NEW WESTON, Ohio – Tony Stewart looked up to the skies, clasped his hands as if in prayer and hoped the second annual Prelude to the Dream would still take place Wednesday night.
"If there's any way to race, I'll be damned, we're going to race tonight," Stewart implored.
Stewart's prayers almost were answered as the torrential rain that blanketed the area around his half-mile Eldora Speedway dirt track let up twice, but what Mother Nature could not do – even after nearly three hours of human intervention – was make the track surface race-worthy.
With little else left to do, Stewart begrudgingly told the nearly 30,000 fans in attendance that the second annual exhibition race featuring more than a dozen Nextel Cup drivers would be postponed until Sept. 6.
It was a great disappointment not only for the fans, but for Stewart and his racing cohorts, which totaled 20 strong. After such a successful run last year, the event promised a field that featured twice as many Cup participants as 2005's race – perhaps explaining why 10,000 more fans flocked to the friendly track about an hour northwest of Dayton.
But while the night was a lost effort on the track, off-track was an entirely different story. There was a big winner after all, as proceeds from the night totaled $200,000 for the Victory Junction Gang Camp, an increase of $150,000 from last year's event.
Even though the main event was postponed, there was plenty going on. Here were some of the highlights, as well as some of my own reflections on the evening:
- The night featured an overwhelming turnout of Cup and Busch Series drivers who flew in at their own expense, including Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte, J.J. Yeley, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Ken Schrader, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace, Ryan Newman, Kyle Petty and '05 winner Kenny Wallace.
- Also attending was legendary and ageless – he admitted to "being over 65 and under 75" – Red Farmer and NHRA drag racer Ron Capps, who is the current leader in the Funny Car ranks.
- Scheduled to appear but unable to attend were Greg Biffle, Robby Gordon, Dave Blaney, Elliott Sadler and Carl Edwards.
- Of all the drivers in attendance, only Earnhardt had a police escort who shadowed him around the track. When I asked Stewart about that, he chuckled, explaining it was "to keep Junior out of trouble."
- Junior showed he's a loyal Bud man: Being both carb and calorie conscious, he walked onto the stage for a pre-event media session drinking from a can of Bud Light beer. It's a good thing Earnhardt was scheduled to serve only as flag man for the race that wasn't, lest his police escort bust him for drinking and driving.
- Stewart should be proud of his employees, especially one in particular. When I parked my car outside the Turn 3 fence – and behind a grandstand area, no less – the parking lot attendant (I never did get his name) came up to me and said, "Are you sure you want to park there? I was in the same spot last week and it cost me a new windshield when a part from a race car flew over the stands and broke it." He then instructed me to park near his car, which was safely about 250 feet away. I couldn't thank him enough. Note to Tony Stewart: If you know who I'm talking about or find out who was scheduled for parking lot duty, give the guy a big raise. He deserves it.
- Sight seen, part 1: It's not every day that the mother of the defending Nextel Cup champion rolls up her sleeves and helps out. But that's what Stewart's mom did, helping fold up banners and overseeing the feeding of several hundred invited guests and media.
- Sight seen, part 2: Even though the race could not start, fans were greeted by a double rainbow that actually seemed to end right outside the track.
- You know you're in a small town when, part 1: One of the four-wheel drive trucks that tried to pack the mud on the race track into a suitable racing surface was named "Nervous Wreck."
- You know you're in a small town when, part 2: Given that they were providing the only on-track action, fans started cheering loudly for the push trucks as they played in the mud. Remember, there are no such things as jet dryers on dirt tracks.
- You know you're in a small town when, part 3: As the four-wheel drive trucks went around and around for what seemed like 300 or more laps while trying to pack the mud and semi-dry the track, the public address announcer came up with a beaut of a line. As one truck flailed around and almost spun into the wall, he joked about the near-wreck. Then he quickly corrected himself and said, "Oh wait, that wouldn't have been the first time he wrecked this season."
- You'll never see this at a Nextel Cup race: Just like an Average Joe, Ryan Newman, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, walked to an infield concession stand with his wife to buy a hot dog, water and coffee, and no one bothered him for an autograph or picture.
- Now here's an irony: Two of the nine "big prizes" given away to ticket buyers were Super Soaker squirt guns. The P.A. announcer chimed in right after one of the evening's two torrential downpours: "… and you won't have any trouble filling it up tonight."
- Although he began his racing career on dirt, Martin hasn't competed on a dirt track in 26 years. While several other competitors may take Eldora for granted, Martin is not one of them. "It's a very demanding track," he said. "I'm not nervous, but I'm sure going to show it a lot of respect."
- After finishing 12th out of 14 drivers last year, Harvick wasn't taking any chances this year. He went to dirt track racing school last month and stopped by North Georgia Speedway in Chatsworth, Ga., earlier Wednesday morning for another last-minute tutoring session. "After being embarrassed last year, I was going to be serious about it this year," Harvick said. "I still don't know what I'm doing, but it'll be fun regardless. I probably won't win, so you won't have to worry about it."
- Defending Prelude winner Wallace didn't seem his usual boisterous, over the top self. Some of his comments were downright mundane, including: "I got lucky [winning] last year. These guys are serious this year. It ought to be a hell of a show." Wallace then went on to say about the event: "I think Tony started something here that's going to go on for 50 or 60 years. If NASCAR ever gets brave, maybe they'll hold a Cup race here some day."
- Sucker bet, part 1: Stewart bet teammate Hamlin $50 to drive around the muddy track for two laps in a push truck without crashing. Hamlin snookered his mentor, not only going around with ease, but staying out for several more laps, enjoying himself as if it was a Sunday drive. He even drove with one hand while holding his left hand out the window with a raised No. 1 finger salute.
- Sucker bet, part 2: After logging close to 10 laps, Hamlin brought his truck to the finish line, did a sideways turn and slid to a sloppy finish, nearly hitting a cameraman and a push truck parked nearby. When he climbed out of the truck, Hamlin acted like a kid in a snowstorm, jumping giddily around with his hands raised triumphantly in the air. Ah, youth.
- As could be expected, Earnhardt received the biggest round of applause, while Kurt Busch received the loudest round of boos. Stewart immediately stepped in and reminded the fans that Busch had recently donated $1 million to the Victory Junction Gang Camp. Busch then received a more hearty round of applause – two, to be exact.
- When Stewart was called to the stage for prerace introductions, he half-hesitated. His reason: "I stole Matt Kenseth's phone to look at photos of his wife," he said. What KIND of photos, Tony? Care to chime in on that, Matt? Hmmmm.
- Schrader to McMurray, who led much of Sunday's race at Dover only to lose at the end to Kenseth: "You think you had a problem with Matt at Dover? You ain't seen [bleep] yet." Quite naturally, the comment drew a huge round of applause from the fans, and Schrader doesn't have to worry about NASCAR fining him $10,000 or docking 25 driver points for his verbal indiscretion.
- At least he's honest: When asked what he would be doing today if he wasn't a NASCAR racer, Kenseth deadpanned, "I'd probably be unemployed."
- Maybe he brought bad luck with him: If Stewart needs to blame someone for the rain, he could always look at Newman. The last time Newman raced on a dirt track was six years ago, at Eldora, no less. "I was just thinking about it," Newman said. "We had a Silver Crown car here and blew it up halfway through the race."
- Petty was set to drive Wednesday but had another agenda ready. "My job tonight is to get Tony whatever he wants. That's going to be my job," Petty said. "Since his shoulder's hurt, if he needs a hot dog, I'm going to run to the hot dog stand to get him a hot dog. If he needs popcorn, I'm going to run to the popcorn stand. If he needs a beer, I'm going to go get him a beer. Whatever Tony needs, that's my job tonight. I'm going to be no-paid, but I will be his nursemaid tonight."
- Viva, Eldora: Trying to keep the crowd entertained was not an enviable task. Track officials even had to summon an Elvis impersonator – he bills himself as "Elvis Presley, Jr." – to perform a few songs with a karaoke-style tape as a backup band of sorts.
- Famous last words: Stewart, telling fans the show was over, remarked, "We apologize we could not get it in. We want to make sure we put on a good show for you guys and we promise to put on a good show for you on Sept. 6." That is, provided it doesn't rain again.
- The final song of the night played over the P.A. system was rather appropriate, given the way things wound up: Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."
- Tony Stewart