Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dinger Fan Story #9

Meeting A.J. Allmendinger

I have been a race fan since I was a child; you know, the kind of fan who calls themselves by the name but doesn’t follow the sport like a true fan should.  For as many years as I can remember, I recall sitting in the living room of my childhood home, watching and laughing at my Mom as she would stand no more than two feet away from the television screen during a race, all the while screaming and hollering at the drivers like, if she could get just a little bit louder, that the people on the track could actually hear her.  I have to admit that I was even at times embarrassed by her uncontrollable emotion during a race, which is obviously why I would never invite friends over on a Sunday.  I just never understood how she could take something so seriously, how there was nothing that could raise her blood pressure more than watching a NASCAR Race, and how missing a race on Sunday could be detrimental to her health… maybe even worse than breaking the 11th Commandment.   On February 18, 2001 though, I finally began to understand what was behind all of my Mom’s hype.  In Turn 4 of the final lap during the Daytona 500, I watched with her as Dale Earnhardt, Sr. made contact with the wall, and I comforted her for what seemed like an eternity as she sobbed uncontrollably when the news broke of his passing.   That day was the day that I believe I became a true race fan, getting a real and emotional glimpse into the passion that my Mom had, not only for the sport itself, but mostly for the drivers behind the wheel. 

Since that day, my Mom began purchasing tickets to the Spring Race in Bristol as well as The Southern 500 in Darlington, and each year since that horrible tragedy, we’ve attended most every race together.  I’m so thankful for our mutual love for the sport because it gives us an opportunity to get away together and enjoy our common interest in the sport  as well as to enjoy the wonderful friendship we’ve developed since I have become an adult.  They say that everything happens for a reason… as devastated as NASCAR Nation was over Dale Earnhardt’s death, I believe whole-heartedly that at least one good thing that came from that horrible tragedy; new and passionate race fans were born.

When we began attending races together, I automatically fell in suit with the driver that my Mom pulled for, who of course was none other than Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Son of the fallen Legend, and now the most popular driver in the sport.  Though my Mom seemed content with the connection she had as a Jr. fan, I always felt like he was the most detached driver of them all.  Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for Dale Jr. and admire how well he holds up under all the pressure of the media and fans; I know for a fact that I could never fill those kinds of shoes.  But it has become obvious over the years that with his responsibilities and overwhelming pressure, he just doesn’t have patience or connection with the fans like I’m sure he once did.  I wanted more-so to pull for someone who still seemed outwardly appreciative of their fans… someone who had the time to interact with the people who believe in them most. I even dreamed that maybe, just maybe, I’d end up pulling for someone who could see me at the track someday and actually know me by name.  I know right?  What a long shot!

Since 2001, my passion for the sport has grown by leaps and bounds.  I drove a race car in Charlotte for the Richard Petty Driving Experience in 2007 and will be going again this year in the fall.  I’ve also had a couple of very lucky close encounters with some of the most popular drivers in the NASCAR Circuit, among other reputable names.  Making a very long story short, in the Spring of 2007 I was fortunate enough to end up on the Start/Finish line for the Pre-Race show in Bristol.  This was out of sheer luck, as I obviously did not have pre-race passes, but none the less it turned into an amazing experience with having pictures taken with Billy Currington and Junior Johnson, as well as the Driver of the Truck carrying Tony Stewart having to stop in the middle of the track to allow me to collect my sunglasses which had flown onto the track in front of them by mistake.  I’m pretty sure that I did see A.J. for the first time that day as he came around for the pre-race lap, but at the time unfortunately I didn’t even know who he was; I probably couldn’t have even matched his face with his name if I had to!

It wasn’t until several years later, on May 8, 2010 to be exact, that my “Dinger” fan biography would change forever.   It was the weekend of the 2010 Southern 500, and that day was like any other with the exception of one minor addition. I had secretly purchased three tickets to the Darlington Stripe Zone as a Mother’s Gift to myself, my Mom and Aunt, just to add a little something extra to the Mother’s Day weekend and to put a unique spin on the day.  I had no clue though how special the day would become!   We were halfway through the afternoon and nearing the end of the Pre-Race Event at the Stripe Zone, and though I had enjoyed the VIP Treatment, the meals provided at the event and our great front row seat selection to the stage during the Driver Appearances, I must admit that I was a little frustrated, just being absolutely miserable with the heat and nothing really “special” had happened outside of winning a signed Mark Martin hat.  Now-a-Days, you can spend an arm and a leg to do nothing more than simply sit in the Grandstands, so with the kind of money I had spent for this addition to our day, I guess I was just expecting something a little more spectacular.  My Mom and Aunt had decided during an intermission to take a walk and people watch, but I was afraid to lose our seats so I told them I’d stay seated and wait for them to return.  Just a few moments after they walked off, the DJ announced for us to please welcome A.J. Allmendinger to the stage.  Again, I knew him by name but didn’t know anything else about him besides his car number, the legendary No. 43.  As soon as he sat down, the man who was there to interview A.J. said something that he hadn’t said to any of the other drivers who had appeared that day; he asked A.J. to choose a fan to come onstage for a picture.  Immediately, I started flapping my arms around like a crazy chicken; I can only imagine looking back at how ridiculous I must have looked.  But what were the odds, the chicken flap caught his attention and the next thing I knew, A.J. looked at me and said “What about her?  She looks pretty excited!”  WOW, holy crap, I’m about to take a picture with A.J…. ummm, what was his last name again? J  Never-the-less, I was still stoked, so onto the stage I started climbing, when A.J. stopped me mid-crawl and said “Wait a minute, she’s got on a Dale Jr. shirt, I want to pick someone else!”.  “Oh no” I thought, “He CANNOT pick somebody else!”  My first thought wasn’t very witty, but apparently it’s what I said anyway, which was “Well if you’ll give me a shirt, I’ll wear your shirt instead of this one!”  Um, wrong answer T.J.  Knowing his personality the way I do now, he’s a big kidder and I basically asked for myself to get called out, very publically in-fact.  He responded with “Why do I have to give you a shirt?  Did Dale Jr. give you that shirt?”  I’m sure you can all imagine the immense embarrassment I was feeling at the time; I was so humiliated that I wanted to crawl UNDER the stage. Thankfully though, he was only joking around, and he took the picture with me anyway, despite my bright green #88 tee-shirt.  Of course, my day was totally turned around and I couldn’t wait for my Mom and Aunt to come back so I could show them the picture of us together.  Needless to say, they didn’t exert the same enthusiasm that I had, I assume because they were in the same boat I was when he first walked in… “A.J. Whats-his-Face”.  LOL!  That evening, unfortunately, A.J. had a pretty bad crash with Jimmy Johnson that inevitably ruined his night and he didn’t finish the race.  By that point though, I was too far gone and knew that I would be a Dinger Fan for the rest of my life regardless of his finish that evening.  This was fate I thought, “He’s A.J. and I’m T.J…. it’s destiny that I now root for someone who also goes by their initials!” 

The months passed by and I learned more and more about A.J, including where he was from, how he began racing as a child, about his marriage to Lynne who was a Chiropractor and former model, and all about  his incredible journey that led him to the NSCS.  My Grandmother was a big Richard Petty fan prior to her death; childhood stories even recall that she slow danced with Richard once, at Darlington Raceway no doubt, so I felt that it was truly an act of fate that eventually led me to root for someone who drove for the Petty organization.   With all that I had learned about A.J., I had also broadened my knowledge about the sport, watching programs such as RaceHub on SPEED and all of the Race Day Pre-race shows.  I learned all of the rules, all the driver numbers and all about how the points system worked.  Things for me as a true race fan were coming full circle and I was so excited to now carry the same knowledge as my Mom when we would attend races together. 

Around the end of January, 2011, I decided to give Twitter a try.  A lot of my friends were raving at how great the site was to keep up with celebrities, but I’m sure they weren’t thinking of the same celebrities that I was thinking of, because Racing was on my mind while Hollywood was on theirs!   I made a vow to myself when I signed up on Twitter to not associate with any of my real life friends because I knew that I wanted to talk basically about nothing but racing; no one I knew other than my Mom shared the same passion that we did for the sport and I was not prepared to hear any jokes about my obsessions for cars going around and around in a circle!  LOL!

One of the first people I found and followed on Twitter was DingerWorld, which is the website you’re reading this story on now.  Tracy is the founder of the site and as it turned out by small talk with her, she’s just like me, a fan who is passionate about A.J. and his talent.  At first, I didn’t even know how to operate the Twitter site, so she kind-of showed me the ropes.  A week or so later, I tweeted the picture of A.J. and I together in Darlington, but what happened next was beyond my wildest imagination!  DingerWorld re-tweeted my picture and told her followers to follow me because I was a “Crazy AJ Fan too!”  Next thing I knew, I checked my @Mentions and saw that A.J.’s wife Lynne had apparently seen DingerWorld’s tweet and had replied to me!  Her tweet said “Nice to meet ya!  Great pic.  I showed it to AJ just now”.  Wow, seriously?!?!  I was hyperventilating!  Not only did I meet this hilarious driver (with awesome hair) in Darlington and have my picture taken with him (Which OMG I was looking extremely rough that day and had lost about 30 pounds since then), but now he’s seeing the very same picture again almost a year later!  I was freaking out!  This was totally insane! 

That tweet was all it took to get me totally hooked.  It confirmed to me that the Dinger’s, both AJ and Lynne alike, were just normal and real people who just happened to race for a living.  They were nothing like the “Class A” drivers that you hear the most about on television, they were actually far better in my opinion and I now knew why I had never agreed to settle with pulling for someone who didn’t have a connection with their fans.  I was on top of the world and A.J., Lynne or DingerWorld even realized how much all of this made my day!!  In the days to follow, I found and followed the entire Dinger family, along with Paul, the PR from Best Buy, The Spotter and RPM.  I became an official member of A.J.’s fan club, purchased a couple of autographed A.J. items for my office as well as a 2011 A.J. Calendar!  If I was going to be his biggest fan, I had to publicize it by showcasing my Dinger gear with pride!

After a few disappointing missed opportunities to see A.J. at the track in Bristol and Darlington, on the last week of May 2011, I learned through Twitter and Facebook posts that A.J. would be appearing at the Best Buy Mobile in Gastonia on the 25th as well as the Richard Petty Fan Day on the 26th.  I knew that since I couldn’t afford Pit Passes to races on a regular basis, that this would be my best shot to see A.J. again.  I first considered attending the Fan Day, but it would have meant having to get up and on the road by approximately 3:00 AM in order to even have a shot to see A.J. again.  I resolved that the mall appearance would be a much better shot; I would leave work early on the 25th and attend the Best Buy Mobile appearance instead.  Not to mention, going to the mall event would also mean having the opportunity to meet Paul, A.J.’s PR with Best Buy who I had chatted with several times on Twitter. 

The day finally arrived after what seemed like an eternity (3 days I think, LOL), and as I awaited the time to get on the road to start heading to Gastonia, I had the idea to burn a CD for A.J. and Paul.  It would be called “Race Day Mix”, filled with some of A.J.’s favorites along with some great road rage music to get him pumped up before each race.  I know what everyone is thinking, CHEESY, and you’re right, but I didn’t even care, and besides it was a kick a*s CD!  I arrived at the mall really early and was surprised to see that there were no fans waiting.  I reserved my spot up front and waited patiently.  When A.J. arrived, I was shocked to see that the crowd was small but I assumed that since this was a hometown appearance, most of the residents of the area were probably used to seeing the drivers and they weren’t as stoked about it as I obviously was!  Also, I was kind-of freaking out b/c with the lack of people there, it would mean more of a chance for me to get to talk with him and hopefully have another picture taken!  1, 2, 3 Breathe T.J.!!!

When A.J. arrived, wow, I was more nervous than I ever imagined.  I nervously walked up to have my autograph signed and I was FLOORED when he told me that he remembered me from the previous year and that he had been reading my Tweets!  Seriously, with over 18,000 followers, he read MY TWEETS?!?  Okay, here comes the hyperventilating again… this is beyond insane!  After a few minutes, when he was finished signing autographs, he agreed to drive in the simulator with me.  Here was my shot to beat him at his own craft; I really had to show up for this challenge!  Yeah well, that didn’t work out like I had planned… I totally cracked under the pressure.  I’m also pretty sure that the stupid simulator was rigged because I smashed into the wall on the first lap before I even entered turn one and with no reverse, I was stuck there for the entire race.  I was cheated, I don’t care what A.J. said!  I KNOW I could beat him next time! J  I was definitely embarrassed beyond words at the first lap crash, but my demise and immobility in the game did at least give me the opportunity to talk to him for a few minutes and watch him do what he does best, all while riding passenger… NO complaints there!  At the end of the race, he found my car parked head first into the wall and T-boned me in the driver’s door.  To this he added, “Now THAT’S how you wreck someone”!  Not nice A.J.!  LOL! 

After our simulator experience, there was still another hour left in his appearance.  Though I could have easily hung out there all night long, I really needed to start heading back home as I had at least a two hour drive ahead of me.  Besides, I was pretty sure this Cali Boy NASCAR Celebrity wouldn’t want to talk with a small-town Southern Belle from South Carolina for the next hour!  As I was leaving, I asked for a picture with him, which he graciously granted.  I also got a picture with Miss Sprint Cup as well as with Paul, who was much taller than A.J. and I both!  I do feel like I need to mention though that A.J. was actually a smidge taller than me and his hair looked perfect as always!   I nervously gave A.J. and Paul the CD’s that I had made for them and made my exit from the mall to head to my car.  On the two and a half hour drive home, you couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face.  Truth be told, I may have even broke out a dance or two while driving!  That evening was more than I could have ever hoped for.  Never in a million years would I have ever thought that I would have gotten that much interaction with a rising NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver and actually carried on a conversation with him.  Wow, what a night. 

As I was pulling into my driveway at home, I decided to check my Twitter from my cell phone.  Now, looking back, I wish I had waited until the next morning because what I saw caused me to lose sleep that night… A.J. had Tweeted to me!!!!  His Tweet said “Just got done with Best Buy and Sprint Appearance. Listening to the AJ Race Day mix that @tj_chloes_mommy made for me. Great songs!”  I was on top of the world, literally.  No one could have brought me down off the natural high I was feeling at that very moment!  As if my night weren’t amazing enough, A.J. had personally mentioned me in one of his tweets.  “Cloud 9”, that’s such an understatement.  I had now met A.J on two different occasions.  I was embarrassed both times, but at each meet and greet he made me feel like he had known me forever.  He treated me like a friend, someone he had known all his life.  I was truly touched.

In closing, I will simply say that I believe A.J. Allmendinger has so much more than most of the other drivers on the circuit.  With his profession, he’s passionate, driven, determined and steadfast in his goals.  On a personal level, he’s got an insanely funny sense of humor, great hair and I think we can all agree that he has definitely brought “sexy back” into the sport. J  Finally, and most importantly, with his fans, he seems to be appreciative, courteous, generous and selfless.  A.J. seems to understand that his fans truly believe in him and he knows that we are his biggest supporters.  He hasn’t yet risen above the thought of slowing down to sign autographs for the people who have rooted for him and helped push him to the top.  That’s a rarity now-a-days when you watch the drivers interacting with the people on Pit Road; you don’t normally see drivers devote the kind of time to their fans that A.J. does.  He’s also not ashamed to admit that his fans keep his head in the game and that we keep him pushing for more.  He’s down and out after a race when he doesn’t think he’s given us all we’ve deserved and that says so much about him as a driver.  He’s determined to get a win, for himself and for his team, but I believe it’s mostly for the people who believe in him every single week, year in and year out.  The boy has without a doubt got mad skills and talent; it’s only a matter of time before he will find victory circle, I’m certain of that! 

I am so thankful for the events that have led to me to becoming one of A.J. Allmendinger’s biggest fans. I know that I could have never picked a better driver or person to support.  No one knows what his racing future will hold, but one thing is certain, I will follow him and cheer him on to the very end.  In the two times that I have met him, he has made me feel like I was actually someone important and he treated me like a friend, something more than just one of 18,000+ fans.  That meant more to me than words could ever possibly express.  Thank you A.J. and I look forward to seeing you again someday!    

Finally, I’m grateful for this opportunity to share the impact that meeting A.J. has made on my life and my passion for the sport.  Tracy, thank you so much for offering this unique opportunity.  Without it, people may have never realized how much sincerity is in the hearts of race fans such as myself.  There aren’t too many NASCAR Celebrities who care to know about those who pull for them, and I feel like it is such a special touch that you’ve offered this opportunity to share our stories!  I’m also attaching some of the photos from my racing experiences; these are very dear to me and I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!  Thank you again!!

Leesville, SC

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