Toyota Tundra 200: A Hands-On Experience I'll Never Forget

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Toyota Tundra 200: A Hands-On Experience I'll Never Forget

Have you ever—either when you were a child or a teen, or perhaps in your adult years—been given a present that you built up in your mind to such an insane degree that, looking back, you realize there was no way just about anything could have met the expectations?

 

I know I have.

 

Alternately, have you ever so admired something that you described it to a friend, neighbor, or loved one in terms so glowing, that it was virtually inevitable that you would hear the words, “So this is what all the fuss was about (or something to that effect)?”

 

Once again, I’m guilty as charged.

 

But when was the last time that you were so genuinely enthused by some much-hyped event or present that you felt genuinely overwhelmed with gratitude? So moved that you also decided that you simply had to share it with as many people as possible?

 

That’s how I feel after Saturday’s Toyota Tundra 200 Camping World Truck Series race. I want to share my remarkable experience with the Bleacher Report readership, so that perhaps you, too, will experience the thrill of a lifetime.

 

Saturday morning, I awoke at precisely 7:36 a.m., refreshed yet anxious. As I looked at my alarm clock, which I had set for eight, I decided to try to nap for those last 24 minutes. I closed my eyes, expecting to be aroused by the noise maker.

 

Meanwhile, my mind—now dragging the rest of me in tow—was racing like a dragster (you expected a NASCAR metaphor, didn’t you?) on nitrous oxide overload.

 

What would the track look like? What about the trucks? Would I act like a deer in the headlights? Was I going to embarrass Bleacher Report? What time did I need to leave?

 

After what seemed like 20 minutes, I looked at the clock again, bracing myself for the jolt of the alarm that I felt sure was about to go off.

 

It was 7:42 a.m.

 

I had programmed the address to Nashville Superspeedway in my GPS the night before, and as I weaved my way through the intricate turns of the various connectors and headed for the suburb of Lebanon, my mind stayed in overdrive.

 

At length, Julia II (the name of my GPS; doesn’t everyone give their GPS a name?) directed me to get off TN I-840 at Exit 65, Couchville Pike. As I stopped to make my left onto the Pike, I looked up and caught glimpse of one of the most magnificent sights.

 

Off in the distance, towering over the landscape like the Roman Colosseum, was the gleaming grandstand of the superspeedway.

 

“So that’s what big-time racing looks like!” I thought.

 

Moments later, however, the grand raceway was lost in the back roads of Lebanon, TN. In my mind, it was eerily similar to the situation with Memphis Motorsports Park back home. It’s actually situated on a tract of land in nearby Millington, TN.

 

Both tracks lead you down a blind country road, and wind you inexplicably through the rural countryside.

 

It’s almost as if the race tracks don’t even belong there, somehow.

 

After picking up my media credentials, I headed eastbound on Victory Lane Drive, made a left onto Bill France Avenue, and made a right onto Tunnel Drive.

 

The tunnel brought me directly onto the infield at the Superspeedway. However, it took a while to orient myself, and absorb just where I was. Because I was totally clueless.

 

I looked around, and saw a gigantic fence encircling me; no telling how many feet tall it was. I assumed that was the end of the property, and wondered just how it was I would get to the infield?

 

I drove to the end of the street, and parked in some gravel, just a few feet away from two ambulances and the Safety Station.

 

I looked behind me and to my right, and off in the distance was the grandstand, awe-inspiring as it cast its great shadow on the landscape which it dwarfed insignificantly.

 

I then looked straight ahead again, and saw what I figured was a concrete entrance tunnel. To my left, the same thing.

 

Where was the track? When was I going to see some asphalt? Some grass? The infield? Was I in the right damned place?

 

I was about to hop back in my car impatiently and drive around. Something wasn’t right.

 

But as I turned to get into my car, my mind came to a skidding halt with these words:

 

“You’re standing on the infield, dummy!”

 

I had passed the Media Center; the Care Center; and was a few feet away from the EMS. The concrete “entrance tunnel” was the track (I had expected asphalt); and the cavernous fence was the safety barrier, designed to keep spectators safe in the event of a wreck.

 

Was I going to be this lost all day?

 

Everything seemed so antiseptic. I expected to see tailgating parties and fans, and to hear stories of NASCAR events past. But I was on the infield, I kept reminding myself.

 

That, and it was only 10:21 in the morning; the race didn't start till 7:00 p.m.

 

I had to laugh at my own gullibility!

 

Over the next several hours, I absorbed the surroundings; found my way to the drivers’ trailers and garage; and started absorbing some of the stories within the story of the 2009 Nashville truck race.

 

The pit crew for the No. 11 truck of T. J. Bell was delighted to answer technical questions for me when I confessed that this was my first NASCAR event. We talked about tire wear, the points race, and blind chance.

 

And we talked about the immaculately clean garage stalls.

 

“It’s about being professional,” Adam Hartman explained to me. “What if our sponsors come by, and see our garage all messy? They might wonder what we’re doing with their money or why they’re even sponsoring such an unprofessional bunch.”

 

As I walked through the garage area, I saw all of the young men scurrying about, and I thought about William Jones, a mechanic I knew when I was growing up.

 

See, I have to go back further than that for a moment, and confess that I was never that interested in mechanic work as a child, even though my father went to mechanic school in his twenties.

 

He was impatient trying to teach me what he knew, and I rebelled the day he was angry that I couldn’t tell a half-inch wrench from a nine-sixteenths by sight; at the age of 10, they all looked the same to me!

 

Well, William Jones at least got me somewhat interested in working on cars.

 

I will never forget watching him change the oil for me one evening. The way he moved his ratchet wrench was beyond amazing. He operated it smoothly, with three fingers, and his fingers moved so expertly, while the cranking of the ratchet sounded almost symphonic to me.

 

Nothing like the crude way I attacked the tool, with one hand around the socket, one on the ratchet handle, and using every muscle from my shoulder to my palm to make it work.

 

Three fingers, moving rhythmically, elegantly; and the device not only working, but also managing to totally enrapture his audience of one.

 

I looked around that garage on Saturday, and thought about me, a Black man from Memphis, TN, being immersed in the world of NASCAR.

 

I wished William, or one of his brothers (they all worked wonders on cars) could have been a part of this, the pinnacle of stock racing in America. Someone—anyone—more deserving.

 

Because NASCAR has been preaching diversity for a long time. Maybe it will start in the media corps, but it would be more appropriate if it started in the garage.

 

Sometime around 5:30 p.m., I met Rick Rosenau as he was sitting in his shuttle bus from the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. He had dropped off a load of people, and was waiting to shuttle others back to the hotel.

 

Rick has worked the Gaylord Opryland Shuttle for five years; this is his third event at the superspeedway this year.

 

It seems that NASCAR trusts Gaylord Opryland, and they, in turn, trust Rick.

 

Rick struck me as a kind, shy man, one who could be trusted with your grandchildren, your wallet, or your life, depending upon the situation. His natural expression is one that is remarkably calm and inviting, as if he is about to break into a smile at any moment.

 

If any of you know Wilford Brimley, who is now a celebrity pitchman for Liberty Medical, then you now have Rick’s face in your head; they could pass for brothers.

 

Yes, down to the woolly moustache!

 

He was very embarrassed that I was thinking of writing something about him; he never said the words, but the downward glance and subtle body language screamed out, “I’m just a nobody, who wants to read about me?”

 

I scoffed at such nonsense, looked him in the eyes, and said, “You’re just as important as the race drivers to me! Without you doing your job, the spotters wouldn’t be here and the race crews would be blind.”

 

I don’t know if he believed me or not—I’ve been accused of being disingenuous, a discussion for another forum—but I meant every word I said. I hope he knows that.

 

Everyone was on edge about the weather forecast. All morning and early afternoon, an ominous storm front promised to ruin proceedings. A bank of clouds engulfed the track nearly all afternoon long, after a bright, sunshiny morning.

 

With the race set for a 7 p.m. start time, everyone was hoping for the best but expecting a downpour.

 

Around 6 p.m., the front had begun to subside, and as it weakened, it miraculously spread open into a horseshoe formation.

 

There was torrential rain to the north, west, and south of the greater Nashville area. But Music City and its suburbs looked like they would be spared any heavy rain activity until either late at night, or not at all.

 

A steady drizzle ensued, however. The trucks, all lined up and ready to descend upon the track, were draped in plastic. The drivers wandered around the grounds aimlessly.

 

NASCAR made the decision to send out the jet planes. . . well, sort of.

 

If you’ve ever heard a jet engine, you have literally heard a race track dryer.

 

A turbine engine is fitted to either the back of a large truck, or else mounted onto a trailer. The turbines force air into a large exhaust unit, which concentrates the blast at a favorable angle onto the track.

 

To follow the custom fabrication of such a unit, click here.

 

The track sent out three dryers: a huge trailer-mounted one, on loan from Memphis Motorsports Park; a truck-mounted dryer owned by Nashville Superspeedway; and a final truck-mount from ServiceMaster.

 

As these three behemoths began their slow circuit around the track, race officials further took the step of having a convoy circle the track at high speed, producing further airflow on the concrete surface.

 

Four Toyota Tundras, equipped as fire trucks; two safety team panel trucks; four standard tow trucks; and two flat-bed tow rigs all circled around, doing about 50 or 60 MPH, providing an entertaining “swoosh” as they swept by.

 

Just moments earlier, I had bumped into Tony Garmon, the Pit Road Fire Safety Supervisor. He is in his ninth year of assisting Jim Norman, the speedway Safety Director.

 

Tony is responsible for dispatching the crews who would be responsible for extinguishing any blazes that might erupt on Pit Road, in the garage, or at the fuel depot. He explained that he has a large staff, with a super on the north end of the pits and one on the south.

 

He is also on standby with his huge 50-pound canister extinguisher. He is not afraid to step in and help battle a blaze, but he hopes he never has to.

 

“By the time I get there,” he said ominously, “it’s pretty serious. . . I hope they don’t need me tonight.”

 

I thought about Garmon’s words as his fitted-out red Tundras zoomed around the tracks. I bet we were both hoping not to see his trucks on the track for the rest of the evening.

 

At 7:27, the track was finally dry, and Grand Marshal Sam Bass uttered the immortal words that all race-goers love: “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

 

Even with my ear plugs safely in place, as the 34 trucks all roared to life simultaneously, the guttural war cry was at once both frightening, yet somehow, strangely beautiful.

 

I could smell the noxious fumes of 34 combustion engines going into deflagration at the same moment, with the subsequent springing into life of thousands of pistons, rods and other moving parts that I know only from diagrams in books.

 

At 7:32 p.m., the trucks lumbered off pit row and toward the track. They began to taxi around the race track at subdued speeds.

 

At 7:33, the yellow flag dropped; drivers were placed on high alert.

 

At 7:37, Frank Wycheck, the former Tennessee Oilers/Titans great, dropped the green flag, and to paraphrase Darrell Waltrip, it was time for the boys to go racing!

 

The trucks thundered out of turn four (where I had stationed myself) and I felt trapped by a wall of sound as they prepared to start their 150-lap struggle.

 

Still, I was not prepared for the indescribable concussion produced as 34 drivers each stepped violently on the throttle and wrenched as much explosive thrust as possible

 

A deafening, disorienting rumble ensued, as if hundreds—no, thousands—of steeds were unleashed on the track, their hooves beating like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse come to life.

 

Coming back around off turn four, the No. 17 of Timothy Peters secured the first lap, and I was intrigued by the “shwoop” of each truck as they sped past.

 

As the drivers settled in and hunted for track position, I looked around at the faces on Pit Road. All of the chaos during preparation for the race was gone, and an almost ethereal sense of calm and relief washed over the people I saw.

 

They made me feel more relaxed, too.

 

The trucks disappeared entirely from my view as they hurtled out of turn one. So I fell into listening for them as they roared out of turn two into the backstretch.

 

With all of the truck engines humming in unison, it only took me a few laps to identify what the sound reminded me of.

 

Fittingly enough, the trucks produce a plaintive wail eerily reminiscent of a tornado warning siren; it was if the trucks were telling me, “Hang on for about 12 more seconds, Leroy, we’re going to be on top of you with a vengeance!”

 

Natural selection set in from the very start.

 

The No. 17 of Jason Peters hunts down the stragglers on the lead lap like a lioness. His truck moving so effortlessly, eating the pavement voraciously, and you can sense the opposition nervously eyeing their rear view mirror as he stalks.

 

In the blink of an eye, he is by them, and they are now down a lap. And the process continues as the No. 33 of Ron Hornaday follows suit, having to keep pace with his nemesis in front of him.

 

The competition caution at lap 35 was designed to let NASCAR evaluate tire conditions. I staked out a pit crew to watch what they were doing.

 

Over the wall, in the blink of an eye, left side tires off, then new ones on.

 

Right side of the truck up; tires off; tires on; splash of gas.

 

Seemingly in an instant, they are gone. The truck has new life, and the squealing of the fresh rubber on the pavement indicates the lust to make up ground on the leaders, if adjustments were made properly.

 

After a wreck, I wander over to the garage a few laps later, as Hornaday and Peters seem to be the class of the race. I decided to check out the trucks that were out of the race.

 

J. R. Fitzpatrick, driving the No. 4 Equipment Express Chevrolet, whips off his helmet in obvious disgust.

 

Leroy: “Can you tell me what happened out there?”

 

J. R.: “My radio went out right away. I came in early for repairs, but it still wasn’t working properly.

 

“So I got loose in the turn and hit the wall. . . I tried a new helmet tonight, and I think that screwed us over.”

 

It was almost heartbreaking to watch him pace back and forward between his trailer and the truck, helpless to get his mangled ride back on the track. He had a great truck, too, having qualified in eighth place.

 

No sooner had I finished chatting with Fitzpatrick than an extinguisher truck was out on the infield; was that Tony Garmon or one of his staff?

 

Natural selection does not simply deal with the rule that “the strong survive.”

 

Sometimes, blind chance contributes to the thinning out of a species.

 

If the “species” is NASCAR trucks on Saturday night, it was thinned by one when the No. 12 truck of Mario Gosselin was taken out by the No. 44 of Tommy Joe Martins.

 

“The No. 44 just got loose and wrecked,” he said, obviously anguished. “I had nowhere to go.”

 

After saying that moisture on the track had nothing to do with the wreck—a very light mist had been falling for a few laps by then—he turned away bitterly.

 

It had been a hard night for the team, after qualifying near the back; yet, he still wanted to be out on the track, battling for position and points, rather than standing at the garage talking to me about the mistake some driver had made in front of him.

 

That’s the other side of Victory Lane: there’s got to be 33 losers, and some of them were unable to finish the race through no particular fault of their own.

 

I stayed around the garage for quite some time, impressed by the determination of the race teams to get their trucks back in the race.

 

I watched as the No. 4 team hammered away in desperation at the battered sheet metal on the right side of their truck, and feverishly attempted to re-work the dismantled parts and pieces of the front end.

 

When I returned to the pits, the noise was disconcerting to me. It took a little time to get re-adjusted to the percussive drone of the engines screaming against the concrete.

 

On the oval, Ron Hornaday, Jr. is hiding from the competition in his No. 33 Longhorn Chevrolet Silverado. He got so far in front, at times, it appeared as if he swiped a turbine from one of the track dryers and stashed it in his engine compartment.

 

And I found myself lusting after Hornaday’s every pass. It was that natural selection theme once again; the strong (Hornaday) was stalking the back of the pack, picking them off and shielding himself from his challengers.

 

This led me to watch the rest of the field for excitement; on lap 146, they obliged.

 

On the front straightaway, Blake Freese squeezed his No. 15 truck right into the middle of the track between the 51 of Travis Kvapil and Mike Skinner’s No. 5.

 

A first, it looked as if a wreck would ensue.

 

However, Kvapil and Skinner, being the veterans that they are, made just enough room for the upstart Freese to get in between the two of them.

 

All three dueled until they got to turn one, where Freese edged in front and settled into the low groove next to the infield. When the three trucks powered out of turn four, Freese was firmly ensconced in front of his more experienced antagonists.

 

Such a gutsy, ruthless move. . . for 13th place on the grid at the time!

 

Some people would argue that it was about the points; I say it was clearly about pride.

 

The final drama unfolded on lap 148, when a wreck brought out the final caution flag. Under NASCAR rules, there would be one attempt at green flag racing for two more laps.

 

Hornaday had been nearly wrecked from behind on the last restart by the aggressive Brian Scott in the No. 16 truck; what would happen this time?

 

It just didn’t seem fair, the race coming down to a crap shoot like this. Ron had led 105 out of 148 laps, by as much as 20 truck lengths.

 

Was it really going to come down to this?

 

Driving slower on the track, the remaining trucks combine to emit a noise like a far away airplane drawing closer to my vantage point on the north end of the pits.

 

The drivers pass by me doing their standard caution lap dances, weaving from left to right like a metallic sidewinder, attempting to keep their tires pliable for the last run.

 

It was all anticlimactic in the end. Hornaday’s No. 33 was simply too good today. He got a clean jump on the start, pulled away from his outmanned fellow drivers, and won easily.

 

The result had long ago taken on an air of inevitability.

 

His five wins in a row puts him in ultra-elite territory, with only Bobby Allison and Richard Petty able to claim that distinction with him.

 

And thus ended my experience. It was time for me to scurry to my laptop and file a report while it was still relevant. There was no time to tell everyone my “full” story.

 

That would have to wait for awhile.

 

And as I finally trudged to my car, I thought of how fortuitous it was that the rain had stayed away.

 

I took Couchville Pike to TN I-840, and promptly hit a rain squall so bad that I could barely see. It didn’t matter.

 

Nothing could ruin my mood after an experience that I’ll never forget.

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