Wednesday, July 2, 2008

No place like Daytona - Part 2

Originally published July 4, 2006 in the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail
SMIRK AND A NOD
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 -

3 comments:

Monique Ringling said...

Jimmy,
You write so well that while I read your series, I feel like I'm in Daytona.

Great story!

Amanda Gillooly said...

I'll be tuning in my friend. But isn't it SUCh a waste of gas???

Brant said...

This is some damn fine writing. Highly entertaining. Now I know why we hired you. ;)