Thursday, September 9, 2010

One AJ Fan's Journey

Many of you enjoyed my tale about my first ever NASCAR race in Las Vegas in February. This wasn't John Lingle's first race or his first time meeting AJ, but I thought this was a great story about a wonderful event put on for AJ fans. This is the first-hand account of John and his wife Mandy, who drove from Texas to Michigan to attend the event. *Photos and content used with permission.

Michigan NASCAR Race Weekend Aug 14-15, 2010
We started our road trip on Thursday evening the 12th. A marathon session behind the wheel put us in West Memphis, Arkansas where we spent the night. The next morning we woke up early and put another 14 hours in on the road to pull into Ann Arbor, Michigan late Friday night. Along the way we stopped for some Skyline Chili (spaghetti, chili, and grated cheese) and also made a detour to take a look at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tours were only 5 bucks so we signed up and got to take a lap around "The Brickyard" on our tour bus. TV does not even come close to doing justice how BIG that place really is.

Early Saturday morning we made the one hour drive out to the Irish Hills of Michigan, and Brooklyn specifically where Michigan International Speedway is located. I had thought ahead and packed all of our track day needs in a beautiful Coleman backpack that I had bought for 35 bucks specifically for this weekend. We addled up to the main gate to watch Sprint Cup Series practice and I was informed that backpacks were no longer allowed inside the track. This new policy was not posted anywhere and we were told that it had only taken effect that day. I was pretty perturbed that I had to walk a mile and a half back to the car but I shook it off on the way back. Mandy and I watched practice and then I made the rounds of the midway to gather up some MIS and AJ swag. Back to the front gate we went to take advantage of our pit passes and I was told that I could not bring my AJ plastic coffee mug into the track because I might throw it on the track. (No, I am not making this up.) Three miles later and Mandy and I used our pit passes to get a really close look at the Nationwide Series cars during qualifying, and then take in Sprint Cup Series Final Practice. We were able to get close enough where we could have touched Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Ryan Truex, and Juan Pablo Montoya while they walked past us. We realized again how cool AJ really is because most of the other drivers completely ignored all of the fans along the way, even those who were obviously their fans. We also saw NASCAR VP Robin Pemberton on his way to the Nationwide Series drivers meeting. Drivers Brian Scott and Joe Nemechek walked right past our location to get into the meeting.

After Final practice we headed up to the MIS suites where we signed in for the AJ Fan Club event. We ate a surprisingly good lunch in the suite before being taken to the old Timing and Scoring Room which had been converted to a suite area. We were the first group to use this area as it was a test run of sorts for the MIS folks. Not many AJ fan club members made the trip so a lot of suite holders got to take advantage of the deal as well. Mandy and I were pretty bummed about this but most of the people were pretty nice so we got over it. AJ spent the entire Nationwide race in the suite with us all. He answered questions, told stories, and signed a ton of autographs. Lots of people left as AJ fans that didn't know much about him going in. AJ remembered Mandy and even told his PR lady Tara the story again about Mandy's "Future Dinger Fan" shirt when she was pregnant with Broday. He asked how that was going and I showed him my phone with Broday's picture on the screen. (taken before their dust up!) AJ then proceeded to kid me about Broday having a Kasey Kahne shirt on in the picture, but Mandy reminded him that there isn't any AJ baby gear out yet. Mandy and I both asked a lot of questions during AJ Q&A sessions and he really seemed to enjoy visiting with us since it was obvious that we were diehard fans. He actually got excited when I asked a fairly in depth sports car racing question as it seemed he really wanted to talk about that subject anyway and was happy to have an excuse. (FYI- Look for AJ in the #6 car again this year at the Rolex 24. It may or may not be a Dallara still since the Riley they ran last year burned at another race. AJ even said the car might be sponsored this year so that's a great sign for their chances!) Brad Keselowski won the Nationwide race which Mandy and I paid absolutely no attention to as we were visiting with AJ and Tara and Paul from Best Buy who had been awesome enough to give away a lot of AJ gear. At the end of the event we wished AJ luck for Sunday and headed for the gate. Robin Pemberton was leaving a nearby NASCAR suite and I took the opportunity to thank him for the good shows that NASCAR puts on. Once he realized I wasn't trying to get an autograph or gripe about something he was very friendly and thanked me for being a fan. Some Mancino's pizza in Clinton, Michigan on the way back to the hotel capped off an eventful day.

Sunday morning saw us arrive at the track early again and head over to the Ford Racing display on the midway. I wanted to get some pictures of the inside of the Mustang FR500S they had on display in case I decided to strip the interior of my Mustang in the future. We saw Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne doing interviews with Joe Moore of MRN Radio on the sound stage from a few feet away. I played Ford trivia and won a little cup and key chain for knowing that Ford was from Dearborn, Michigan. (with a little help ) While I was snooping around the FR500S a Ford Racing employee came up and started chatting with Mandy and I. At first I thought it was going to be a pain to get him away from us but as it turns out it was Larry Mason, an Indy Lights and Formula Mazda driver. We ending up chatting about racing schools and the like for over 30 minutes before Mandy reminded me it was time to go watch the race. Before that we took advantage of our pit passes again and took a look at the pit boxes and cars lined up on pit road. We saw one of AJ's pit crew members by their pit box and spoke to him for a minute or two. We were shocked that he had absolutely no idea about any of the questions we asked about AJ's car and you could tell that he wasn't lying to us to get rid of us, he just simply didn't know or maybe care. AJ's car drove like it too once the race started. It was a long day as AJ stayed mid pack the rest of the day. Michigan is no Martinsville when it comes to on track action, that's for sure! A very uneventful race ended with one of our least favorite drivers, Kevin Harvick, taking the victory. Mandy and I high tailed it to the car and began the long trip to St. Louis. Thankfully traffic was light and we were able to make it into town about midnight after finding a really nice hole in the wall Italian restaurant in Indiana.

The next morning saw us travel into downtown St. Louis and take in the Gateway Arch. The Arch is gigantic! Pictures do not do that thing justice. To get our customary over the shoulder picture Mandy and I had to walk more than three blocks and tilt the camera way up. We didn't know it but the arch is covered in stainless steel and was constructed by welding triangular pieces together at both ends until they finally met in the middle. The view from up top is amazing and we were able to get some great pictures. After leaving we began the remainder of our 14 hour travel back home. Just outside of St. Louis we stopped at White Castle to see what all the fuss about their burgers were. Don't go to White Castle! Those things are horrible and I don't know what was on my bun but it was not real meat that's for sure. It must be a stoner thing because Mandy and I have no intention of ever eating that garbage again. That was all forgotten though when we went through Texarkana though and got to eat the best chicken in the land, Chicken Express! I may have been as excited for that as almost any other part of the trip! 1 am finally came and saw us pull into the driveway with a rental car full of great memories. Checking the internet that week we also saw that we were famous! Not really, but we did make the article on the AJ website that his PR did about the weekend. We were the quote at the bottom.

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