June 18, 2008
Last Friday morning I took off out of D.C. and headed to Michigan to do a TNT interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. A quick flight to Detroit turned a little sour as we circled over Lake St. Clair for a half-hour before the pilot says, "The weather been pretty bad around Detroit, but we got a quick shot at the airport so we're gonna take it." He paused and then said, "It's gonna be pretty rough so you better buckle those seatbelts tight." A 55-minute flight turned into an hour and 45 minutes of banging around. I really hate flying, but for Dale Junior, I guess anything goes.
I spent the morning getting into the track, trying to convince Sandra in the TNT trailer that I really did play for the Redskins and that my name was supposed to be on the credential list. She said I wasn't big enough to be a football player, and then laughed at me when I said I was supposed to head over to Earnhardt's trailer. To her I was just another fan, but I noticed that of the other male fans that morning, keeping my shirt on was definitely a distinction. After a few calls and a couple different trailer visits I made it through the gates.
Lindsay Czarniak gave me a quick tour of the track and the garages. It's amazing to me how much is going on the Friday before a race. What really surprised me was that if you made it to the pit you're privy to everything going on. Crews were working like crazy, guys were pushing cars around everywhere, and even the drivers were walking around. It would be comparable to a huge NFL locker room, but two days before a game. The thing is, no one gets into our locker rooms before a game, so it was great to be in theirs.
I had met Junior a couple times before, but as I waited in the trailer with Lindsay and the crew I was really excited. The opportunities being a professional athlete allows are great. I've been around a ton on people I would have never imagined, but Dale Jr. would have to be on the top of my list.
The setting for the interview was cool; Lindsay sat in-between us as we pretty much just hung out and talked while TNT filmed. We talked a lot about football and NASCAR and even about my dog being named Dale Jr. Toward the end Junior exclaims, "I would trade everything I've done in racing to play one season as Chris Cooley." It didn't matter to me that he just said that for the interview, it made the whole trip worth it.
We sat and talked for another hour before I followed Dale out of the Hendrick trailer and maneuvered my way through the sea of motor homes. I had two hours of free time before leaving to catch my flight.
After wandering around for 15 minutes I learned that full NASCAR credentials really do give an endless amount of track access. I snuck right into the middle of a pack of reporters interviewing Carl Edwards outside his trailer. Earnhardt had mentioned to me that they were having a hard time drafting their cars and it was making it hard to pass. I thought it would be fun to get my two cents into the interview so I mustered up the courage to blurt out something about this being a gas race and what did he think about his car in that situation? Edwards and the rest of the pack had no clue that I wasn't a reporter, but to my surprise the question seemed to be a hot topic and he graciously answered.
Getting bored with the interview I casually strolled toward the garages. I popped in and out, witnessing the crews working on the cars and shortly found myself wandering into the open garage of Tony Stewart. No one was home and I figured if I could just look like I knew what I was doing it would be safe to snoop around. Rooting through Tony's toolbox was a much bigger rush than I expected and looking back I wish I could have returned home with a souvenir; at least a wrench or something.
Alas, I headed to the airport empty handed. It would have been nice to just ride Junior's chopper home but unfortunately I had to catch a plane. The ride out was just as awful as the ride there. I feel like I have the worst flying luck ever. On Saturday, what should have been 90 minutes of flying turned into three hours. I guess it could be worse, the race could have been in Vegas.
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