Visiting Victory Lane
In the annals of stock car racing, the 2003 Pepsi 300 at Nashville Superspeedway is just one in a series of races that made up the Busch Series schedule for that year. To me, it's one of the greatest if not the greatest race I ever saw. It's the one day, the only day I went to Victory Lane.
I had attended many Busch and Cup races prior to that day. I had also been fortunate to watch many of them from the pits, including the previous three races that had been run at that track. I was a guest of David Green, driver of the Brewco Motorsports #37 Timberwolf Pontiac. I'd gotten to know him and his wife about four years earlier and they were always gracious enough to put me on the credential list anytime I asked. On this day, I also brought one of my brothers and for the first time, my wife was attending a major series race.
David, of course, was a previous series champion,winning the title in 1994. He probably should have won the '96 championship as well but that might be a story for a different time. Little did we know in April of 2003 but this particular season would also see him come very close to beating out Brian Vickers in a very tight battle for the championship at Homestead-Miami. Prior to this race, he'd also captured five series wins.
It's well known that one of the great aspects of NASCAR racing that separates it from other sports, is the access fans, friends and family have. The thought of standing on the sidelines with your favorite NFL team, or sitting in the dugout with your favorite Major League baseball team is nothing more than a far-fetched dream that will never come true. We all know it's possible though, for non-essential personnel to watch a race from the pits and have access to the garage area. I've always enjoyed that experience immensely and don't mind saying that it never gets old. It actually spoils you to the point that it's a bit of a disappointment to watch a race from the stands after you experience that point of view.
David had qualified 7th for that Nashville race. It was the 8th race of the year. The Brewco team had already earned three top tens including a second place at Rockingham. They entered this race 6th in the standings. Fans always hope their guy wins on race day and the feeling is probably intensified when you're there in person. You want to be able to see the driver you cheer for win one while you're there. Prior to this Nashville race, Green hadn't won a Busch Series race since winning the Myrtle Beach race in 1996. We were hopeful but at least for my little group that day, I can't say we expected it.
Randy LaJoie earned the pole and led the first several laps. There were a couple of early multi-car accidents as the race began to develop its pace. David led a couple of times for just a few laps before the halfway point. He'd been near the front all day but it seemed that Bobby Hamilton, Jr. had the car to beat that day. He led for long stretches a couple of times. I wish I could remember what team occupied the pit box immediately before the #37's. Whoever it was crashed out about two thirds of the way through the race. That emptied the pit and allowed us to watch the remainder of the race from the pit wall.
As years pass, it brings a smile to think about the things you remember from the past. I specifically remember watching the race from that wall on a beautiful, sunny day, looking at the crowd across the track. I glanced at my wife and brother who also loves racing and recall thinking that at that moment in my life, I was in the greatest place in the world. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.
There are of course, many things, sometimes important points to a story that time erases. I wish I could recount what happened during the final round of pit stops. I know cars were pitting and then a late caution was thrown. Who pitted when and what they did on that stop escapes me. I'm not sure I caught it all at that time. What really got my attention was the moment when a member of the team pitting to our right leaned over and said, "Those stops really put you guys in a great spot." That's when I realized we might win this race. David had a chance to win and I was there.
Some might think this odd but I don't normally cheer at sporting events, even races. I might clap or shake my head. I might let out a loud, "Yes" from time to time depending on how the action plays out. I just don't yell and scream. I basically take in what I'm watching. As I realized what I was watching, that changed. The race came down to David Green and Johnny Sauter with Sauter leading as they took the white flag. It was the type of last lap finish fans always want to see, regardless of which drivers are involved. When they took the checkers, David had won his first series race in six years, by .282 seconds. We were there. I was there.
As the team ran out on pit road to celebrate, we were a part of it. Nothing was planned. It was the result of pure joy and spontaneity, the jumping, the hugging, the yelling, the handshakes. Although David's name went in the record book, we were all winners and nothing had ever felt like that. We weren't watching it. We were doing it. We were living the dream that every race fan has ever had.
As the race team began running down pit road toward Victory Lane, the Timberwolf representative, Cynthia (a first class person) turned and said, "C'mon. Are you coming with us?" Off we went on our own race to see who would arrive first. Immediately after David pulled the car, everyone began to file through the gate when a security guard put up his hand and asked, "Are you with the team?" With a quick, "Damn right," we entered the Holy of Holies, Victory Lane. As the interviews were done and the pictures taken, my wife and I made our way to the top of the small, tiered media area. Although she was enjoying the moment, she hadn't grown up a race fan. The only times she'd been to a track were with me. I stood there truly savoring the moment, knowing this was something I'd never forget and would never want to forget. That's when I saw and heard David say, "Hey." I looked at him looking at me as he gave me a thumbs up, which I returned. I still don't know whose smile was bigger.
I watched David win two more times that year on television. He beat Kevin Harvick at both Loudon and Kansas during what turned out to be an incredible season. I also watched the post-race celebrations. I wasn't jealous. I was curious and hopeful. I wondered and hoped there was someone else enjoying what I had enjoyed, their first trip to Victory Lane. I was also satisfied because in my mind, whether true or not, I had a feeling they'd never enjoy it like I did.