Jimmy Creed, Anniston Star
Here’s Hoping Today Will Be Rusty’s Day
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – People often ask me which NASCAR driver I pull for, and I tell them I don’t really have a “favorite” driver.
I explain that my impression is often influenced by how a driver is to deal with in a professional capacity.
If they show me professional courtesy and make the effort to fulfill their media obligations in a civil fashion (like Jeff Gordon), I like to see those drivers win because it makes my job easier.
If they don’t do anything to hide their disdain for dealing with the media (like Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick), I don’t like to see them win because it makes my job harder.
So in the truest sense, I don’t “pull” for any particular driver.
That will change today when the green flag waves on the 47th Annual Daytona 500, however.
Today, I’m going to wrap myself in blue–and–white, hold up two fingers and chant, “Rusty, Rusty, Rusty” as they head for the start/finish line for the first time.
Today, I’m going to openly, blatantly, unabashedly pull for Rusty Wallace to win the Daytona 500.
I’m going to do it and not feel bad about it at all.
Wallace stands eighth on NASCAR’s all–time list with 55 victories. Not one of them has come at Daytona International Speedway.
Wallace has started 22 previous Daytona 500s. Not one of those has ended in a trip to victory lane.
Wallace says this will be his last start at the storied old track as he heads down the retirement road after this season. Here’s hoping he goes out a winner.
Rusty Wallace has been good for NASCAR ever since he drove his very first race for – of all owners – Roger Penske way back in 1980. Only true Wallace fans probably remember he ran second to Dale Earnhardt that March day in Atlanta, a sign of many more good things to come.
He won the 1989 Winston Cup championship. The 1991 International Race of Champions title. Eighteen Winston Cup races over a two– year span in 1993 and 1994.
He’s won at Atlanta, Bristol, California, Charlotte, Dover, Infineon, Martinsville, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Pocono, Richmond, Riverside, Rockingham and Watkins Glen. But never at the Talladega Superspeedway and never here at Daytona.
I hope that changes today.
My first encounter with Wallace came way back in 1988 and I remember it distinctly.
He was at some type of media function for one of the upcoming Talladega races and as soon as he started talking, I knew liked him. He talked and talked and talked to this lowly intern like I was working for The New York Times or Sports Illustrated, and I never forgot that.
In fact, after all these many years and all the many stories I’ve written, I still remember my lead to that one.
“If they passed out points for personality, Rusty Wallace would win the Winston Cup championship every year,” is what I wrote then and, it’s true to this day.
Wallace has truly been one of NASCAR’s most colorful personalities for the last quarter century in so many ways.
Controversial. Outspoken. Stubborn. Hard–headed. Determined. Genuine. All describe the greatest driver ever to hail from St. Louis.
Love him or hate him, the main thing about Rusty Wallace has always been that you couldn’t ignore him. He wouldn’t let us and we couldn’t if we tried.
So when the flag falls, I hope he’s right there all day where nobody can ignore him again. Up front, trading paint with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and the other favorites.
Right in the thick of things where the Fox TV cameras have to keep trained on him all day – one final shining moment in the Daytona sun if you will.
Right up front in the lead when the checkered flag falls.
After all he’s done for the sport, it would be only fitting if Wallace’s last Daytona 500 run should prove to be his best.
Miss America Cleans Up Nicely, Even If I Don’t
TALLADEGA – It was an offer no man in his right mind could refuse.
The question was, did I want to have a one–on–one with Miss America. Uh, let me re–phrase that. The question was, did I want to interview Miss America one–on–one.
I pondered it for maybe two seconds, then, in my most professional tone, enthusiastically answered with the first thing that came to mind.
“Boogity, boogity, boogity!” I said which translated into, yes, I would love to interview Miss America.
So I was told to be at the Talladega Superspeedway Ken Patterson Media Center at 11:30 a.m. Saturday morning to meet reigning Miss America and Birmingham native Deidre Downs.
With that appointment set in stone, I announced to the world that – in all honesty – I officially had a “date” with Miss America.
Then a list of a thousand questions jumped immediately to mind.
What do you wear to a “date” with Miss America? Would my hair – what little there is left – look all right?
How do you greet her? How do you do, Your Highness? Nice to meet you, Your Excellency? Hello, darlin’?
It was those thoughts – not the thunderstorms booming overhead – that kept me awake all night.
I took great pains getting ready on Saturday morning. I shaved and trimmed my beard. I checked for unsightly nose hair.
I thought about buying a girdle, but didn’t know if they still made them or if I could find one big enough to fit around my spare tire. I wished I had sent off for that Ab Lounger – $14.95 and your money back guaranteed if not satisfied.
I brushed my teeth and, yes, put on some cologne. Oops ... a little too much cologne there, to be honest.
I got to the track, and again proceeded to tell anybody who didn’t already know that I had a “date” with Miss America.
Finally, she came through the door, and it was time for us to talk. Uh oh, I forgot to stop for a Binaca Blast. I hoped the toothpaste would hold. I was glad I didn’t eat anything with onions for breakfast.
I thought about sucking in my gut, but realized it would be impossible to hold my breath and ask questions at the same time. Nope, she would just have to talk to me in all my glory.
For the record, my first profound words to Miss America were “Hello, how are you?”
Also for the record, she's a very attractive lady, well spoken and someone we can be proud is representing our state to the world. By her own admission, she’s not a big race fan, but she’s learning.
“I had never been to a race until I went to Dover back in September after I won Miss America,” Downs said. “That was actually my first official appearance.”
She sang the National Anthem and got her feet wet in racing by doing the Wally World Segment with Wally Dallenbach on the NBC broadcast. Dallenbach actually did an interview while driving her around the track at 150 miles per hour.
We talked a little more racing. She met Donnie Allison because he came over and introduced himself and said she knew who Darrell Waltrip was. She didn’t know Waltrip’s catch phrase, but now she does and she actually thanked me for teaching her something about racing.
(Yes, I actually said “Boogity, boogity, boogity!” to Miss America.)
One other way I could tell she’s still learning about this NASCAR stuff, though, is she said Tony Stewart was one of the drivers she'd met, and “he was a very nice guy.”
I responded without missing a beat, “he’s nice to you because you’re Miss America and not a member of the media.”
We talked some other sports. She’s a huge Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox fan and said, if put on the spot, she’d go with the Braves as her favorite team because they’re close to home.
She talked about the thrill of throwing out the first pitch before a Chicago Cubs-Pittsburgh Pirates game at PNC Park a few weeks back.
She told me about being a tomboy growing up and being the only girl in the Hoover Little League playing third base and pitching.
“I didn’t grow up doing pageants,” Downs said.
She told me about being on the road so much she doesn’t even have an apartment and about truly loving what she’s doing but that she missed Birmingham.
She talked about her plan to use the more than $75,000 in scholarships coming her way as part of the Miss America program to become a pediatrician.
We talked about so much that she’ll never remember and I’ll never forget.
It was a very pleasant “date” that came to end way too quickly (about 10 minutes, for the record.) As the saying goes, short but sweet.
Beforehand, I told The Stafr’s chief photographer, Trent Penny, to make sure he got a shot of me interviewing Miss America.
That way, years down the road when I tell my grandkids I had a “date” with Miss America, I’ll have the photographic evidence to prove it.
Boogity, boogity, boogity!
Basham Makes Sure To Keep The Fun In Racing
TALLADEGA – Darrell Basham had obviously heard the question before.
Does he have the best last name ever for a racecar driver or the worst?
Basham didn’t flinch, or give a dirty scowl or answer with a rude remark. He just smiled and said, “I kind of like it.”
With that he was off and on a roll, firing off one liners as fast as he hopes to run in qualifying today for Saturday’s ARCA RE/MAX Food World 300.
“You don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘Crash’em’ Basham do you?” he said. “Or ‘Smash’em’ Basham?
“If my mother had just had a sense of humor and really named me ‘Crash’em’ Basham that would have been perfect.”
So began a conversation that lasted 45 minutes Wednesday afternoon, and frankly, was the most pleasant 45 minutes spent covering racing at the Talladega Superspeedway in a long time.
The scouting report on the Henryville, Ind., driver was that he was a quote machine. “A sportswriter’s dream,” someone said, and they weren’t lying.
For 45 minutes we talked racing. We talked about sportswriting. We talked about life. Oh yeah, and ate half a bag of some of the best cookies ever baked sitting in Basham’s trailer.
It took me back to the time when covering racing used to be fun.
Back to the days when you could walk through the garage and see Richard Petty, Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker and the like actually working on a car themselves.
Back to a time when you could go up, ask a simple question and get a simple answer.
Back to a time when drivers were real, down–to–earth people and not the movie–star personas they are today.
Darrell Basham isn’t a superstar. He currently stands 12th in the ARCA points standings. He hasn’t taken a checkered flag in any kind of race in three or four years ... it’s been so long he can’t remember for sure.
But just a few moments conversation with the man confirms him as one of the most genuine, nicest, funniest drivers you’ll ever meet. Man is he funny.
For the record, he was actually the first athlete I ever approached who asked me to come back after he’d had a nap. And upon hearing his reason, I was not offended in any way.
“My quote quota is a little low right now,“ Basham said. “I’ve got to rest up a little bit so I can build it back up.”
As a reporter, you just can’t fault a man for wanting to be at his best for an interview.
Some other Bashamisms:
• “My poor old mom, she’s been drug all over the world with us. She’s too old to go now. Of course, I’m too old to go now, but I keep going anyway.”
• “I didn’t come by that crash’em part honestly. I’ve just broken my feet, been bruised up and blackened. Come to think about it, maybe I did come by the crash’em part pretty honestly.”
• “The first time I came down here, back then we just ripped out of the pits wide open and shot straight up on the racetrack as fast as you could go. I wound that old 427 Ford up and came out of there by the fuel pumps ripping. I said, ‘Man, ain’t this something, I’m going faster than I’ve ever been in my life, and I’m in the pits.’”
When it comes to his racing, however, Basham is as serious as anyone at any level.
“I’m 55 years old, I ran my first race when I was in high school, and I’m still as eat up with it today as I was when I was a teenager,” Basham said.
“There’s just no way to describe what it feels like for you and 40 other guys to start a race on a track like this, go down in the first turn in a big pack and feel the rush,” Basham said. “People ask me why don’t I go back and run the smaller circuits and maybe just run ARCA part–time. I say, ‘How many other people from Henryville, Ind., can say they went 190 mph at Talladega or Pocono?’
“I just love it.”
This from a man who drives a truck in the offseason to finance his race team.
Who got a small sponsorship from Diamondback CCI – a Dallas construction company – to pay for a few tires, some gas for the truck and some hotel rooms for the last two races of the season.
Who stocks his Igloo coolers by shopping at Big Lots.
Who truly appreciates every moment he gets to spend doing something the rest of us can only dream of.
A lot of other drivers could learn a lot by spending 45 minutes with Darrell Basham, too.
Love Keeps Petty On The Track Week After Week
TALLADEGA – The last time Kyle Petty visited victory lane was June 4, 1995.
The last time he posted a top–five finish was in 1997.
His best finish this season has been eighth twice, one of those coming last week at Dover.
Yet he doesn’t hesitate to say that he still loves to race as much as ever.
“Like I told them last week when we had a good finish, I said, ‘I was happy to have a good finish, but a lot of days I get out of the car when I’ve run 28th, and I’m just as happy,’” Petty said. “It’s been a good day because I got to drive a racecar.”
So while contemporaries like Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace have contemplated or decided on retirement after this season, the thought hasn’t even entered Petty’s mind.
It’s still just too much fun to ride around in circles.
“I listen to Mark talk, and I listen to Rusty and some of these guys talk about being burnt out on the travel and burnt out on all the stuff,” Petty said. “The reason they’re burnt out is that because at some point in time in their life, they did have another life.
“The point is, I guess I’m just an anomaly because I never knew another life. This is all I ever knew. Well, if this is all you ever know, you don’t get burnt out on what you know.”
Then he stopped, thought for a moment and added, “and I don’t think you get burnt out on what you truly love.”
That’s not saying Rusty and Mark don’t love racing as much as he does, Petty said. It’s just that they’ve reached the point in their lives where they have other priorities.
For Wallace and Martin – who planned to retire but has conceded to come back to Roush Racing for one more season in 2006 – racing puts too much distance between them and their families. For Petty, it is what keeps him close to his.
These days, Petty’s extended family includes the thousands of children and parents he has touched through his Victory Junction Gang Camp, and racing is what makes that a reality.
By now, most race fans have heard the story of Victory Junction, a place that serves as a memorial to Kyle’s son, Adam, who was killed in a practice crash in Loudon, New Hampshire on May 12, 2000.
It serves as a memorial and a shining light because of all the hard work by Petty and his wife, Pattie, to make a dream come true.
Victory Junction is a place where children with chronic or life– threatening illnesses can go and, well, be normal kids.
Kids with AIDS or leukemia or cancer or a host of other illnesses get to go to camp for a week just like everybody else in the neighborhood. They get to go fishing and ride horses and play games, and, in reality live a dream they might not if it weren’t for Kyle Petty’s racing.
When he talks about Victory Junction, you can tell Petty is as passionate about helping others as he is about his racing. You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.
“If you love something, you’re passionate about it,” Petty said.
It’s obvious Petty loves racing and loves kids. That’s why you come away from a talk with him with an incredibly refreshed sense of man’s humanity to man.
He’s says he’s as passionate about wanting to get back to victory lane. He believes it can happen and wants it to happen, not so much for himself but for all the folks who work so hard for him at Petty Enterprises.
“If we can win a race, then we can say Petty Enterprises is going in the direction it needs to be, doing what it needs to be doing,” Petty said.
It probably won’t happen in today’s UAW–Ford 500 in which he’ll start 38th. It may not happen the rest of the season or the next 25 races or even the next 50, but that’s OK.
If Kyle Petty never takes another checkered flag in his career, he’ll still be the epitome of a winner in every way.