Feature Story

On The Road with Al Girard

Al Girard, a longtime Jeff Gordon fan from Canada, made his annual trek south to the land of NASCAR. He drove his motorhome to Lowe's Motor Speedway, Dover International Speedway, Pocono Raceway, and Michigan International Speedway. In all, it's about 7,000 miles of traveling from the time he left Edmonton on May 5 until he returned in mid-June. Think of it as a NASCAR-themed version of "About Schmidt," but without the angst.

Al Girard with a map of his route. Photo was taken by the
Concord Independent Tribune at Lowe's Motor Speedway on
May 14 and appeared on the front page of the newspaper.

Journal Updates:
-June 19
-June 15
-June 9
-June 2
-May 24
-May 11
-May 4

Al's motorhome in Tennessee

"True North, Strong and Free"
Thursday, June 19. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Sunday of the Michigan race was a beautiful sunny day-- perfect for racing. Jeff did very well, leading for a while and finishing third, so he reduced the gap to the leader somewhat. After the race concluded I went straight to the campsite to disassemble the flag poles, put up the awning, roll up the carpets and to generally secure items inside for the trip home. After about an hour the motorhome was ready to travel. I had a spaghetti supper with my Iowa friends and I decided to get going about an hour later - actually about two hours after the end of the race.

I was able to get out of the campground fairly easily. Michigan State Troopers had an exit system set up, so I headed down a road that wasn't numbered, but after about ten miles I had a left/right turn choice at a junction where Troopers were directing traffic. I knew that I had to go right, as I was trying to get to I-94, so I took that turn and soon I was in general gridlock for an hour or so, inching my way toward the Interstate. Finally I made it, and I then began my drive West, stopping at a rest stop for the night.

On Monday, as I was driving towards Chicago, I found myself following a Jeff Gordon souvenir hauler. It was traveling along with a Sterling Marlin hauler. That 24 hauler really was pretty. I stopped at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Since I was from out of state, the admission was $5. I only spent an hour there as I had a lot of miles to go before getting home. Near Chicago the traffic virtually ground to a halt as there was just too much gridlock which seemed to be mostly semi-trucks. I decided to head west towards Iowa to avoid going through Chicago. That turned out to be a good plan, because after an hour and a half I finally cleared the traffic jam. I drove through the Twin Cities as darkness was falling, and I spent the night at a T/A truck stop at Rogers, Minnesota.

Tuesday morning I filled up at the truck stop and then hit the road at about 6am. When I got to Jamestown, North Dakota I called Julia. She came to the filling station where we chatted for 15 minutes before I again hit the road. Somewhere in North Dakota between Bismarck and Minot, I thought I saw a small puff of steam so when I was able to pull off the road I stopped at a tavern parking lot, stopping the engine. I wanted to check to see if the anti-freeze was boiling. When I tried to re-start the engine the battery was dead. What is it about North Dakota that kills batteries? I asked a fellow who was leaving the tavern if he'd give me a boost which he did. I continued on, thinking perhaps I had dirty battery terminals preventing the battery to charge, so whenever I stopped for gas I kept the engine running.

Eventually I got to the border crossing at Portal, North Dakota. I gave Customs my receipts for my purchases, and a female agent who was very cordial asked if she could board the motorhome. She went through several of the cabinets before telling me that I was free to go. I continued on towards Regina, Saskatchewan, driving straight into a blinding sun which was setting low on the horizon. When the sun set and darkeness fell, I noticed that I had no dash lights and I could not tell if I even had headlights. When I arrived in Regina I went straight to an auto service establishment where I spent the night. In the morning they took me in right away, did some tests and found that my alternator had died, so they put in a new one and two hours later I was again on my way.

In Alberta I stopped to visit a cousin at her farm, had a shower and stayed for supper. Then I drove the last 60 miles home. I was very tired after such a long drive and was in bed within a half hour of getting home.

"The Long Road Home"
Sunday, June 15. Brooklyn, Michigan

After leaving Pocono Raceway on Monday morning I drove to Lake Ontario near Oswego, New York, then on to Rochester where I boondocked at a Wal-Mart. Tuesday I made my way to Cleveland and beyond but really only had one opportunity to walk on a small Lake Erie beach because most of the shoreline is private property where multi-million dollar homes line the lake shore. I drove past a nuclear power plant that had an armored car standing guard at the front gate. Sign of the times. I ended the day boondocking at a Flying J truck stop in Toledo, Ohio.

On Wednesday I stopped at the huge Cabela's Outdoor Outfitters store where I was pleasantly surprised to see the DuPont show car on display inside the front entrance. The Cabela's store is the largest tourist attraction in Michigan. I arrived at MIS in early afternoon and I slowly set up my campsite. I was finally in an area where the sun was shining, and I was a little bit washed out from the heat and humidity.

Thursday morning, though, it rained quite heavily for about an hour. It was a perfect day to do some housecleaning and to relax and read. A group of friends from Iowa arrived in the evening and they set up their three RVs close to mine. Yet another group of friends from Michigan arrived on Saturday.

On Friday we all went to the pits for qualifying. My intention was to take lots of photos and to hopefully get an autograph from Jeff Gordon. I took lots of photos, but had no success in getting an autograph as I was nowhere near the area where Jeff stopped to sign. When I got to that spot, fans were crowded ten deep and I had absolutely no chance to get to the front.

I'm writing this before the Sirius 400 as I won't have computer access after the race. The plan for the evening is to take group photos at the campsite and then to disassemble my site. After dinner with my friends I'll probably hit the road about three or four hours after the race. My route will take me through Chicago and Minneapolis, through North Dakota and Saskatchewan before arriving home in Edmonton around 10pm on Wednesday night. I'll sleep tonight at an interstate rest stop, Monday at a TA truck stop in Rogers, Minnesota, and Tuesday night at a Wal-Mart lot in Regina, Saskatchewan. The only "tourist" stop that I plan on making is a visit to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Monday.

"Waitin' On A Sunny Day"
Monday, June 9. Binghamton, New York

I arrived at Pocono on Thursday morning (June 4) and was assigned a great campsite just a short walk from the stands. I set up my campsite and met a few of my neighbors who were very happy about our location. Some others were not so lucky, having been assigned muddy areas. On Friday it was very cold in the grandstand during ARCA practice, so I went to the sheltered concession area to warm up. I spotted a 35mm camera with a 200mm lens sitting unattended on a picnic table. After watching it for about ten minutes, I alerted Security who took it to their booth.

In the only practice session of the weekend held on Friday, Jeff had problems right at the outset. New shocks and other adjustments helped somewhat, and as practice ended Jeff thanked his crew for doing a good job, telling them that the're getting closer, but they still had work to do. After practice I met Sherry. We had a nice visit and she invited me to join her and her husband, Roy, for a tailgate lunch after Sunday's race.

Saturday was a total washout which forced morning practice, happy hour and the ARCA race to be cancelled. I spent the entire day in the motorhome reading and listening to music.

Sunday was cloudy all day, but there was no precipitation, so the race got under way on time. Jeff's car gave him problems all day, beginning with a cut tire on lap two which almost caused him to go a lap down. He was lucky in not doing damage to the fenders as he had a long way to go to the pits. A caution came out just as Jimmie Johnson, the leader, was quickly gaining on Jeff. That would be the only good luck that Jeff had all day, with the car pushing badly, especially in the tunnel turn. Jeff also complained quite often that he "was being killed" in traffic. After the race I joined Sherry and Roy for a late lunch, enjoying an hour-long visit. I soon headed back to my campsite to take down my flags, roll up the carpets and take down the awning as more rain was in the forecast. Soon after I finished getting the motorhome ready for travel on Sunday evening a soft drizzle began to fall.

I'm now making my way North and West as I head towards Michigan International Speedway. My plan is to see what I can see on the shores of Lake Erie before I go to MIS. Depending on what I find of interest, I'll probably be setting up camp at the track on Wednesday.

"Days When The Rains Came"
Monday, June 2. Strasburg, Pennsylvania

The theme of my trip so far has been rain and mud. After experiencing nine inches of rainfall in only a few days in Charlotte, I hit the road for Dover via the 17.6 mile-long Chesepeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. This was my fifth time on that impressive system. On Tuesday afternoon (May 27) when I arrived at Dover, it was quite evident that there had already been heavy rains, as the usually green campgrounds were soggy fields of mud. After registering I was directed to head to the back lots which are located quite a long ways from the speedway. I wasn't too fond of that idea, so I searched for and found a dry spot where I set up my campsite. Nobody ever questioned my being there which is good, since I probably had the single best campsite in the whole campground. On Thursday it rained while hundreds of RVs and motorhomes stood in general gridlock as the line got longer and longer, scarcely moving. The reason the line was stalled is because units were getting stuck in the mud. At 1am the police cut off access to the camping areas, forcing people to look elsewhere at least for the night.

I'm certain that the sole intention of some of the rowdies is to do their best to keep people awake. From hooping and hollering, to revving their truck engines, these people are anything but courteous to their fellow campers. Saturday evening a thunderstorm came through, quieting the rowdies down. But when the rain stopped, they were doing their thing again. I was riding my bicycle near the grandstands when someone hollered "Hey Al!" It was my campground neighbor from 2002.

After two years of trying, Robin and I finally met. I also met a few other posters from the Fan Forum. My seat for the MBNA 400 was one row from the top of the turn one stands- row 59- where it was windy and very cold throughout the race. Some brave (or silly) fans only wore t-shirts and shorts, and I have no idea how they survived.

Jeff ran a good race, finishing second. At one time he complained that it felt like he was running on basketballs while another time he felt as if he was on egg shells. I heard him say on the scanner, "Here she comes now!" when his car began to improve.

I had taken my flags down before the Saturday storm hit, and packed up on Sunday morning so that I would be able to leave whenever I chose to do so. The entertainment didn't stop after the race was over, however, as the spectacle of watching campers try to get out of muddy fields became quite a show. There is an overpass that crosses over U.S. 1, a toll road that goes between the various campgounds. That overpass became a makeshift grandstand where a number of us watched the show below, raising great cheers when someone successfully made it out of the swamp.

I'll be enjoying the railroad museum here in Strasburg and touring Lancaster County, which is the Amish area of Pennsylvania, before I head to Pocono Raceway in a few days.

"Front Page Story"
Saturday, May 24. Concord, North Carolina

After spending a weekend with friends in Lexington, Kentucky, I hit the road for Johnson City, Tennessee to visit Charlie. I had not been on that section of I-75, and I was glad I took that route as the trees were lush and the rock outcroppings were very scenic. Tuesday morning (May 13) we met for breakfast and had a very nice conversation for an hour and a half.

I left after breakfast for Charlotte via South Carolina- sort of a convoluted route, but a nice drive nonetheless. I arrived at the speedway at 5 pm, picked up my tickets, went shopping for groceries and then headed to my campsite, but I didn't do any fancy setup until Wednesday. As I was setting up my flagpoles, a reporter and photographer from the Independent Tribune stopped by, did a brief interview about my feelings on whether or not the Winston should stay, and the photographer took a photo. Sunday morning, there was my picture on the front page! To say that I've had "a bit of good-natured ribbing" is an understatement. Of course I took a couple of copies of that issue for a souvenir. What are the odds, that out of the hundreds of thousands of people who attend these races, I was the one on the front page? Perhaps now I should buy a lottery ticket!

On Winston race day, I got together with Jay, Bobbi, and Vivian outside the front office. On Wednesday (May 21) I went to Hendrick Motorsports for their cookout which was being held to raise money for the Hendrick Marrow Program. While there, I met Jamielee and Patty. I also got my copy of the "Fast Food" cookbook autographed by several of the celebrity chefs, including Kim Labonte, Jimmie Johnson's parents, Joe Nemechek's mom, and Joe himself. Robbie Loomis also autographed the book for me.

After getting back to the campground, I was invited to have dinner with some old friends whom I see every year. And then it started to rain. What a deluge! By the time the rains stopped, the campgrounds were seas of mud. A stream even flowed under my motorhome.

I'm planning to pack up my campsite before the Coca-Cola 600 so that I can hit the road at about 5 am Monday. I'll drive until I get to a rest stop where I'll finish my sleep. The idea is to get out of the campgrounds during a lull in traffic. Next stop, Dover International Speedway.

<<The Independent Tribune article featuring Al

"Batteries Not Included"
Sunday, May 11. Lexington, Kentucky

After leaving Edmonton on May 5, I drove for five hours and stopped for the night at a gas station just past Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at 1am. The station was closed for the night, but when I awoke at 7am, it had just opened. I drove to the pumps and filled the tank, then carried on. Five hours later, I arrived at the U.S. border at Portal, North Dakota where I went through the typical questions routine with the immigration officer, and I was soon on my way to Minot, North Dakota. When I arrived in Minot, I spotted a WalMart store and decided to spend the night there. The practice of stopping for the night at a WalMart or truck stop is known as "boondocking." It helps cut the expenses when making a trip over several days, and it's something that I do quite often.

I went into the store and bought a few things, as I believe in giving a little business to the place that allows me to spend the night in their parking lot. It rained all night, and for the second night in a row it was cool enough to necessitate the use of the furnace. In the morning I gassed up and continued eastward to the next stop of Jamestown, North Dakota where I filled up again. I phoned JC, but she couldn't get away from work. When I tried to start the engine, the battery was dead. This was really not a surprise, as the battery really didn't have much cranking power. My motorhome has three batteries; one for the engine and two for the coach. It also has a 4 kw Onan power plant. The gas station attendant gave me a boost and told me where the Ford dealer was located so I went there, but all of the mechanics were out to lunch. I then went to the Firestone outlet where they installed a new Interstate battery. All three of my batteries are Interstate. I then drove to Rogers, Minnesota, about ten miles from Minneapolis, where I boondocked at a TA truck stop.

The next day was spent driving to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to boondock at a WalMart. I stopped by the visitor center at Reiman Publications. I subscribe to six of their fine magazines, so that was a place that I wanted to see. They have a teriffic store where I bought a few back issues of their cookbooks at reduced prices.

On Friday, I drove to Lexington, Kentucky to spend the weekend with friends. While driving through Chicago, I began to believe that my signal lights weren't working because whenever I attempted to make a lane change my intentions were ignored as vehicles came blasting by, preventing my lane changes. I really could have used Ron Thiel (Jeff's spotter).

I'll be hitting the road for Charlotte on Monday, May 12 by way of Bristol, Tennessee where I hope to meet Charlie for coffee on Tuesday morning. I plan to arrive at Charlotte either Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning. The real fun starts later this week.

"Start Your Engine"
Sunday, May 4. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

A lot of race fans who live in the "hotbed" of NASCAR racing take for granted the fact that a weekend at the track involves not much more than getting Friday off work. They often live a little more than a few hours drive from the speedway. It just takes a bit of effort to get up early on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in order to beat the traffic so that they can arrive at the track early enough to get a decent parking spot where they can set up for a tailgate lunch with their friends while they await the start of the day's activities. There are some who live a little farther away, and those fans stay at an over-priced hotel or motel room which adds quite a large expense to a weekend at the races. And then there's someone like me, who lives so far from the tracks that there really are only two options, both of which I have tried.

I became seriously interested in Jeff Gordon and Winston Cup racing in about 1995, deciding to finally go to see firsthand what the excitement was about, after watching races on television up until then. In August of 1997 I booked two tours with Grand Prix Racing: one to the night race at Bristol and the other to the September Richmond race. In between those two races I drove to Darlington for the Southern 500. To see the Bristol night race as a first-ever race was totally overwhelming, because I did not know where to look. Up until then, TV pointed everything out to me, but now I was on my own. What an experience! The place simply assaults your senses. The noise which is incredible has no place to go.

The trip was expensive, as I had to pay for airline tickets, I had to eat in restaurants, I had to rent a car, and I had to stay in hotels that charged ridiculous rates. I skipped 1998 and did another NASCAR tour in 1999, but after that trip I decided to get a motorhome. Since then, I've been following the Cup circuit for a few weeks each May and June. The reason I do it that way is because I live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The drive to Charlotte takes five days, (and you thought a six-hour drive was long!) but luckily there are several races that are scheduled in a geographic loop that makes a trip feasible. There are really two occasions during the season that are that way. The first is the tour that I will be taking, beginning with The Winston, followed by the Coca Cola 600, then Dover, Pocono and Michigan. From Michigan it's a three-day drive home. The second tour that would be feasible is the Bristol night race followed by the Southern 500 at Darlington and then Richmond. Even driving the extreme distances that I must in order to attend races, it is a much more economical method than the fly/rent a car/stay in hotel/eat in a restaurant routine.

Traveling in the motorhome has many other advantages as well. It enables me to visit interesting places along the way, it gives me the opportunity to visit friends in between races and the best part of all, I get to camp at the tracks which is a whole other story. This will be my fourth year with the motorhome, and I'm looking forward to seeing old friends whom I've met in past years and whom I see each race season. I'm looking forward also to meeting new friends because that's a great part of the camping scene.

Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, Canada is some 600 miles north of Montana. Leaving on Monday, May 5, the trip will take me through Southern Saskatchewan before entering the United States in North Dakota. I hope to give you a weekly update on my trip along with stories about interesting places I've seen and people whom I've met. The motorhome has been fueled up, the propane tank and water tank are full, the provisions are on board, my camera is loaded, and I'm just about ready to hit the road. So join me on an 11,000 kilometer (6,600 mile) journey through two Canadian provinces and anywhere from 14 to 16 states as I "go racing."

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