Every NASCAR fan dreams of being on the "other side of the fence," touring the garage area and participating in all of the behind-the-scenes festivities that accompany every Cup race.
James Ruscigno, long-time NASCAR fan and 15-year veteran of Pocono Raceway, had his dream come true, winning the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 Ultimate Fan Contest.
"Every year, we come to one race here at Pocono Raceway," said Ruscigno, who is an electrician from New York state. "I called up to order my tickets and pit passes and they said if I went on-line and made a donation to the Red Cross, that I could get pit passes with my tickets."
Being non technologically savvy, Ruscigno got his daughter Danielle, also a long-time NASCAR fan, to order the package on-line. The next thing he knew, Ruscigno got a call from someone named Nick Igdalsky at Pocono Raceway.
Igdalsky, who is Senior Vice President of the Raceway, informed the stunned Ruscigno that he had indeed won the Ultimate Fan Contest.
Igdalsky advised that Ruscigno would get a few hot laps around Pocono Raceway with Greg Biffle, as well as sitting in the sky box to view the race.
Ruscigno also learned that he would be able to attend both the drivers' meeting and driver introductions, as well as have the honor of waving the green flag to start the race.
In disbelief, Ruscigno actually called the track the following day just to make sure that all of this was "really legitimate" and that "a Nick really did work at the track."
After he was put through again directly to Igdalsky, Ruscigno stopped pinching himself and started to believe that his ultimate fan fantasy really had come true.
Ruscigno and his family, accompanied by Red Cross personnel, reported this morning for the first treat of the Ultimate Fan Experience. In spite of the drizzle and fog at Pocono Raceway, Greg Biffle picked Ruscigno up in a racy black Mustang for a few hot laps around the track.
Because of the weather, Biffle said that he had to be somewhat "cautious", taking turn two at only about 90 miles per hour. But he stepped it up on the second lap to about 130 miles per hour.
Ruscigno admitted that "I started to get a little nervous since it was raining out." But he reassured himself that he was with a "professional driver" in Biffle.
The experience was also very special to Biffle, who is a huge supporter of the Red Cross. "This promotion with Sunoco, Pocono Raceway and the Red Cross is what we enjoy," said Biffle.
"It is all about building awareness about donating blood and participating to help the Red Cross in whatever way possible," said Biffle.
Biffle also shared that he is a blood donor himself, with that "famous Type O blood that anyone can use." Biffle also went on to say that he has always been "impressed with how much the blood is needed and how quickly it gets put to good use."
After being dropped off by the Biff, Ruscigno and his contingent went on to the drivers' meeting and driver introductions. "The drivers' meeting was great," said Ruscigno. "They talked all about the double file restarts and the other logistics of the race."
Ruscigno continued, a bit awestruck, "I sat up in front and when I turned around, there is Jimmie Johnson sitting behind me and Tony Stewart came walking by.
"It was definitely awesome," shared Ruscigno.
But the best was yet to come. Ruscigno got to stand in line with all of the most prominent race officials, including the Mattioli family, to shake hands with each and every driver during their introductions to the race crowd.
Ruscigno beamed as his driver, Mark Martin, strode across the stage and shook his hand.
This promotion was not only about the Ultimate Fan Experience contest. It was also the Red Cross' best opportunity to call attention to the needs in the community and the services that they provide.
Tom Foley, CEO of the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter, shared how important this race weekend is to the charity. He stressed that all of the proceeds of this naming opportunity go directly to the Red Cross and its affiliates.
Foley confirmed that the Red Cross' need is great, especially in this difficult economy. "The Red Cross has responded to over 4,000 disasters in our local community," said Foley. "Most are single-family fires that have displaced over 15,000 people."
Foley shared that disaster relief was only a third of what the charity does to help. "The Red Cross also has taught over 6,500 classes per year in life saving skills, like CPR and first aid," said Foley.
Foley continued saying, "The Red Cross also helped over 2,266 military families who had to be contacted due to some emergency at home or with their family."
Most important, the special Red Cross promotion will raise money for the Red Cross House, a transitional home for those who were displaced because of a disaster. This particular Red Cross service is especially near and dear to the Mattioli family, who have visited the House often.
Sunoco was also a huge partner in this special Ultimate Fan promotion. According to Bob Owens, Senior Vice President of Sunoco, said "We're always looking to give back to the community where it is needed most."
In fact, Sunoco has gone over and above in their support of the Red Cross, providing gas to the charity, especially helpful during the recent increases in gas prices.
Unfortunately, Ruscigno will have to wait until tomorrow to wave the green flag on the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500. The race was cancelled due to the rain and fog that persistently plagued the track all race day.
Ruscigno will officially start the race with his flag wave at Noon on Monday, Aug. 3 at Pocono Raceway. He confessed to being pleased that he would have "a few more hours to practice."
Photo Credit: Mary Jo Buchanan