Burning Rubber

by bj max

I’m lined up on pit road in the middle of the second row. We are three wide so that makes me the fifth motorcycle in line with a full dozen behind me. An official standing directly in front of us makes circles with his finger signaling in the time-honored tradition to start engines. I thumb the start button just as the pace car’s roof strobes come. We’ll be moving onto the track any second now but even so I still take the time to pull the gearshift into neutral long enough to wipe my sweaty palms. The official points his flag and stares directly at us and we nod in unison verifying that we are ready. I grab a handful of clutch lever and stomp back into low. A quarter mile away looms the 36-degree banking of this wicked little half-mile speedway and I am suddenly thunderstruck at where I am and wonder what in the name of Kyle Petty I’m doing here. The pace car slowly begins to move, the official indicates go and the bikes in front of me creep forward. Nervous anticipation fouls my normally smooth clutch release and the bike bucks, stumbles, chirps the rear tire and right there on the start/finish line of the world famous Bristol Motor Speedway, I kill the engine. Well I’ll be dipped!

Here in Tennessee, you’re either a NASCAR fan, a University of Tennessee Fan or both. I’m both. I’m an Alabama fan too, except when they’re playing Tennessee. It’s a curious thing, being a fanatic sports fan. For instance, one week I can be watching an Alabama game and root for the Crimson Tide with a fanaticism that borders on insanity then the very next week against Tennessee, I’m on my knees praying that every last member of the Alabama squad will suffer cataclysmic heart failure and die right there on national TV.

Yes, I enjoy college football but NASCAR is, in my mind, “the” sport. My love of stock car racing dates back to the days when the likes of Fireball Roberts, Darrell Derringer and the great David Pearson were burning up the tracks. NASCAR is my baseball game, my national pastime. So you can imagine my excitement when I read in a mailer that a ride to Bristol Motor Speedway was being offered as part of the 2002 Honda Hoot activities. Heaven on earth via the U. S. Mail. And even though it cost us an extra sixty bucks, my wife and I coughed it up without hesitation.

The Honda Hoot was held in Knoxville again this year and again we set up camp forty miles away in Gatlinburg. We checked in at the Greystone Lodge on Monday and while waiting for the Hoot to get cranked up we participated in another of our favorite sports, namely rambling all over the Great Smokey Mountains by motorcycle. We hooked up with friends and made a 162-mile loop that took us along the scenic Little River, across the Foothills Parkway, and up U.S. 129 to Deal’s Gap. The State of Tennessee was in the process of repaving the Dragon Road but to their credit they suspended work during the Honda Hoot. So, despite all the bad publicity Tennessee has drawn over the past couple of years the greenest state in the land of the free is really a motorcycle friendly state.

On the southern end of the Dragon, the Crossroads of Time Store and Resort was packed as was the pullout overlooking the dam on the northern end. At the store we met Canadian Peter Hoogeven, bridesmaid of the famed Iron Butt Rally and three-time gold medal finisher. Peter was there measuring horsepower at twenty bucks a snort on a dynamometer he had sold to the resort. You never know who you’re going to run into at Deal’s Gap. That’s just one of the many things that attracts so many motorcyclist to this awesome little mountain road.

We finished our ride by visiting the buffet at Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee, NC then it was back over the mountain to Gatlinburg. A nice day, and the fifteen pounds of stone ground corn meal I picked up at the Old Mill will be enjoyed for months to come.

On Thursday, after an eighty-mile ride, we arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway and followed the Honda Hoot signs that led us under the grandstands and into territory usually forbidden to noncombatants. A huge gate in turn three was opened to us and, positioned as it was, guided us down the steep banking of the racing surface and into the infield. For some reason they singled my wife and I out and escorted us directly to pit road where eighteen bikes were eventually lined up. Our riding buds were sent to the parking area along with the rest of the peons.

As we dismounted, I looked up, turned slowly around in my tracks and stared in awe at the thousands upon thousands of seats that reached high into the stratosphere, completely encircling this little half-mile speedway. A million memories of races witnessed flooded my mind. Over there, in turn three, is where Michael Waltrip crashed, reducing a Bush car to unrecognizable scrap without getting so much as a scratch. Down there, in turn one, is where Bobby Allison’s steering wheel broke and he almost knocked the wall down. And right there, right there…. with just four laps to go Geoff Bodine put the bumper to Bill Elliott, who was leading the race at the time, and sent him careening into the infield setting up one of the most exciting finishes in racing history. Everybody thought Bill was finished that day but with four new tires and blood in his eye, he came roaring back, passed Bodine on the last lap and won the race. As I stood there remembering those classic moments, I swear I got a whiff of burning rubber.

The sixty bucks this Bristol deal cost us also included lunch and I sort of expected a cremated hot dog, some half frozen fries and a coke. But I was pleasantly surprised when we were taken to the third level concourse of the front stretch grandstands and served a full course VIP lunch on tables complete with white linen tablecloths and napkins. While we were enjoying this delicious meal of fried chicken, green peas, mashed ‘taters and iced tea, the general manager of the speedway made a little speech about the growth of NASCAR and BMS, the most popular track on the NASCAR circuit. He announced that the concrete bleachers, the last vestige of the original track built in ’61, would be torn out over the winter and 16,000 more seats added giving this little half mile bull ring a grand total of 168,000 seats, 500 more than the 2+ mile Daytona speedway. The races at Bristol outdraw the University of Tennessee football games by almost sixty thousand so the announcement came as no surprise.

To rabid NASCAR fans, being inside that famed old speedway was a real treat. BMS rolled out the red carpet for us and we roamed the speedway like a band of otters. Nothing was off limits. We took our picture in victory circle leaning against Terry Labonte’s #5 Kellogg’s Monte Carlo, took a spin in a simulator and after lunch we were allowed three hot laps around the speedway on our motorcycles. We went out behind the pace car in packs of eighteen and what a thrill it was to ride in the tire tracks of such greats as Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. But the biggest thrill of all, for me anyway, was meeting motorcyclist and sportscasting Hall of Famer Dave Despain. Dave was the Grand Marshall of this year’s Honda Hoot and was on hand for the Bristol Do. I don’t think I’ve ever met a celebrity that was as down to earth as Dave. After being with him five minutes I felt as though I had known him all my life. A really nice guy. But hey, he’s a motorcyclist and I didn’t expect anything less?

We had a great time at this years Honda Hoot but unfortunately, it was marred by tragedy. On the way back to Knoxville after the Bristol event, a black bear ran out into the middle of Interstate 81 causing a tractor-trailer and a motorcyclist to crash. A lady from Arkansas was killed…This was, to say the least, a sobering incident and made us realize just how fragile life really is. I remember thinking later that the meal we shared at Bristol a couple of hours earlier was her last…It was, and still is, a haunting thought.

Heads up good people.

M.M.M.

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