My fandom of AJ began during his last season in Champ Car, which happened to be about the time that my love of all forms of racing instead of just NASCAR blossomed. AJ was a fun, talented American in a tough series dominated by foreign drivers, and obviously he was very successful that season. When AJ moved to Red Bull it was the best of both worlds to me, or so I thought. I felt bad watching AJ struggle with a new team and manufacturer that year. My respect for AJ came during an ESPN spot later that season where the rookie class of that year (Menard, JPM, AJ, and a couple of others) was asked to grade their performances while sitting in a mock school room. I was impressed that AJ was the only one honest enough to give himself a bad grade for a disappointing season (for which he could have blamed new manufacturer, new team, no testing, etc) up to that point while the other drivers who were also struggling gave themselves A’s and B’s, apparently for not getting lost on the way to the track since they hadn’t done much else that year.
My wife and I met AJ for the first time at the November race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008. AJ had just gotten picked up by GEM and was driving the Country Crock #10 car that week. On Saturday while perusing the Stanley tools display we heard one of the Stanley folks announce that they had two passes for a meet and greet with AJ. I nearly tackled the nearest Stanley worker and almost had talked him out of the passes for nothing when Mandy went up to the head worker and told him that she would do anything for the passes. Mandy then backed up that promise by dancing on stage until the crowd deemed her worthy of the passes. I had never gotten to meet a NASCAR driver before and was pretty nervous for the meet and greet. AJ was his normal funny self though and put the group at ease. I was the only one there wearing AJ’s drivers gear and after noticing that fact I must admit that I hogged the time allotted with my questions. AJ also got a good laugh out of Mandy explaining the lengths she went to too earn passes for me. AJ left that race with two fans as now after meeting him Mandy understood what I saw in AJ that made me a fan. We returned in April for the spring race +1 as we had the Future Dinger Fan in tow, which we now knew had actually been with us for about two weeks the first time we met Dinger. AJ really got a kick out of the shirt Mandy had and we got some photos with AJ after the normal autograph session was completed and got to visit a little more. Again we were impressed with how personable AJ was with the fans. I have gone on to get to meet AJ at Texas ion November 2009 and at Martinsville and Michigan in 2010 as well, and the experience never gets old. The Michigan fan club event was especially cool as AJ spent the entire Nationwide race with his fans answering questions and hanging out. Now who else’s driver does that?
Seeing how much fun AJ seemed to be having finally convinced me to quit just dreaming of racing one day and actually do something about it. I attended my first open track day shortly after the Michigan race, began gutting my Ford Mustang and converting it into a dedicated race car, and earned my NASA competition license on April 30, 2011. So now I not only cheer for the 43 on Sunday’s but also on Friday’s and Saturday’s while I race MY #43 Ford Mustang in the NASA Camaro Mustang Challenge here in the Texas region. I laugh now when people see my number and say “Big Petty fan huh?” to which I get to go into my “well yes, but actually the 43 is for Dinger” story. While I have no aspirations or delusions of reaching any level near AJ’s, I can honestly say that meeting him has bumped me over that edge from just watching racing to participating in it, and I am very happy and thankful for that.