Road America, in the rear view

Silence fell over the track as the last hauler turned it’s wheels to home. Watching from atop the hill over the garage area I stood there with my father and a friend. The day was done, the race had been won. Drivers long gone, crews setting off to catch a plane to Michigan. Looking on, cigar held in his fingers my friend smiled and said, “My favorite time of the weekend…” All the hustle and bustle and work is done. Now, a few moments of relaxation.

I think my father, Mike, summed it up best when he told me early Sunday morning, “I should have known when that lady looked at you and said that you looked like ‘Couch Crew Chief’ that this wasn’t going to be a normal weekend.” That lady was none other than Nathalie from Ice-Frost, a friend I met through Derrike Cope Racing, a sponsor and all around amazing person. Attached to DCR, I call her the “James Brown of NASCAR” hardest working woman in the garage. She does everything and still has time for fans and friends and her business and the race team.

Thursday was setup for us and we somehow blew the brake line to the van, the one over the pumpkin. Friends had offered help and would have taken care of us, my father and I both worried still set out to get it repaired. We found B&D auto and truck body in Plymouth. They made time for us and got it replaced the same day without extra charge for emergency service like many would have charged. We will be eternally grateful to those guys for that.

Friday we met up with the amazing people of DCR and Nathalie early in the day. It was a meeting a long time coming and did not disappoint. We continued on, camera gear in one hand and Twitter-machine in the other. We worked through the garage and watched as the mechanics attended their machines as they came off the haulers. Continuing through the garage we were set to cook dinner for the gentlemen on the Richard Childress Racing Xfinity 3 team. As the hours clicked by we watched from turn 5 and the pits. We logged mile after mile back and forth.

That afternoon we set to cook a dinner of bratwurst on the grill for the team. The guys so busy barely had a chance to stop. While we got to meet Ty and Mike Dillon, I wished I had a chance to meet every member of the team. It’s not just owners and drivers and crew chiefs that make a team function, it is every individual. To those men working on the car, pushing it through tech inspection who only had a chance to “throw one down” while they worked, I applaud and thank you. Fans may not know how often this happens, but I bet it’s more often than you like.

While waitining by the grill I texted friends and tweeted. This resulted in a unique exchange where Brendan Gaughan on Twitter had told me I better come introduce myself. I’ve seen Brendan on occasion, he’s a great dude, so when I saw him just moments later I did just that and he had his big grin and trademark laugh.

After dinner there was NASCAR qualifying, a departure from the normal schedule, dad and I watched from the end of pit road as cars took the track. The day would be won by Alex Tagliani, but Michael McDowell took outside pole with Ty Dillon and Brendan Gaughan not far behind. The crews had only a few minutes to cover the cars before NASCAR closed the garage.

On the way out I saw Brendan again, I did have some words for him and said, “When you win this thing tomorrow, you owe turn 12 a burnout because you didn’t last time.” He laughed and explained he had felt bad but was so excited to win he had to get to Victory Lane! I was obviously joking and Brendan laughed and promised that when he won, he would give us fans in Turn 12 a burnout.

Cribbage was in full swing when I received a message and was asked if we would like to sit on a pit box. With rain impending I left the choice up to my dad. We had planned on sitting in Turn 12, Canada Corner, all year long. We had planned and packed for it. An offer to get dry, to be as close to the action as possible without going over the wall ourselves. My dad thought for a few short minutes and nodded his approval. Spirits lifted, we filled with anticipation.

Then the skies opened. Rain on race day. As I woke up I could only tweet, “Today’s race will be run in the rain…” The forecast was as sure as could be with 80% chance. Huddled under our E-Z up awning the choice was made for us, we would go to Plymouth for the third time this weekend to pick up coffee and breakfast. We stopped and picked up ponchos for the rain. We were set to weather the storm.

As we returned to the track and received word that garages didn’t open to 11am, we found ourselves watching SCCA Pro Trans Am from Turn 3. The van sheltered us as the rains kept coming, water streaked the windshield and then, at 10am the good Lord determined that the ground had seen enough water for the day. As the garages opened I set out in search of the 2 team, my guys.

At the beginning of the year I continued to tweet the team, but I had started to encourage the pit crew that services the 2 in Xfinity and the 3 in Cup. Having talked to Tyler Rader I knew they’d be there, the first one I picked out… Rader. A really big dude with a perfect beard tends to stand out! I watched for a moment, not wanting to interrupt the guys from their duties (which are many) I finally walked over and decided to introduce myself.

The guys were probably the best group of dudes I’ve met since I was in the Army, that level of camaraderie exists only amongst people who have lived together and worked together and fought together. You could see it was a brotherhood, like no other and for this day, I was welcomed in by them. Jason Pulver, Brian Bottlemy, Josh Shipplett, Sam Abney, Tyler Rader, and Doug who was substituting in for Justin Voss, injured at the last race.

The stories and the laughing continued the entire time my dad and I looked on as the team tended to the tires for the days event. Wet and dry slicks, all needed their lug nuts mounted and glued. As the team set out to their other duties we set out to locate the box we would be on.

After locating all of our favorite boxes (I have several favorite teams) I scouted each location. The box we would be on looked to be full already, not wanting to interfere I began to plead my case for my ideal location. Dad and I debated back and forth, finally I asked Pulver if he would mind if we took up residence in the empty box beside the 2 pit. He smiled and welcomed us aboard.

The team set up the box and set to stretching and practicing. Jason Pulver concentrated on hitting every lug nut, 5 on, 5 off. He practiced several times in an amazing display of timing and discipline. First without running the gun, them while running the gun. If you’ve never seen this close up and you get a chance, just watch. The men that do this are a special breed.

As we prepared for prerace ceremonies I saw someone I had not expected to see, the man who gives of himself without asking for reward or recognition. He started Pitstops for Hope, a charity to help underprivileged youth who may not have food. It has grown and grown. I have talked to Ray Wright for several years, so to meet him after all of this was a trip. He is the pit crew coach for RCR, his latest role in the organization and reviews stops with each crew after.

Shortly before the green flag, Jason Pulver looked at me and asked, “You’re going to Victory Lane with us, right?” My goofy ass with a crooked grin could only say, “If you’ll let us!” I then had to explain that Victory Lane was no longer across the track, it was in the center of the paddock. While I hoped to see Victory Lane the reality check came, Alex Tagliani was still on the pole.

As the race started and got underway the 2 was almost a half second slower than the 22. The guys on the wall were obviously anxious to see this improve. Before the race when I had told the guys we were going to win I was met with the quick response, “We need to!” The race developed slowly and saw the 2 team pull ahead after contact with the 22. The guys were intense, the excitement wasn’t just electric, it was infectious.

Each man has his own thing at these times. Some don’t want to jinx it by talking about winning, some only want to talk about winning, some just sit nervously, some look on intensely. To the man, the each do their thing. Looking on I was nervous, excited, heart broken when late race cautions came out. When guys said, “This doesn’t look good.” I replied, “Hey, we’re good!” I don’t know how often I said it, but it was multiple times. I don’t know if I was convincing them or convincing myself.

As the last lap ended I watched the pit crew, Austin’s crew… my crew… Celebrate. They jumped off the wall in excitement as Michael McDowell finally crested the hill the last time to the checkers. Tyler Rader had given him enough fuel. The tires had held up a late last lap charge from Brendan Gaughan.

As I headed to Victory Lane they shouted and asked for directions for where to celebrate. As soon as they saw it they took off, I marched on in tow. As I stepped up toward Victory Lane a NASCAR official stopped me. I watched with pride as Michael McDowell pulled the number 2 Rheem Chevy into Victory Lane. The crew shouted and cheered as he emerged from the car. Showered with Coke products and water, McDowell beamed, this win was a long time coming for a man described as, “the nicest guy in the garage.”

As celebration continued my dad asked what I wanted to do next, all I wanted to do was enjoy this moment as long as it lasted. As the celebration wound down and the guys walked back to pack up the pit box I started walking back in. I received the remainder of a bottle of Victory Lane champagne and given a Road America hat from the Victory Lane hat dance. I watched as they took down the box and then I turned to head down the garage. I congratulated Brendan on his race and watched as trucks were loaded.

On turning away I saw the number 70 of Derrike Cope racing, Nathalie and Elyshia there with the car. DCR had made all this possible. They had other VIPs and dad and I had entertained ourselves all weekend but I needed to know how they finished. Nathalie informed me they had finished 23rd, a season high for the small team that works day in and day out to compete. Before parting Nathalie and I got a few pictures together and I was reminded not to block the logos! I’m still a rookie!

Nathalie hooked us up with some Ice-Frost for our coolers, I received a message and was asked to join a friend atop the hill. After half an hour my father joined us. It’s moments like these that make it all worth it.

Now, the crew was focused on Michigan. It is obvious why, getting Austin Dillon locked in the Chase is priority. While the organization values Sunday’s over Saturday’s (and rightly so) I want the crew to know, to me… That day, those few hours in the pits, were the most important in NASCAR history. In those hours, I like to think I was with the team, part of the team. While I hope all you guys see many more wins on Saturday and Sunday, that was my first win. You only get one first win, that’s the most important win.

I know some may get tired of hearing it, but I don’t get tired of saying it…

 

Thank You.

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