YORK, PA - By Ellen Siska
Kim Hunter and Vicki Glatfelter weren't the only Yorkers who had a blast attending the 1997 NASCAR Winston Cup banquet. I never would have dreamed that I would be part of the media contingent covering the banquet. After all, I live in York, PA, hardly a "hot spot" for NASCAR news, despite the yearly "Invasion of NASCAR." This isn't exactly Charlotte, North Carolina, or Daytona Beach, Florida, both considered to be home to NASCAR.
Kim's winning the national "MRN/Sears Diehard Fan of the Year" was an opportunity for a reporter from York to get into the press room alongside the heavy hitters from the major NASCAR publications, including Winston Cup Scene, Winston Cup Illustrated, and Stock Car Magazine, and it was an opportunity I sought out and seized with enthusiasm.
There were big differences between's Kim's experiences and mine, of course. I traveled by Amtrak train and took a cab to my hotel in New York's theatre district. I wasn't served the tea smoked salmon or grilled loin of veal that was on the banquet menu. But those weren't the important things to a NASCAR fan fortunate enough to be attending the awards banquet. So just what was important?
While I was standing in the lobby of the Waldorf heading to the ballroom, ESPN broadcasters Bob Jenkins and 1973 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Benny Parsons were walking towards me. Benny and I made eye contact, and we shook hands as he passed by. Any NASCAR fan will tell you that shaking hands with a Winston Cup Champion is more important than salmon.
When Dale Earnhardt came to the press room for his photo op after being presented with a $100,000 check from TOSCO, he wasn't very patient about posing for photographers. When he started walking away without my getting a good shot, I called out, "Dale, how about over here?" When he stopped, turned, looked straight at me, smiled that cheshire-cat smile of his, and jokingly curtsied, well, that was more important than veal.
Seeing the absolutely beaming face of proud Rookie of the Year winner Mike Skinner and the way his red vest perfectly matched his wife's dress - that was pretty important, too. So was watching Richard Petty heading for the exit when the program was over. It was so important, in fact, that I momentarily dropped my "I'm a professional" demeanor to catch up to him and request an autograph. He is "The King," after all . . .
But the best was yet to be. I've been a fan of Jeff Gordon since his first Winston Cup race in Atlanta in 1992, the same race that marked the final time that Richard Petty would drive competitively behind the wheel of a stock car. If you had told me back then that I would be in Gordon's private suite in the Waldorf Towers drinking a champagne toast with him and his friends as he celebrated his second championship, I would have told you that you'd been hanging out in the pits sniffing ethanol too long. But it happened, and it was a moment this reporter will never forget.
I was surprised to see that Gordon's circle of friends in his suite 'til the wee hours included not only his own crew chief, Ray Evernham, and his wife, Mary, but also Todd Parrott, crew chief of second place finisher Dale Jarrett, and Steve Hmiel, team manager for Roush Racing. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, because I had seen Jarrett and Roush driver Jeff Burton partying with Gordon earlier in the evening. They were all unquestionably very good friends - rivalries were obviously left at the track. That was business, and this was pleasure.
How was I so fortunate to find myself among my racing heroes as they wrapped up their celebrating? It was part luck and part "right place, right time." But I was able to see for myself that 26-year-old Gordon was having a great time. "We only get to celebrate one night a year," he said. He had just been awarded a check for $2.3 million, his gorgeous wife, Brooke, by his side. He was the youngest two-time Winston Cup Champion in the history of NASCAR. And there he was, in the Presidential Suite of the Waldorf-Astoria, eating pizza. I guess the fancy salmon and veal weren't important to him, either.