The Accessibility of NASCAR Drivers (And My Favorite Moments With Them)
People always ask me why I like NASCAR.
I always respond, “I don't like NASCAR. I LOVE NASCAR.”
One of the main reasons I love the sport is the accessibility it gives to its fans.
Can you imagine standing on home plate of Chase Field or in the end zone of Giants Stadium?
Unless you're a player or a millionaire (or at a concert, but that's a whole other story), it's not gonna happen.
So when I got into NASCAR and discovered how easy it was to connect to the places and people involved, it was just another reason to fall in love with it.
From autograph sessions at haulers to $10 garage passes to watch the cars get put together, fans can get close—sometimes maybe too close—to their favorite drivers.
I haven't been to many races, but I have had the privilege of having garage passes and encounters outside of the garage with NASCAR drivers, team owners, and personalities.
Here are a few of my favorite encounters, either my own or ones I observed.
Michael Waltrip, LVMS, March 2008
The Neon Garage has a 360-degree view of the entire track, but also of the path from the garage to the track, or the driver's meeting to the haulers.
Raised above the path, I leaned over the railing looking below me at the different people passing by, such as Travis Kvapil, the ESPN cameras surrounding Jeff Gordon (he snuck out of his hauler), and a few others.
I was taking it all in when I saw this big blue speck walking towards the pit road entrance and the fans below starting to scream. Didn't take a genius to put it all together.
Waltrip stopped and signed autographs and waved up to us standing high above him, the yellow NAPA logo brightly shining in the Vegas sun.
Richard Childress, Bellagio Hotel/Casino (Las Vegas), Feb. 2009
Before the race, Childress was standing in line waiting for his limo to take him to the airport where he would take the helicopter to the track.
I was grabbing a cab with my mom to get to the track having learned my parking lesson the year before. As I turned to get into the cab, I elbowed my mom and whispered, “That's Richard Childress!”
What I didn't expect for my mom to say was that she knew the man standing next to him. We left our cab and went over to the limo stand.
Richard was the nicest man, taking sips of coffee in between asking me who my favorite driver was (I told him I rooted for Junior but found Clint Bowyer attractive; he laughed).
We ran into him later on in the garage and he made sure to take a picture with us.
Kurt Busch, Chasers for Charity FanFest/Jimmie Johnson Roast, Dec. 2009
While walking on the red carpet, it was hard to get an autograph, let alone a moment with a driver.
I had recently come to like Busch, a hometown boy who went to the same high school as me. He was a senior when I was a freshman.
(Yes, that also means I went to school with Kyle. He was a sophomore when I was a senior. I have the yearbook pictures to prove it! They are funny...)
When Kurt got to me, I was right behind the media guys screaming his name and a group of little kids on the opposite side. I had to get his attention.
So I went for broke and screamed, “I went to Durango, too!” He came over and signed my autograph book and asked what year I graduated.
The conversation only lasted about 10 seconds, but in the autograph-getting world, that's a lifetime!
By the way, Go BlaZers!
Carl Edwards, LVMS, Feb. 2009
NSCS practice was getting set to start and the drivers were getting in their cars. My mom was standing in front of Edwards' garage watching with her promotional picture in hand.
One of his crew members looked her way and she motioned for an autograph and he shook his head no.
Then all the sudden, my mom saw a hand waving her into the garage. But it wasn't just any hand.
It was Carl's.
Carl motioned her into the garage and the crew member led her by his door. He signed the autograph and she told him how wonderful he was, congratulated him on his wedding, and that they share a birthday.
He said thanks for being a fan and the crew member escorted her out.
Tony Stewart, LVMS, Feb. 2009
On the way to the driver's meeting, I was standing in the path from the haulers to the meeting.
Tony was being swarmed by fans as we all did the “autograph walk.” The guy in front of me stopped walking when he got his autograph (after cutting in line, nonetheless) and I ran into the back of him.
He started screaming at me to watch where I was going when Tony turned to him and said, “She was here first and you stopped walking, not her. You should apologize.”
Tony then took my shirt, autographed it, and apologized on behalf of the man and told me to enjoy the race.
I stood there, shocked. I hadn't really been a Tony fan before, having heard all the stories of him blowing the media and fans off.
The man then turned to me and apologized.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., MIS, Aug. 2008
Junior was swarmed with fans leading from the hauler to his car at the garage.
There were so many fans around him, I could barely see it was him.
I sent my mom in for the autograph so I could take the picture since I was taller. She had gone all the way with the group of fans to the garage.
She came back with an unsigned promotional picture. Well, technically unsigned.
It had a black dot on it. He had put his sharpie to the picture and his “bodyguard” told everyone to leave. My mom begged for the autograph but the muscleman told her, “Maybe next time.”
(By the way, the picture is from the actual event. I'm the person all the way to left in the background. My mom's head is poking out from behind Dale's left shoulder. I never knew this picture existed!)
Chad Knaus, MIS, Aug. 2008
Chad is my “I wish I had the guts when I had the chance” meeting.
After the Junior incident, I stood by his garage waiting for the chance to get an autograph (it didn't happen). While I was waiting, Chad, with no one around him, walked from the No. 48 hauler to the garage, just a few stalls down from the No. 88.
I'm by no means a huge Jimmie Johnson fan, but for some reason I'm a Chad Knaus fan. And apparently, I'm such a huge Chad fan, I was too star-struck to walk up to him to get an autograph or a picture.
Since then, with the success of his team, Chad has never been alone.
I even made a deal with Anne-Marie, Miss Sprint Cup, to help set up a quick hello for me at the Jimmie Johnson Roast, only Chad wasn't there.
If I had a time machine, I would go back to that day at MIS and get the guts to walk up to him. Who knows what 2010 will bring for the No. 48 team and he may not be alone for five more years!
-Greg Zipadelli signed an autograph for me without ever stopping the conversation he was in or even turning around to look at me.
-I saw Rusty Wallace and Larry McReynolds sitting next to each other outside of a NASCAR hauler. I was in such awe of their history and presence that I just watched them and wondered what I would say if I had the guts to actually go up to them.
-I had the chance to spend some time with Brad Keselowski's No. 25 GoDaddy.com crew, who were more than happy to take pictures and sign autographs for anyone who asked.
-A group was swarming around me and I had no idea why. My friend said, “There's that one announcer guy. He wrote a book.” It was Jeff Hammond and I had no clue who he was (at the time).