Posts Tagged Brendan Gaughan
This column runs in the Spring 2020 issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country
As I am writing this column, qualifying for the pole at the Daytona 500 is being televised. So many changes this year; drivers switching teams, younger drivers coming in from other NASCAR tiers and legends racing for their final year. One of my favorites is hanging up his helmet – Brendan Gaughan.
I first “unofficially” met Brendan at a Texas Motor Speedway press conference back in Summer of 2013 when he was racing in the Camping World Truck Series. He was alongside fellow racer twenty-two-year-old Joey Coulter who was fifteen years younger so he kidded about himself being “old” in racing. I raised my hand. “What do you consider old?” I asked. Without skipping a beat, he responded, “Me!” I decided at that moment I had found the truck driver to root for!
Later that year NASCAR came back for the fall races. It was a sunny fall day when I hiked to the parking lot where the truck haulers were lined up providing an outside work area since the Cup and Nationwide cars had the two garages. There was the #62 South Point Hotel and Casino truck; over the driver’s door, the signature Brendan Gaughan. I craned my neck trying to see in the open hood without touching the truck. “Looking for anything in particular?” a familiar voice asked. I turned and it was Brendan. “uhhh… is this where the carburetor is?” I followed it with a laugh and explained that I knew nothing about what’s under a hood!
That night I got to hang at pit row thanks to my media pass. Brendan was doing last minute checks on his truck, then gave his wife Tatum a kiss and she headed to the pit stand pushing one of his sons in a stroller. He looked across and waved hi to me looking quite different in his racing uniform. “Good luck tonight!” I shouted. He finished 4th in the race.
The following spring, I contacted Brendan’s media person to request an interview with him. As a freelancer, I was appreciative of those who were willing to talk to me and there were many who would not grant one-on-one interviews. I explained to her the carburetor story. She said she would check with Brendan and get back to me. Several weeks later, I met Brendan at Fuzzy’s in the TMS Pit. He was now racing a car instead of a truck. I started off assuring him that I wouldn’t ask the typical girl question about how they used the bathroom while racing. Instead I pulled out my University of Houston “Phi Slama Jama” Tee-shirt. My Cougars had lost to the Georgetown Hoyas in the NCAA finals in 1984. Brendan played basketball for Georgetown in the 90s. Yes, I had done my homework. He burst out laughing. “Yes, we slama’d your jama!” he confirmed.
We talked about so many other things in addition his racing – his family, being a high school football All-American and a placekicker at Georgetown, scuba diving, skiing at his second home in Colorado, our common love of “The Doors” music and his future employment, helping run the family casino in Las Vegas. I asked Brendan what was on his bucket list. With a smile perfect for a toothpaste commercial, he responded, “Life is….”
Each season he raced at TMS, we’d exchange “high 5’s” or a hug. He went through many looks – mustache, beard and even a hint of sideburns like his early racing years. One time when Brendan was doing an appearance at the midway, a fan asked him if he participated in Fantasy Racing. Gaughan bragged about his fantasy team and how many fans were with him on Twitter getting advice each week. He pointed to me in the audience. “Just ask Carlotta! She’s on my team!” Yes! I not only had me a driver; he knew me by name!
Last month NASCAR returned to Texas. The first sign of life at the track was the miniature city of RVs and tents which spouted up around the perimeter starting the week before. Wednesday night found the haulers for the truck series scheduled in followed by the ones for Nationwide the next morning — or so the published schedule claimed. I camped out on the pedestrian bridge early Thursday to gets pictures and hear the toot toot of my friend Eloy’s hauler. After an hour of no movement from the staging area, I texted Eloy asking how much longer it would be — I needed a bio break! He texted back, “LOL — well, I’m going to Walmart to do a little shopping – go ahead and pee.” It turned out the times had been changed to the evening. The wait was worth it as we watched the parade of lighted transporters against the backdrop of the setting sun and later the darkness.
Friday’s fun included watching practices and qualifying. With the purchase of our pit passes, we had a pretty good view as the cars zoomed out of the garage area and onto the track. However, as the day went on, the crowd cloned. Grown men literally knocked over women to get a look at their driver. On tippy-toes, I finally found safe haven and a good view from atop a barricade. Speaking of barricades, one separated me from one of my favs, Brendan Gaughan. “Hey! Brendan!” I shouted. When he saw it was me, he backed up and reached across the barrier giving me a bear hug. “Did you get a picture of my bear hug?” I excitedly asked my husband. “No, I was waiting to take one of Matt’s car. It was then I discovered we had way too many favorites.
The fun of race weekend is meeting other fans. While watching the cars practice, I chatted with a photographer standing next to me. I detected a Midwest accent so I asked him where he was from. “Hi… Larry…east side of Cleveland, “ he replied as he extended his free hand. I laughed and pointed at my husband. “Meet Rick….west side of Cleveland. They proceeded to talk Buckeyes and Browns football with Larry photographing the cars at the same time. There also was an “older” red-head who I spotted chasing down a golf cart containing Carl Edwards. Upon meeting her the following day, I found that Shirley was just as avid a motorsports fan as me. She was thrilled when I told her I had captured a pic of her with Edwards. My favorite fan was a little boy named Landon. I asked him who his driver was. “My uncle,” he replied. The uncle turned out to be Nationwide driver Jamie Dick who came over and gave him a hug. Since the race was during football season, there was a mix of fans wearing their favorite team or player jersey. Although, Jerry Jones claims to own “America’s team,” Cowboy fans were outnumbered by the Saints, Broncos, Texans, Bears, Packers and Steelers in the apparel wearing department. Those most fun to view were the couples who wore different NASCAR drivers apparel. Interesting combinations made for jabbing at their spouses in the stands. Although Rick and I are miles apart on football teams, we do like the same drivers.
Prior to the races, I talked to pit crews and officials as they set up and prepared their areas. As I entered pit row, I spotted my Twitter friend Chris Taylor, rear tire changer for Matt Kenseth. Despite being entrenched in a sea of tires, he snuck in a cute grin as our cameras clicked away. Further down, I spotted a female checking tires for the #66. During a quick chat, I learned from Liz that she was the only female on a Cup pit crew. A few yards away from her, I met up with Kevin, an official in a bright orange jumpsuit. He camps out at the pit in case of fire. I told him about witnessing a fire last year when Kenseth’s car had one during a pit stop. Yes, Kevin has job security. An interesting stop was at a computer display lined up with the start/finish line. NASCAR official Dona Harris explained that the equipment measured where each driver was in the race. She said it was the equivalent of a photo/finish shot at a horse race. Towards the end of our pit row stroll, I had my “This could only happen to me” moment. I got to a pit area which had a smaller number of tires and I turned to Rick and said, “This is one of the smaller teams not in the limelight.” A nice-looking tall, lanky guy approached us so I said, “Now, what is your job on the team?” He smiled… “I am the driver….” he replied. I composed myself. “Are you going to be changing into a racing uniform?” I asked while pointing at his black slacks. Hello to #33 Timothy Hill. Needless to say, the other crew member was amused. The rest of the day I kept thinking to myself, “Where do I know that Hill guy from?” (Upon googling I found that he had rear-ended MY driver during a caution earlier in the year!) On the way to our seats, I passed a display of the bracket for the Chase. The drivers’ names and numbers had Velcro backs so fans could post their individual predictions. After I reset the display, I posed for Rick. He handed me the camera saying, “Did the picture come out?” As I looked at the picture, up walked George Reba, sports with WFAA TV. As the cameraman filmed, Reba questioned me on how the bracket worked, and then asked me my favorite driver. Meanwhile, I still had Rick’s camera in my hand behind me frantically waving it to Rick in hopes of getting a picture with George! After the interview, George said he planned to run the segment on the late sports.
Our seats were in the center of the row and the people on each end were not very accommodating. One time I was forced atop the seat panel and I teetered with uncertainty with each step I took over the jackets, blankets and food on the bleacher. One guy reached over to help me and caught his heel in the bench, then fell into the next row. It’s probably the last time he will ever come to anyone’s rescue. The race itself was rather boring until the last five laps when Brad Keselowski wrecked crowd favorite Jeff Gordon. This led to a brawl on pit row with the two drivers and their crews after the conclusion of the race and our seats were right across from the melee! When I got home, I stayed up until after midnight to watch a rerun of the sports. Alas, the clips with George were axed to cover the fight on pit row.
This exclusive with Brendan Gaughan appeared in the May Hill Country Happenings
The first time I met Brendan Gaughan was June 2013 when he was in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in Texas. It was my first truck series to cover and a press conference was held with him and Joey Coulter, fifteen years his junior. When I asked him what was considered as “old” in truck racing, he grinned and replied, “Me!” To me, mature drivers were more reliable and less apt to do something dumb “to make something happen.” I knew I had found “my” driver. Brendan did well during the race until he spun his tires on the last re-start and settled for 5th place. Our paths crossed again last November when NASCAR was back in North Texas. I was at Brendan’s truck and an inspector was clarifying to me that what I thought was the engine was actually the carburetor. I heard a snicker and turned to find Brendan standing there. Wanting to overshadow my naivety of car parts and knowing he had played basketball at Georgetown, I switched subjects to the hoops. I was defeated there also when Gaughan reminded me about how his Hoyas had taken the “slama” out of my Houston Cougars “jama” in the National Championship in 1984. He did very well in the race with a fourth place finish and ended the season in seventh place for the truck standings. For the year he had thirteen top ten finishes with ten of those in the top five.
I was pleasantly surprised when the announcement came that Gaughan would be driving fulltime in the Nationwide series this year. He was keeping his number 62 and his father’s hotel, South Point in Las Vegas, would be his sponsor. Last month when NASCAR returned to North Texas, I had the opportunity to sit down with Brendan and I learned there’s a lot more to him than his stock car racing. I began the interview with presenting him with my “Phi Slama Jama” tee-shirt from 1984 and a black sharpie. He chuckled as he scribed, “Hoyas AXA … Brendan 62 Gaughan .“ That out of the way, we started our chat. It was like two old friends at a high school reunion.
Growing up in Vegas, his dad, who dirt-raced as a hobby, took Brendan to desert races and the boy was immediately hooked on off-road racing. I asked him, “Have you ever flipped over and thought while airborne… now I’ve really done it!?!” His face lit up. His first rollover was at age fifteen. He not only turned upside down, he did it several times! “I knew, thanks to JC Dean, to get that seatbelt released right away!” Not only was Brendan into racing during his teenage years, he also was an All-American in high school football.
His college years found him at Georgetown University earning a business management degree. Between studies he shared the court with NBA great Allen Iverson when the basketball team made it to the Elite Eight. He also kicked for the Hoyas football team. He was their placekicker and very good … perfection almost every time the ball left his toe. “Almost?” I questioned. “I couldn’t believe it! I missed the last kick of my career!” he groaned. Brendan’s talents don’t end there; he is also certified to teach scuba diving. One of his favorite places to dive is Socorro Island off of Mexico. He showed me a picture of himself with a Manta Ray, an underwater creature which appeared much bigger than him. I cringed. I told him I still had my fear of man-of-war and jelly fish lurking in the gulf at Galveston. He assured me that the Manta Rays are not like that.
As you can see, Gaughan could have gone many directions with a career including working in the family casino business. Instead Brendan followed his passion for racing. How lucky to be making a living doing what you love, not many can. He loves it all – desert riding, dirt tracks, ovals and my passion, the road courses. He even likes the pesky bumps at Texas Motor Speedway at Turn 2 and between Turns 3 and 4 caused by the tunnels under the track. What he doesn’t love are re-paved tracks like Michigan’s. His Crew Chief, Shane Wilson, provides a seamless transition from trucks to cars, as the two worked in tandem last year. According to Brendan, the car is practically the same as the truck with the exception of the position of the windshield. Gaughan’s goal is to bring Richard Childress Racing their second consecutive championship. “Speaking of winning, what about times you have a teammate who is in position to get a win? Do you give them the push which will enable their victory?” I asked. “If I have a good enough car to win, I race to win,” he replied. “You earn respect,” he continued. “There are those out there that don’t have it.” “Any names?” I prodded. He shook his head sideways.
Although Brendan grew up listening to Classic Rock like the Doors thanks to his older brothers, his heart has always been with Classic Country. He also loves “spaghetti westerns” and treasures moments when he can catch Bonanza reruns. Off-season, he enjoys time with his wife Tatum and two boys Michael and William at their home in Vail. He bragged that his son Michael is already quite a skier. Athleticism has carried on to the next generation. In March, Brendan lost one of his biggest supporters. His grandfather, Jackie Gaughan, who was the last of the founding fathers of Las Vegas, passed away at the age of ninety-three. Jackie was buried in true Irish fashion with bagpipes on St. Patrick’s Day. As we got ready to end the interview, I asked Brendan what was on his bucket list. With a smile perfect for a toothpaste commercial, he responded, “Life is….”
NASCAR weekend is not complete without real action!! Thanks to EJ Coleman and Jimmy Hurd of Ingersoll Rand for helping me with the lug nuts experience. click here for the action. (and there are more videos at the end of the pictures)
There’s more to RCR’s Brendan Gaughan than just racing! My fun one-on-one with the South Point driver will be in the May issue of HCH. Here’s a preview!
IN THE PIT
BEING A FAN IS WHAT NASCAR IS ALL ABOUT
IT’S ALL ABOUT RACING
CARS, CARS AND MORE CARS
Check out these action videos!
Restart under the lights.
Unusual Start — Race started with track still being dried
The track is dry — Let’s go racing!!
Last month was the final month in the Chase Championship for NASCAR, and Texas Motor Speedway was host to the third from the last race. The two leaders, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, were tied and it was apparent that the stage was set for a showdown in Texas. A media center display of all the contenders titled DEADLOCKED with #20 and #48 barrels positioned to blow up conveyed the importance around the TMS race. Needless to say, this sportswriter was beyond “in her element” with one of her favorite drivers right in the mix!
Day 1 — Unlike June when only the trucks and Indy cars were there for the two garage areas, the trucks and their humongous haulers took over the Infield Parking Paddock leaving media parking at slim pickins’. Because of a further walk to the Media Center, this necessitated my carrying everything I might need throughout the day. Due to anticipated temperature changes throughout the day, I looked like I needed my own hauler as I started the trek from my car with my “stuff.” Once settled in my work area and after perusing the schedule, I retraced my steps to the “garage” area and watched the process for NASCAR inspection of the trucks.
There were inspectors everywhere — some measuring the trucks and some under hoods inspecting parts. Parts were sealed and once qualified the truck was impounded until the race the next day. I paused at Brendan Gaughan’s truck as an inspector finished scrutinizing a large part. “Did his engine pass?” I inquired. The inspector grinned. “This here is the carburetor” and then went into a long explanation of what he was looking for. I heard a snicker and turned to find Brendan standing there. Wanting to overshadow my naivety of car parts and knowing my favorite truck driver had played basketball at Georgetown, I switched subjects to the hoops. I was defeated there also when Gaughan reminded me about former Hoya coach John Thompson and company taking the “slamma” out of my “jamma” Houston Cougars.
Following inspections, there were two truck practices. We bailed during the second, as we needed to get home to give out the seven bags of candy to our six Trick or Treaters!
Day 2 — The morning started out sadly with the announcement of Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Marketing Director Marcy Scott’s battle with cancer ending in her passing. Not only had she interacted with several of my peers in the media, but at one time was Matt Kenseth’s PR person. The sharing of Marcy stories ended with the arrival of Sprint Cup driver Martin Truex, Jr. He was there to end weeks of speculation of whom he would be driving for next year — Furniture Row. The next arrival was Matt Kenseth. One of the questions asked was how he felt knowing that “some fans are rooting for you to win the championship because they’re rooting against Jimmie Johnson.” He smiled and explained that’s how sports are and went into how some fans root for a dynasty and some for the underdog. He looked across the room. The “dynasty” had just entered – Jimmie Johnson. Matt fielded some more questions, and as he left the room, the two shared a friendly handshake. Despite the demeanor some other drivers portrayed in competition, those two men had the upmost respect for each other, both on and off the track. As with Matt, the reporters’ hype with Johnson was around the “intense battle.” Jimmie assured all he and Matt were friends off the track and shared many of the same values including family, being laid back, and foremost, respect for each other when it came to racing. Following JJ was Kyle Busch. I wanted to ask him how it felt being booed during introductions but thought better of it. Instead, my fascination was on how he hoped to sweep all three races at Texas. The interviews ended just as Andy Hall, PR at ESPN, arrived to take Rick and me on a tour of the ESPN Production Complex located outside the race stands.
Our first stop was the area containing wardrobe for all the on-air personalities as well as the roving pit reporters for ESPN. Each garment bag was neatly labeled and contained different colored outfits for each day. I found out that roving reporter Dr. Jerry Punch was really a medical doctor who had saved driver Rusty Wallace’s life back in 1989. Now the two were working alongside each other at ESPN. Attached to the large tent was a hauler containing offices and a conference room. Adjacent were several haulers containing massive rolls of cables. We climbed the stairs to one of them and found ourselves inside the “brains” of the production. Lined on one wall were seventy-five monitors for HD cameras positioned for the races. These supported in-car cameras, manned cameras, handheld, robotic on-track, robotics in Pit Studio, Crewcams, pit overheads, Jib cameras, Grasscam, POV cameras including the announcing booth, race control, flag stand and Chopper Cam. Monitors were dedicated to the leaders as well as competing drivers, in-car and pit stalls. There were two rows of seats where the producer, director and staff monitored all the camera shots for their immediate use on live TV. Even though there was nothing going on while we were in there, I felt the still air of intensity in the room. Andy pointed out that the challenge in covering motorsports was that there were no breaks in the action like in baseball between innings and football with halftime. He explained that in addition to catching all the action, there had to be a balance when running ads. That is why you rarely see shots of people in the stands. Andy also explained how the sun can cause disruption with the satellites especially in the fall. From there, we headed back into the pit area to the production hauler for on-air personalities. We climbed up the stairs and entered into the actual set for Countdown to NASCAR and the race. I timidly asked if I could sit in Nicole Briscoe’s chair. Once settled in, I smiled at the three cameras positioned and felt right at home.
Andy and Rick chuckled when I offered to sit in for Nicole, who was going out on maternity leave. After the tour was a working lunch and more interviews with Darrell Wallace, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick and Nationwide Championship Leader, Austin Dillon. I felt the generation gap during Darrell’s interview when he shared that he didn’t even have a driver’s license when he started racing. He said the coolest thing he had experienced so far was being asked to appear on Arsenio Hall (and not knowing who he was) as well as being followed on Twitter by Tyler Bates. The rest of the afternoon was busy on the track with qualifying for the trucks, the Sprint Cup cars and final practice for Nationwide cars. Meanwhile pit row was sprouting up crew chief stands for the truck series that evening. In qualifying, the spring’s race winner, Jeb Burton, grabbed the pole for trucks. Later Carl Edwards won his first Sprint Cup pole at Texas.
A fall chill encompassed the air as the truck drivers took to the track for the WinStar World Casino race. Ty Dillon dominated the race leading all but seventeen laps. Brendan finished fourth.
Day 3 – The morning was spent roaming the Nationwide garage during inspection, watching those cars qualify and the Sprint cars practice twice. Easy on the eyes Travis Pastranais (and 17-time medal winner at the X Games) was being interviewed in the Nationwide garage area after qualifying 39th. “I really need a win” he told FOX Sports’ Herme Sadler. I am not the Einstein of racing, but I thought to myself, “He needs to quit being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” collecting six DNFs (Did not finish) this year.
Also, during my garage visit, I met the oldest active driver in NASCAR, Morgan Shepherd. The rough faced seventy-one year old looked discouraged as he climbed out of his #89. Unless there were a couple of wrecks during qualifying, he would not see action in the race. Back at the media center, there was a collective gasp while we were monitoring on TV the practice session as Jimmie Johnson’s car brushed the wall. I bolted out of my chair and back up to track to assess the damage. The champion had dodged a bullet.
Thank goodness the Nationwide race was in the afternoon, as I was already worn out trying to keep up with who was doing what and when. Several drivers were participating in both the race that day and the Sprint Cup the next day. Last year’s cup winner, Brad Keselowski ,a participant in all three Texas races, won the Nationwide race later that afternoon.
Day 4 – Despite gaining an hour of sleep with the time-change, I didn’t get much rest since Rick had to be back at the track early for his pace-car ride with Landon Cassill, a driver for both car series. Claire B Lang of SiriusXM rode in the front seat interviewing Landon as they did laps around the track. Unfortunately, there were cables crossing the track for the pre-race ceremonies so they did not get up to the high speeds I experienced in the spring. I found a crew member setting up the crew chief stand for Matt Kenseth. I always wanted to sit in one. The next thing I knew I was climbing the vertical ladder with the guy pleading for me to be careful. All I can say is the view is much better from Jason Ratcliff’s chair!!
We headed next to the Sprint Cup garage where inspections had started. Surprisingly, many of the crew chiefs and crews were approachable. I had my picture taken with Jason Ratcliff and several of the cars waiting for inspection. One thing I discovered was that the headlamps and taillights were actually decals instead of the real thing. Multitudes of fans were gathering in the garage area and NASCAR rep Laura Finley was caught in the middle of the crowd control. “Please, if you’re not with the team, stay behind the yellow line.” As I started to step back, she said, “You’re fine.” I thought to myself, “I love this job!” The next hour was spent back at the media center posting pictures and updates on Facebook and Twitter. It was then I found out that Claire had aired my post-race question to Brad the night before on SiriusXM. I was so glad that inquiring about changing shadows and the setting sun on the track wasn’t such a dumb question after all! It was soon race time so it was back out to the track for pre-race ceremonies. Rick positioned himself at the photographers’ well at Turn 1 while I wandered up and down the pit. During the race, I ventured up to the grandstands to look for Hill Country’s Denise LeMeilleur attending the race.
Out of breath from the long climb to row sixty, I reached her row to find she was not there! On the return trip, I ran into Denise coming from her car carrying blankets. Yes, the cold front had arrived! Back in the warm media center, I watched the rest of the race. The media center crowd is supposed to remain unbiased during the race, but it was hard to miss the massive groan when contender Kenseth received a speeding penalty on pit row on Lap 175. This meant him repositioning to the end of the cars on the lead lap. This would come back to haunt him by race’s end. Despite his fast car, Matt could not make up the lost time the rest of the race. His fourth place finish saw him plunge to second place in the Chase, making strong finishes and preferably wins imperative at Phoenix and Homestead for the Chase title. Jimmie Johnson won the race.
How does the story end? Brendan & I are now twittering back and forth about college basketball, Travis “retired” from his brief stint in NASCAR and Jimmie added another title to his racing resume, never looking back after leaving Texas. A disappointed Kenseth ended up the bridesmaid and left his fans thinking “What Ifs” around the Texas race. I am still eating Halloween candy. And Nicole’s vacated ESPN chair? <sigh> Mike Massaro sat there instead of me.
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My article below appeared in the July issue of Hill Country Happenings.. Click here for more articles and information about happenings in the Texas Hill Country.
I was in my element again in June. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the IZOD Indycars were at Texas Motor Speedway for a three day weekend. I couldn’t think of a more fun way for this sports addict to spend my birthday! The first day was the truck practice and qualifying. Wedged in between were the driver press conferences which are always an enlightening experience — some of those kids decked out in their spandex suits could be my grandchildren!! Two of the drivers we interviewed also were celebrating their
birthdays around the race, Joey Coulter on the 8th and Matt Crafton on the day after mine, the 11th. Neither one could compare to my instant favorite, Brendan Gaughan. I don’t know what attracted me — his high position in the truck series standings or his rugged, Teddy-Bear look with a smile perfect for a toothpaste commercial; I suspect the latter. He was considered a “senior” driver. When I asked him what was thought of as “old” in truck racing, he replied, “Me!” “Old” turned out to be having a 1975 birth date!
Day two started with an appearance by Helio Castroneves, points leader of the Indycar Series as well as winner of Season 5 of Dancing with the Stars. Questions from the media started with the “usual” about tire usage, downforce and grip. Rick held his breath as my hand went up; he anticipated something like, “Did you keep your yellow costume from the quick-step?” Instead, he got to proudly beam as I asked, “Helio, some NASCAR drivers have been racing in Indycars; would you ever consider crossing over to NASCAR?” He smiled. “Excellent question… If the opportunity presents itself, then I certainly would love to try. Right now I only have one thing on my mind and that is trying to win as much [sic] races as possible here and hopefully bring this championship to Roger.” (Penske Team Owner). Later, during a one-on-one with him, he confirmed that he did keep the yellow outfit from Dancing with the Stars. After Helio, a Grapevine deli unveiled three sandwiches named in honor of Mario, Michael and Marco Andretti. The three generations of Indy racers sampled the sandwiches and then the younger two departed for practice on the track while Mario stayed to chat with several of us. I was immediately awestruck over the twinkle in his eyes and how incredible he looked for his seventy-three years. He and I talked about young drivers and the importance of setting a good example for our youth. He assured me that he already had discussions with his grandson of the importance of putting his racing in front of the “glamour” life at night clubs.
After the press conference, Rick and I headed up to the start-finish line for the pace truck rides. The truck was driven by Ward Burton, retired NASCAR driver and 2002 winner of the Daytona 500. Ward, in a soft, Southern drawl, inquired, “Aren’t you riding with your husband?” I explained that I had enough speed in April with the pace car and that I was going to pass. After watching Rick’s laps, it appeared that Ward’s driving was the gingerly ride I so wanted in April. Within minutes I found myself in the truck cruising around the oval track for several laps at a modest eighty miles per hour. Ward was pumped that his son Jeb was racing that evening in the truck series. It was then I found myself with a conflict — do I root for Teddy-Bear Brendan or Jeb? While I mulled my choices, the Indycars lined up to start their qualifying. It was strange going from watching pick-up trucks to seeing a flat-style car which came up to my waist and sounded like a swarm of bumblebees!
A few hours later, as the sun flirted with the horizon, we found the trucks back out on the track lining up for their race. As the race progressed, daylight went to evening and the bright lights blazed the oval track while the field of thirty-two pick-ups roared around the speedway. Mid-race found Brendan leading and things looked very promising until he spun his tires on the last re-start. As his number started to plummet on the pole which listed the order of the trucks, we recognized a number in the top three. It was the #4, Jeb Burton. The final laps were very exciting as Jeb raced against the leader, Ty Dillon. It was Jeb to cross the finish line first followed by a burnout for the fans. At the later press conference it was not Jeb who the press was most interested in hearing from — it was his dad, Ward. Yes, the same Ward I took the gingerly ride with around the track earlier that day. He was beaming with pride as he told everyone that seeing his son win this race meant more to him than his (Ward’s) win at the Daytona 500.
Day three started with an invite to ride the Indy pace car. I was getting melancholy with my birthday only two days away so I decided to “throw caution to the wind” and just do it! Since I was taping the experience again, I vowed to not repeat my expletives used during last spring’s ride. Instead, they were replaced with “Breathe …. Breathe …. Breathe” as we got up to speeds of 140 mph! I also decided that motorsports is a family affair as our driver, Stefan Wilson, had a brother in the race later that day. Further down the track, they were offering rides in a two-seater Indy car. I opted out when I saw I would need to wear a helmet. It would only mess up my ponytail or maybe it was hearing that I would have to be strapped into the car because of the speeds of almost 200 mph!
A more serene setting was in the media center where I got to meet two teachers from Moore, Oklahoma and a firefighter from West, Texas. They had been invited to the race to do the “Start Your Engines” and the flag to begin the race. It was a very emotional thirty minutes as they relayed their experiences from the tornadoes and the fertilizer plant explosion. After they left, two members of the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) presented Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan with a certificate of a bull TK500, named in his honor. The bull, formerly known as Mud Wasp, has been successfully ridden only four times!
During the Indycar pre-race ceremonies, I met the only female pit member. Her name was Anna and she was the rear-jack for National Guard Panther Racing #4 car. I commented that I thought it would be neat to do something like that, but I was too old. “Never give up on your dreams,” she advised me.
There was only one person left on my radar and it was someone I had not seen since the mid-70s when I worked flights between Houston and Indianapolis. As I proceeded down the line of pit crew canopies, I spotted him – racing legend and now owner, A J Foyt. He was seated in a golf cart in the #14 car’s area. I had already met his assistant, so when she saw me, she motioned me over. Moments later, I was on the cart talking to A J about the year I worked his charter to the Indy 500 and we watched the race in the rain. And as if seeing AJ wasn’t exciting enough, a third of the way through the race I ran into former Texas Rangers catcher, Pudge Rodriquez. The day before he had been named to the Rangers Baseball Hall of Fame so I congratulated him. I had not seen Pudge since I worked the baseball charters in the early 90s; he had not changed at all.
As it was the night before, the race was exciting. Mario Andretti’s grandson Marco led the first part of the race. He and two other drivers kept the lead until Lap 97, when Helio Castroneves took over and kept the lead until the race ended at Lap 228. For me, I was torn between which was better — that night, or the night Helio won the Dancing with the Stars competition. Hmmmm… a blue and red helmet or dancing shoes? I guess it just depends on one’s sports perspective, and that’s Lotta Sports!