reutimann finished a disappointing 34th they were unfailingly gracious hosts … proving that class has absolutely nothing to do with money. Image: Jimmy Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon share a laugh off the track.
Story and Photography by Jeff Haden, who's “Friendly City Files” column, will return next week. He lives in Harrisonburg and is a ghostwriter and featured business columnist with more than 1 million…

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