When we’re young, our heroes are larger than life itself. My first hero was my hard-working father. Growing up in the Poconos in a baseball family, Mike Schmidt of the Phillies was another. I can still remember my first Phillies game back in 1982 like it was yesterday. Bo Diaz hit a pedestrian pop fly to center and it was viewed in Herculean proportions from the eyes of an 8-year old. There were no home runs that day so that’s all I have…a Bo Diaz pop to center.
Inevitably, I was bit by the car bug and Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Don Garlits and Ayrton Senna became heroes via my living room television. Thirty miles to the northeast of that living room stood Pocono Raceway. My older brother was a big Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan and as younger brothers tend to do, they follow the elder’s example. My NASCAR world became all-things Chevy and all-things Dale Earnhardt Sr.
One moment that registers strongly was the morning I met Dale. It was back in 1992 when he was visiting a local Chevy dealership for an autograph session. At the time, my brother was locked into working his 9-5. Since I was in college, it was deemed more sensible for me to take one for the team and miss the day’s classes. I can still remember my best friend’s father seeing me in town that morning. From halfway down the block he yelled, “Will, get to school!”
In my mind, those words cemented that I was going into uncharted waters. I was going against the grain. It was far from normal for me skip classes but heck, I’m going to see the Intimidator.
By the time I arrived, the line was already snaking through every single row of cars in the dealership. There was no way that I’d get that autograph if I held my position. It was time to improvise. I walked about 30 feet from the front of the line and inconspicuously entered between 2 groups. This wasn’t the line at the ballet. These were passionate NASCAR fans...that may or may not have been drinking before noon. They had been in line for 4 hours. Line jumpers could be sent to the scrap heap.
About 30 minutes were between me and the autograph. Could I survive the careful dance of NASCAR conversation between the groups...without them discovering that I didn’t arrive with either group? Suddenly, we all heard then saw the all-black Chevy Lumina Z34 pulling into a garage bay. The coast was clear and the line started moving. Uninjured, I escaped with Dale’s autograph on my brother’s #3 flag. When Dale looked at me, I shook his hand and wished him the best in the upcoming race. Going against the grain produced a day to be remembered forever.
It’s a big weekend for NASCAR. This Saturday marks the anniversary of NASCAR’s incorporation - all the way back in 1948. It’s also the start of new season at its crown jewel track, Daytona. If you catch the action, you’ll be reminded of the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at this track 14 years ago. Lapses in safety that were exposed during this fatal crash have resulted in improvements that are saving lives in today’s world of racing.
Even after they’re gone, our heroes continue to inspire. Dale Sr. continues to fuel my competitive fire. Here’s a special quote from the man. “It's a never-ending battle of making your cars better and also trying to be better yourself.” As an automotive enthusiast, these are words to live by.