In Just Ten Years…

Jimmie Johnson salutes beforehand. [Joe Jennings Photo]

[Joe Jennings Photo]

Originally posted 11-15-2009

It was the dead of summer in 1999 and the tour now known as the NASCAR Nationwide Series was making its annual stop at the Milwaukee Mile for the DieHard 250. As was traditionally the case on that sweltering July 4th day, I kept busy that race weekend with a variety of duties. In addition to coordinating the live trackside broadcast of our LTN Hour radio show and assisting the Milwaukee Mile staff with various Public Relations and media coverage tasks, I also signed on to conduct pre-race pit tours for the Ray-O-Vac battery company from Madison, Wisconsin.

Ray-O-Vac was set to sponsor the #11 Jarrett/Favre Motorsports Ford to be driven by Cup star Dale Jarrett and painted in Green Bay Packers colors. This being the event closest to their headquarters, Ray-O-Vac had set up a vast hospitality tent which was filled to near capacity with the company’s employees, clients, friends and families, mostly due to a special personal appearance by NFL legend Brett Favre. The first wrinkle in the plans occurred the day before during qualifying. The driver tabbed to qualify the car for Jarrett, who was busy racing in Daytona, failed to make the field. This turn of events resulted in the Ray-O-Vac car being loaded up and sent home early. After doing my best to explain NASCAR qualifying procedures to my tour group to answer the question why “their” car wasn’t in the race, we set out for pit road with everyone in eager anticipation to catch a glimpse of what race day looked like on the other side of the catch fence.

Wrinkle number two was about to happen as we approached the gate to enter pit road and we were met by NASCAR officials standing with their arms crossed. It seemed the pits were becoming overcrowded and in order to let the teams work and prepare for the race, NASCAR restricted access to essential personnel only which as a pit tour we did not qualify. Instead, we could walk through the paddock area where the partial schedule teams and those without any NASCAR points were parked due to space constrictions. While we wouldn’t get to see the cars of title contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Matt Kenseth, the tour members would still be able to get up close to a NASCAR car, even if it was one of the little known entries in the race.

We approached a relatively unsponsored and plain car #92 which was on jack stands with the wheels off and the pre-race checklist taped to its side. The checklist was the main reason I chose this car to be part of the tour because it was the only one in the area with a list which signaled to me that even though they were back in the paddock, they were still preparing for the race like the big-time teams on pit road which would provide a great point of interest for the group. The driver was standing near the front of the car and while he had lived in the area, I really didn’t know him. He gave me one of those “I don’t know who you are, but I’ve seen you around the race track” kind of looks. Not sure if he really wanted to be ratted out to the group as THE driver of the car, I went on with the tour and began to explain the pre-race preparation involved using the checklist as a guide.

When I finished a small boy with the group asked the guy standing by the front of the car who the driver was and his eyes lit up like saucers when that guy replied that HE was in fact going to drive the car in the race. Suddenly the group brimmed with excitement as the driver took time to talk with them and sign a few autographs. They were very appreciative an actual NASCAR driver spent some time with them and answered their questions and it didn’t matter one bit he wasn’t a superstar and had to park way in the back with the also-rans. The disappointment of not being able to walk down pit road quickly melted away and on the way back to the hospitality tent, it was genuinely enlightening to see, hear, and feel the buzz the encounter that the driver generated with the group. Later when the race was over, the #92 car had a pretty decent run and their seventh place finish was a feel-good story to me as I recalled how earlier the relatively unknown driver had made the day for a group of pit tour members and saved me from a minor disaster when pit road was closed.

It’s now 2009 and I often wonder if any of the members of that pit tour group still have their autographs from that day and if so, how many of them have taken the time to actually look at what was written. If they did, they would see the name “Jimmie Johnson” scribed on the autograph cards and I wonder if those people realize today just who it was they talked to that hot July 4th day in Milwaukee. The guy with the plain uniform and car parked outside pit road in the paddock area in 1999 is now the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion and looking to make history with his fourth straight title. When I attend the Ford 400 in Homestead this year, and if Johnson is indeed able to make history, while everyone will writing about the last four years, I’m sure I’ll recall July 4th, 1999 and can’t help but smile.

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