It’s been said that NASCAR fans are some of the most dedicated sports fans out there. They will sit through anything from pouring rain to blistering heat to watch a race and proudly support their favorite driver. Some fans’ devotion leads them to getting tattoos of their driver’s racecar number or even naming their kids after their favorite driver. That loyalty, that passion, is what sets NASCAR fans apart from other sports fans, and for one driver, his fans took dedication to a whole new level back in 2001.
Matt Kenseth came into the 2001 season as the reigning Raybestos Rookie of the Year in what was then the Winston Cup series—now Sprint Cup series. However, 2001 was a rough season for Kenseth, his team, and his fans. It was a year of zero wins, a handful of top five and top ten finishes, and a season full of finishes in the middle of the field. The fans on Kenseth’s fan forum were getting frustrated. They knew Kenseth was getting down about the season, especially in the early going. However, they also knew Kenseth’s season would get better. Kenseth's fans tried to think of a way his season could turn around. In May of 2001, Kenseth fans began to chant whatever they thought would send good vibes to their driver. They would start the chant the second the engines fired until the green flag waved to start the race. Some would sit at home in front of their TVs chanting. Others who were in attendance at the track would chant from the stands. Sure, it probably caused many Kenseth fans to get some odd looks, but they didn’t care. It wasn’t until a small group of Kenseth fans began talking about the season in 2001 that one chant was finally picked—"We believe!". Those two words seem so simple, but they have become an integral part of what being a Kenseth fan is all about.
The fans knew Kenseth’s relatives, and even Kenseth himself, checked the forum from time to time. They didn’t want Kenseth to think they had given up on him. The forum became a source of positive energy in the midst of a terrible season in 2001. Fans continued to show their support, no matter how bad things looked for the 17 team.
The chant was just the beginning of Kenseth’s fans proving they hadn’t given up on him. One fan, Allegra, took it yet another step farther and made a banner to take to the Charlotte race in October of 2001. The banner read “17 We Believe” and was displayed proudly whenever the chance came up, whether it was in the campground or in the stands. The picture to the right is of Allegra presenting Matt and his sister Kelley with the original banner at the 2001 Fan Club party.
The fans liked the banner so much that they decided that it should go to as many races as possible. So a list was drawn up of who would be at each race, and fans, at their own expense, would mail the banner overnight to the fan attending the upcoming race. Whoever was in charge of the banner for the weekend would display it when possible and get other Kenseth fans to sign it. The banner went to all but 4 races in 2002, and it also went several non-points events, including the All-Star race. In 2003, Joe and Deb, who ran Kenseth’s souvenir hauler at the time, volunteered to take the banner from track to track, and the person in charge of the banner for that weekend would go by the hauler and pick it up. The banner traveled to all of the races in 2003, and in 2004, the banner made it to all but one or two races.
There were actually other banners made. Allegra made them all herself and hand-painted the logos on. The first, third, and fourth banners are all in possession of the Matt Kenseth Fan Club. The second banner is in Allegra's possession. The picture to the left is of the banner she made after Kenseth won the championship in 2003.
There was even a banner made for Matt’s pit crew, the Killer Bees, that was 14 feet long and 4 feet high. And if you ask a Kenseth fan, the Killer Bees are the best pit crew in all of NASCAR. Kenseth fans always celebrate a great pitstop by the Bees, and they, just like Kenseth, will get frustrated if the Bees have a bad stop, which isn't very often. Dedication to not only the driver, but the whole team is just another thing that sets Kenseth fans apart from the rest.
In a post on Kenseth’s fan forum, Allegra explained the story behind “We believe!” and added that “If WE, Matt's own fans gave up... who would that leave to Believe? If we doubted… who would that leave to Believe? If we blamed his pit crew, or doubted a decision made, who would that leave to Believe?”
Even those who aren’t a fan of Kenseth can still look at that statement and think of their favorite driver. Things can look grim at times, but fans must never give up on the driver or his crew. There is always something positive fans can take from a race. Maybe their favorite driver had a bad finish, but managed to lead some laps during the race. Maybe their driver srtuggled the whole race, but the pit crew had flawless stops each time. And there is no doubt it's easy for fans to get upset when their favorite driver has a bad crash, especially if he was running well when it happened. They shouldn't get bummed that he'll end up with a bad finish. They should be thankful if he walked away unscathed.
Kenseth’s fans never gave up on him in 2001, and he rebounded in 2002 to get five wins and finish 8th in the standings. Then in 2003, Kenseth went on to win the Winston Cup championship.
This year is looking great for Kenseth and his team. They’ve proven they still have what it takes to win another championship. Now, can Kenseth actually go on to win the championship this year? Yes. Why? Because I, along with so many other Kenseth fans, believe he and the entire 17 team can get the job done.
I would like to thank Allegra for the information behind "We believe!" and for allowing me to use it in this article.
Photos courtesy of the Matt Kenseth Fan Club.
More photos of the different banners can be seen in some posts on Matt Kenseth's fan forum here: http://www.mattkenseth.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=23728&start=0