It amazes me how many sports fans and media have what seem to be super human powers of recollection. They remember in astonishing detail what happened to which driver in races that occurred decades ago.
They’ll sit around bottle-strewn tables at restaurants and bistros, or huddle in small groups in infield press centers and debate the greatness of crew chief calls and important race track moments.
Occasionally, somebody will turn to me and ask: What do you think?
Me: Um, what the hell you talkin’ about?
Nope, not great powers of recall here. When somebody asks what about last weekend’s race the answer is often: Ur, who won again? Which is cool because for the important, historically significant and truly consequential things, well, that’s what press guides and the internet are for.
But there are scattered, random, disassociated things I do remember.
Here is a smattering of scenes that I do recall from 2010:
Jeff Burton, Feet of Fury: There he was, kicking the crap out of his damaged race car on the grass infield at Talladega. The Professor. The Virginia Gentleman. Thoughtful, introspective Jeff Burton applying flying kicks to his RCR Chevy after crashing. It all made me feel a bit more human. There was Burton doing to his car exactly what I have wanted to do to stubborn mechanical devices during frustration-induced tantrums around my own home. Go, Jeff, go.
Walkin’ Tall – Jeff Gordon in Texas: This was a scene from Fort Worth which was television reaching full McLuhan-esqe potential. Gordon had gotten together with Jeff Burton on the track and both crashed. Gordon’s car was stranded several hundred yards up track from Burton’s. So Gordon climbs out, casually brushes off his driver suit, heads past officials and safety folk and starts striking toward Burton. High noon, baby. And Gordon walks, and walks and walks. Tension builds. Those of us wondering what was going on inside the mild-mannered four-time champ’s head got our answer as he finally reaches a waiting Burton. Gordon starts swinging. Arms, legs, shouts, wild. I give this one to Gordon on style points.
Good Food, (For the most part) Better Company: For some reason, I got invited to have dinner with Chip Foose the night before the NHRA’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. Being an old hot rod guy, this was great. A memorable honor. Talked with Foose at length about hot rods and how to build them. Well, mostly I listened. (For the record: Chip Foose, wonderful person.) Also at our table was a rep for an NHRA sponsor, Oakley. Another intensely interesting guy. But, big guy. Tall guy. Former basketball player from Pepperdine. We started talking about our personal cars and the tall guy said he just bought a new SUV. Problem was, he could not get comfy driving it. He asked Foose if the seat anchors could be moved back. Foose, perhaps the best custom car builder of the current generation, said, sure. This fourth guy at the table, an editor from one of those car mags which are little more than car-industry shills, pipes in all authoritatively: Nope, can’t be done with that model. After a moment of silence, the dinner continued. Let’s see, hmmm; editor who doesn’t know a half-inch-drive impact wrench from a swivel-headed click torque wrench vs. Chip Foose when it comes to modding a car. I say give it a shot, tall guy.
More Good Food, Concession Stand Style: Martinsville hot dogs, Martinsville hot dogs. Indy tenderloin sandwich: Best track food in racing. All discussion about track food seems to start right there. Too bad. The dang things are average at best and scary at worst. Sorry, not into gray sausages. For me, the best track food is prepared under the infield grandstands on the front stretch at Indy Speedway. Pork tenderloin sandwiches. Pounded flat and deep fried. I missed my first 500 of the decade in 2009. When I returned this season, I dumped my gear in the media center, made my way down three flights of stairs and set out for a tenderloin. Not an easy trip. To get there, you have to walk through an area which is covered by golf ball-sized loose rocks. A mine field for ankles. Well worth the risk. The sandwich was still sizzling. Little hot sauce, close the bun and eat. The plan was to take it back and eat as I worked. I made it back, the sandwich did not. One later that afternoon did, however.
Voting For Real Winners: I have no idea why I was selected to be a voting member for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But I am overjoyed that I was. Saying it has been an honor to serve is where you have to start conversations about being a voter. Don’t know where to end the conversation. Memories of sitting in that room in the Charlotte Convention Center the last two years not only will never be forgotten. Sitting in a room where Richard Petty is talking about Junior Johnson, who is also in the room, is akin to being in one of those paintings of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In my home office I have a framed copy of my ballot and group photo of the voting panel. It has moved a favorite watercolor poster from the Dallas F-1 race of 1984 – it features all-time faves, Keke Rosberg and Nelson Piquet – off to the side.
Cheating Death: I can still see it when I close my eyes. Elliott Sadler’s car ramming into that barrier at Pocono. Wham! Dirt from the berm which backed up the barrier exploding out the other side. It was ghastly and could have been gruesome. I remember during the press conference in Atlanta following the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, NASCAR experts showed an in-car video of a wreck Johnny Benson was in. It was eye-opening incredible what went on inside that car. The old stomach quivered. It was a now-I-get-it moment. Sadler’s wreck was worse. Pre-COT, Sadler dies. Believe it.
New and Improved: There is a fine line between improving upon tradition and destroying it. As the cars were wheeled through Gasoline Alley and out to the pits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first day of qualifying last May, I thought the line had been crossed. “Fast Nine?” Multiple attempts? “Condensed” schedule? Just who is this Randy Bernard guy and what the hell is he doing restructuring – not just tweaking – one of the high holidays of racing? But late that afternoon, I was converted. Excitement was back on Pole Day. Judging from the facial expressions and up-beat buzzing as the Fast Nine were led into the press center for interviews, there were a lot of conversions made that day. Some converts where wearing firesuits. They talked of the pressure and anxiety they experienced as the clock ticked down. Human drama had replaced speeds and records as fuel for Pole Day.
Bad News Revisited: Kelly Hale, the wonderful public relations chief at Kansas Speedway called me late last October with news that I was expecting but dreading. The situation for NASCAR vice president for corporate communications Jim Hunter was looking grim. Death was imminent. A couple days later, Jim passed on and I stopped answering the phone for a day. Shortly after his death, I wrote that Hunter was the best friend that NASCAR fans never knew they had. His entire career in racing was built around making things better for fans. He often disagreed with the top people in Daytona Beach and would fight them on issues he felt strongly about. Unfortunately, his death will pop into my head every time discussion turns to 2010.
Rolling, Roaring History: The opening day of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis – OK, Claremont – is time machine stuff. Not seen on television and hardly ever reported is what goes on before the nitro cars are unloaded. It is long lines of the kinds of cars which made some of us old-school American automobile-culture fans American automobile-culture fans in the first place. In those endless lines heading to the staging area at Indy are Oldsmobile 442s, Buick Grand Sports, Super Stock Dodges, AMXs, Sting Rays, Camaros, Bosses. A T-bucket here, a deuce coupe there. All modded out with slicks and Edelbrock stickers and put together in residential garages in working class neighborhoods from Kenosha to Bakersfield. They are being pushed along toward the starting line by greasy guys in t-shirts and blue jeans. You stop, look at their wonderful work and flash them a smile. They proudly reciprocate. Hour after hour, day after day. It never gets old. Can’t wait to get back.
Jim Pedley is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who has worked at, among other places, the Boston Globe, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star. Pedley spent more than 10 years covering auto racing for the Kansas City Star. Pedley can be reached at