Dennis James ‘Stops By’ Memphis Truck Series Race

Charlotte, NC – It hardly seems like a year ago that Dennis James and I boarded a plane for Memphis and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race there.

James, the Official Starter for the division, and I were late arrivals to Memphis coming in the morning that practice opened last June. As the only two NASCAR ‘folks’ on the early morning Northwest Airlines flight, we wound up spending the time together in the Charlotte airport waiting to board and later shared aisle seats across from each other as we got airborne.

It was time well spent.

Any moments shared with James were usually good ones. A round, gregarious man, James had a great sense of humor and usually was in the center of things in the garage area. If there was a joke or a story to be shared, Dennis almost always had one.

There was also plenty of substance to James as a racer. A Fletcher, NC resident, James came through the ranks of the famed Hickory Motor Speedway as a competitor in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s, he moved to the officiating side of the sport taking on the Official Starter’s role and later the position of Chief Steward at Tri-County Speedway in Hudson, N.C. He eventually broke into NASCAR Truck Series in 2003 and had been the Official Starter for the division since that season.

So it was James and I shared a flight to Memphis last June. We were also booked together on the trip home – one that was just as enjoyable – as the plane now filled with NASCAR officials and racers. It was one joke and belly laugh after another and one of the best flights home of last season.

The laughter subsided a little over a week later when James unexpectedly passed away from a heart ailment on July 11, 2007. He was only 57 and his death left a huge hole in the hearts of many in the Truck Series garage area.

In what proved to be one of life’s strange twists, one of my best friends – Bryon Dopkins – was selected to take James’ spot on the Truck flagstand. Like this writer, Dopkins began his professional racing career at Columbus 151 Speedway in Wisconsin. As the former Official Starter at the Badger State short track, Dopkins had his own personal link with James sharing the passion of being on the flagstand. As such, they were fast friends from the time Dopkins came to the Truck Series in 2005.

This past weekend, the Truck Series returned to Memphis. As I stood up on the spotter’s stand, we all paused for the prayer and national anthem prior to the race. My eyes fell down to Dopkins and co-flagperson Kim Lopez on the flagstand and at that moment – for some unexplained reason – I thought of Dennis James. It was the first time I had thought of him all weekend and, frankly, the first time I had thought of him in awhile.

In a strange moment of conflicted emotions, there was happiness in seeing my good buddy Bryon living out his dreams of being on the Truck Series flagstand. Almost instantly, I was also overcome with sadness knowing that another fine man and friend, Dennis James, had already been gone a year from all those who cared from him.

Why Dennis James popped into my head at that moment is something I can’t explain. It was almost like he just passed through to say ‘hey, buddy, I’m still around’ and ‘we sure had a great time here last year, didn’t we?’

Despite the range of emotions at the moment, I started the race with a smile on my face knowing Dennis James had ‘stopped by.’

Over the past 13 season this writer has made the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series my primary home, I’ve seen countless people come and go from the division. Dennis James was one of the more memorable who passed through our ranks and it was great – albeit a little strange – to ‘spend’ a moment with him prior to Saturday’s race at Memphis. It was just another life lesson that if someone still lives in your heart and mind, they are never really gone.

That said, it was great to ‘see’ you again, Dennis. Hope things are well in your world. Come by anytime you’d like. We sure miss you.

On the Spot

Each week, I get a number of calls and e-mails asking us how the driver I spotted the previous weekend finished. In an effort to keep all our friends and inquirers up to speed better, we’re going to add a short racing recap to the Close Finishes story the Monday after we compete.

This past weekend, I spotted Donny Lia and the No. 71 TRG Chevy at Memphis. Our race got off to a rocky start even before the green flag fell when my radio had trouble receiving NASCAR race control. Things got even worse when contact with the truck of Todd Bodine sent our red, white and black Chevy spinning into the Turn 3 retaining wall less than 10 laps into the race.

From then on, it was truly a survivor’s event – literally. Lia gutted out the final 190 laps breathing in tons of exhaust thanks to the crush panels getting knocked out of the back of the truck in the early wreck. We had several close calls throughout the race, including one with the pace truck as Lia passed to the left instead of the right when we got the ‘Lucky Dog’ and one of our laps back.

I guess the tower wasn’t too pleased with us for that move. Fortunately (I think), I could only hear about every third word from NASCAR control. My guess is I’ll hear more about it prior to the next race at Kentucky in a couple of weeks.

Anyway, we soldiered on to a 26th-place finish, still running at the checkered flag. Lia wound up in the infield care center after the race taking oxygen and getting ‘bagged’ with an IV solution. Fortunately, he was okay.

It wasn’t the result we had hoped for, and seeing your driver in the infield care center after the race is always something you want to avoid. Still, it was a good weekend because, after all, any weekend you can race is better than one you didn’t.

The hot, muggy weekend that is always Memphis ended with a flight home that got us to our door in Charlotte about 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning.

Will try to do better next time. Have a great week everyone and stay safe enjoying the July 4 holiday this weekend.

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