Monday, February 24, 2014

Remembering '98

I should have thought of this before last night's Daytona 500, but I didn't.

My last Daytona 500 in person was in 1998, a big year for Daytona 500s. That was the year Dale Earnhardt finally broke through.

I was writing for a web site — I don't remember which one; it doesn't exist anymore — and a bunch of us web writers were stuck in a tent beside the Winston Cup garage. I could go in the outer area for the Benny Kahn pressroom; my credentials wouldn't let me set up my computer in the main pressroom.

On Saturday before the 500, I led my notebook by saying that this was finally Dale Earnhardt's year, that he'd win it. I wasn't prescient or anything; I just needed something interesting to write, and that seemed appropriate.

On Sunday, I spent the last half of the race in the outer lobby, watching the race on TV. I listened to several sports writers talking about how Earnhardt was bound to lose this one, too. I hoped they were wrong. I liked Earnhardt despite his sometimes aggravating ways, and I thought he deserved to win one.

When he actually won it, I was happy for him. And I was happy that he made me look smart.

Right after the race, I saw Joe Gibbs, the car owner and former (and future) NFL coach. I spoke to him and told him that we'd just recently talked on the phone; I'd interviewed him for a story on Tony Stewart.

Apparently he didn't understand me, because he put that stupid smile on that famous people use when they meet riffraff like me. He pulled out something and signed an autograph. He handed it to me and walked away; I stood there wondering what had just happened. I didn't care about autographs.

Later, when I was writing my notebook for the web site, NASCAR was checking some of the race engines on a dynamometer near us. It was amazing how loud it was, and, yes, it wasn't easy to write with all that noise so close.

I didn't get to see Earnhardt's famous trip down pit road — with all of the other teams saluting him — until later. I was stuck in that tent.

It's funny, but I didn't think to write about that for I Remember Dale Earnhardt or Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr. It just came back to me.

One other thing: Congratulations to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Way to go.