A NASCAR Fan’s Race for the Chase…
11/9/14 Michelle Hoskin
September 11-14, Joliet Illinois, Chicagoland Speedway – MyAFibStory.com 400
From the sights and smells, to the ear deafening sounds, it doesn’t get any better than this for a true race fan… If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit a ‘hot’ garage area during the NASCAR Chase season, I hope this will give you a wide-eyed fan’s perspective of what we experienced.
Arrival 8:00 p.m. Arriving at Chicagoland Speedway on the eve of Thursday, September 11th, we set-up camp in the Geico Park Lakeside campgrounds, just inside Chicagoland Speedway. Literally…we had a 4 room tent to set-up, in the dark, wind, rain, with temps in the 40’s, but one thing is for certain, we wouldn’t have traded it for anything. ‘We’ being my great friend Angie Witherby (Indiana native & breast cancer survivor) and myself, Michelle. Angie and I never even met each other until this adventure mind you. We ‘met’ at MIS Speedway at a Tony Stewart Meet and Greet in June of this year. Though we never actually met until Chicago, we had an instant bond on Facebook and now have a friendship that will probably outlast our obsession: NASCAR, and by NASCAR, we mean Tony Stewart.
9:00 a.m. After a hilarious night of freezing, laughing, frequent port-a-john trips in the dark, and getting to know our camp-ground neighbors, we were about to embark on our journey into Chicagoland Speedway. Obtaining our Hot-passes for the weekend on the cold morning of September 12, thanks to another great friend and NASCAR sponsor, we entered the Hot Garage area (insert raised eyebrows, tongues wagging, and bulging eyes here…). We felt like we had just won the lottery! From nearly getting run over, not once, but twice, by Jeff Gordon and his #24 Chevy and attending the pre-race driver and crew chiefs meeting, to attending the Winner’s Circle celebration after Brad Keselowski won the race, we experienced everything a NASCAR fan could dream up. BUT, there was also a downer moment or two…
11:30 a.m. – 6:45 p.m. Still freezing, but now things are starting to heat up in the garage area! One by one the drivers start to arrive to begin their practice rounds. They arrive through a security clad gate from the motor-home lot (which I now know are called Buses by the seasoned NASCAR vets…), to a sea/swarm of media and hot-pass laden fans just hoping to grab an autograph and/or a selfie. Some will stop and happily sign for the fans and some keep up their fast steady walk/run pace to their garage stalls, quickly signing for their fans that can keep up with them. Never having been this up-close and personal with the drivers, it’s actually almost surreal at times. It’s like we see them on t.v. week in and week out, making a bunch of left turns, occasionally hit a wall (or another driver), but to finally get a chance to talk/walk with them is something I won’t soon forget. The autographs today: Gordon, Vickers, Harvick, Dale Jr., Kurt & Kyle Busch, Biffle, Bowyer, Nelson Stewart (Yes, Tony’s Dad), Tony Stewart, Gilliland, Truex, Ambrose, and Larson. We also watched the NSCS qualifying from the pit area and loved every second of it.
As any NASCAR fan knows, the sights, sounds and smells of racing are those which one never forgets – and start to crave. Between the smell of oil, burning rubber, and fuel, the sounds of those engines and the horsepower they posses is almost mind altering. When those engines start to fire in the garage area, it is deafening. You can feel it in the pit of your stomach, see it in your wide eyes, and taste it in your mouth. When The #24 car came within 2 inches of my foot (for the 2nd time…), I quickly became seasoned and started to watch a little closer where I was walking! The driver’s have limited time and even vision in those machines and it is up to US to do the watching.
After this exhausting day, we head to the local Walmart to purchase extra sleeping bags, hats, gloves, snacks, and lanterns…and to finally get something to eat (Taco Bell per Angie’s request). That night, tucked away in our freezing tent, I start to think back to the day’s events and realize the magnitude of a couple things I experienced. I no longer despise Jeff Gordon and Nelson Stewart is one heck of a guy.
Watching NASCAR through the years, one tends to develop likes and dislikes. I somehow gravitated towards disliking Jeff. My motto was, “ANYONE but Gordon”. Not due to any particular reason, just probably because he is a fierce driver (and was somewhat arrogant in my mind) who gave some healthy competition to my favorites through the years (Mark Martin & Tony Stewart). Fighting with myself mentally, I started realize, hey, Jeff’s not all THAT bad. He took the time to stop and talk, laugh and joke while signing my jacket and didn’t make me feel like I was impeding on his time. And YES, I did thank him for his time and YES I did tell him he reformed this former ‘hater’… he again laughed and said that he was glad he could persuade me into NOT hating him anymore – to which I replied, don’t push it. ☺
Nelson Nelson Nelson. Where do I start? Having followed Tony Stewart since the 1990’s, I know a lot of useless trivia about him. After getting an autograph by the Holy one himself, I was tapped on the shoulder and asked “How did you get him to sign something so early in the morning before a practice, he’s usually a Bear in the mornings…?” I turned around and to my surprise, there stood Nelson. I said “Oh my God, you’re Nelson Stewart!” – He laughs and say’s “I am?” From there I explain to him how I illegally entered the ‘hot’ garage stall and candidly ‘begged’ Tony to sign my jacket, after shoving a Sharpie in his hand. I ended up staying there (SURPRISE, lol) and talking with Nelson for over an hour and asked him to also sign my jacket next to his son’s signature, which he proudly did. I learned a lot about him and his son during that time and even got asked to lunch/dinner – Yes, he’s a bad flirt. Another highlight of my time spent with Nelson was almost getting backed over by Smoke…Nelson quickly warned, “Honey, he don’t see us back here, we got’s to move!” – But luckily his spotter guides the Chevy out of the stall and misses us by a foot…lol
8:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Warming up a bit – maybe it will hit the 60’s, but very overcast and looks like rain. We roam the garage area and pit stalls ALL day. We did break away long enough for a tail-gate style BBQ with our sponsors today. Autographs: EVERYONE else, including: Waltrip, Petty, Johnson, Whitt, Mears, Kahne, Edwards, Hamlin, Max, Burton, Allgaier, Kenseth, Burton, Logano, Almirola, Allmendinger, Menard, McMurray, Labonte, Annett, and Newman. Probably missing some, but some were illegible. We were invited to go on top of Justin Allgaier’s hauler and view the track from 360* – our only warning was, “be careful up there ya’ll, I don’t have insurance on ya’s”. A very talented driver and sweet ‘kid’.
View from on top of Justin Allgaier’s Hauler
We had Michael Waltrip wiggle his butt for us (DWTS style) while he walked up the stairway to his MW team hauler. We again chatted with Nelson for a time and Angie made quite the impression on him. She wore a custom made “Future Mrs. Tony Stewart” t-shirt. Nelson, in turn, got a good laugh about it and proceeded to mention he was also indeed single and added to my jacket, above his signature, “Future Mrs.”… later in the day after practices were over, I had Tony resign my jacket and asked him to sign NEXT to his Dad’s…He says, “My Dad signed your jacket, cool” – I said, “Yeah, now read what he wrote already…” He reads and starts laughing and says, “Where is my Dad and what did you do to him??” I reply, “Don’t worry about it, SON”. #PRICELESSMEMORY. What a day, the good and the bad.
Tony Stewart, Me – Garage
The infamous jacket…
The Bad… Angie waited well over an hour after practices ended to hopefully get Danica Patrick to sign her Breast Cancer flag for her Oncologist back home. Danica being an ambassador for breast cancer awareness and Angie in obvious cancer treatment, we figured Danica would happily sign the flag. We were wrong. Sadly, she first ignored Angie’s request, then when Angie said it was for her Oncologist, Danica grabbed the flag, rolled her eyes, signed it, and tossed it back to her, walking away quickly, not even mumbling a word to Angie. I understand being busy and having to deal with fans all the time, but…there were no other fans around and the garage was quiet. *NOTE: GoDaddy and Danica have since made amends by placing Angie’s name on Danica’s car for an October race and mailing Angie a signed #10 car and 2 photos – which Angie also gave to her Oncologist.
Angie’s name on Danica’s car
Back at our camp site for the night we were greeted by half of the tent being blown down due to the storms and the inside being soaked and blown around! After rearranging the tent, taking cold showers, and getting the generator working (thanks to our neighbors), we tried to dry off and get settled in for the night! Laughing ourselves to sleep, with the help of prescription sleep aids for Angie, we finally drifted off, clad in winter jackets, mittens, and hats. Oh what a sight we were.
9/14/14 (Sunday – RACE DAY)
8:00 a.m. – Departure. We were informed to be at the track no later than 8:00 a.m., by our sponsors, for a few surprises that we knew nothing about ahead of time. We took the tram to the track and arrived to meet our sponsors. To our surprise, they had arranged for us to take Pace car rides with retired NASCAR driver, Brett Bodine! We each went separately and it was AMAZING. He averaged approximately 145 – 150 mph and gave us rides that we will never forget! I swore, laughed and asked him if he was purposely aiming for the wall on Turn 4! The G-Force pulls you closer and closer to that damn wall and you feel like you are being pulled into it and fighting not to hit it. He said It was “a hell of a way to make a living”, when asked how he did this week after week…he added, “Now add 42 other cars, another 50 mph, and a championship ring on the line…” – I have to admit, my respect for the drivers increased 10-fold. Don’t let anyone EVER tell you that NASCAR isn’t a physically and mentally demanding sport, though figuring out which is more demanding may be the problem.
Me, Brett Bodine, Angie Witherby – After our pace car rides
11:00 a.m. Driver/Crew Chief Meeting. Next on our list of surprises for the day was being able to attend the Driver & Crew Chief meeting and what a privilege it was. We got to find out what exactly is said to the drivers/chiefs before they head out to the track for the race. They say a prayer, go over the rules, and discuss any pertinent information. To be in a closed off area with that magnitude of talent all in one place was an incredible experience. Upon exiting the meeting, we walked the ‘red carpet’ with the drivers and chiefs, laughing as people snapped pictures and were probably wondering who in the heck these two star-struck ladies were.
Driver/Crew Chief Meeting
12:30 p.m. Driver Introductions. Watching the driver introductions was a thrill. We were able to get a front row spot to stand next to the stage as the drivers were introduced. All the drivers were reaching out to touch the hands of the fans and were very cordial to everyone. The cheers were deafening, the camera phones were snapping, and the intensity was unreal. Kevin Harvick had his 2 year old son Keelan with him, Dale Jr. gave his Mountain Dew bottle to a young fan next to us, and Justin Allgaier high-fived his “Homie” Angie as he walked by!
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Driver Introductions
RACE TIME. Well, the climax of our trip was about to start. We were invited/allowed into the pit of the #14 car to view the race with his Dad, friends, and crew. Having never been in the position to watch a race, we were again awed. We were told to watch for anything that could be dangerous…such as flames/fire when the cars come in to pit and to run if needed ☺ We wandered the pit area now and then, watched the big screen to see where our drivers were placing, and talked to various pit crew members from the teams of Hamlin and Mears. The intensity when Stewart came in to pit was unbelievable. The crew members were all in their perspective spots when he roared in, each knowing each other’s routine to a T. Hardly a word was said during the actual pit, they let their actions and expertise speak for them. Tires flying, air-guns running, fuel splashing everywhere…what sights, sounds, and smells we observed! The average pit stop took about 12-14 seconds, respectively.
Nelson Stewart in the #14 Pit
VICTORY LANE. Well, Brad Keselowski won the MyAfibSory.com race. Not being a huge fan of Brad, it was bittersweet – but sweet none the less! We were invited into Winner’s Circle/Victory Lane as our final surprise for the weekend. Between the confetti flying, champagne cork popping, and the cheers from the crowd, Keselowski provided us with a show none the less. He had become the first in Chase to be guaranteed a spot for the next round. Being born and raised in Michigan myself, this was actually pretty awesome to see seeing so was our winner. Maybe one day he can also persuade me to not dislike him so much… ☺
Angie and Me – Victory Lane
Brad Keselowski – Victory Lane