Monday, July 28, 2008

Motorsports Monday

Weekend results from PPMS in Imperial and Motordrome in Smithton. The (*) denotes the heat winners.

PPMS – July 26
Late Models – 25-lap feature
1. John Flinner
2. Lynn Geisler
3. Jared Miley
4. Steve Baker*
5. Brandon Burgoon
6. Ben Miley
7. Lou Bradich
8. Tommy Beck
9. D.J. Miller
10. Brandon Wearing

Crate Late Models – 20-lap feature
1. Mark Moats
2. Tommy Schirnhofer*
3. Bryant Hank
4. Ken Chernik
5. Mike Pegher Jr.
6. Scott Schempp
7. Laura Lukon
8. Josh Holtgraver
9. Tyler Dietz
10. Bryan Hoffman

E-Modifieds – 12-lap feature
1. Wayne Tessean
2. Jonathan Taylor
3. J.E. Stalder
4. Kyle Lukon
5. J.J. Bametzrieder
6. Evan Taylor
7. Chuck Kennedy
8. Jared Domhoff
9. Damron

Pure Stocks – 12-lap feature
1. Craig Kamicker*
2. Jake Simmons*
3. Vince Kamicker
4. Bill Robertson
5. Nick Kocuba
6. Bob Schwartzmiller,
7. Pat Weldon
8. Robert Betz
9. Mike Mohn
10. Dave Slade

Amateur Stocks – 10-lap feature
1. Tony White*
2. Brian Huchko
3. Eric Goldberg
4. Rich Mason
5. J.J. O'Patchen
6. Dan Duseheid
7. Jason Herniak
8. Edward Wiser
9. Tom McQuillan

Young Guns – 8-lap feature
1. Sean Graham
2. Justin Pons
3. Michael Reft
4. Daniel White
5. Alec Broniszewski
6. Todd Janus
7. Tyler Atkinson
8. Brian Beyerbach
9. Hannah Ramsey

Motordrome – July 25
Super Late Models – 40-lap feature
1. Rick Miller*
2. Bobby Henry*
3. Greg Kelley
4. Gary Wiltrout
5. Neil Brown*
6. Mark Cottone
7. Richard Mitchell
8. Mark Poole
9. Tommy Beck
10. Todd Price

Modifieds - Feature
1. Adam Kostelnik
2. George Nicola
3. Bobby Shipp*
4. Pete Rech
5. Harry Opfer
6. Bryan Shipp
7. Tom Frank
8. Marion Reno
9. Lonnie Hoffman
10. Chris Brink

Street Stocks – 20-lap feature
1. Shawn Phillips
2. Jason Holder
3. Ted Gibala
4. Thomas Knight Sr.*
5. Andrew Kostelnik
6. Johnathan Hileman
7. Bill Henry
8. Tony Manganello
9. Jeff Zillweger
10. Joe Nicola*

Charger – 15-lap feature
1. Jimmy Stokes*
2. AJ Poljak
3. Tracy Keller
4. Mike Lemley
5. Ed Neidhardt
6. Robert Garchak Jr.
7. Matthew Gardner
8. William Oldham
9. Aaron Minjock
10. Roger Bryan

American Flyers – 8-lap feature
1. Paul Rosa
2. Ed Dineen*
3. Jeff Halfhill
4. Stanley Nodina
5. Edward Shelpman
6. Terry Schwartz
7. Kevin Ludwick
8. Mary Catherine Shimko
9. Ronald Eiford

Competition cautionary tale

What a disgrace.

There’s not much more that needs to be said about Sunday’s debacle at the Brickyard. From start to competition caution to finish, NASCAR and Goodyear screwed up by giving fans and ESPN one of the worst races in recent memory. How else do you describe the racing that was never permitted to go longer than 12 laps? NASCAR made the right decision by throwing the yellow flag every 10 laps, but the Brickyard 400 had more the appearance of an exhibition event rather than a critical race just before the Chase for the Cup. Could you imagine this happening during NASCAR's playoffs?

The real questions is: How could this happen? We’ve seen significant problems develop in the past at other tracks. The first that comes to mind happened at Texas when a poor design in Turn 1 led to opening lap crashes in 1997 and 98. Back then, several drivers predicted problems there during preseason testing.

But why wasn’t there extensive testing done at Indy with the new car? Three drivers apparently did minor testing there in April, which showed excessive tire wear, but NASCAR made no changes. The COT’s different weight distribution appeared to rip the right rear tire apart, which now begs the question if Goodyear will be forced to test at all the remaining Chase tracks. Goodyear should know better by now after Tony Stewart scolded the tire company in March.

Tire issues are nothing new to Indy. The U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race in 2005 also turned into a joke when most of the competitors deemed the tires to be unsafe and only six of the 20 drivers started the race. That, too, was a disgrace and it effectively killed F1 racing in America.

There’s some drivers grumbling that Sprint Cup cars don’t belong on Indy’s unique layout. It should have us all wondering if NASCAR on the bricks will also be halted. That would be a shame, too, because even though the racing isn’t spectacular, NASCAR belongs at the most hallowed speedway. Unfortunately, it might be time to move on if NASCAR and Goodyear can’t figure out what went wrong. Otherwise, if I want to watch a dozen 10-lap heat races I’ll go to my local short track.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fire on the strip

It’s not uncommon to see a semi-truck screaming by you in the fast lane on the interstate. But it would be really unusual for that truck to have two jet engines stuffed in the rear of its bed and fire blowing out of its exhaust pipes. Fans will be treated to that showing this Saturday night when a jet semi-truck, two jet dragsters and two jet funny cars each make several runs down the Pittsburgh Raceway Park drag strip in New Alexandria for the annual Night of Fire.

These Night of Fire events are typical at strips across the country after IHRA national drag racing competitions. PRP spokesman DJ Johnson said it brings a large audience because the jet cars, also called “portable space heaters,” are an impressive display of fire rumbling down the quarter-mile.

“Seeing the jets in the daytime doesn’t have the impact,” Johnson said. “When you see them at night, it lights up the joint and it’s a whole different ballgame.”

The jet cars reach speeds from 275 to 300 mph on the quarter-mile drag strip. Johnson said one year they unofficially clocked a car at 304 mph, meaning it’s an especially difficult task to slow them down at PRP where the runoff area is shorter than national tracks.

“They have to do a whole lot of stopping … at our place,” Johnson said. And how do they accomplish that? “Big parachutes.”

The shows follow the normal drag racing schedule and will run at 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Adult tickets cost $20, kids ages 11-15 will cost $10 and children under 11 are free. A fireworks display follows the final jet car races.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sure bet at the Brickyard

This weekend’s Brickyard 400 may not be the most exciting race on the circuit, but it certainly will go a long way in predicting who will win this year’s championship. Since 1998, six of the 10 race winners have gone on to win the championship. Toss in Jeff Gordon’s 2004 victory there as another indicator because only NASCAR’s convoluted Chase stood in the way of another championship for Wonder Boy.

Brickyard 400 Winners
2007 – Tony Stewart
2006 – Jimmie Johnson*
2005 – Tony Stewart*
2004 – Jeff Gordon^
2003 – Kevin Harvick
2002 – Bill Elliot
2001 – Jeff Gordon*
2000 – Bobby Labonte*
1999 – Dale Jarrett*
1998 – Jeff Gordon*
1997 – Ricky Rudd
1996 – Dale Jarrett
1995 – Dale Earnhardt
1994 – Jeff Gordon

*Won season title
^Scored most points

Why does this seem to keep happening when NASCAR is built on parity? Simply put, the season’s best driver with the best handling race car will always rise to the top at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And if this trend continues, Kyle Busch surely will win Sunday by at least 3 laps. He has outclassed the competition with his talent and Toyota’s upgraded engines. That extra horsepower will help down the long straightaways and Busch’s wild and crazy driving style will get him through those flat corners with "wreckless" abandon. If Busch doesn’t win, I’ll bet that a few of those old cats on the list above will have a say in the matter.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cruising for speed on I-79

By Amanda Gillooly
O-R Staff Writer

In 2002, I was on a first-name basis with the state troopers that nabbed speeders on Interstate 79. Because I worked at an afternoon newspaper in Monessen, Pa., my shift generally began at 6 a.m., meaning I had to leave my humble abode in Neville Township at 5 a.m. Naturally, I slept until the last possible minute and then gunned it on the highway, averaging about 75 mph. And I kid you not: I think I got pulled over every week that year.

Lucky for me I was 22 and almost 50 pounds lighter back then, and by the grace of God, I was often wearing skirts and low-cut shirts on those occasions. With that and a dirty joke, I think I only got five or six tickets. But I am still paying the price for disobeying the traffic laws. Let’s just say I pay more for car insurance than an acquaintance who has two DUIs.

I’m not proud of my lead foot, but I am proud to say that $4-a-gallon gas prices have finally tamed it. I’ve had my Dodge POS – better known as a Neon – for three years, but I just recently learned how to operate my cruise control. And in a matter of weeks, I have gone from an aggressive, tailgating speed demon to someone who merely shakes their fist in rage at people who mess up my pace. Resetting the damn thing is just annoying.

I forced myself to make the change in order to improve my gas mileage, but I learned that the advantages of going to speed limit is a more relaxed 35-minute ride to and from work. I love not having to slam on my brakes when I see a cruiser sitting on the side of the road, and I don’t miss that knot in my stomach that clenches in anticipation of lights flashing in my rearview mirror.

Most of all, I must admit that I’m much calmer when I get to work these days, even though my pod mates can attest I’m still a basket case. But hell, cruise control can’t cure all my ills.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Motorsports Monday

Every Monday this summer I’ll post results from the major race tracks from around the area. The weekend wrap-up from PPMS in Imperial and Pittsburgh Raceway Park drag strip in New Alexandria are up today and I expect to add Motordrome Speedway’s results in the near future. Thanks to Matt Miley of PPMS and DJ Johnson of PRP.

PPMS – July 19, 2008
(* denotes heat winners)
Late models – 25-lap feature

1.Steve Baker
2. John Flinner
3. Keith Barbara
4. Lynn Geisler
5. Jared Miley*
6. Mike Johnson
7. Brandon Burgoon*
8. Michael Davis
9. Lou Bradich
10. Jim Stephans

Crate Late Models – 20-lap feature
1.Tommy Schirnhofer
2. Mike Pegher
3. Bryant Hank
4. Scott Schempp
5. Neal Isiminger
6. Mark Moats*
7. Justin Lamb
8. Ken Chernik
9. Tim Gould
10. Bryan Hoffman

E-Modifieds – 15-lap feature
1.Wayne Tessean*
2. Vince Laboon
3. J.J. Bametzrieder
4. Joel Johns
5. Kevin Miller
6. Clayton Kennedy
7. Chuck Kennedy
8. Denny Nakutis
9. Brad Westover
10. Tom Martineck

Pure Stocks – 15-lap feature
1.Pat Weldon
2. Craig Kamicker*
3. Nick Kocuba
4. Jake Simmons
5. Bill Robertson*
6. Mike Mohn
7. Robert Betz
8. Dave McManus
9. Dave Slade
10. Joe Hackimer

Amateur Stocks – 10-lap feature
1.Brian Huchko
2. Rich Mason*
3. Tony White
4. Jason Herniak
5. J.J. O'Patchen
6. Dan Duseheid
7. Tom McQuillan
8. Curt Bish Sr.
9. Eric Goldberg*
10. Darren Ferguson

Young Guns – 8-lap feature
1.Michael Reft
2. Daniel White
3. Brian Beyerbach
4. Hannah Ramsey
5. Alec Broniszewski
6. Sean Graham
7. Tyler Atkinson
8. Justin Pons

PRP - July 19, 2008
Greg Miller of Avonmore (10.38 sec/126.98 mph) – DEFEATED - Michael Balaska of Belle Vernon (11.45sec/112.44 mph)

Top Dragster
Anthony Kronek of Reedsville, W.Va. (9.15 sec/100.29 mph) – DEFEATED - Jacob Meinert of Jeanette (23.64 sec/84.33 mph)

Barry Barnett of Ford City (12.99 sec/103.71 mph) – DEFEATED - Don McGuire of Saltsburg (12.11 sec/110.21 mph)

Nick Bowman of Export (18.36 sec/72.03 mph) – DEFEATED - Art Armstrong of Pittsburgh (14.78 sec/93.07 mph)

Ray Safreed II of Weirton, W.Va. (8.68 sec/135.01 mph) – DEFEATED - Dick Gumbert of Irwin (10.09 sec/138.55 mph)

Junior Dragsters
8-to-9 years old - Trevor Walker of New Waterford, Ohio (12.80 sec/49.57mph – DEFEATED - Shawn Walker of Gibsonia (13.32 sec/45.56 mph)

10-to-12 years old - Matt Miller of East Palestine, Ohio (8.80 sec/73.81 mph) – DEFEATED - Andrew Valentino of Elwood City (8.56 sec/72.15 mph)

13-to-17 years old - Michael Barnyk of Level Green (7.89 sec/81.07 mph) – DEFEATED - Ashley Deuschle of McDonald (8.89 sec/75.08 mph)

Mike Quinlan of McKeesport (10.86 sec/64.14 mph) – DEFEATED - John Moore Jr. of Latrobe (10.86 sec/64.29 mph)

Josh Rietscha of Nicktown (7.72 sec/168.73 mph) – DEFEATED – A.J. Casper of Greensburg (12.17 sec/106.91 mph)

Friday, July 18, 2008

WoO announcer gets up to SPEED

Johnny Gibson, who has worked for the World of Outlaws sprint car series since July 1995, will be featured Friday night on SPEED-TV after participating in 1,100 consecutive WoO events earlier this month at Huset’s Speedway in Souix Fall, S.D. The 39-year-old Marianna native began selling souvenir programs at the tracks and went behind the microphone in 1997 as track and radio announcer. The voice of WoO will be featured in “For the Love of Racing” at 7:30 p.m. Friday on SPEED.

The network's television cameras were at Limaland Motorsports Park in Lima, Ohio, two weeks ago to film Gibson in action for the Brad Doty Classic. Viewers will be able to see what a day at the track is like for Gibson, who puts together race programs before the gates open and later announces the action on the dirt track.

“It’s taken some luck,” Gibson said Thursday afternoon. “To me it’s not that big of a deal because I do what a love. I’m very fortunate ... to see the greatest sprint car drivers in the world. I’m looking forward to the next 1,100 (races).”

Gibson now lives in Indianapolis, but his parents still live in Marianna. He graduated from Beth-Center High School and California University of Pennsylvania. Freelance racing reporter DJ Johnson has known Gibson for many years and was in Lima to profile him after the landmark achievement.

“He is so into his work. He truly loves it,” Johnson said. “His signature announcement of four abreast is something everyone loves to hear and stands up the hair on the back of your neck. He’s very recognizable. They may not know the face, but they know the voice.”

Read more about Gibson in the Observer-Reporter.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Obama flirts with NASCAR

The Blogosphere erupted last week when several media outlets reported that Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, planned to sponsor a Sprint Cup car for the Pocono race in August. Interesting way to reach a demographic that is usually turned off by the Democratic Party's platform, but smart move by the Obama camp to pull the plug.

It might have been a good idea had the campaign been able to connect with a powerhouse team such as Hendrick, Childress or Roush. But the reports said they planned to sponsor the No. 49 BAM car driven by Ken Schrader. If Obama really wanted to get his message out, he shouldn't have pondered picking a second-rate team and driver that probably won't even make the race (Schrader has raced only five times this year). Oh, how the pundits would slobber all over that juicy story. And the dirty little secret that surely would have doomed Obama’s flirt with NASCAR is that BAM Racing uses Toyotas. There’s no better way to alienate potential good ole boy supporters than putting a candidate’s mug on the hood of a Japanese car.

Meanwhile, Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, had her own excursion with racing this weekend. She rode in the pace car before the Indy Car Series race at Nashville Speedway on Sunday. But what’s the attraction to Indy cars? Most of the drivers are foreign and there aren’t any American engines entered in the field anymore. It’s probably a bad idea to remind us of the dwindling influence this country has in the world.

Candidates will do most anything to reach a different audience, but as a word of advice: Please keep the politics out of racing. Unless, of course, the next President picks Dale Earnhardt Jr. as his Secretary of State. Then you've got my vote.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Race Photos

I promised photos of the weekend at Daytona, so here they are. We went to the Nationwide race Friday night and followed that up with the Sprint Cup Saturday night. It was a lot of fun and hope to go back next year.

It's amazing the number of people in the track infield for driver introduction. My stepbrother, Tony, griped that it takes too long to get them off the track before the race, but I think it's kinda cool. Would the Pittsburgh Steelers let you hang out at the 50-yard line before kickoff? I doubt it.

Kasey Kahne turns a hot lap in his No. 9 Nationwide car. He finished 6th, but never was a factor in the end. Denny Hamlin won and was followed by Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The grandstands are an impressive sight as fans walk to their seats. The crowd was a little sparse for the Nationwide race, but we were should-to-shoulder for the Cup event. You could hardly move on the sidewalk while trying to get to the gates.

The Mountain Dew Crew prepares for the Cup race. We tailgated outside our motel room before the race. I'm sporting the old school No. 8 shirt with the Dew hat. My father, left, and stepbrother came better prepared. We didn't wear our Joe Nemechek shirts, which was probably a good thing.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads Paul Menard during the first round of pit stops. Earnhardt led the most laps and probably could have won, but was shuffled back near the end. Menard was strong early, but faded and never made another charge to the front.

An inside look at the the frontstretch. Hard to believe cars blow by at 190 mph with only a chain link fence to keep the debris back.

Tony Stewart at 190 mph. This was before he yaked up his lunch from the Ocean Deck and had to be pulled from the car for J.J. Yeley.

Here's a look at coming out of Turn 4. And no, the ambulance did not get a penalty for driving below the yellow line.

Following the trailers as they drive north on Interstate 95. The Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon trailers pulled out of the speedway right in front of us and we followed them all the way until Jacksonville. Anyway, thanks for reading and I'll see you next year.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Daytona - The Aftermath

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The weekend is over and it's time to relax after two great races, the beach and a few adult beverages. Walking back to the motel room last night made me realize what is the best part about racing: The fans. The racing and atmosphere is awesome, but it's the random strangers you meet around the track that makes it special. And what amazed me this weekend was all the people from Pittsburgh. As we headed to our seats Saturday, a crowd next to us started yelling the "We Are ... Penn State" chant. I asked one of the guys if they were from Happy Valley. Nope, he said... Peters Township in Washington County. Turns out he and his wife subscribe to the Observer-Reporter newspaper. Wow...

Now onto the reason I traveled to Florida. The racing was great with quite a few passes for the lead. But the most exciting moves were made by Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he hung the high line to take the lead several times. The crowd went nuts every time, too. He finished eighth after getting shuffled back with a few laps to go.

Even though I can't stand Kyle Busch, I have to give him credit for that save on the backstretch. There's no doubt he should have crashed or at least bent the front splitter by scraping the high bank. But he didn't crash... and he won. Too bad they didn't throw the caution flag a few seconds when Carl Edwards was leading. The funniest moment was when Busch was doing a Polish victory lap with the checkered flag out the window. Someone chucked a beer over the catch fence and it smashed on his windshield. I guess they learned that move from the Talladega fans. That was classy.

Finally, Joe Nemechek sucked it up just as he has for the past 16 years. He qualified fourth, but dropped to 30th by the Lap 5. His car setup wasn't built for drafting and he had to make tons of changes during the first caution. That dropped him to 40th place for most of the race until the massive crash on the last lap. That catapulted him to a solid top-20 finish. Still, my father was unimpressed. "He's field-filler at its finest," my dad said halfway through the race. "He's the stuff they cram into hot dogs. Filler."

Alright, thanks for joining me on this trip. I'll post the photos from this trip in a couple of days. Feel free to e-mail me and send me your NASCAR stories from the track.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Live from Daytona - Day 3

- Updated at 12:10 a.m. -

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - This place is buzzing with excitement as the fans pour in from every direction. Music is blasting, the sidewalks are packed with people and there's a massive traffic jam on U.S. 92 right next to the track.

Continuing to see more people wearing Pittsburgh gear. I yelled "Let's Go Bucs!" to some guy wearing a Pirates jersey, but he gave me a puzzled look. I asked him if he was from Pittsburgh and he said no. What would possess anyone outside of Western Pennsylvania to root for the Pirates?

Hit the beach again this afternoon and now we're walking to the swag trailers right across the street. I'm thinking about dropping 25 bones on a Dale Jr. National Guard hat. Or maybe I'll get a $3 bumper sticker, instead. My dad and I agree we're gonna hunt down Joe Nemechek and get him to acknowledge the old Steve's Auto Parts store in Lakeland. Who knows if he's even around? He's probably grilling out with his mother, Martha, before the race.

Back from Swag City and I can say I'm pretty disappointed. There wasn't a No. 78 Furniture Row trailer nor a Joe sighting. But my dad's homemade Nemechek shirt was a hit with other fans and we got our photo taken with Joe's redneck mug (see above). Couldn't find the National Guard camo hat, but I saved face by walking across the street from the track and buying a sweet Mountain Dew hat in the mall. Go figure: I went to the mall to buy NASCAR merchandise when a 2.5-mile superspeedway is 200 yards from my motel room door.

Anyway, we've ordered a pizza and anxiously awaiting a gigantic super cell thunderstorm that's about to rock Daytona around 6:30. Hopefully it'll blow over quick and they can dry the track by race time at 8 p.m.

***Here are the race winner predictions***
Mike Jones: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
My dad, Hobie: Joe Nemechek
My stepbrother, T-Bone: Denny Hamlin
Dad's frat bro, Mutley: Kyle Busch

That was probably the best racing I've ever seen at Daytona, but freaking Kyle Busch won. One guy in the row in front of us was giving him the one-finger salute during the last 10 laps... I felt the same way. What a great atmosphere for the race, though. I've got great stories to share, which I'll write about Sunday in the Daytona Race Recap section. Alright, it's time to get some sleep after a GREAT weekend.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Live from Daytona - Day 2

- Updated at 10:36p.m. -

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Happy Independence Day, everyone. Woke up around 8:30 a.m. and walked over to Friendly's for breakfast. Needed a few cups of Joe to shake off the Daytona Beach morning grog, but we're feeling a lot better now and getting ready to go to the beach. It's 88 degrees and there's not a cloud in the sky. Still haven't made our way over to the "swag trailers" yet, but I expect us to be over there before the Nationwide race. Check back for more updates.

Alright, back in the room with a great tan after four hours on the beach. Started out a little rough with my pasty white Western Pennsylvania skin, but I lathered up the sun screen and soldiered through. Daytona is great because you can drive your car on the sand and park just a few feet from the waves. Took some shelter in the car when the sun got a little too hot. Saw a married couple two spots over with yellow Terrible Towel beach towels. Turns out they're from Monroeville, Pa. That makes two yinzers I've met while down here. Small world, eh?

Looking out the porch, two guys are walking down the road with some race tires. I guess they bought them at the swag trailers just across U.S. 92 ... only in Daytona. Anyway, time to shower off the salt/sand and watch the Nationwide race. I'm ashamed that I've been in Daytona for 24 hours and still haven't seen a single freaking race car. I'm starting to wonder if this blog is about NASCAR or the ocean. Maybe we'll start calling it Jonesin' for Beaches.

Joe Nemechek just qualified fourth for tomorrow's race, meaning he'll start right next to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Does it get any better than that? Thank God we'll have someone to root for!

The Nationwide race was AWESOME! Congrats to Denny Hamlin, and thank God he beat that jerk Kyle Busch. We had lots of passing for the lead and sat just three rows from the catch fence. We usually sit high in the grandstands, so we don't get the sensation of being a few feet from the cars as they blow by at 190 mph. It's crazy. Unleaded Octane 110 fills your nostrils, dirt blows in your eyes and the wind nearly knocks you out of your seat. Try experiencing that on your couch while watching ESPN!

We also met some cool people who were NASCAR rookies. Kenny, Judy and their kids, Tom and Jerry, were at their first NASCAR race, but the crazy part is they came here all the way from Kansas. Oh, and they're HUGE Dale Jr. fans. Very nice people. And when we're walking back from the track, we met a Steelers fan from my hometown of Lakeland who lived in the neighborhood (Imperial Lakes) where I was born. He was sporting Steelers sunglasses and chanting "Here We Go Steelers" with me as we walked home. Alright, time to head to bed and get ready for the big race tomorrow.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Live from Daytona - Day 1

- Updated at 10:37 p.m. -

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Stepped off the airplane in sunny Jacksonville, Fla., where my dad lives, grabbed the bags and headed straight to Daytona. We drove south on I-95, took exit 261A onto International Speedway Boulevard (U.S. Route 92) and made the satisfying drive past the towering grand stands and triangular Daytona sign. The Cup cars are turning laps now and we can hear them from the motel room balcony. Now that we're here at Daytona Beach, I'm gonna float around in the motel pool a little and relax. My dad, Hobie, just pulled out a homemade T-shirt with Joe Nemechek's redneck mug on the front. Under the bottom of the shirt it says "Front Row Joe - Polk County, Fla." and pays homage to my parents' old store in Lakeland, Steve's Auto Parts.

After getting settled in our motel room, we unfurled an American flag over the porch railing and the T-shirt Joe's ugly mug, and prepared to hit the Ocean Deck restaurant for dinner. Anyone going to Daytona has to grab a bite at the Ocean Deck, which is situated along Route A1A right off the beach. They have some killer seafood (obviously) and an even better atmosphere. People stroll up from the beach in their bathing suits while you’re sitting there eating. Meanwhile, a decent Jimmy Buffett cover band is usually rocking tunes in the corner. This is the best pre-game for race weekend. What made it even better is that some dude named Rob from Bridgeville was chillin' with a Pens No. 18 Hossa jersey on the beach deck. We talked a bit and hung out. How cool is it to see a guy from Pittsburgh while hanging out in Florida? What are the chances?

Alright, we're heading home and gonna grab our bathing suits and get a quick evening dip in the pool before cashing it in for the night. We’ve got a HUGE day tomorrow. We still have to pull the $24.99 Wal-Mart grill out of the box, erect a mini-tent over a small slab of cement in the parking lot and start cooking bacon and eggs. And that's all by 9 a.m.! See y’all tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

No place like Daytona - Part 2

Originally published July 4, 2006 in the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail
By Mike Jones

Most fans at the 2006 Firecracker 400 wore shirts emblazoned with Budweiser, Home Depot and Dodge, but some lesser-known drivers' gear was speckled in the crowd. My father, known by most of his friends as Hobie, wore a Joe Nemechek T-shirt and U.S. Army visor to support his favorite driver. Nemechek appeared to be poised for a good showing after qualifying fifth and my father was excited.

Nemechek, a native of Lakeland, had bought auto parts from my father's store in the little central Florida town during the late 1980s while he was racing dirt bikes and stock cars at local tracks. He and his brother, John, who died in a crash at Homestead Speedway in Miami in 1996, often chatted about racing, prompting my father to root for Joe over the past 15 years.

It was a admirable position to pull for the underdog. But besides winning the 1992 Busch Series championship and a handful of Cup races, Nemechek hadn't done much in his career. Dad pulled for him anyway.

But this was to be the final time after years of disappointment took their toll. We had made a deal a few weeks earlier that he would re-evaluate that allegiance if Joe couldn't finish 17th or better in the Pepsi 400. The prized Nemechek shirt, it was agreed, would be torched in our $29.97 charcoal grill if he couldn't muster even a mediocre finish.

Just hours before the race, a good omen occurred as I met Nemechek in his "swag trailer" just outside the track. He signed a few autographs, and with a smirk and a nod, sent me on my way.

But not long after the green flag flew and Stewart jumped out to the lead, Joe began his usual descent to the back. We prepared ourselves for the impending barbeque as the laps ran down. With 14 laps left, however, Jimmie Johnson bobbled, sending his car into Bobby Labonte, who had an uncharacteristically strong run until the crash. A few laps later, a bigger pile-up collected more front-runners, catapulting Joe closer to the cutoff point.

The late crashes weren’t enough for poor Joe. It wasn’t to be. We watched as Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers sealed the shirt's fate while Nemechek stumbled to a 19th place finish.

As Stewart climbed the fence and mingled with thousands of fans who met him at the bottom of the flagman's stand, we trudged back to the hotel room in search of a lighter and a few bricks of charcoal. Before the race, my step-brother had vowed to save the shirt regardless of Nemechek's finish. Now, he was discussing pulling for Kurt Busch in honor of his favorite adult beverage.

We toasted the memories with the shirt aflame and my father, a closet Junior fan, closed the lid, and, more importantly, a chapter. But when we reopened the grill, the name "NEMECHEK" still was legible on the charred remnants of the cloth. At that point, I doubted my father ever could give up on the driver he had cheered for more than two decades.

When we return to Daytona, I expect my father will be just as dedicated to Joe Nemechek. He's truly a rare breed.

The End
- Click here to read Part 1 -

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

No place like Daytona - Part 1

Originally published July 4, 2006 in the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail
By Mike Jones

NASCAR fans are a rare breed. Anyone who has ever attended a race knows that. The fans pay thousands of dollars for tickets, hotel rooms, parking and, most importantly, beer.

Bewildered outsiders don't even begin to understand. They ask why someone would shell out that kind of cash to watch cars drive in circles. What they don't realize is NASCAR is an experience that can't be explained on television. It must be felt in person.

I will never forget the first time I heard 43 cars roaring by at nearly 200 mph at Daytona International Speedway or the echoing thunder as they flew down the backstretch. The Fourth of July event at Daytona Beach, Fla., has changed somewhat since I attended my first Firecracker 400 in 1993. Track officials added lights to the high-banked oval in 1998, altering the race for both competitors and fans.

Previously, drivers weren't the only ones who sweated buckets when the green flag dropped at 11 a.m. in the 90-degree heat. Fans perspired beer faster than they could consume their cans of Miller Lite and Budweiser that are stowed in coolers under their seats.

With an 8 p.m. start now, visitors take trips to the beach or barbeque in parking lots in the morning and afternoon. Others wade in the hotel swimming pool for most of the weekend and the beer cans that line the edge of the pool document their progress.

In the 2005 edition of the Pepsi 400, rain began falling an hour before race time, prompting my father, stepbrother and me to march back to the hotel for a late-night swim. Other fans, many of whom weren't fortunate enough to have a hotel room next to Turn 4, waited out the three-hour rain delay in their seats and soldiered through the race that didn't end until nearly 2 a.m. Sunday. Exhausted fans that partied for nearly 19 hours simply crumpled in their seats and passed out moments after Tony Stewart took the checkered flag.

That wasn't the case in 2006 when the race passed rather quickly and we were able to get to bed before midnight. There were the usual drunks at the event. A Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan stumbled out of his hotel room on his way to the track and mumbled incoherently to others.

But instead of a rain soaked holiday, fans were treated that year to a cool summer breeze passing from the Atlantic Ocean as the race started as scheduled. The distinctive smell of Octane 110 firing from the exhaust pipes filled the air just moments after the command was given for drivers to start their engines. One man, spitting chew while lounging in his seat, waved the fumes toward his nose in a circular motion with a cupped handed.

Now this, I thought, is what racing is all about.

- Click here to read Part 2 -