As a first timer, I couldn’t imagine the swelling in my heart when I first caught sight of the track laid out before me. It was amazing! My heart was already racing, and there weren’t even any cars out on the track at that point. I wanted to be in the garage area though, so I hurried my way through the pedestrian tunnel and then immediately made a beeline for the 43 garage stall.
I stood at the lower window for quite some time watching the crew work and getting a couple of strange looks from them since I was really the only one standing there. But I was wearing my Best Buy shirt with pride so they could tell who I was rooting for. I just wondered if it was odd for them to have to work with people gawking through a window just feet away or if they simply tuned it out. In any case, it didn’t stop me from doing it all weekend long.
Eventually I made my way to the upper story of the Neon Garage and watched from up there as well. It’s hard to describe how fascinating it was and how it was just what I was looking for on my trip – a behind the scenes look at what goes on at the race track and in the garage area.
I took a ton of pictures of the Valvoline car and then eventually tore myself away and started wandering around to the surrounding garage stalls. While I peeked in on the other teams, I pulled my phone out of my pocket to type out a tweet only to find that I had several messages from Twitter. One in particular from Dr. Lynne telling me to answer my phone!
Now let me explain that the Neon Garage area is of course extremely noisy with all the cars running, and at that time the Nationwide cars were also out on track practicing. But truly the noisiest thing was the band that was playing in the center of the garage area. The music was so loud that it nearly drowned out the car sounds, which is what I was there for. It was highly annoying and if I would have known who to complain to, I would have.
In any case, it was so loud that I couldn’t hear my phone going off and even though I had it on vibrate as well, I apparently hadn’t noticed. Well just as I read the message from Lynne, my phone started ringing again and I answered it. It was AJ’s mom Karen, who I had exchanged emails with prior to my visit and felt like I already knew. She was trying to find me in the garage area, so I headed back to the 43 stall as a meeting place.
I was immediately at ease with Karen, and we started talking right away. She and Lynne were generous enough to arrange a meeting with AJ for me, and he was nice enough to agree to do it, I suppose as a thank you for the information that I post on the website. I felt so honored when Karen originally told me that I just couldn’t get over their generosity, but when it actually came time to happen, I was very anxious. I mean I was getting to meet AJ freaking Allmendinger. It was surreal.
So anyway, the man himself snuck up behind me while I was talking to Karen. Possibly to check out my butt – because let’s be honest, it is pretty nice. So who could blame him? But more than likely he stayed back there because he had been warned that I was nervous and might puke on his shoes. In any case, once I realized he was there and turned around, the first thing that my all time favorite driver said to me was that I was lame. And immediately my anxiety was gone.
Now I already know I’m lame, I’m kind of proud of it actually, so I promptly agreed with his assessment without needing to know why he thought I was. It turns out that he had read my tweet the night before when I went to bed early, and apparently you are not supposed to go to bed at 9:30 at night when you’re in Vegas. I hadn’t gotten the memo. So yes, I was lame. In fact, I was lame all but one night of my stay.
Like I’ve said already, AJ is very genuine. What you see on TV is what you get in person. He likes to joke and tease and is fun to talk to. He’s ornery in the best kind of way, which is something I’m quite used to. He dishes out crap and he takes crap – it was all good. From that first moment on, I was very much at ease and able to banter back and forth.
I like to tease and joke myself, but it is hard to do online because you are limited in how to express it and it is too easy to be misunderstood. But if you notice that I am more playful in the way I talk to any of the Allmendingers, it is because they know my personality better now, and I’m sure they will take it as intended. (See the checking out the butt joke above for reference. Just a joke, people.)
Anyways, AJ was nice enough to sign my daughter’s t-shirt that I had brought from home, but he was perhaps slightly perplexed that I didn’t want anything signed for myself. So he proceeded to try and sign my forehead with his Sharpie. Then on Sunday after he did a PRN interview at the Speed stage, he winged an autographed hat right at my head and I ducked. Which of course he made fun of me for.
Again, I said that I didn’t need any signed stuff from him and that I had plenty of AJ gear already, especially after Karen loaded me up with some awesome Best Buy stuff. So he teased that I was over him and claimed that he had caught me ogling Tony Stewart at some point. At which time we decided that I would now start cheering for Burger King and start a website dedicated to Tony – hence the joke behind any future Whopper World references.
I don’t pretend to know what goes on in AJ’s head, but he probably viewed me as if I was from another planet. Which if you’ve ever been to Wyoming, you know isn’t that far off the mark. AJ and his family are from the San Francisco area, and Lynne is from Toronto. City folk, as we would say. I’m sure the concept of someone living in a remote area like I do is probably very foreign to them.
I would love to someday take the Dinger family up in my mountains and show them the beautiful scenery here. But I’m pretty positive I already know the response to that offer – a resounding, “Are you insane?!?” At the track our different lifestyles didn’t matter, though. We shared a common interest in race cars, and in wanting the best of all things for AJ in the future. He deserves it. Nice guys shouldn’t finish last (or 25th) – they should finish first.
And while several people have pointed out that it’s odd, my not wanting AJ’s autograph doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s the best driver ever. It just means that a black scribble on a hat or shirt is nothing compared to the memories I now have. On second thought, I might have been able to pawn it for some cash after he’s a Cup Champion. Maybe I should have gotten one after all.
So anyway, getting to visit with AJ was fun, even though he obviously had a tough weekend and was busy with other obligations. I got to spend some time with Lynne as well, even though she is likewise busy with her chiropractic work on the weekend. To be honest, I think I was more intimidated by meeting Lynne than I was AJ. I guess it is that insecure female part of me when confronted with a stunningly gorgeous woman like Lynne is. But just like with AJ, all of that was gone within seconds. Lynne is so very nice and down to earth that you can’t help but be comfortable with her.
I did meet AJ’s dad Greg as well, but he was either in the garage area or in the Red Bull energy station for most of the weekend, so didn’t get much of a chance to visit. Karen and I talked and talked while we wandered around looking for AJ’s merchandise hauler though, and I could have spent all weekend just chatting. But I was there for the racing and eventually I got back to watching the cars.
Truly I spent more time in the Neon Garage watching the 43 team at work than I did in my seats in the grandstand. In fact, I think Friday’s qualifying session and the race on Sunday were really the only times that I was in the stands. And everyone went out of their way to make me feel at home. With my whole family being mechanics, the team was nice enough to blow an engine so I could watch it being changed. And Mike even set up the pit box right across from my seat and arranged for a special pit stop during the race where no one else would be on pit road, just so I could get a good picture.
Okay, so the blown engine and the unscheduled green flag stop were huge disappointments in the weekend. I won’t lie and say it was all sunshine and roses, because I wasn’t happy with how the race turned out for AJ. But those three days still rank up there as some of the best I’ve ever experienced. It was such a blast that even after sitting out in the hot sun and having a splitting headache from the constant roar of the cars, I didn’t want it to end.
All good things eventually come to a stopping point though, and I reluctantly boarded the bus back to my hotel after the race was over. Considering how long some of the people were stuck in the parking lot, I was thankful to be back in only 45 minutes. As soon as I walked in my room I flopped onto my back on the bed and sighed happily. Pure bliss! Would I go to a race again? In a heartbeat. Anyone want to give me a loan?