Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bristol Baby

I was a Nascar Nerd.  Notice I said, was, as it is sadly almost totally past tense.  A decade ago, I awaited the two Michigan races with salivating anticipation.  I could honestly, not wait to hear the engines roar and smell the gasoline.  I had never encountered an atmosphere so testosterone charged and so manic.  Nascar fans were nuts long before the Cheeseheads started wearing milk curds on their heads, or Redwings followers were tossing Octopus on the ice.  They were fanatic when fanatic wasn't even thought of, let alone cool. 

Now it seems everyone has jumped on the overboard bandwagon, in nearly every sport.  Nascar purported to be different and it was for a long time.  I started watching finally because Kurt went to a race in Dover with my brother and other family members.  He was excited by it and the very next race he watched with renewed enthusiasm, though to be honest the man would watch underwater synchronized swimming if it were on a sports channel and his favorites could not be found.  We now possess about 20 channels of nothing but sports all the time, and if he had his way there would be twenty more.

The first race I watched was pretty much cars going in circles and turning left.  Kurt told me to find one car I liked and to follow that car through the entire race.  I picked a bright orange and white car, I have no idea why as I don't like orange normally, but I consider it now karma, and so I followed that car the entire race.  While Tony Stewart didn't win the race, he did finish well and since I had picked a car, I was officially hooked.  Thereafter I read everything I could find on my chosen car and driver.  Everything I read made me like this driver even better, as he was so anti-everything, I normally considered right about the world.  He was an aggressive, but born to race driver.  He got into vulgar shouting matches and fights with everyone from other drivers to Nascar officials, but had a heart of gold for charity and for keeping the sport of racing alive at the grass roots level.  He was a racer through and through.  If I was going to immerse myself in racing, what was not to like?

It wasn't enough to now have a driver to follow and watch races every summer and fall weekend and attend the ones I could, which meant MIS, twice a year, I also had to read and find out more and more about my new passion.  Luckily the wonderful world of the internet had opened up and along with that racing forums, fan clubs and racing boards.  Always one to express an opinion, and not shy about it, I at first just lurked at the Speed Board, honing my base of Nascar knowledge and bowing to those who obviously knew their rpm's from their torque levels.  But as I soon noticed, there were a great many females on this board and it was more about the fun of expressing opinions on all the aspects of racing.  I soon became a regular on the board and an avid commentator.  Through cyberspace I met several people that remain friends on other mediums.  I have never met any of them, save one, but they remain dear friends as our love of Nascar forged deep friendships.  I know, I know, I went overboard on it all not being able to get enough of the discussion or following Tony every weekend.  I was as big a Nascar Redneck as if I had been born and raised in a salvage yard in Alpharetta, GA.  I think I even began to write with a southern twang. 

But somehow, life got in the way and after a couple of years things changed.  I could blame it on Nascar introducing the hated Chase.  In an effort to make Nascar the number 1 sport, (it previously had been number 2), kind of amazing when you think how regional it always seemed, Nascar instituted a playoff system, where 10 drivers were awarded enough points ahead of every other driver that the rest of the field could not catch up.  These 10 drivers raced each other for the Championship in November, but with all 33 other cars still racing as well.  It lasted 10 races.  The glitches and kinks in the Chase showed up fairly early and while the first year was exciting with a down-to-the-finish, dramatic win, the next year's were not so much.  Jimmie Johnson won 5 straight Championships, a feat that had never been done and will likely never be repeated.  The problem was, no one cared except for the Johnson fans.  The rest of us thought this was just dull.  A new car was introduced by Nascar taking virtually all of the control of how these cars would race out of the hands of the team engineers.  These cars are not somebody's brainchild in a dark and dirty garage over the winter months.  They cost hundred's of thousands of dollars and sponsors who once lined up to have their names on a winner's car, started fleeing Nascar in droves.  The economy faltered, and while all sports were hurt, Nascar especially took a beating when race tracks became unaffordable for the average family who used to make the trek to their favorite race every year. 

So many things happened, but mostly I think passion just can't stay at that peak forever.  We are doomed to lose interest at some point.  I was struck how little Nascar now means to me, (we quit going to both MIS races a few years ago), when I didn't even care to watch the Michigan race last Sunday.  You see, I found out in church that morning that an old schoolmate of mine had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer.  I had no idea when we prayed for him in church and when I stopped to kid him about going to the hospital, he whispered it was cancer and it was bad.  This was my childhood friend, born exactly 3 days after me.  Our parents had all went to school together.  Jon was my first car date.  We both had gotten our driver's licenses and Jon's mom would only let him take me to a Disney cartoon movie, 101 Dalmatians.  He drove his parent's big old red station wagon, which had the aroma of the dairy herd, his family ran. 

Jon and I grew up, went to college and settled into marriages and now grand kids.  It was funny that he got his first two grandchildren right around the same time, I got mine.  Others in my graduating class have fought illness, even cancer.  A couple have fought the battle and died.  But somehow Jon is tied up with all those sweet, fuzzy memories that seem so innocent looking back.  He is the sweet boy, I always knew. Never as nice as his older brother, or as smart as the next younger, or as social as the youngest brother.  He had his dad's wit more than any of his siblings, and grew to look much like him.  Jon left for Houston the next day, and my prayers went with him.  Just when I think I may have life figured out, it trips me up. 

Our passions for everything become but muted memories if we live long enough.  The relationships we took for granted become diluted but precious.  I will look back on those early years of my Nascar fix as fun and adventurous, but as we like to say now, that ship has sailed, and what once was fun is now just something I remember enjoying.

Godspeed Jon, and I hope Houston holds some miracles for you.  Its Bristol Baby, a phrase every Nascar fan knows down to their core and one of the race tracks on everyone's Bucket List.  But much like everything else it has been compromised to be just another race before the Chase begins.  I think I'll take a break from the few ties that still bind me to Nascar and just do some heavy remembering and praying....

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