Sunday, February 25, 2018

In 1998, Dale Earnhardt changed my life

by Lisa Janine Cloud

Twenty years ago, Dale Earnhardt changed my life.

On the face of it, that statement may seem like hyperbole but I promise you it is not. Had the Intimidator not finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, I might never have become a NASCAR fan and without NASCAR, my life would have been radically different.

Allow me to explain.

My late husband Tex watched the occasional race our first couple of years together, usually tape-delayed. He’d play them at bedtime and the sound of the cars on the track lulled me to sleep. To this day I find it easy to fall asleep when a race is on TV. He wasn’t a regular viewer, though, and I was busy with work so I didn’t pay much attention.

It was, after all, just a bunch of cars driving in a circle.

But in February 1998, while we were at the corner convenience store, Tex saw the newspaper reporting Dale Sr.’s  historic win and commented, “He finally got his Daytona 500.” Because Tex was an Earnhardt fan, the win meant enough to him that the next Sunday, twenty years ago this weekend, we sat down in front of the TV and watched the GM Goodwrench Service Plus 400 at Rockingham.

Tex’s other favorite driver, Jeff Gordon, took the first of what would be 13 trips to Victory Lane that 50th anniversary season en route to his third championship in four years.

I was hooked.

As time went on, I became a more passionate fan than he was. Fascinated with all that went into the spectacle and science of racing, the personalities and stories sucked me in as solidly as the Daytona draft. He introduced me to open-wheel racing - from CART and IRL to Silver Crown and World of Outlaws - and even lawnmower racing.

As long as I can remember I’ve loved cars and speed. I learned to drive in the family’s 1973 Pontiac LeMans which had a 350 hp V8 engine and went from 0 to 60 faster than you can say “exhibition of acceleration.”

I’ve also always been a sports fan. I enjoy basketball, football, and baseball (Houston Astros! #EarnedHistory). Hockey isn’t exactly a big deal in Houston, but I’ve grown to like it, even though I don’t understand it.

Putting cars and sports together clicked for me in a way nothing else ever has. Add in the personalities and the stories behind them and I’m in my happy place.

When the chance to write for Skirts and Scuffs arose in the middle of the 2011 season, I grabbed it. I had no way of knowing the opportunities that would come my way from that one decision, and how they would impact my life.

The Skirts and Scuffs team became family to me. Beyond the track, we’ve shared laughter and tears, heartbreaking losses and joyful successes. Our shared love of racing brings us together, but our love for each other binds us together.

Sunrise at Texas Motor Speedway, Nov. 4, 2011

Becoming part of the team has afforded me the opportunity to attend races in person. Since November 2011, I’ve made the 290-mile trip to Texas Motor Speedway to cover 13 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 13 Xfinity, 10 Camping World Truck, and 5-ish Verizon IndyCar races. (I say 5-ish because I attended only one of the twin races in the 2013 Grand Prix of Houston and the 2016 Firestone 600 IndyCar race rained out and was rescheduled later in the year when I was unable to return.)

Jeff Gordon and his retirement gifts from Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 2015

I’ve seen the sport I love up-close-and-personal at least twice a year, spent hours in the Media Center face-to-face with its biggest stars, both established and rising. When Jeff Gordon retired, I had a front-row view of the ponies TMS president Eddie Gossage gave him for his children. When Dale Earnhardt Jr., who, in 1998 launched his first championship run in what was then the Busch Series, retired last season, I was privileged to again be up front in the media center.

Dale Jr.'s Appreci88tion tour, Nov. 2017
I witnessed Chase Elliott’s first Xfinity Series win. I covered Jeb Burton’s first CWTS victory after having ridden a pace truck with his father, 2002 Daytona 500 winner, Ward Burton earlier that day. I even interviewed Tony Stewart at a sponsor appearance in 2012.

My first IndyCar Victory Lane memory holds a special place in my heart - Justin Wilson’s last IndyCar win. I had never heard of Badass Wilson before that June 2012 weekend, but I will certainly never forget him.

Justin Wilson's victory presser, June 2012

Seeing IndyCar legends Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, and hometown hero A.J. Foyt in person? A dream come true.

Not only have I been blessed with such access to the drivers and crews, but I have met many of the people who cover the traveling circus that is the NASCAR circuit, which makes watching them on TV or reading their work a richer experience. They are fascinating people who also share a passion for motorsports.

This weekend begins my 21st year of being a NASCAR fan, my eighth season with Skirts and Scuffs, and I look forward to sharing the journey with all of you.

Happy NASCARversary to me.

Thanks, Dale.


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