Friday, June 13, 2014

On the Bridge

Beautiful sight on The Williamsburg Bridge this evening:  A young man proposing to his girlfriend. She accepted.
Now, I am generally the first person to violate the privacy of any individual in this city doing something out of the ordinary by whipping out the iPhone and posting the video on social media. Hey, public acts are fair game.
But this was too sublime, too deeply personal, too untouchably special.  It was their moment and theirs only.  
Capturing this would have gotten massive likes and shares, but I could not encroach. And, of course, as the couple will tell the story, many, many times in the coming years and decades, of a profoundly intimate moment of commitment over the murky East River on the romantic old foggy bridge, as much as I seek immortality on a daily basis, I did not want to be the part of the oft-repeated tale that goes, "...and then we see this creepy man in a tan pinstripe suit and red pumas taking out his camera phone and starting to film us."

Friday, November 29, 2013

Everything's Spinning

Thanksgiving evening, and the city streets are virtually empty.  Perfect night to walk the dogs. Just my boys and a few scurrying rats...and now an older black woman in a heavy coat who catches my eye.

"Everything's spinning," she announces.

I try to smile, but her words are surprisingly unsettling. The dogs pull up in front of her, enjoying the peculiar odors baked onto Manhattan concrete like a haughty sommelier lovingly sniffs a goblet of Chateau Petrus. The woman's eyes widen. 

This time, nearly pleading. "Everything's spinning."

Is this satirical social commentary?  An observation on our country, our society, spinning out of control? Stop the world, I want to get off? 

The damn dogs are stuck in place, sucking in the remnant aroma of some old poop or discarded fried chicken or something. 

Again, "Everything's spinning."

I'm close enough to see big clear eyes and know she's not drunk. While our world is literally turning in space like a blue-green Dreidel (happy Chanukah, people), her own world isn't spinning. Are her haunting words a kind of existential cosmic observation -- the basic existence, unique personal unfathomable inner realities, and greater universe we inhabit all concurrently twisting madly out of control?

A chill passes through my body.  I tug the leashes and briskly walk away.

It is when I'm home, in the comfort of our cozy apartment that everything immediately becomes clear. 

Of course!  "Happy Thanksgiving." That's what she was saying. 

Say it out loud: "Everything's Spinning…Happy Thanksgiving."

The old woman is gone now, if she was ever there at all. I feel horrible. She can only assume, no matter how hard she tried, this rude man with the small expensive dogs lacked the decency to return a simple holiday greeting. 

Sharing this anecdote is an attempt at redemption of sorts, sent to balance the scales of karma.

Yes. Everything is Spinning. 

And please have a very Happy Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bob's Party Bus

Bob’s Party Bus
      
            Talladega Superspeedway has a notorious reputation as the loudest, most raucous party stop on the NASCAR circuit.  It’s also the place where Kevin Kent was sent to surrender to Christ.
            And if that’s not enough of a man-bites-dog story, before Kevin Kent went stone cold sober on October 6, 2007, dedicating himself to Jesus in the middle of the throbbing infield after 31 years of drinking and drugging, he was the good-time ringleader and captain of an amazing psychedelic bus that had probably served up more suds than Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
            After his spiritual awakening at Talladega, Kevin became a brand new man.  His one-of-a-kind party bus still draws crowds at the races.  It’s just taken on a different role, now helping to tell a remarkable story of grace accepted and redemption pursued.  The bus remains an amusement park-worthy attraction thousands of fans experience – covered inside and out in drips and streaks and splatters of florescent paint, colorful gobs slung on the walls and seats and floors, as if Jackson Pollock worked at Earl Scheib Paint & Body.  When darkness falls over the race track, fans still wait their turn to climb aboard, putting on 3-D glasses to view a twisting, oozing menagerie of electric blues, hot pinks, ruby reds, canary yellows and lime greens, a demented mix of color in a shifting landscape that throws anyone walking through the bus into a trippy, 60’s frame of mind.  Kevin continues to be a fixture by the back emergency exit at the end of the tour, wearing a coat and hat speckled in neon paint.  But instead of handing out beads and booze, he offers Bibles and church service DVDs.
            “Before I was saved, this bus was the scene for one non-stop, hard-core party,” he said. “I used to put pasties on girls coming through.  Now I give them my testimony.  You could say we went from The Pastey Bus to God’s Bus.”
            The 1960 Chevrolet had been shuttling Indiana school kids before it was purchased by Kevin’s friend, Bob.  “About six of us got an assortment of paint and just let it rip,” Kevin says. They feverishly coated the bus top to bottom in a freaky free-hand style acidhead Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters would have approved.  When the black lights were installed and 3-D glasses brought in, the old Chevy became a favored party destination, particularly at Michigan International Speedway in the late 1990’s.  Word spread, and Bob’s psychedelic bus became the place to visit in the infield. 
            In 2002, an aggressive cancer snuck up and took Bob’s life.  Kevin purchased the bus from his friend’s estate. “I wanted to keep Bob and his dream alive, so I bought it and simply named it, ‘Bob’s Party Bus’.”  Kevin and the bus would make regular pilgrimages to NASCAR’s two summer races in Michigan
            The legend of the psychedelic bus grew, as did Kevin’s appetite for beer.  He could drink four or five cases a weekend.  He had started drinking when he was 14 and never let up, even after getting kicked out of school for good at 16, and being convicted of DWI several times. Drinking led to drugging, and over the years, getting blotto as often as possible cost Kevin his driver’s license, two marriages and a few jobs.  But he had no intention of stopping. 
            In the infield of Michigan, Kevin roamed freely with a drink in his hand, except for one spot.  He’d always come across a hot band playing catchy music and having a good time.  He stayed away.  “They were a Christian rock band, and I knew Christians never had any fun. I didn’t need to know about God, and I kept my distance,” he said. 
            At the 2007 August race in Michigan, he noticed a guy named Mike unloading a trailer for the band.  He offered to help.  Mike was fine on his own; he only had one box. “What? I’m not good enough to carry your box?” Kevin joked. 
            The men hit it off, and Kevin invited Mike and a band mate to see the magic bus.  Naturally, they were impressed and returned with the rest of the band that evening.  Each band member autographed the inside of the bus.
             On Saturday night, a fellow in the band who went by the name of Preacher Man Berry told Kevin that a big-time racing executive would be at the concert to hand out shirts, sign autographs and thank the fans.  Kevin spotted the exec at the show and invited him to see the bus. The buzz had spread further than anyone imagined and the exec was eager to check it out.
            Kevin and his friends cleared everyone out to give the executive special tour.  They chatted and snapped a few pictures.  On the way back to see the band, the executive told Kevin he needed to take his amazing party bus to Talladega.  
            “I’ve always wanted to go, and I have a friend down there, but I can’t do it,” Kevin said.
            “You didn’t hear me.  You really need to get this bus to ‘Dega,” the executive repeated.
            Kevin gave the same answer.  The executive asked why.
            “This bus doesn’t do to well on gas.  And we need to eat.  It costs a lot to get down there and back, and I just don’t have the money,” Kevin said.
            “What about if I split it with you?”
            An offer like that was the last thing in the world Kevin expected to hear.  Too shocked to even speak, he nodded eagerly.  The executive took out his wallet and handed Kevin $500. 
             Kevin was in awe of the gesture.  He had found a steady job as an Iron Worker in Ohio, but he feared how much the trip would cost.  And the bus needed immediate repairs.  He sputtered, “I’m really not sure, my wife is gonna kill me…”
            Before he could finish, he was handed another $200. 
            “I really want you to come to Talladega, and hope this will make her happy,” the executive said.
            Kevin couldn’t thank him enough.  But what the executive said next surprised him even more.
            “Thank you for being such a good fan.” he said, extending his hand.
             Kevin looked him in the eye as they shook. 
            “I’ll be there,” he said.
            “I know you will.”
            The motorsports executive didn’t know it at the time, but his extraordinary impromptu gesture likely saved Kevin Kent’s life.  
            Even as his drinking escalated, Kevin worked non-stop over the next month to prepare the bus for the long haul to the deep South.  He got new tires and added a generator and air conditioner.  He’d heard about the awesome bunched-up restrictor plate racing at NASCAR’s longest track, but he was more hopped up planning how he’d cut loose in the party capital of NASCAR.  “I was so excited knowing that I’d be able to go crazy.  And once we got there, party I did: Thursday, Thursday night, Friday and Friday night,” he said.  
            Everyone in ‘Dega who saw Bob’s Party Bus loved it. The story of the bus spread to the other camps.  Big crowds were flocking at the entrance with fans calmly lining up for the incredible tour.  One of the fans who’d mounted the bus, Mark, was a member of the Christian band, The River.  Saturday morning, within earshot, Mark told Kevin’s wife, Debbie, he wished Kevin would stay sober.   “He’d be so much more fun, don’t you think?” Mark said.
           It wasn’t an angry challenge or an aggressive intervention, more the tone of a caring person disappointed with the way someone’s life has turned out.  Now, Saturday night in Talladega is like Fat Tuesday in New Orleans.  That didn’t seem to bother Kevin.  For the first time since he was 14 years old, he decided not to drink.  “I really didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.  I just decided not to have that first drink, and the night unfolded. Amazingly, it was the most fun in my life I had ever had.  Without a single drink, I had a blast.”
            As day turned into night, Kevin was chatting with Wes, another member of the band.  Kevin casually mentioned he was thinking about getting a Bible.
            “I’ll see what I can do,” Wes said, before the men went to sleep.
            On Sunday morning, Kevin woke up with a headache.  “I’d been drinking so much my body just assumed it had to feel horrible in the morning,” he said.  He and Debbie had such a good time with Mark and Wes of The River, they decided to head over to the church service the band organized between the track’s first and second turns.  Wes spotted them and announced he had a Bible for Kevin.   
            This wasn’t a spare Bible gathering dust on a shelf.  It was the Bible Wes’s  kids had used through five states, the Bible he had taken around the world twice on his mission trips, the one Wes had received after he accepted Christ into his life.
            Kevin couldn’t accept Wes’s personal Bible.  But Wes insisted.
          “God has answered my prayers.  He’s led me to give this to you.  Take it,” he told Kevin. 
           With tears of happiness in his eyes, Kevin accepted the Bible.  At the church service, he raised his hands and told God he was sorry for all he had done in his life.  He prayed, “Jesus, please forgive me, I’m giving my life to you.”  He saw a bright flash, more intense than lightning or a welder’s flash, brighter than anything he’d ever seen.  When the light was gone, he could see more clearly, as if God had removed the plastic from his eyes. The air even tasted better.
            “At that moment, God removed my desire for alcohol and drugs. He took away the anger from my body, and I began to love my family even more, with all of my heart. He helped me love from the inside out and not the outside in. The song Amazing Grace is the story of my life – I once was lost, but now I see,”
             Kent, who is now 47, has been clean and sober since that weekend in Talladega.  He’s still not sure why one of the top officials in motorsports was so strident about him taking Bob’s Party Bus to Talladega, putting his life on a new path, other than it was God’s will.  “Can you think of any other reason?” he asks.  Bob’s Party Bus is still mobbed at a half dozen Sprint Cup races each year.  It’s easier to find than ever, now bearing a 30-foot cross illuminated with color Christmas lights visible clear across the track.  The bottom is rusting badly, and Kevin is praying for additional divine intervention.
            “You could say we did a conversion on the bus, from R-rated to G-rated,” Kevin noted.  “It’s still Bob’s Party Bus but with a different purpose – to share the love of God with other people.  When people come to visit the bus, I have their attention, and can witness that there’s much more to life than alcohol and drugs.  I share my testimony with them so they know what God can do in their lives. I’ve replaced booze on the bus with Bibles. Anyone who needs one is welcome.”

Reprinted with permission from THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans (Motorbooks) which is available at many online bookstores.


Monday, October 21, 2013

My Doctors Only Want to Talk NASCAR

The NASCAR season is a traveling circus from February through November.  For ten months, a dedicated group of people pull off a Super Bowl on steroids just about every weekend.  Even after the champagne flies to crown a new champion in Miami around Thanksgiving, there will be scant rest for the weary.  Each series has awards banquets, and Daytona is looming over everyone’s head like a safe dangling on piano wire.  Following the longest season in professional sports, the only real vacation for thousands in the NASCAR industry is around Christmas, where all versions of Ricky Bobby’s baby Jesus are celebrated. Then we prepare for a new season.  For my family each year, a late-December respite in Vermont is the much-needed so-called battery charge.  
One particular off-season ski trip was my chance to move beyond “intermediate” skiing.  Out on the slopes, the sun was disappearing behind the formidable mountain.  I was successfully closing out Day One, and would have four more to improve the old technique. 
For the proverbial Last Run of the Day, Viviane and I come across a black diamond called “Superstar.”  Just seeing that name gets my adrenaline pumping: strong and confident notions of red, white and blue achievement, Superman, Wonder Woman, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps in their USA Speedos.  Superstar!  If my run were televised, Jim McKay would in a canary yellow blazer describing it. 
Viviane is smooth and light on her skis.  She describes my style as Jean-Claude Killy on the green bunny runs and Jerry Lewis on the blacks.  Today, Jerry is a no show.  I haven’t gone down once.  The legs feel good.  It’s time to master the elements, blast past the fat part of the bell curve and enter the rarified realm of the expert skier.  I am a super star.
I point a pole to the beckoning trail sign.  Viviane nods, and a bad idea builds momentum with the trail’s steep decline and wind-blown moguls. (Are the scary bumps called “moguls” because they mimic Donald Trump’s hair?)
My wife is out in front, deftly finding her way down the difficult slope.  I pick up too much speed and try to cut back in a groove between slick moguls, a move that would have looked good on the chalkboard.  Too bad we’re not in a classroom, but skidding down an iceberg.  My skis hit a rut and jerk to the side.  My top heavy body surges in the other direction as if launched from a circus cannon.  Except my arms aren’t stoic at my sides.  This is a flailing, out-of-control, agony-of-defeat cartwheel.
            NASCAR drivers see crashes happening in slow motion.  Wayne Gretzky explained when he scored a goal, time slowed, and the puck appeared the size of a pizza pie, the goal as wide as the Hoover Dam.  None of that here.  It’s an instantaneous, oh-snap blur, white canvas screaming toward my face.  Greg Louganis couldn’t have hit the surface at a more precise 90-degree angle.  It sounds like chomping a mouthful of Cap’n Crunch.  I bounce like a Super Ball.  On the second revolution, my head smacks the rock-hard mountain like a bowling ball dropped from a roof.  Finally, silence.
            It is a sad reflection of our You Tube culture that laying there, thankfully breathing (albeit stunned) and reassured my skull was not split like a rotten pumpkin, I wonder if anyone on the chair lift captured my spastic circus-act flop.  Please tell me no one camera-phoned this. I’m destined to be an internet laughing stock.  Without royalties.
There are no cameras or giggling.  I’m alone, in one piece.  This can’t be that bad.  The morning papers said a Manhattan window washer survived a 47-story fall.
All my digits are moving.  But as the commercial says, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
That initial crunch wasn’t the give of snow.  It something in my shoulder breaking. 
My wife kept her wits and balance, and had pulled to a stop below.  The grade is too steep for her to come up. All is OK, no worries, I reassure her with a lefty Super Star-like thumbs up.  The covenant of marriage allows making claims to your life partner that you do not believe.  She tells passing skiers following her gaze up the mountain, “Oh, he’s fine.  He’s just catching his breath.”
All I can do is flash a dumb smile and that thumbs-up with the arm I can move.
“Baby, just put your skis on and ski on down!” she urges.
Maybe an expert skier could do that. I’m an eternal intermediate, forever checking that middle box on the rental line, a reckless overachiever who flirted with bragging rights for super-stardom beyond his proficiency and paid the price.  The run couldn’t have been named “Devil’s Emergency Room” to scare me away?  I try to stand, but the shoulder is shot.  I slide on my bottom across the slippery surface, faster and faster down the steep hill. This is not going to end well.  I dig boot heels into the ice, and lurch to a stop.
The mountain is quiet, save my gasping.  I lean on my good shoulder and crawl, inches at a time, across the mountain, toward the woods.  Isn’t that where animals go to die?
Someone, it’s a ski instructor, is waving his poles and shouting down from the lift. “Do you need me to radio for help?”
Up there, I’ve looked down at the meek humiliation of the daring and the clumsy, those unfortunate injured skiers who are strapped in and carted away on the Red Cross sled.  Yeah, call it in.  Now I’ll know how it feels to be present for your own funeral procession.  Like driving a stock car at the track in Charlotte, which had different ending of hearty slaps on the back and a framed photo on fake marble, I’ll check off another bucket-list experience.
Viviane says they closed Superstar after my crash.  Too treacherous; an out-of-control intermediate from the city was nearly killed.  My fast-fading manhood is revived.  Yes, it was the ferocious mountain, not me.  Mother Nature won today’s battle, the war is mine.  I am a superstar…until I find out Viviane was conjuring a well-meaning fib, something a married woman says with noble intentions but nary a shred of truth. 
The doctor examining me says he’ll take x-rays but it looks like a broken collar bone.  “What do you do for a living?” he asks, sounding not that interested. 
“I’m with NASCAR,” I tell him.  He smiles, makes eye contact for the first time, and asks if Jimmie Johnson is going to win a third championship.
In the mirror, I basically have no right shoulder.  The disappearance of a frequently used body part is sickening.  My arm is dangling low like an ape’s, the shoulder having apparently said, hasta la vista.  The surrounding skin is already yellowish green.  I want to puke.
“This looks pretty bad.  Do I need surgery?”
“I don’t think so,” he says.  “I want to know this.  Earnhardt moving to Hendrick: is that going to change the competitive balance in the sport?  I mean, Dale Jr., Gordon, Johnson – that’s like a Murderers Row or the Purple People eaters.  What a lineup!  They’re gonna dominate!” 
I’m in starting to shiver, slipping into shock maybe.  The dull pain is starting to spread to my chest.  I’m wondering if they’ll screw rods into my body like some of the drivers I’ve talked to, or if I’ll be limping around like the Hunchback of NASCAR in New York.
“Do I have to stay in the hospital?” I ask.
“We’ll fix you up here, and you’ll be out in just a few.  There’s quite a separation in the bone break.  You must have hit pretty hard.  Hey, I’ve seen some hard hits in NASCAR this year. I couldn’t believe Gordon walked away from that lick in Pocono.  How about those HANS devices and new softer walls?  They’re really making NASCAR much safer.”
“This hurts a lot.  How long will the pain last?”
“Oh, it’s like any bone break,” the doctor says.  “We’ll give you some strong medication.  Did you know Dale Senior broke his collarbone at Talladega, the car just flipping like crazy, and then he drove the next week with that broken collarbone?”
 “Yes, he actually won the pole and the race.  Watkins Glen.  Road course.  Toughest course to drive, I’d imagine, with a painful injury like that. Doctor, I’m on the first day of a five-day vacation.  Do I have to go home?  We can get back to New York in about five hours.”
“It’s up to you.  Frankly, you’ll at first be uncomfortable wherever you are.  You can stay in the lodge.  Hey, speaking of New York, that track NASCAR was building is not going to happen?”
This dance goes on until the doc gives me a sling and bottle of horse pills.  He tells me to see an orthopedic surgeon back in New York.  “I’d bet that doctor will want to operate. If I were you, I’d avoid surgery. You could place one end of your collar bone on one side of the room, and the other end on the other side, and the bones will find each other.  The collar bone is a truly amazing thing.  You should be OK in a few months.”  
He was right.  I got better.  (The collarbone can find anything; too bad it can’t go work for the CIA and find bin Laden.)  I was in tip-top shape but then gruesomely rolled an ankle at Texas Motor Speedway.  What used to be a jutting ankle bone at the bottom of my skinny chicken leg soon resembled the kind of plump tomato my grandmother would have proudly thrown in the pot for Sunday’s sauce.  You hit 40, and you become spastic.  Your body grows hair in odd places and progressively falls apart.  TV commercials offer electronic devices to alert the authorities when you become incapacitated.  I can accept that.  Harder to deal with is how I’d viewed those who get hurt on business trips as losers.  I’m in that club, too.  Not exactly on the bucket list.
Each NASCAR track has a well-staffed mini-hospital in the infield.  It’s meant for drivers, not clumsy, aging, accident-prone PR people.  I hobble to the Infield Care Center for an ace bandage and a tape job. I’m hosting CNBC and the New York Daily News, will be on the ankle all day, and need to stabilize it.  The Speedway doctor won’t tape me without taking x-rays.  Sure enough, the tip of the fibia is broken.  The doc shows the film – a chunk the shape of India floating beneath the shin bone.  The kind, gentle and efficient folks at the Texas Motor Speedway Infield Care Center strap on a metal boot, hand me crutches, and suggest I see an orthopedic specialist back home.  “I know,” I say.  “I bet they’ll want to operate.”
The busted ankle brings out the best in service companies.  Avis fetches my car at the hotel, no charge.  Continental bumps me to first class with curb-to-gate wheelchair service.  I make a mental note to fake an injury before a future trip.  In light of recent events, pretending won’t be necessary.
I return to New York to see another doctor.  You can guess what happens when he hears I got hurt at a NASCAR race.  The orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village secretly wishes he were Tony Stewart’s jack man:    
Clumsy PR Guy:  So, it’s broken. Bummer.  But there’s no ligament damage, right?
Doctor:  No, none.  What amazes me is how fast those drivers go when they are so close to one another. Extraordinary, isn’t it.
Clumsy PR Guy:  What about the tendons?
Doctor:  The tendons are fine.  You don’t have to worry about that.  They say it’s the roar of the cars and the whole massive feel of it. You go to a race, and you are just blown away and hooked.
Clumsy PR Guy:  I have been elevating the leg and keeping ice on the ankle. How long should I do that?
Doctor:  As long as needed.  I hear NASCAR is still looking at building a track in the New York area.  Jersey?  Near the Meadowlands?  Out on the Island?  No, no, Staten Island. Yes, that’s it.  Is it true?  That would be great. That sport really needs to be here in New York.
Clumsy PR Guy:  Unfortunately, there’s not enough political support, and that’s not gonna work out.  Listen, getting back to me and the ankle, I imagine there’s some sort of physical therapy ahead?
Doctor:  You will absolutely need rehab.  We can make a recommendation – plenty of good places.  It really seems to be a sport that has caught on like wildfire. I have a friend at ABC, who was a big skeptic but is now completely sold on it.  They show your races, right?
Clumsy PR Guy:  Yes, ABC is a partner, and NASCAR is very popular.  I sit at a computer all day.  My main exercise is hitting the send button on email.  So I like to run at night. When will I be jogging again?
Doctor:  Should be a few months.  Just between you and me, it gets pretty wild at some of those tracks, huh?  What’s it like?
Clumsy PR Guy:  It’s fun. The fans are a panic. I writing a book on them.  There’s a fan who took the NASCAR flag to the top of Mt. Everest.  Another guy walks around at the track naked except for a Goodyear tire and Tom Sawyer straw hat.  Come to think of it, he walks a lot, and I’ll be walking a lot.  I can do that with the cast you’ll give me?  No crutches?
Doctor:  Yes, of course. I don’t understand Staten Island. Why didn’t they just didn’t go buy the land at Grumman airport out on the Island? It’s totally available.

This is a top ankle and knee guy in New York magazine’s list of the city’s best doctors. He’s in demand and hard to reach.  I was able to see him instantly.  You see, his assistant is a Sprint phone-carrying NASCAR fan.  She saw “NASCAR” on my email requesting an appointment.  I was promptly slotted in.  Getting my first preference for follow up appointments was a snap.  I just had to answer a few questions about what Dale Jr. was like, and does he really have a girlfriend?
Who says they don't love NASCAR in New York?


Reprinted from THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY, which is available online and wherever fine books (and some really crappy ones) are sold.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Imagine Lennon’s Autograph


I’m a big Beatles fan. No matter what challenges the day presents, those marvelous collection of tunes – really, any one of them beside “Mr. Moonlight” – will turn my frown upside down.

Unfortunately, the four mop-topped lads from Liverpool didn’t produce in my father the same serotonin kick. Back in the day, dad would storm into my room to make me lower “that Devil’s music.” 

(Yeah, “Yesterday,” “Here There and Everywhere,” and “Eleanor Rigby” are the soundtrack to many a backyard satanic ritual.  Any impressionable kid hearing those songs will start hunting down and sacrificing furry animals to drink their blood.)

One night, my dad gets home from work and reports, “I got you the autograph of that bum, John Lennon.  He came in to buy a car.”

I am absolutely beside myself.

Really really!!! Let me see it!”

Dad fishes into his wallet.  Lennon’s signature is scribbled on the blank side of his “Midtown Chevrolet” business card. This was the tail end of the era when big throaty American cars dominated the roads. There was an expansive Chevy dealership on Broadway and 57th Street smack in the heart of Manhattan: gleaming ‘Vettes, Monte Carlos, Camaros, and Impalas were displayed behind oversized second floor plate glass windows overlooking Broadway. Today, the space is the bland home to a nondescript chain drug store selling potato chips and flu shots.

The autograph sure looks real. But is this some sick trick?

I can barely sputter out the words: “How do you know it was really him, John, the Beatle?!”

“He had long hair and was with an ugly chink,” my father says. 

Yep, that would be Yoko.  It was authentic. Our own Archie Bunker had nabbed a Beatle signature, right before he was heading toward LA for the fabled “Lost Weekend.” And given it to me.

Dad may have loathed the man, his music, even his taste in women. He may have been narrow minded in some areas, but he thought enough of me to humble himself for that autograph. Beneath the gruff crudeness and defensive characterizing of people would sometimes appear a heart of gold.  Ok, maybe a heart with gold-plated paint.  A thin coat.  Now that he’s gone, these gestures are the memories that stay with me. 

The memories are really all I've got.  I lost the autograph.  Imagine no possessions.  Indeed. 


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life is Too Short for Yoga


You want to twist, not lunge. The goal is to strengthen the core.  Align correctly. Embrace all sensation. In class and at dinner, your tailbone is a topic of conversation. You had never considered the tailbone, except that time when you fell on it, hard, drunk. It hurt to shit and was the only time you celebrated the hangover runs. Now, here, in France, you're commanded to be conscious of your tailbone.
       
Following class, you will drink blended vegetable and aloe concoctions tasting like a mouthful of spicy grass (but the most exotic, fulfilling, delicious grass ever put down your throat). The women with cryptic tattoos on their inner forearms will discuss the ideal pace for downward dog and scour books on anatomy. "Yoga is about freedom and choices," one says, sounding like Mitt Romney after discovering Buddha body conditioning. 

You're instructed to breathe through your fingers, to take in deep breaths though the soles of your feet, suck it into your marrow, force that extended deliberate breath into your blood and make your ribs longer, open your pelvis, thrust your newly discovered superstar tailbone into the center of the earth, hold that air -- the fuel of life and existence from the beginning of time to the end of eternity -- and deliver the largest universal atmospheric suck since Adam from the end of your toenails to the top of your head.

I make the sucking sounds, which resemble a wounded duck with asthma. Then the instructor says, to the 15 yoginis and me, Close Your Eyes. This is a positive development. Now I won't look like an idiot loser. I'll only feel like an idiot loser.
  
Deep relaxed breathing in a heated room when the AC should be on is supposed to cleanse your body and clear your mind. If being mindless is the desired end result, I should be receiving the Gold Belt in a few days. 
      
But I'm having Danger Will Robinson moments in trying to follow instructions to breathe into the knees and toes. You see, our baking, crowded room in the back of this splendid Villa in the lush hills of the South of France reeks like a high school gymnasium. 

Later, it will smell worse after I vomit onto my yoga mat.

But now, the last thing you want to do is suck stifling gym-socks air. Preferable, is to lay next to the gorgeous pool with the high-tech environmentally-friendly chlorine substitute and the view of the Riviera, Nice to the left, Cannes off to the right, soaking in the stunning lush scenery before our personal bazillion-star half-blind chef Stefan prepares another amazing farm-to-table meal proving healthy can be freaking delicious.

The morning's instructor is Ben. It's his Villa, too. Well, actually this plot of paradise belongs to his mother, one of Forbes' top female CEOs.  Ben is a fit, shirtless guy with a rich mama and lean segmented muscles he can recite by their Latin names. The requisite tattoos of a modern day yoga instructor run down those well-sculpted arms. Across his tight chest read the scripted words, "Look To This Day," the title of a poem on the wall of his childhood bedroom. Ben can launch into a head stand with greater ease than how I rise from a chair. He can walk on his hands. Any physical thing you can do, he can do better. If Ben's hair were longer, he could be lead guitarist in a metal band that chooses fitness over dope.  He reminds one of Freddie Mercury without the overbite and played by Sasha Baron Cohen in the movie. Ben attended UCLA, studied English but admits he didn't make it to class much. Now he teaches yoga in Thailand and Italy, and in private lessons to wealthy women in candlelit upper east side apartments who answer the door clad in revealing lingerie, as well as in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous haunts like our present locale, a breathtaking 10,000-foot Villa here in Tourettes (insert your favorite string of profanities here), courting an international crowd earnestly seeking, well, I'm not sure yet.  Better health?  Stress relief?  The perfect pose?  The ideal mind-body-spirit balance?  The replacement of one addiction with another?  A guarantee to live an almost inhumanly long time and be able to walk perfectly erect to your child's funeral casket? 
     
For me, participating in a week's worth of yoga torture sessions with a roomful of strong, independent women and a sweet stocky man from Chelsea is what can be termed a fish-out-of-water scenario. I was brought up in a strict Baptist household. Women who put their legs behind their heads were known as prostitutes.
   
Make no mistake, I am here to support my beautiful wife, one of those lithe, strong-spirited women, a terrific yoga instructor in her own rite in New York, trained at the renowned Jivamukti Institute. Plus, I haven't had a vacation yet this year. I also understood that every night following Stefan's haute cuisine, Ben serves an impressive array of local French wines.

            Everyone's Lux Yoga mat is flat on the floor in a perfect rectangle. Mine is a wet scrunched-up mess. I drip on it the way the body of a plump, desert-tortured man waters the parched earth in July's midday sun.

Well before my mat became spattered in puke infused with twigs, Ben implored the group to consider that, though he admitted it may not sound very Yogi, this session, and life, is a series of victories. The point is, even if we can't vault from a squat into a handstand, just coming to class on a gorgeous September morning a few miles up the hill from Nice is a singular win. Accumulate victories, Ben urges.
     
The game hadn't started, however, and I was being shut out. Can't imagine notching a “W” today. Just sitting cross-legged during Ben's preamble pep talk, spine straight and tall as if a hovering nun were about to crack you on the knuckles with a stiff metal ruler for the mere whiff of a slouch, my throbbing right ankle rekindles the break of a decade ago. Our first exercise involves pulling back the fingers. I ain’t exactly Gumby there. More Gumby after six months in the freezer. Holy Moses, can’t even properly stretch my digits!  Hand surgery last year. Is it true the word Yoga derives from the ancient Hindu, meaning “Exercises Showing You Suck?"

            My body is a sad fucking rebelling disgrace. The ravages of time.  And sitting. And shitty food. And too many adult beverages. And the downtown air the EPA and Whitman and Giuiliani, heroic as he was, solemnly attending funeral after funeral and throwing out baseballs at games bonding a wounded city, lied about. Years later, it came out in a multipart newspaper series. The air wasn't exactly mountain clean. Ah, but they had boldly declared: drink up, suck it in, ye brave New Yorkers, hare krishna hare rama, and we were proud defiant Americans beckoned back to the neighborhood as the pile smoldered. I've not been able to run like I used to after the planes. Countless rescue and recovery workers have met a slow, painful, hacking, suffocating death. Breathe deep, indeed.

We haven't even stood up yet. I’m sweating, and screwed.  Ben says yoga is not a competition.  Focus on your own mat.  But let’s be serious. In life, if we focused on our own mat, not a single McMansion would be built. If we focused on only our own mat, half the stores on Madison Avenue would be out of business.  Hell, Madison Avenue itself would shut down.  Why do women in places like Dallas, Atlanta and LA wear makeup to exercise class? Why the snazzy outfits?  If we paid strict exclusive attention to our own mat, why does our instructor own a Rolex?  To be human is to aspire to be seen, to desire acknowledgment and affirmation. To be sold a bill of bullshit and apply it liberally. And let me add, to be a yoga novice at an advanced yoga retreat is to be named to the starting lineup in the Super Bowl of Shame and Disgrace.   
       
Man is a highly competitive gossipy animal. I can only imagine the detritus of my impression, wheezing and teetering and stumbling across a slippery unkempt mat. “That’s some James Brown shit you're doing!” exclaims Isaac, who’s assisting Ben, as I wobble like a drunk on a moving tightrope, trying to balance on one leg after failing at other poses.
     
Isaac, a contortionist who has taught to starry-eyed praise in the underground yoga blogs, later tells me, “I genuinely enjoy your practice.” If yoga is anything, it is pure kindness. Or the ability to lie with a wide smile and gleam in your eye.
     
As much as I want the opposite, I derive no pleasure from this, other than deep pride in seeing in the periphery my wife’s advanced springy moves, body positions that cackle in the face of advancing time.
      
The music is nice, though a bit heavy on eastern mystical Indian-type music, which sounds like wailing old men being burnt by cigarettes. There’s the occasional gratifying familiar song on the soundtrack. If I could lift an arm, I'd call for a repeat of the quick dose of Bob Dylan. Anything off Blood on The Tracks, and you'll forget the body’s taunting rank inadequacies, which grow as the lunges and twists and stances become progressively harder to attain and hold.
       
It would be very easy to leave, here in the last row next to the door. Wait until Ben describes the next truly unreasonable circus-worthy balancing act and just slip out the back, Jack. 
       
Yet, our instructor’s opening pep talk was spot on, here or anywhere else where the humans on my team forge an identity so utterly inferior.  I gotta make the best of this.  May not get the big victory.  But won’t be defeated.  It's fucking September 11 after all. Stop being such a pussy and arch your weak back off the mat!  Those whose bravery defies common description trudged up the burning-out-of-control skyscraper’s stairs with heavy gear on their back.  Yoga is really about being strong to help others, isn’t it?  Well, if that’s so, there should be a fireman’s helmet stitched onto each mat.
    
I push and push, shaking like an addict denied his drugs, testing muscles unused in decades, making an unquantifiable sacrifice in a benign attempt to right the large injustice of this day and the various and sundry injustices of all other days.  I grit teeth and spray sweat until the room starts to spin, my stomach churns, and the gourmet breakfast exits right where it went in.
   
It is now that the vacation pool beckons. Life's way too short for yoga. In every class, somebody's lucky enough to be positioned next to the door. 
     
Tell me this. What good is strength if everyone is strong? The strong are incomplete without us.  The mighty are meaningless absent the meek.  They are unfulfilled without us. The strong need us. For we are, simply, The Weak.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The King and I





Mike Wright considers Richard Petty his absolute hero in life.  Aside from his dad, no one comes close. “What’s great is, Richard is a hero you can literally touch,” Wright says.  He has asked for Petty’s autograph more than one hundred times.  The King has never once said no. 
“If you want Richard Petty’s autograph, and he is physically in the area, you will get it.  I don’t even ask for the signature any more.  I’ll shake his hand and take a photo.  It’s kind of neat that your hero knows who you are.” 
Wright has met the seven-time NASCAR champion countless times – at the track as a boy then as man structuring his trucking runs to include a pit stop at Petty’s race shop in Randleman, N.C.  Wright stopped off most Mondays to say hello and grab an autograph.  “I have a gazillion of them, too many to even count, but the piece of paper is less important than a reason to ask the King about Sunday’s race.  Richard doesn’t hear so well, and sometimes you’re not having the same conversation.  But that’s okay.  I mean, you’re with the King!  You’re talking to history! You just learn to let him go on.”
Before Wright married his wife Karen in 1997, he made sure to have a clear agreement on one crucial matter: he would continue to go the races – more than a dozen per year.  “That was definite, everything else was negotiable,” he explained. 
Karen understood, and would be awed by, Mike’s extraordinary passion. She became a NASCAR fan after discovering the cars weren’t just numbers but driven by real personalities. She got in touch with the Petty shop and asked if the King could call his biggest fan who was about to get married.  Richard couldn’t do that, she was told; he had difficulty hearing.  The King couldn’t speak with anyone on the phone, not even the president, if he were to call.  Karen didn’t tell Mike.  Her fiancĂ© would understand, and he probably knew about the King’s aversion to phones, but what was the point of admitting to a failed plan? 
When the Wrights checked into the hotel in Daytona Beach for their honeymoon, however, the phone in the room was blinking.  An envelope was waiting at reception.  It was a beautiful wedding card, signed by none other than Richard Petty.
“Richard Petty is the nicest man I’ve ever met,” Wright says.  “He’s been my hero since I’ve been a little kid, and he’s never let me down once. When I see Richard, it is literally like the rays of heaven shine down on him.”
Wright was delighted to discover he and Petty share a passion for collecting Civil War memorabilia.  Using a metal detector, he’s found many Union and Confederate uniform medals, buttons, bullets, and shells from the battles fought in southern Virginia, most from the Siege of Petersburg, where his great grandfather served in the Confederate army.  He’s presented medals dug up from that bloody 10-month battle to Petty, who displays them in the Richard Petty Museum.
Wright has made his own mini-museum a display most noteworthy for well over 100 Petty autographs garnered over the years.  It’s clear none of the signatures were rushed.  Each was carefully signed in elegant, looping Palmer-method cursive script school kids were taught when penmanship counted before computers invaded the classroom.  The autographs are showcased in three distinct styles.  “There’s ‘Richard Petty #43’ at the beginning of autograph sessions, then ‘R. Petty #43,’ and finally ‘RP #43’ when he gets really tired,” Wright explained.  “The King considers it his privilege to sign.  He says every autograph is his way to say ‘thank you’ to each fan for letting him do what he loves.”
The room has sheet metal from the famous No. 43 car, ticket stubs, programs and other NASCAR memorabilia collected over the years, sometimes with the help of Wright’s dad, who passed on a fascination with the Petty’s.  Jerry Wright was a fan of Lee Petty, who bought a street car for $900 and won the first Daytona 500 in 1959.  At the same race two years later, Lee’s car jumped the flimsy guardrail at Daytona, and literally flew from the track, corkscrewing over the high-banked turn and beyond the reach of the cameras filming the race.  Lee survived the incredible crash, but he traded places with his son, who’d been serving on his dad’s crew.  Richard became the bread winner for the family business as NASCAR’s first “second generation” driver and the first to follow in a champion’s footsteps.  Winning 101 races and two championships in the 1960’s, he’d also become the head of racing’s royal family, and known to all fans as simply, “The King.”
When little Mike came along, father and son enthusiastically rooted on Richard Petty for the second phase of his 200 career wins.  Before each race, Jerry would compile a ledger of statistics – how many laps the King had led at that track, prior races he’d won.  On weekends, Mike would lay on his dad’s bed for hours discussing the numbers.
Wright attended his first NASCAR race in September, 1968.  Jerry had bought good seats, right near the flag stand at Richmond Fairgrounds Speedway.  But Mike didn’t see a thing from the wooden grandstands.  He was in his mother’s belly.  “I’ve always been old school,” Wright proudly stated. 
On weekends, other families would go to the beach or the mountains.  The Wrights, who lived about a half hour south of the track, went to the races, even with mom bountifully expectant.
                The tracks, the cars, the people, the whole NASCAR fan experience was different in the late 1960’s.  The world beyond the sport’s dusty race tracks was bursting into color.  NASCAR was a few steps behind, still locked in the old black-and-white traditions.  The sport was then called the NASCAR Grand National Series. (Winston would later come on the scene as NASCAR’s title sponsor after cigarette ads were banned from television and racing provided the perfect marketing outlet.)  If fans didn’t watch a race live at the track, they likely didn’t see the sport at all; a NASCAR season on network TV was still 30 years away.  Many drivers got behind the wheel in short-sleeve dress shirts.  “You took your shirt and a pair of britches, dumped it in starch, and that was supposed to make it fireproof,” Richard Petty said.  “You put on a seat belt and a helmet, but you didn’t look at the safety of it.”  Flimsy metal guardrails rather than today’s flexible barriers ringed the tracks, which were mostly dirty, grimy places with barely edible concession food and dank, pungent bathrooms.   At the track, no one was ever tempted to call the ladies facility the “powder room.” 
A tough expectant mom could get by, but the track was no place for an infant.  The Wrights waited until Mike was three years old to bring him to the races. The abundant sights and sounds infused the lad to the core.  Since that day, Mike has been to more than 250 NASCAR races.  He has yet to celebrate his 40th birthday. 
Wright’s voice carries a pitch of wonder and delight when summoning the sights and sounds absorbed at the race track as a young boy, like hanging out on the backstretch of Richmond Fairgrounds Speedway, outside the ticket gates, where enterprising fans with little money and less fear would climb trees to watch the races. “I remember one gentleman had a cooler tied to a rope.  He’d pull the rope, and up the tree came the cooler.  He’d reach in for a beer, close the lid and expertly lower the cooler halfway to the ground.  It hung there in the air, until the next refill. As a kid, I thought, man, that’s ingenious.” 
Track president Paul Sawyer could have sent the police to shake the freeloaders from those oak trees.  But he didn’t, and the sight of fans perched in the leafy branches like big exotic birds nipping canned beer was one more thing little Mike Wright filed in his mind about this marvelous sport beginning to cover him like a second skin. 
Wright would later meet Sawyer after a Hurricane Fran blew through in 1996.  “Our camper rocked back and forth all night long.  There were tents hanging in the trees the next morning.  Mr. Sawyer came through the camp grounds checking to see if everyone was OK.  That was some unforgettable gesture showing he cared about us.”
The track, now known as Richmond International Raceway, with 80,000 seats and no more trees to offer a free, unobstructed view, was where Wright fell in love with NASCAR.  He has also been ritualistically attending the Memorial Day race in Charlotte for more than 30 years.  But his personal racing Mecca, where memories are the fondest, and his gratitude the deepest, is Darlington Raceway.  Since 1980, Wright hasn’t missed a race at the unforgiving, egg-shaped course, known as “The Lady in Black.” 
Darlington Raceway is NASCAR’s Lambeau Field, a storied venue loaded with history and charm in a small market that many believe will always have a place on the schedule even if it’s difficult to get to and lacks the big-city attractions of newer stops on the circuit like Las Vegas, Kansas City and Miami.  The track, built on a cotton and peanut field, took on a curious egg shape to protect a minnow farm the land owner had refused to relocate.   Wright enjoys the history and lore of Darlington and will explain how the track’s retaining walls, white before the race, turn black by the day’s end due to a multitude of tire contact. 
“This is a track you have to battle all day long; there’s no riding around by anyone on any lap,” he says.  Because of its unique configuration – with one turn, tighter, narrow and more steeply banked, shooting cars down the straightaway like an amusement park carnival ride, Darlington is also known as “The Lady in Black,” giving drivers coming off that wicked turn and scraping up against the wall their inevitable “Darlington stripe.”
Wright won’t be denied in attending races at Darlington.  One rare year when he and Karen weren’t camping or RVing at the race, they stayed at the Diplomat Motel in Myrtle Beach.  A bad storm came and lightning struck the hotel.  All the building’s emergency sirens were blaring. People were screaming to get out as the building filled with gas.  Wright ran from the hotel in his underwear, holding his race tickets and scanner.  “I could go to Wal-Mart and get clothes; I couldn’t get another race ticket,” he explained. 
                Jerry, who worked with the Virginia Dept. of Corrections, would buy his race tickets at automobile dealerships or right at the box office.  A signature family outing trumpeting the arrival of summer was waking up at 3 a.m., and heading to Charlotte for the World 600 race on Memorial Day weekend.  “We weren’t poor, but driving to Charlotte was a big deal,” Wright said.  “Six of us would pile into a Pontiac big as the Titanic, four hours to Charlotte, then back home after the race.” He still carries the ticket stub to one of those World 600 races, now called the Coca-Cola 600 – a $40 ticket on the start-finish line, 40th row.
As NASCAR barnstormed the south east, the boat-like Bonneville took Jerry and Anne Wright, Mike, his sister Susan, and their grandparents to stops in Atlanta, Bristol, Tenn., Martinsville, Va., Rockingham, N.C., and North Wilkesboro, N.C.  To newer NASCAR fans, places like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro are romantic-sounding names and fading images on grainy highlight reels.  For Wright, the memories are clear as yesterday.  After one particular race at North Wilkesboro, a frustrating traffic jam leaving the North Carolina track kept the family car hemmed in going nowhere.  Jerry had to work the next day.  He wasn’t going to patiently sit in a seemingly endless line of immobilized cars.  Jerry jerked the wheel and pulled the Pontiac onto the grass.  He drove through a creek leading into someone’s back yard.   He tore through the unkempt grass and blew past the house, down the gravel driveway with a cloud of dust.  “Chickens were scrambling, dogs were barking, it was just a mad scene,” Wright said.  “I peeked out the back window and saw a shot gun pointed at the car.  But before you knew it we were back on the highway, sailing home.”
The races were held on Sunday, but fans didn’t wear their Sunday best. “The bottom five rows in Rockingham, you had to wear a helmet with all the chicken bones and beer cans raining down,” Wright recalls.  “By the end of the race, you’d be covered in red mud.”
He was still a wide-eyed kid in 1978 at Richmond when Darrell Waltrip used his “chrome horn” to move Neil Bonnett out of the way for the win.  On pit road, an incensed Bonnett, acting as proxy for thousands in the grandstands, then smashed into Waltrip, who had a reputation for being a quite a loudmouth.  In fact, when Steven Spielberg had made a summer blockbuster film about a large man-eating shark, the motor mouth driver was dubbed “Jaws.”  Waltrip was brash, but backed up the entertaining bravado with a pedal-to-the-floor “out of my way” driving style that won many races like this one. The Richmond crowd was still buzzing about his use of the chrome horn and Bonnett showing enough is enough by knocking into DW’s DiGuard Chevy near Victory Lane.  The race winner had to climb the steps of the grandstand and walk through the crowd to get to the press box for post-race interviews. 
“Waltrip was heading up there and fans were throwing anything not bolted down at him.  Next to me, a woman who must have been 80 years old gets up and shouts, ‘I hate you Darrell Waltrip!’  She hurls a hand biscuit at him – hits DW right in the shoulder!  The roll came apart as it hit him.  You could see the ham fly out.  I was about 10 years old watching this, and my eyes must have been half as big as my head.”
Another time, a woman too well dressed to be walking through the gate at Martinsville was accompanied by a man in a Rusty Wallace t-shirt with big sunglasses and his cap pulled over his eyes. “I recognized Bobby Labonte right away,” Wright says.  “When Bobby passed me, I whispered in his ear, ‘nice disguise.’”
NASCAR was a smaller, more personal sport when drivers walked among the fans in disguise and elderly ladies pelted drivers with dinner rolls.  The campgrounds were more intimate.  The RVs and campers weren’t quite so lavish.  The chasm between rich and poor, the haves and the have nots, wasn’t quite as large.  It was easier to meet new people and look back 15 years later to realize you’re still sending friends met at the track Virginia country hams for Christmas.  The pace was slower.  Fans weren’t quite as busy, seemed to have fewer worries.  There were no cell phones and blackberries to chirp strange electronic tunes that interrupted warm conversations over cold beers in front of crackling wood fires.  Access to the sport and its drivers was loose and informal in innocent, less guarded times.  NASCAR today is bigger, faster, safer, higher stakes, more competitive, and higher-profile.  The “small fraternity” to which Wright proudly belongs has progressively grown into a larger and therefore more impersonal NASCAR Nation.  The sport is no longer an undiscovered secret except to those in the South lacking big city baseball and football teams. 
NASCAR is now for all Americans.  Wright realizes giving the sport to everyone, meant taking part of it away from some.  Westward expansion meant Rockingham and North Wilkesboro would lose their race dates.  What used to be two Darlington races a year for Mike Wright, especially the marquee Labor Day race, an important end-of-summer ritual for tens of thousands of NASCAR fans, is now the lone spring event – the storied track’s remaining single date on the Sprint Cup schedule.  After NASCAR moved its Labor Day race date to Auto Club Speedway near Los Angeles, Wright attended the last Southern 500 with a heavy heart.  Following the race, when others had left for the parking lots, he sat in the stands and cried. 
The sport has changed.  The world has changed.  Wright accepts all of that.  He understands change is part of life – not a part he necessarily fully understands or always wants to embrace, but a constant force any American who appreciates progress learns to deal with.
“I’m a southerner.  It’s no secret we’re not much for new things.  Yeah, I’d like to have the way it used to be with fans up in the trees and the garages open to everyone.  Back in the day, after the race, they’d open the gates, and you go could right into the pits.”   Wright often found himself standing next to legends like to Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, and most importantly, Richard Petty.  “I realize it’s all gotten too big to allow that now.  There’d be a riot down there. But heck, today you can be a driver’s friend on Facebook or listen to their crew conversations on your Sprint phone.  NASCAR has figured out how to keep the fans close to the drivers.”
If the world was to end tomorrow, Mike Wright wouldn’t miss the race today.  He still finds himself reminiscing of the “old days,” like the first race he and his dad saw on TV, the 1979 Daytona 500, the first flag-to-flag NASCAR race carried live.  The heat had gone out in the Wright’s house on that snowy Sunday in February, forcing his mother and sister to flee to warmer confines at their grandparents’ place.  The men stayed behind glued to the TV, bundled in hats and blankets, not wanting to miss a lap.  “When the King won, we were hugging one another, because we were happy and because it was so darn cold.”
In those days, NASCAR was rarely on TV.  Long car trips were planned to listen to the races on the radio. Thanks to the radio broadcast, the young lad was able to see just about every major attraction in the Southeast. When Petty won at Daytona in 1977, the Wrights were on the way to Virginia Beach. When he won at Michigan in 1981, they were listening in the parking lot at historic Colonial Williamsburg.  When Petty won his final race, the Wrights had the radio up loud at an I-95 truck stop on the way to Gettysburg.  “My dad turned around, gripped my knee and announced, ‘That’s 200!”
Wright’s mom enjoyed listening on the radio and going to the track mostly because it was something the family could do together every week.  Sometimes, there were surprises. At one Bristol race, she found an abandoned kitten by the dumpster of their hotel.  “Mom took that cat home, and we had it 17 years,” Wright said.
Jerry stopped attending races in the mid 1980’s.  The crowds had gotten too big as he was physically slowing down.  Mike began going on his own.  During college, he and a buddy drove ten hours in a Ford Thunderbird from North Carolina to Daytona Beach, to see the annual Independence Day race.   They had just enough money to cover the tickets, gas, beer, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.  After the race, they drove ten more hours, straight home.  Like the NASCAR commercial says, this is a sport where the fans drive 700 miles to watch their heroes drive 500 miles.  How many do all that driving on the same day?
“There’s people who have more money and can buy more souvenirs than me, go to more races than me, but no one loves this sport more than me,” Wright says.
In 1999, he took his dad back to the track at Richmond.  It had been 15 years since Jerry had been to a race. Mike was walking toward the seats and noticed dad was missing.  “I looked around, and he was 50 yards back, stopped in his tracks, standing with his mouth wide open, looking at all those souvenir trailers like he was gonna pass out.  The last race he’d been to, the drivers had set up card tables to sell a t-shirt, a hat, maybe a bumper sticker.  You’d get one shirt, and that would be the driver’s design for the whole season.  Dad said, ‘Is there something special going on?’  He’d never seen these huge merchandise trailers for every driver with different shirts and jackets and all the mementoes available now.”
One of my fondest memories in researching this book was to sit with Wright on a clear and chilly night in the Blue Ox campground on a hill behind Bristol Motor Speedway in front of a snapping wood fire he’d built.  He spoke seriously about how NASCAR has defined him as a person.  He admitted to the sport’s undeniably large and forceful role in his life, discussing the life-shaping aspects of the sport thoughtfully, in a tone ranging from solemn to joyful.  Serious words came from the heart, a timber of revelatory conversation that wouldn’t be out of place in a church confessional.
“Racing has given me a lot in life, taught me valuable lessons about friendship and being a good person,” Wright said. “I think I’ve experienced everything racing has had to offer over the years. Anyone who knows me knows racing is such a big part of my life.  Me and racing are the same.  I love the fires and the steaks and the cans of beer and the people.  This is my lazy boy chair.  I’m home here. When I sit and hear the ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’ I forget everything.  Nothing else matters.  I’m a kid again.  My heart starts pounding and I can’t sit still. By the second pace lap, when you can smell the fumes of the gas and the rubber coming off the tires, oh man, it is instant adrenaline.  If that smell could go into my alarm clock, I’d always wake up happy.”
“What if you could wake to Richard Petty’s voice?” I asked.
“The King?  Oh, Heaven.  Yeah, that’s waking up in heaven.”

Reprinted with permission from The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola (Motorbooks, 2010)