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 Columns & Editorials

July 8, 2001


By Robin Smith Meiser

Daytona To Remember

(KNS)- Last month I got an email from my racing buddy, Ken Catlette, of the Pabst Brewing Company asking if I would be interested in coming back to Daytona International Speedway for the newly added Daytona USA.com 150 NASCAR Goody's Dash series race on July 6. I jumped on the opportunity because I became a big fan of this traveling series after covering the Dash series race in Daytona during Speedweeks last February.

Ken Catlette is a die-hard race fan and his efforts to bring Pabst beer back into auto racing have resulted not only in their involvement in the Dash series but also the ARCA REMAX series. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in him spending much less time being a race fan and a lot more time trying to organize their racing efforts. As a matter of fact, once Ken came out and got us so we could get our credentials, I barely saw him again the rest of the day and never did get to thank him for bringing us back so I say it now "Thanks, Ken!"

Our credentials gave us access to the Dash garage area so we went to see Rookie of the Year points leader, Tim Nichols, who just happens to be sponsored by Old Milwaukee Beer and John Boy and Billy Grilling Sauce (yes, the same notorious John Boy and Billy Big Show that is syndicated on many of America's top rock an roll stations). He proudly showed us the new sponsor logos he added to his #52 car since he ran a great race in Daytona; finishing third in his first ever race at the 2.5 mile track. Escatawba Farms, a trout farm in Virginia, and J. Walter Cafe and Catering in Richland, Virginia (home of the best food in Virginia, according to Tim) were his newest sponsors. Unfortunately, Nichols has had a lot of bad luck since his remarkable performance in the first Daytona race. He looked forward to being here again and hopefully breaking his bad luck streak. He brought his young son T.C. with him and several other crew members including crew chief, Todd Worley.

We then went in search of his teammate, Tom "Doc" Brewer who drives the #44 Pabst Blue Ribbon/John Boy and Billy Racing Pontiac. He wasn't in his garage stall where his crew was working on his car. We finally spotted him down on pit row with the Winston Cup cars that were qualifying for the Pepsi 400.

He was talking to his mentor and patient (yes, "Doc" means he is a medical doctor), Terry Labonte. I don't know what they were talking about but Doc sure did make the usually serious Labonte laugh a lot.

Around 3 p.m., the usual Florida thunderstorm hit the area and we were forced to take cover in Nichols garage stall. It was an unusually busy storm with lightning crashing time and time again, making big, tough race car drivers and crew members jump repeatedly. Meanwhile, some of the crew members used the time as an opportunity to take a catnap and make bologna sandwiches. I used it as an opportunity to check out some of the other cars including points leader Cam Strader whose car is sponsored by Albertsons, Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Wesson Oil an Back Country BBQ. Parked close by was the White House Apple Juice sponsored car of Robert Huffman, making the Goody's Dash garage resemble a grocery store.

Eventually the rain went away and we wandered around the paddock area. I was hoping I would get the chance to see my favorite Winston Cup driver, Tony Stewart. We stood outside the media center and I daydreamed about what it would be like to be in there. As I stood there in a trance, Winston Cup Champion, Bobby Labonte, also a patient of Doc Brewer's walked right by me into the media center. In the trance again, I missed TONY STEWART walk right past me into the media center. I decided to take a chance with my press credentials and was able to get access into the No Bull Five press conference taking place with Labonte, Stewart, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick.

I think I died and went to heaven right then. Here I was, in the room with five drivers of who I am an ardent fan of each one, especially Tony Stewart. Not only that but I was in the same room with America's most notable motorsports journalists. I was in total awe but made my way to the front of the room to get pictures, I could have reached out and touched Mark Martin and Tony Stewart actually looked at me and smiled. Of course, that is my favorite picture of the week!!!!!

During the question and answer session the media's focus was on Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and how the drivers felt about coming back to Daytona, where he died on the last lap of the February race. Jeff Burton put it quite simply "That incident happened five months ago. We don't associate racing with death, the media does. This race track is not what killed Dale Earnhardt."

The drivers did share concern over recent rule changes at Daytona that causes the cars to drive close in packs. Mark Martin said "It takes an enormous amount of courtesy and consideration not to wreck someone here. I am anxious to get back to real racing where you can leave your foot on the gas longer." Stewart shared Martin's sentiments by merely stating "I could do without four races a year but I won't mention which ones they are." After the conference was over, I floated out of the media center and went back to pit row as preparations were being made for the Dash race. Doc Brewer was puffing on his final cigar before he climbed in the car and Tim Nichols was making a deal with Robert Huffman about drafting together since they had the two quickest cars in practice. I ran into local open wheel modified driver, Doug Moff, who was with Dash driver Jeff Underwood who had flipped his car in the February race after an incident with Doc Brewer. Also there helping out Winston Cup driver Jeff Purvis was my old Ford racing buddy, Kevin Utter of Fort Myers.

After driver introductions, the national anthem and invocation, the 42 drivers climbed in their cars for the 60-lap race. I had my scanner tuned to Tim Nichols team and got a good laugh out of hearing him say "OK, it's rock and roll time" as the pace car pulled off onto pit row and the race began. Nichols started in tenth position but was in seventh by the time the cars completed the first lap. By Lap 2, he was up to fifth but his drafting buddy, Huffman was long gone, taking the lead with Scott Weaver right behind him. They quickly left the rest of the field behind. With no drafting partner, Nichols fell back to eighth, while one of my favorites, Kelly "The Girl" Sutton followed behind him in her Copoxone sponsored car. Copoxone is the drug Sutton takes for her multiple sclerosis, which enables her to race. Directly behind her was rookie Shane Hmiel, son of Winston Cup crew chief Steve Hmiel and Angie Wilson, the other female driver in the series.

As the caution flag flew for the first time on Lap 16 for debris, Nichols told his spotter he might have a wheel rubbing but he did not make a pit stop. Teammate Brewer did make a pit stop but was held by the officials for some reason. As the green flag flew again, the lights started coming up as Huffman continued to lead. Several laps later, Doc Brewer spun through the front stretch, bringing out the caution flag again. After a four-tire change he was able to continue. Most of the field also pitted for a "gas and go" stop including Nichols.

On the restart, the #07 led as Kelly Sutton moved to second around Hmiel but with no drafting partner she fell back several cars. Nichols was trying to make his way back up through the field and when the caution flag flew again for third time, he was sitting in back of Sutton. He told his spotter "Don't nobody want to dance with me this time like in February." His spotter replied, "Nobody's dancing with anybody, this time."

On the restart, Nichols was leading the second bunch of a huge pack of cars when disaster struck coming out of Turn Four, close to the spot where Earnhardt lost his life. From pit row, all you could see was dust and each of us watched as the cars drove by but Nichols car was not among them. His spotter began saying "Tim, are you ok, buddy?" The silence was ominous as no reply came over the radio. We all headed for the huge TV screen on pit row and were relieved to see Nichols climb out of his car under his own volition. It was an extremely scary moment.

The huge wreck took eight cars out of the race including Nichols, Sutton, Wilson, Underwood and Naples driver, Scott Krehling. I went to Nichols' pit where his crew was working on the car, while Tim made a visit to the infield care center. It was then I saw the sticker on his steering wheel that read "Never drive faster than your angels can fly." Nowhere is that saying more appropriate than at Daytona.

Robert Huffman went on the win the race with Danny Bagwell right on his back bumper. Rookie Shane Hmiel finished third and climbed out us car, sweating more than I could have believed possible for a human being. Zach Brewer, Roger Sawyer and Mickey York were the back half of the six-car freight train that thrilled the fans the last several laps of the race. Doc Brewer salvaged an 18th place finish out of a not so good night for him while Tim Nichols finished 28th.

Immediately following the race, the Winston Cup cars came out for a late Happy Hour and a Half. The crowd in the stands cheered loudly as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. led the way, the fastest car on the track, a man on a mission. As we left the track, the last sight I saw was the word "Daytona" coming out of Turn Four just where we lost Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and his son "Little E" was still leading the way.

Tonight, I am sitting in front of my television with ten laps left to go in the Pepsi 400. I have watched Dale, Jr. dominate the race, wanting him to win like every NASCAR fan in America, even though my main man, Tony Stewart, is right in front of him. More than anything I hope Little E remembers that saying, "never drive faster than your angels can fly" but I know in my heart that no angel can fly faster than the one he has looking out for him tonight.

The entire race world now knows how this story ends. Little E didn't drive faster than his angels could fly. He had an angel above him named Iron Head and one behind him, an angel named Michael and that angel was flying right on his back bumper.

What a wonderful end to a tragic beginning.

-Robin Meiser

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