Feature Story

Pocono Garage Pass

As late as the first week in June, I never thought that I'd be attending the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway. However, when a garage pass for the weekend was offered, I jumped at the opportunity. To the person that made it possible, thank you once again. It's not everyday that I'm presented the opportunity to view NASCAR "from the inside."

Thursday, July 22
Arriving at the hotel on Thursday night was a wise decision on my part. It gave me a night to get away from the "5 Day A Week Workworld" and into a much better state of mind. I won't give out the name of the hotel because it's only 10 miles from the track and not too many people know about it. Suffice to say, it's a diamond in the rough.

Friday, July 23

Early Morning
I arrived at the track around 8:15 am. There was no traffic driving down Route 115 and my spirits were lifted when I made the left turn onto Long Pond Road. Off to the right I saw the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway. I've been to the track before. But up until this weekend, I always sat in the grandstands. After getting my official credential at the NASCAR trailer, I drove through the infield tunnel and parked about 300 yards from the garage area. The garage pass pretty much allows you to walk anywhere you want. Once I passed the "NASCAR Credentials Only Beyond This Point" sign, I noticed a familiar face walking alongside. It was Brett Bodine. Jimmy Makar was walking the other way. This was going to be a good weekend; a real good weekend.

Friday Morning
Upon entering the garage area, I walked down to the DuPont team garage stall. It was 8:45 am and the crew was hard at work on the car. "It's the best looking car on the track," someone said to me. It was then that I met Ray Evernham's uncle Don. Throughout the weekend, Don made this garage area rookie feel like a veteran. And I thank him again for that. After meeting him, I gave him one of my 'Jeff Gordon Online' business cards. He said, "I gotta introduce you to Ray." Did meeting the crew chief seem surreal? You bet. It wasn't even 9 am on my first day and I had already met Ray Evernham. I walked around (something I did WAY too much that day) and watched ARCA practice followed by Winston Cup practice from pit road. Walking through the back pit area after practice I saw a young girl in a wheelchair. The DuPont hat that Trisha Weaver was wearing stopped me in my tracks. I asked if she had met Jeff Gordon yet. She said no. I then asked if she'd like his autograph. I didn't realize it at the time, but getting Jeff's autograph would be no easy task. I figured that if I could meet Ray during my first half hour at the track, meeting Jeff surely wouldn't be a problem.

Friday Mid-Day
At noon, I met up with Dave and Gail Dahlen (the Region Two coordinators for the Jeff Gordon National Fan Club), along with Anthony, on pit road. While on pit road, I gave out business cards with the site URL on it. It shocked me to see how many fans said they had visited the site. After Winston Cup practice, I was standing by the team hauler. Jeff crossed over from the garage area to the hauler and was signing autographs while walking. I have to say someting about that. I'm not an autograph collector, but by the same token I don't want to demean people that collect them. However, I watched as people pushed and shoved to try to get Jeff's autograph. And this was in the NASCAR garage area where the people in attendance are supposedly there "for a reason."

Friday Afternoon
Just before qualifying, I saw a familiar face standing near the team hauler. If you're a JG fan, you've probably seen Jeff's PR agent, Kymberly Brantigan from Performance PR Plus. After introducing myself and mentioning the site, she said that she had seen it (which put one of those "instant smiles" on my face) and enjoyed the features. I explained that I wasn't an autograph collector but had to get one for a little girl in a wheelchair. Listening to myself explain it, I wouldn't blame anyone for immediately thinking, "Yeah, right." But I only asked Jeff for one autograph at Pocono; and it was for Trisha Weaver.

Star Of The Show
To get to the car on pit road, Jeff took an alternate route by walking through the ARCA garage area. It was at this point that Don said, "Run after him." A small crowd of autograph seeking fans were trailing him as he walked. He signed a picture for me as he walked. I had gotten the autograph for Trisha. After their cards, programs, race tickets, and diecasts were signed, the fans departed leaving me with Jeff and Brooke, along with Kymberly and another rep from Performance PR Plus. We were standing just behind the entrance to pit road near the ARCA garage. I started taking pictures when a little voice in my head screamed, "Put down the camera and start talking!" This is where the details end. I'll just say that it was a great few minutes.

Late Friday Afternoon
I stood on pit road and watched Jeff's qualifying run with one of the representatives from DuPont Surlyn; the company on the rear decklid of the car for the race. Seventh fastest; not bad. I tried to find Trisha in the back pit area. I promised the autograph around 11 am and it was now almost 4:30 pm. While asking security in the area if they had seen her, I heard a familiar voice alongside. It was Trisha's father. She was over by the "autograph alley" fence. In a day that included meeting Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon, the highlight of my day was presenting that autographed picture to Trisha Weaver.

Late Friday
I arrived back at the car around 6 pm. Suddenly, there was trouble. My right front tire was dead flat. It would not be the first time that a right front tire would dampen my spirits during the weekend. I called my roadside assistance plan and was told they could send a tow-truck. However, I would have to drive through the tunnel since it couldn't enter the infield. With my DuPont shirt and hat, the flat tire only heightened responses. "That's what you get for being a Gordon fan. Broken down," one inebriated individual screamed. Looking back, I can laugh at it. But at the time, it wasn't funny. I rolled through the infield tunnel at 2 miles per hour. The tow truck met me on the other side and changed the tire, putting on the smaller "donut." I followed him back to the Blakeslee Garage just up Route 115 where they put on a new tire. In the span of an hour, my day went from "awesome" to "terrible" to "awesome" again. Friday was a great day. Even the tire debacle turned out to be fine. On the short drive back to hotel, I knew I was lucky. Quite a day; quite a day indeed.

Saturday, July 24

How could Friday possibly be topped? Anything short of having a Pepsi with Jeff Gordon in the lounge area of the hauler would probably be a letdown. I had a few conversations with some great people around the garage area and watched the ARCA race from pit road. Saturday was a day for film. I went through three rolls in the morning and two in the afternoon. The sunburn from Friday was getting worse. And sunblock was not helping too much.

Sunday, July 25

I checked out of the hotel at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am. Surprisingly, there was no traffic during the drive to the track. I parked on the infield when it was pitch black outside. Walking to the garage area, a beer can came flying past my head. "Gordon's a &*%$," I heard in the background. My pace picked up from a walk into a steady jog. I chatted with the security guards near the garage area until the sun came up. I had breakfast in the paddock area with the race crews. Quite a thrill. Jimmy Makar walked by with a cup of coffee. He'd be drinking champagne in about 10 hours.

Sunday Morning
The garage area opened at 7 am. I walked over the garage stall and saw the "checklist" on the side of the car. It was a list of about 200 different things to be checked and re-checked before the race. I chatted with Gordon-Evernham Motorsports Team Manager Michael Landis around 10 am. Still beaming about the debut of Ricky Hendrick. A half hour later, Jeff walked over to "Garage 1" for the driver's meeting and MRO chapel service. Once again, the autograph-seeking fans surrounded him. After the driver's meeting, the MRO service began. Several drivers departed before the service. I'm not going to criticize the drivers that didn't stay for the service, but I'm glad that Jeff Gordon did. Darrell Waltrip has given a lot to NASCAR racing. He's won three Winston Cup titles and 84 races. However, I tend to think that his biggest accomplishment has been Motor Racing Outreach. Through his efforts, a chapel service has been arranged at every track throughout the season. On this particular Sunday, Max Helton spoke about templates; both in NASCAR and in life. In the circus atmosphere of NASCAR racing, MRO provides a welcome relief. Thanks Darrell.
Todd Parrott, crew chief for Dale Jarrett, stood on the outside of the garage area. His crying infant was making too much noise. Nobody asked him for an autograph at that time. I was glad to see that. After the service concluded, Jeff walked back to the hauler to prepare for the race. More autographs to sign. I shook my head at the scene. Mike Skinner had won the pole position for the event and he was walking along by himself. "I can't believe the autograph thing," I said to Kymberly Brantigan walking alongside. In terms of Jeff's popularity, she's on the frontlines. I didn't enjoy seeing him pushed from all angles to sign his name, but she had probably seen worse.

Main Event

I walked to pit road to get a standing spot behind Jeff's pit stall just after 12:30 pm. I was literally two feet behind the pit wall, standing alongside the Rainbow Warriors. It was awesome watching the crew in action. Television doesn't do a pit stop justice. You have to see it live to fully experience it. During the second caution period, Jeff came onto pit road with the lead. Barry, Kevin, Mike, Jeff, Darren, Chris, and the "Captain" Mike Belden went to work. Gordon returned to the track with the lead. Regrettably, by lap 80 the day had turned sour. I knew it was bad when Ray came down from his perch on the "war wagon" to get a better look at the damaged right front. The shredded tire tore things up pretty good. Just a frustrating year. There would be no plane on Sunday.
Along with the crew, I watched the rest of the race on the TV feed in the pit stall. I watched the more subtle things; such as jackman Barry Muse cooling off using a water sprayer from a fan. As the race wound down, Andy Papthanassiou began packing up the pit stall. After a quick goodbye to some new friends, the weekend was over. Traffic getting out wasn't too bad and I was on my way through the tunnel by 6:15 pm.

Closing Thoughts

The race result was less than stellar, but the three day experience was unbelievable. Most race fans only see the drivers on the track or in front of the TV cameras. I was fortunate enough to see them in a different environment. Without any bias, I can tell you that Jeff Gordon is a champion on and off the track. I saw plenty of "well known" drivers shun autograph requests from fans. But Jeff signed autographs whenever he walked through the garage. He was pushed, leaned on, and probably received a few ink marks on his driving uniform. But he did his best to accommodate everybody. The Pocono weekend opened my eyes to the "inside of NASCAR." I had the opportunity to see the drivers and team members away from the glare of the cameras. And I can say that I'm prouder to be a Jeff Gordon fan today than I was before I went to Pocono.

Images from Pocono - July 1999

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