By Tom Gillispie
MARK MARTIN HOPPED out of his hauler into the trap. His face dropped; he didn't realize he was going to have to battle his way to his race car, which was sitting 50 feet away in the garage area of North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.
A fan offered a hat and cap. Martin reluctantly signed. He tried to move on. Someone turned around and offered his back, and Martin put his John Hancock on the man's T-shirt.
Suddenly, Martin underwent a metamorphosis. He smiled and visibly relaxed. He appeared to think: "OK, I'm here, there's nothing I can do about it. It's my job, so let's enjoy it."
He signed an autograph, shook a fan's hand, smiled and said "Thank you." One after the other, Martin cranked out the autographs, and he thanked everyone.
Martin had a similar scenario at recent testing at Charlotte. He was talking to me as fans waited patiently behind a line until the interview was done. We shook hands, and he walked to the fans. One by one, he signed the autograph and thanked the fan. Each fan walked away satisfied. So, apparently, did Martin.
Most Winston Cup drivers enjoy signing autographs, as long as they're not busy. One year, though, Bill Elliott was sitting in his Ford, waiting to start a big race. His helmet was on, and his safety net was up. A fan stuck a pad and pen through the net, and a stunned Elliott shook his head. "Sorry, I'm at work," he seemed to say.
Sadly, it's not always sweetness and fun between drivers and fans. At the 1999 Brickyard 400, fans surged forward as Michael Waltrip left Gasoline Alley. Anyone who got in the way of the blundering herd ran the risk of being trampled. The tall Waltrip looked miserable, and a good time was had by no one.
One year, a fan at Martinsville Speedway apparently tried to clip Kyle Petty's ponytail, but Petty's wife, Pattie, pulled him back just in time.
Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace used to complain that fans would take boats up to their slips on Lake Norman, walk into their yards and look into their windows. Rusty toughed it out, but Gordon moved to Florida.
Jerry Gappens, the chief publicist at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, says tracks have to lock up the teams’ buses to keep fans away.
“They’d (fans) walk into Jeff Gordon’s trailer.” He paused, smiled almost apologetically and added: “They’re just curious.”
Dave Blaney, a former sprint-car driver, said he's used to fans flooding the sprint-car garage after a race. Most fans, he said, are respectful. Occasionally, he said, all drivers get a rotten apple.
"I suppose that's happened to everybody in their career," he said with a laugh. "That's one in a thousand. And, truth be told, that's probably alcohol-involved." He laughed again.
Of course, drivers may choose not to get involved. During the 1993 Daytona driver introductions, many of the drivers walked around the gauntlet of fans waiting for autographs.
The late Davey Allison, then the defending Daytona 500 winner, took his time, smiled, met fans and patiently signed. It was his last "Great American Race" before his death that July and maybe the last time most fans saw him up close.
When Gordon was at the peak of his powers, 1998, he suffered the boos. Same with Dale Earnhardt in the late ’80s and on into the ’90s. You win too much, you hear boos. They were the most cheered and most booed men during their peaks. Still, both men would have said that fans were, in most ways, nice to them.
Earnhardt was especially good with children, and many stories of his extraordinary kindnesses to kids have come out since his death in 2001.
Overall, most fans have good experiences with drivers. Most drivers have visited, called or written to sick fans, and most keep in touch with special fans.
Kyle Petty's special fan, for instance, is Travis McCauley, a 19-year-old blind student from Covington, Va. When the Winston Cup Series visits Martinsville Speedway twice a year, the McCauleys wait at the Winn-Dixie parking lot. Usually, Petty shows up. If he misses them there, he usually catches them at the track.
The McCauleys have Petty's home number, and, yes, he returns calls.
* * *
Some drivers have a bad rep with fans. Take Tony Stewart ... please.
In 1999, Stewart, an Indianapolis native, complained of the fans bothering him at the Brickyard 400. He didn’t have time to think or work, he said. But maybe time heals wounds. At the 2001 Winston Cup Preview, Stewart was asked if he enjoyed meeting fans in the preseason. He said that some drivers who thought that the off-season was too short should be ready to race when they saw the fans' enthusiasm.
"They've got me excited," he said with enthusiasm. "Let's go racin'!"
Still, it hasn’t changed his reputation. At the recent Winston Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, fan after fan had a different favorite. Stewart wasn’t one of them.
“Our good experiences so far have been with John Andretti, Richard Petty and Kenny Schrader,” said Robert Edwards of Rhine, Ga., “but Tony Stewart wasn’t one of them. Some drivers act like they don’t have time for people. But they are probably so busy, have so much to think about.” He shrugged.
Edwards said he and his wife Betsy watched as Richard Petty playfully tried to get a potato off their seven-year-old son’s plate.
“He knelt beside him, but he (the boy) is shy,” Edwards said. “He tried to talk to him. He was very nice.
“I like him.”
Janet Hudnall of Rocky Mount, Va., said she’s seen her favorite driver, Jeff Gordon, on several occasions.
“He’s easy to approach,” she said.
Hudnall added that they’ve had two bad experiences with Stewart. The first time, the pen ran out of ink. The second time, Tony ran out of patience at a signing.
“He said, ‘I hate these damned things,’” she said.
Karl Dietz of Union Hall, Va., said he got Dale Jarrett’s autograph on pole day for the Martinsville race, and he met Dale’s son, Jason. Those were among “21 or 22” drivers he got autographs from, but Dale was special; that’s his favorite driver.
“I don’t care who I get an autograph from, except Robby Gordon. He wasn’t nice,” Dietz said. “And Tony Stewart. He’s a hothead. At least Jeff Gordon will get (sign) as many as he can.”
Dietz said he was learning the ropes at autographs, but he’d come up with a simple formula: Always be polite, call him “sir” or “Mr.”, compliment his driving, and, most of all, be prepared to walk fast as he charges across the garage area.
On this day, Dietz was waiting for crew chief Todd Parrott and car owner Robert Yates to get a “matched set” of autographs from the 88 team. Alas, he approached Parrott as he left the car, and was turned down. Dietz smiled, shrugged, and waited patiently for Yates.
But, apparently, all drivers have fans. Even Stewart. Jim and Donna Rich of Mooresville, N.C., said Stewart has gotten on the floor and played with their daughter, Amanda. In fact, he did it twice, at the Winston Cup Media Tour during his rookie year and later at Stocks for Tots.
"That says a lot about Tony Stewart," said Rich, who has heard stories about Stewart's temper and perceived petulance. "Other people don't think so, but we think he's a nice guy."
In fact, Rich said Amanda’s favorite drivers seem to be Stewart and Robby Gordon, another supposed hothead. Gordon simply gave Amanda a scale-model race car when the Riches visited him.
“She can’t get enough of Tony Stewart,” Rich said, “and she loves Robby Gordon. They’re awesome.”
The Riches say they haven’t had a rotten apple yet. They also have met Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Jimmy Spencer, among others - and they said each driver was friendly and personable.
* * *
Ask probably any fan who has met Richard Petty, and they’ll say he is The King not because of his 200 victories, seven Daytona 500 victories or seven championships. It’s because of his treatment of fans. They get the royal treatment, but it has to be tough.
Recently, a man who said he wasn’t a race fan recalled flying on the same airline with Petty. He watched as fans swarmed for autographs, and Petty signed all he could, the man said.
Finally, they got on the plane, and a weary Petty sat in first class. The non-fan watched from behind as Petty took off his cowboy hat and laid back to relax.
No one bothered him for an autograph, but plenty of people tried to take pictures.
Long-time publicist Chip Williams works with several drivers, including those at Petty Enterprises. Like most people, he’s impressed with The King.
“It must have been ’79, ’80 or ’81, but Richard Petty won at (North) Wilkesboro,” Williams recalled. “He left the pressbox, and I got done. I went out, and there he was at the bottom of the stairs, signing autographs. He must have signed two to three hundred while I watched. He stayed until everyone got one, and that was after 200 or 300 miles.”
But times have changed, Williams added. Where 25,000 might have shown up at North Wilkesboro 20 years ago, 100,000 might go to Martinsville today. It might be 150,000 at Bristol or more than 300,000 at Indianapolis. It’s hard to make everyone happy.
Williams was asked if there’s a best time to approach a driver.
“Yes, at an autograph session,” he said seriously.
“The whole thing’s changed,” he added. “It’s a tough deal. You can plan a three-minute walk to take eight minutes. I’ve seen fans walk in the middle of a TV interview, walk between the driver and the camera, and ask for an autograph. It’s tough.”
He has a story similar to the Bill Elliott anecdote. A woman went up to the 43 car at Atlanta and asked him to get John Andretti to lower his net so she could get an autograph.
But Williams won’t condemn pushy fans or standoffish drivers.
“I don’t think fans have changed,” he said. “What they want now is what they wanted 20 years ago.”
* * *
Driver Sterling Marlin admits that people in other sports may have a rough time with fans, but he doesn't see it in racing. He says he doesn't worry. He's polite, and they reciprocate.
"(Am I) afraid of fans? No way," he has said. "I'd be more afraid to be somebody giving a driver a hard time when fans are around. It doesn't matter whether they are my fans or somebody else's.
"I've signed a couple jillion autographs, and that's fine. It's pretty rare anybody comes up in a really bad situation and makes it hard on me. If I'm busy, usually I can just say, 'Hey, can you give me a few minutes?', and they're really polite, and they will wait until I have a minute."
Jeremy Mayfield has said that he’s been nervous doing autographs only once. He was signing autographs one night in what turned out to be a bad part of town. He was anxious walking to the car, so four fans who knew the area walked along with them.
So far, he said, race fans have always been nice to him.
"If a guy is wearing a Dale Earnhardt shirt or a Dale Jarrett cap, I'll still sign it," he said. "It's not that big of a deal. Besides, it proves they support the sport. Maybe I'm their second favorite or whatever, and that's fine, too.
"Anybody who loves NASCAR Winston Cup racing is a friend of mine."
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