All eyes were on the father. Photographers, reporters, television cameras, crew members, sponsors, the whole works. He had just driven his thunderbolt of a race car into Victory Lane for his first Winston Cup win, and he had done so at the mecca...
All eyes were on the father. Photographers, reporters, television cameras, crew members, sponsors, the whole works. He had just driven his thunderbolt of a race car into Victory Lane for his first Winston Cup win, and he had done so at the mecca of racing venues, Daytona International Speedway. The day was his.
Through the flurry of interviews, the father played the role of a winning race car driver to perfection. He smiled, he laughed, he thanked the crew for a great race car, and he offered a praise or two to the sponsor. This, of course, was customary. But amid the chaos of Victory Lane, the father knew the real celebration wouldn't start until he returned to the motor coach and his family. His family, after all, was his most loyal fan club.
One problem. Prior to the race, he had promised to make an appearance in Des Moines, Iowa, that evening. It was a commitment he probably made with no thought given to a post-win celebration, but a promise is a promise. The father was forced to leave the race track immediately, leaving his family behind. It was the biggest moment of his whole racing life, and he was about to spend it alone on an airplane.
"I'll never forget that feeling," says the father, NASCAR driver Jimmy Spencer, now some eight years later. "Right when I was getting ready to celebrate with my family, I was forced to leave because of a commitment I had made. I told myself I would never do that again."
Perhaps that night in 1994 is why Spencer didn't drive the No. 1 Yellow Transportation Chevrolet in the May 11th NASCAR Busch Series race, the Busch 200, at New Hampshire International Speedway. His son, who shares his father's first name, celebrated his 16th birthday that weekend, and while there are many things in life that fall secondary to Spencer's love for racing, his family isn't one of them.
"I love to race," Spencer said. "But my son's birthday was something I didn't want to miss. It just so happened the Winston Cup Series was off that weekend. I run the Busch Series to have fun and win races, but there are times when the schedule gets to be too much. There are more important things than going to a race, and that was one of them."
Birthdays are taken seriously in the Spencer household. Like he does on the track, the father goes all out. That Saturday night, the birthday boy was afforded the honor of choosing where the family dined. The family then went out and caught a movie to cap the evening.
The real fun began on Sunday.
"When it's warm, we like to have friends over to ride jet skies, just to have a good time," Spencer said. "Last year I had a really good time doing it. When my daughter, Katrina, was celebrating her birthday, I flew home with Rusty Wallace and surprised her.
"Being home for my son's birthday was just a situation where I felt like I needed to be with the family, and I'm lucky that our sponsor, Yellow Transportation, was really understanding. New Hampshire is a big market, and I felt like I needed to offer an apology to the fans, Yellow customers, and especially the Yellow employees up there for not being in the car. But on the other side of it, I think if they had an opportunity to spend some more time with their families, they would have done the same thing."
Spencer, who grew up with three brothers and three sisters in Berwick, Pa., has made a habit of stressing the importance of family. He recently teamed up with the Racing: My Anti-Drug campaign to promote parental involvement with today's youth.
"I was watching Boston Public the other night, and there was a teacher on that show who gave a speech about drugs and kids, and it was so true," Spencer said. "I know that's just a TV show, but the biggest thing I see with kids is their parents don't talk to them. I go to Jimmy's baseball games, and I notice there's really no difference in the kids' reaction from when they win and win they lose. They are just out there for the friendships, and they want you to pull for them. The parents should really look at that. They should realize that communication is key, and kids really want and need our support."
For that reason, missing the Busch 200 was a tough but necessary choice to make. The Yellow Racing team used a fill-in driver, Martin Truex Jr., while Spencer took part in a celebration that comes only once in a lifetime -- his only son's 16th birthday.
"I remember sitting in (team owner) James Finch's office at the end of the year last year, and he asked me if I would drive for him again next year," Spencer said. "I told him I would, but I didn't want to race when Winston Cup had an off week. He said that was fine, but there was one race Yellow Transportation really wanted me to do -- the New Hampshire race. I said, 'James, that's my kid's birthday that weekend.' James understood 100 percent. He said he realized there were more important things in life than racing, and that's spending time with your family."
To ask Spencer what he got his son for his birthday, a wide grin surfaces. It was something he had pondered for a long time, spending hours upon hours to make it absolutely perfect.
"I'll just say he had a surprise sitting in the driveway," he said with an assuring smile.
Lest we forget, this father still drives cars for a living.