My grandpa is as old school as they come. Strict, level-headed, and tough as nails, he knows what’s up. His mind has gotten him far, gathering information and storing it for later use. Like a safe.
Watching the earliest NASCAR races on TV is no exception. He understands how the sport got to where it is because he knows where it’s been. If something disturbs the course of racing’s growth, you bet he has something to say about it, something loud and logical.
After deciding to leave the factory floor after more than 40 years, he sold a few cars and let grandma renovate the bathrooms. He focuses his time on farming and us grandchildren. Nevertheless, he’s still as forceful as ever, taking charge when something gets out of hand. Always something to do, no time to sit down and talk.
I was hoping this Labor Day cook-out/Grandpa’s retirement party would be my chance to tap his brain for some insight on speed.
As the family sat down to eat at various plastic tables, I went with my brother and my little cousin. The whole time I ate, I was thinking about how to approach Grandpa; how could I get him to sit with me and talk for a good twenty minutes? So, I finished my food, worried if this would play out as I wanted it to.
Then, Grandpa sat down next to me with his plate. Since he grilled everything, he ate last. It was my opportunity. “What did you think about Stewart throwing his helmet at Bristol?”
That immediately hooked him. His hearty laugh came through. “I knew they wouldn’t fine him! It’s just, that’s Tony. That was great to see, though. Definitely a good thing.”
We talked about the Bristol weekend more, especially the Dillon boys. Grandpa definitely likes them and how they present themselves, although the cowboy hats need to be destroyed. Somehow, Danica Patrick was brought up, and he said she needed to learn quick. Add Sam Hornish and Trevor Bayne into that conversation, and he was good for twenty minutes.
Everything he told me was backed up by personal knowledge. I decided not to question it.
I mentioned my trip to Mid-Ohio and the A.J. Foyt press conference. Scrolling through my pictures, Grandpa mentioned going to the track back before it had high security. He made his own press pass for the Willard Times, the paper for a close small town, and he was allowed on pit road and the Media Center. There was a moment after the race where he got up-close and personal with Roger Penske.
For every story I had, Grandpa had one to top it. It was exciting to sit there and hear the tales. My body was balancing on the edge of my chair, heart pounding. When he nonchalantly stated he actually drove on the course, however, I froze.
“What do you mean ‘drove on the course?’” Huh?
Wiping his mouth with his napkin, Grandpa nodded. “I got to go out there with my Camaro, my Hill Climber. Those forty laps out there . . . Man, those are the moments you never forget.”
This came as a shock to me. I never knew he was a wheelman. “So you use to race.”
Go-Karting and Drag racing are also on his résumé. A few wins and plenty of podium finishes decorate his record. He told me his ex-wife got his trophies in the divorce, so they were probably gone. All he has left are the memories and pictures in a box somewhere.
I brought up the state of NASCAR today, delicately explaining that I wanted it to revert to the Good Ol’ Days. Grandpa scoffed a bit and told me it couldn’t. Why not?
“It’s all about money. It’s a business. The cars cost too much, and there aren’t any sponsors. Also, the cars are all equal right now!” He was getting very passionate about this, voice getting rougher.
Agreed. “It’s tough to see who’ll be the champion this year.”
Then, he said something that made complete sense to me: “Listen . . . You put anyone in a Hendrick car, they’ll win races . . . But it takes more talent to become a champion. Raw talent.”
It was one of those one-liners that stick with you and get the gears in your head working. When we left hours later, they were still cranking along.
I never knew my grandpa was a wheelman. In a way, I’m not surprised; his grasp of the racing world is more in-depth than any fan I know. Someone should’ve told me. I’m more shocked, though, by the fact that I got to talk for an hour about racing with him, as busy as he keeps himself. I wondered why.
Maybe it was because I listened. Maybe it was because he wanted me to learn.
Either way, I’m glad it happened. Those are conversations make the sport sing.
Thanks, Grandpa; you’re even more Old School than I thought.