A Simple Running Log

June 12, 2014

Training for 6/12/14

Filed under: Uncategorized — aschmid3 @ 1:21 pm

This one’s not about running. It’s about NASCAR.

Yesterday, I was in the office all alone, so I started browsing YouTube, as one does. I searched “Bobby Labonte wins.” Actually, I typed in “Bo” before the rest of it was auto-completed, so that should tell you what my favorite YouTube search is.

I watched his 2003 Ford 400 win at Homestead, which would turn out to be his final Sprint Cup series win. I watched his 2007 Nationwide Series win at Talladega, which would turn out to be his final win in either of NASCAR’s top series. I also watched his roughly 15-minute speech at the annual awards ceremony after he won the 2000 Sprint Cup (then Winston Cup) championship. He doesn’t talk a lot, but when he does, dude is charming as hell.

I also watched something I’d never found on YouTube before – the Miller 500 on June 1, 1997, at Dover International Speedway.

This race was far from a highlight in Bobby’s career, but it’s one of the most memorable live races I’ve ever attended.

I was 14. It would be the last 500-mile race at Dover, as the distance was set to be permanently cut to 400 miles in the September race later that year. My dad surprised my brother and me about a week before the race with two extra tickets. I launched myself at him and gave him a huge hug. Handing me a ticket to a NASCAR race was like giving a normal kid a ticket to Disney World.

Bobby was in his third season driving the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix for Joe Gibbs Racing. He won the pole for the race. I was sure he was going to lead wire-to-wire and win for me.

Side note: I still get giddy at the sight of an Interstate battery. The Jeep we just bought has one, and that made me really happy. NASCAR fans are nothing if not loyal to their favorite driver’s sponsors.

Anyway, for the first 29 laps, my prediction was coming true. Then, on lap 29, Kyle freaking Petty turned Bobby into the outside retaining wall on the backstretch. And just like that, Bobby’s day was over, 471 laps short of the checkered flag. He limped his mangled race car to the garage area for repairs, but he would finish 40th, not in victory lane.

I was gutted. The debris was cleaned off the track, the other drivers all pitted for fresh tires and gas and the fans stood up for the green flag to restart the race. Except me. I was too busy fighting away the tears that were pricking up behind my eyes to care. I really wanted to cry, but you just don’t sob in the stands at a NASCAR race.

Since I’d watched the race live, I didn’t see the TV footage of Bobby in the garage area, watching the crew work on his car. I didn’t hear the TV announcer comment on how dejected he looked, and how the pit road reporter wouldn’t be trying to get an interview with him, because it was better to just leave him with his thoughts. But I saw it on the YouTube video yesterday, and I felt like that 14-year-old kid again, staring at her shoes in the stands at Dover and trying not to burst into tears.

I skipped ahead to the last 50 laps of the race to cheer myself up. As desperately as I’d wanted to leave after Bobby wrecked that day, I was glad I stayed.

In those days, I (and a lot of other fans) was at the height of my “Anyone but Gordon” phase. Holy crap did I hate Jeff Gordon! I hated him almost as much as I loved Bobby.

With 50 laps to go, Dale Jarrett was leading, but Gordon was closing on him fast. That would have been almost too much to handle if Gordon wound up winning.

But! There was a wreck on the backstretch ahead of the leaders. Jarrett saw it and slowed to avoid it. Gordon didn’t, and ran right in the back of Jarrett. His radiator was so badly damaged he had to go to the garage to replace it.

My family’s seats are right across from the entrance to the garage area at the end of pit road. When Gordon made that left turn into the garage, the stands pretty much erupted. The TV announcers even said “Would you listen to that crowd!” while the cameras zoomed in on the throngs of cheering fans. Where we were sitting, I remember a lot of high-fiving and hugging. You’d think we’d just won a war or something.

To this day, that remains the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard at a race, and I was at Dover in Sept. 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first NASCAR race after the terrorist attacks.

I went from the lowest low I could imagine at the time (give me a break, I was 14) to the highest high, all in the span of a couple of hours.

And another side note: Jarrett was able to continue leading after the incident, but his engine blew up about 20 laps later. In spite of how disappointed I’m sure he was, when we all spotted him in the back seat of a Ford Taurus trying to leave the track after the race (this was before all the drivers had private helicopters that took off from the infield), instead of ignoring us, he put down his window and signed autographs while the car inched through the crowd. I got him to sign my ticket, and I told him I’d have given Gordon the finger for rear-ending him like that if my parents hadn’t been sitting there, which made him smile. I always thought that was extremely cool of him.

Anyway, Jarrett’s teammate and my brother’s favorite driver, Ernie Irvan, was leading the race after Jarrett’s engine blew. That is, until Chad Little’s car dropped some oil on the track and Irvan, being the leader, was the first to run through it. He spun out and slammed the wall.

This is another image from that day I’ll never forget: The middle-aged Gordon fan sitting directly in front of us, turning to my 12-year-old brother in his Ernie Irvan shirt, and saying, “Whatsa matter? You gonna cry? Waaahh!” Right in his face! That guy, who we’ve named Fish Lips, still sits right in front of us every year, always in a Gordon shirt.

The race was finally won by Ricky Rudd, who was able to hold off Mark Martin in a very close race over the final laps.

That race had it all. I’ll never argue that Dover’s races should be extended to 500 miles again, but damn was I glad we’d had those extra 100 laps that one last time.

However, watching that race left me feeling a little melancholy. I miss those days so bad. I’ve tried many times to pinpoint why Bobby Labonte means so much to me, and why, even now, when he’s no longer driving, I can’t seem to drum up nearly the same enthusiasm for any other driver.

I wish I could recapture the way I used to obsess over NASCAR. I miss caring about it so much. I think Bobby Labonte would have to be a dominant driver again though. I really don’t think I’ll ever be so dedicated to another driver.

Seeing his sad face after he wrecked at that Dover race 17 years ago made me wonder how he’s feeling right about now. Is he happy he’s not driving anymore? I suspect he’s not. He’s got a marketing firm and a dirt track racing team, and he’s probably getting to spend a lot more time with his family, but the fact he jumped on the chance to drive a car for an underfunded team in a one-race deal at this year’s Daytona 500 makes me think he’d be much happier racing himself.

He didn’t get that “victory tour,” like his older brother Terry did after he announced 2004 would be his last full-time season. Bobby didn’t get to make that decision. It was pushed on him. And that just makes me feel worse.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. Seeing the footage of that race yesterday, for the first time since I saw it happen live, just stirred up all the feelings, I guess. I think I’ll go for a run now.

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