By CARA COOPER
There was a segment that used to air on SportsCenter called “Why We Love Sports Today.” It was basically just something funny or heartwarming, romanticizing a sports moment or person. It was supposed to be a brief moment to remind viewers of all the good that can come from sports and why we fell in love with the game in the first place.
Yea, yea, I know, gross. Sports are sports. But sometimes when you see those moments firsthand it’s kind of nice.
If you’d like a little insight into the life of a newspaper reporter, race weekends at Martinsville Speedway are not an easy thing to cover. It’s not “hard” work by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s typically three straight 12 or 13 hour days with a ton of time just walking around trying to find stuff that people might find interesting or funny to write about until the cars get back on the track.
That is what I was doing Sunday morning while waiting for qualifying to start. As I walked past the tunnel that people have to cross under to get to the infield, I saw two young kids, probably 12 or 13 years old, step off the top steps and look around at all the commotion going on. They saw the pit crew men getting their stations ready for later, the haulers, the cars zooming by. They even saw the famous drivers, past and present, walking around. People that only eagle-eyed fans could recognize in the crowd of hundreds.
After looking around for about two seconds, those two kids had smiles so big and bright you could have easily photoshopped their faces onto an ad for Disney World or something. I’ve never seen two people light up like that. Here they were, decked out in Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hats and lanyards, witnessing a real NASCAR race day up close and personal, obviously for the first time, and within two minutes this was now the best day of their lives. They took off skipping towards Jimmie Johnson’s pit box, they picked up lugnuts that had been left over from the Truck Series race the day before, they got autographs and I’m sure a million pictures. It was a beautiful thing to watch and I knew I couldn’t have a bad day after seeing that.
I have long believed that no sport provides a better fan experience than NASCAR does with their passes that allow fans to walk around the garage area on the day of a race. The joy on those kids’ faces proved that. I never cared even a little bit about NASCAR until a few years ago, but even I found myself star struck Sunday morning.
As I mentioned earlier, I was walking around aimlessly (okay, I admit, I do a lot of people watching during race weekends. It’s my favorite pastime on a normal day, but you give me several thousand race fans all in one place and I’m easily occupied for hours). Anyways, I’m walking, looking around trying to find lugnut souvenirs of my own, and I look up and I see this man walking towards me.
Well, he seemed more like part man, part superhero or mythical creature or something. I’m certain there was a glow around him. He had on a long black trench coat, black sunglasses, black flowing hair, and the most beautiful, pristine, black jewel-encrusted cowboy hat that has probably ever been made.
As soon as I saw him walking towards me I’m pretty sure I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared. I didn’t know what to do. He was literally barreling towards me, but with impeccable grace and poise, signing autographs nonchalantly as his bodyguards struggled to get people out of his way.
He got about a foot in front of my face before I realized I should step aside because I was about to get run over by Richard freaking Petty.
(Also, I’m 100 percent certain I’m not the only person to utter that sentence at Martinsville Speedway.)
Finally I stepped out of the legend’s way so he could pass, but then decided I needed to follow him. For what reason, I don’t know.
And as soon as I turned around he was gone.
I turned to continue walking and saw another young kid run up to his dad with an autographed hero card. The card was of Aric Almirola’s face, but will now forever don the name of The King.
Sunday’s race was an all-time classic at Martinsville Speedway for many people, and for reasons other than what happened on the track. Chase Elliott fans maybe not so much, but for many it will be a day not soon forgotten.
This story first appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.