Remembering The Final Winston Cup Banquet
Author’s note: The following is a recap of the 2003 Winston Cup Awards Banquet, held in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. It was written, all in fun, by my alter ego, The Lady in Black. This article originally appeared on the pages of Insider Racing News on December 10, 2003 under its original title, "This Year, There Was Food at the Banquet." Please enjoy...
Good day race fans. This is your raving reporter, the Lady in Black, coming to you from the mountains of North Georgia, where on Friday evening I, like most of you, watched the Winston Cup Awards Banquet for the last time. Usually, as you know, I report from the scene but this time there must have been a mix-up about my press credentials. All I know is that they told me that they wouldn’t get me any closer to that Grand Ballroom than the New Jersey Turnpike. It must have been some sort of computer error, right Brian?
Well, like you, I watched it, and as always, I took copious notes. Now I am faced with the daunting task of trying to create something humorous from a three and a half-hour infomercial interrupted frequently by commercials and a bunch of blue-collar guys decked out in monkey suits, trying to look comfortable. (Only a few of them succeeded)
Right up front, allow me to dispense with further mention of Harry Connick Jr. and LeAnn Rimes. Both are very talented entertainers that unfortunately have nothing whatever to do with NASCAR racing, nor did their choice of musical presentations. Still, if we simply must be musically entertained, they were a vast improvement over the caterwauling of last year, and I could understand the words. On that same note, it was nice to be back in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria rather than in that pretentious theater. It’s difficult to call it a “Banquet” when there are no tables and no food. Face it, these people are human. They eat!
If you somehow managed to miss the first hour of the show, don’t feel bad because you’ve seen it all before. Excepting the musical interlude, it was almost entirely a rehash of the 2003 season including videos of every win, every near win, every notable loss, every great or near great finish, and of course, every car that went on its roof, hit a wall or caught fire. That last part looked like what we see on the six o’clock news race recap.
Between videos, we saw Keefer Sutherland (Nope. I don’t know why either) on the podium giving us his version of the history of NASCAR and Winston, which was followed by another video, this time of many of the past champions telling us of their love for R.J. Reynolds and Winston. Eventually, they got around to seating all of the dignitaries of Roush racing and their wives at the head table, and after another video, that one on Jack Roush, Allen [Bestwick] ceded the microphone to “Ol DW, who presented NASCAR’s salute to Winston.
As an opening act, Jaws was a pretty good speaker, in that he was able to be both light and serious at the same time, while looking fairly at home in his bib and tucker. The video he showed was pure nostalgia, giving us another look at many of the past champions that earned the Winston Cup, including King Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, DW himself, Cale Yarborough, Davey Allison (No, Davey never won the Winston Cup but it was wonderful to see him anyway), Alan Kulwicki, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and of course, Dale Earnhardt. Of the multitude of video clips we watched, that one was far and away the best.
Next on the podium was Bill (Deep pockets) France, son of the NASCAR founder and father of the HMWIC (Head man what’s in charge), Brian (No chin) France. In his opening statement, he joked about making a return to the theater his last act as CEO before retiring, only to have Brian undermine him and bring it back to what he called, “This wore out old ballroom.” At least, I hope he was joking! (Note to Brian: Never again let the camera catch you staring into space with your mouth hanging open. That’s not your best pose)
He then introduced us to Andy Schindler (Not the guy with the list), the Chairman and CEO of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and presented him with a trophy bearing the name of all 26 present and past Winston Cup Champions. Mr. Schindler gave a nice short acceptance speech and it was finally time to start the countdown to the last Winston Cup Champion. The list of all those that didn’t have to pay their own way to New York follows:
Coming in at number ten in the points was two time Champion, Texas Terry Labonte, the pride of Corpus Christie, Texas. Terry’s one win this year was perhaps the most significant of all, coming at the final Labor Day running of the once prestigious Southern 500 in Darlington, SC. Of course you remember Terry, at the end of the race eschewing the ever-popular doughnuts for taking the checkered flag and turning a single classic victory lap. This Texas boy only managed to look frozen in his monkey suit as he accepted a check for $638,930.00 and proceeded to thank everyone he’s ever known, including his lovely wife, Kim, while obviously reading from a teleprompter. Now friends, after each presentation, our old friend Allen (Frozen hair) Bestwick did a short interview with each recipient. Most were neither funny nor informative, so in the interest of space and your attention span, I’ll skip over them. If you absolutely have to know what was said, write me and I’ll fill you in.
In ninth place we find Bill (The Awesome One) Elliott, the 1988 Winston Cup Champion and winner of the final fall race at Rockingham. Bill accepted a check for $686,245.00, spoke from notes rather than a prompter and appeared to be easy and relaxed, looking perfectly at home in his tuxedo. Who’d have thunk it of a kid from Dawsonville GA? Bill also thanked everyone he knew, and wife Cindy in particular, then joked about needing to run Goodyear “run-flats”, with reference to his near miss at Homestead. This true southern Gentleman then forgot to take his trophy with him. (But he remembered to pocket the check)
In eighth place was Bobby (The Bounty Hunter) Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup Champion and winner of two races this year including the one at Homestead, which the Awesome One gave away to a flat tire. Bobby appeared, not in a traditional tuxedo, but a dark suit over a black shirt, with no tie. He accepted a check for $758,560.00 and then proceeded to offer a very long thank you list that culminated with his pretty wife, Donna. Bobby looked a lot more comfortable than his big brother had, but he still read from the prompter quite a bit.
Coming in at number seven was Tony (Stewpot) Stewart, the 2002 Winston Cup Champion, who appeared in a full tux and clean shaven to accept a check for $902,830.00. Tony was one of the class acts of the evening, speaking freely and easily as he offered his thanks to all and sundry that had helped him throughout his career. If this lad read from a teleprompter, you couldn’t tell it. He was very sincere with his thanks and presented quite an image of perfection. (Remember, this was the lad that some said would not make a “good” Champion, whatever that is)
In sixth place, it was Flyin’ Ryan Newman, last year’s Rookie of the Year and winner of eight (count ‘em) races in 2003. Up ‘til now, I’ve neglected to mention that there were videos accompanying every driver when he took the stage, ( re-runs of what we saw in that long first hour) but I have to mention that after winning eight dang races, the video they chose to show of Ryan was, of course, his car going end over end at Daytona. Where is the justice? Ryan, dressed in a satin trimmed tux with a full satin tie, accepted a check for a very healthy $1,052,100.00. Although the lad with no neck appeared to be choked by that tie, he delivered his thank you speech without benefit of a teleprompter, kept it quite short and very personal, and then left the stage to join his fiancée, Krissie Boyle at their table. Another example of a class act!
In fifth place in the points was Kevin (Kreatin’ Havoc) Harvick, winner of the prestigious Brickyard 400, complete with a video of his entire team including car owner Richard Childress, kissing the “Yard of Bricks.” Kevin took home a check in the amount of $1,241,370.00 and then, despite looking absolutely great in his tux, proceeded to read his entire list of gratitude from the prompter, and not all that well. Still, he thanked the entire world as he knows it, with special credit to his bride, DeLana.
Fourth place, no surprise, went to four time Cup Champion, Jeff (Flameboy) Gordon, who appeared on stage wearing a dark suit that wasn’t quite a tux, with a full white tie on a white shirt. (Note to Jeff: Where is all the DuPont color?) Jeff accepted a healthy $1,435,640.00 and proceeded quite ably through the sponsor kiss-ups and thank you list. He made little personal speeches with each “Thank you”, the last being to the girl friend du jour, Amanda Church, and was quite at ease in the roll of speaker. (Note to Jeff: One has to wonder if you could talk at all if someone tied down your hands)
Third place for the season went to Dale (Bud Stud) Earnhardt Jr., who was also voted the most popular driver of 2003. Obviously taking a cue from Daddy, Junior took to the stage clad in a black suit, with a black tie over a black shirt and best of all, clean shaven. He laid claim to a check for $1,679,910, and delivered his comments amidst laughing and joking. His thank you list was very personal and warm, and though he did have a prompter, he didn’t appear to need it much. Take heart ladies, if he was accompanied by anyone, we didn’t see her. I guess he’s still eligible.
In the runner-up position (If for any reason the Champion is unable to perform his duties, etc. Oh wait, that’s Miss America) it was Jimmie (Jeffy’s Mini-me) Johnson. He was attired in a black suit, with full black tie over a white shirt, to accept a check for $2,149,180.00. (Not bad pay for the first loser) Jimmie appeared to be ill at ease with that prompter thing, as he was obviously reading every word and his eyes never once left it. He thanked almost the entire world, culminating with his girlfriend, Chandra. As a mirror image of the boss, he also talked with his hands a lot, but wasn’t quite as at ease.
After that, we took a trip to Cambridge, Wisconsin, hometown of Matt Kenseth, with Bill Weber. We visited with Mom and his Grandparents along with several neighbors and were stunned to hear that everyone loved Matt and they were very proud of him. Unfortunately, this was the time that TNT picked to suffer from sunspots or minimum-wage help or whatever, and announced that they were experiencing technical difficulties. (That couldn’t have happened during the musical interludes ~ save it for the piece on the winner) We did get to see a few pictures of Matt the Brat as a baby and child, but missed a lot of them while watching a frozen screen. Class act there, TNT! (Maybe next year SPEED could handle it?)
Next up to the podium was John (NASCAR Top Cop) Darby, looking quite spiffy in what appeared to be more of a smoking jacket than a formal tux, with satin trim but no lapels. John’s purpose was to present a trophy to winning crew chief, Robbie Reiser. Now, Robbie is a great guy, but he was just too nervous to even read the prompter, obviously preferring life in the garage to life on stage. He haltingly managed to read his list of folks to thank, but it was no secret that the poor guy was uncomfortable, both with his tux and with public speaking. Shortly before he was done, we fought another round with technical difficulties, which probably pleased Robbie no end.
Following that, we were treated to the appearance of NASCAR President, (Mafia) Mike Helton, replete with a full tux that made him even more resemble the “Godfather.” (With apologies to Mario Puzo) Mike’s task of the evening was to introduce the owner of the #17 DeWalt Ford, Jack (Cat in the Hat) Roush, who appeared without the hat and quelled all rumors of terminal baldness. Jack looked really good in his tux and appeared to be quite relaxed as he very capably thanked all of the little people that had made his dream come true. Before he was through, we finally got to see the winning crew, seated in the balcony above the ballroom. (Never could figure out what’s up with that. Heck they won and then they’re isolated from the party) The thank you list wound down to Jack’s wife Pauline and ended with one more heartfelt thank you to Larry Hicks, the marine who saved Jack from a watery grave in 2002.
*Forty lashes to the reporter at this point for realizing too late that she omitted one thing from the pre-banquet show, that being the announcement of awards for the Most Popular Driver and the Rookie of the Year, which had been given earlier. As already noted, the MPD was Dale (Bud Stud) Earnhardt Jr. and accepting the ROTY award was a tearful and very genuine Jamie (Jiminy McCricket) McMurray.
Finally, at long (And I do mean l-o-n-g) last, it was time for the new and last Winston Cup Champion, Matt (Mutt) Kenseth to take the stage along with his lovely wife Katie. Matt was attired in a shiny black tux, with a full black tie over a white shirt and Katie was resplendent in a strapless red evening gown. Brian France made an on-stage appearance to present the couple with a Championship ring and necklace, and happily figured out which one went to whom. Next, we saw a reappearance of Andy Schindler, who presented Matt with the grand prize, a check in the amount of $5,138,640, all the while saying nice things about Matt and patting him on the back. Matt was relaxed and well spoken, and started his thank you list with personal remarks to each member of his family before relying on the prompter a bit to aid him through the long list of folks that he considered responsible for getting him to the top of the heap, as it were.
Lastly, when Matt and Katie had been reseated, a snow storm of confetti fell on the ballroom and it was obviously time to party hardy! They sent Bill Weber out one last time to say goodnight to all the little folks watching at home, gave us one more look at the revelers in their finery and faded to black.
That’s exactly the way it was in the Big Apple on Friday night. Would I lie to you?
In closing, just let me say one last farewell and a most heartfelt “Thank you” to R.J. Reynolds and their Winston brand. It’s been one heck of a ride and we owe it all to you!
That very seasonal little guitar can only mean that it’s time for our Classic Country Closeout. Hey! ‘Tis the season, and since your scribe chose that adorable little graphic today, let’s get started with Brenda Lee singing her Classic Christmas hit, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Next up I found for your listening and viewing pleasure, a wonderful video accompanying Bobby Helms singing “Jingle Bell Rock.” Enjoy!
Next we’ll be hearing one that probably no one remembers but me. It’s a real oldie, recorded by Tex Ritter in 1946. My fading memory is sure that it came originally from a movie, but Tex made so many, I haven’t a clue which it might have been. It doesn’t really matter anyway, so here is Tex doing his Christmas best, “Christmas Carols by the Old Corral.”
Now… beware because I’m in a giggle mood. Up next we’ll be hearing Jeff Foxworthy doing his “Twelve Days of a Redneck Christmas.”
And finally, one of the funniest men alive, Bill Engvall, giving out his Christmas signs. “Here’s Your Sign!”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!