My mom, Susan, and I have been watching NASCAR races for the past 15 years. We've been going to Daytona International Speedway in February and July for the past 11 years. We consider our Daytona weekends our mother/daughter time, and always look forward to spending the weekend with each other no matter what it holds -- rain or shine! We also have been to Homestead-Miami Speedway several times, and sat in the rain to watch Tony Stewart win the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship. However, this race season has been a difficult one for us with Tony announcing his retirement. I wanted to go to as many tracks as I could to see him one last time before he puts up his helmet.
I asked my mom last Christmas for tickets to see Tony at another track this year and tried again last month for my birthday. My mom is fighting blood and bone cancer, so she reluctantly told me she couldn't handle it right now because she is much weaker. I understood, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see Smoke in his last race of his career. So, I bought her tickets to Homestead-Miami Speedway for Mother's Day. After all we have been through, between the ups and downs, we have remained Smoke fans to the very end. It just wouldn't be right for us to not be there when he takes his final checkered flag of his NASCAR career.
No matter what occurs at the track, we have always built the most wonderful memories. However, I don't think this past Daytona trip will ever be topped! We started the Coke Zero 400 weekend like we normally do, hanging around the Sprint FanZone watching everything from practice to qualifying on Friday. We were on the FanDeck when Tony walked by the garage just underneath us. I screamed "We Love You, Tony" and he looked up, smiled and waved. My day was made. I told my friends and even said to my mom, "OK, we can go back to the hotel now!" Of course, we stuck around and continued our day shopping and watching the NASCAR XFINITY Series race.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon. We arrived early to sign up for one of the garage tours that fill up so quickly, and then we had some time to kill in the Sprint FanZone. Two Richmond International Raceway staff members approached us there and asked if we had ever been to Richmond before, and if we would like to participate in the first-ever Fan Appreciation contest to win an ultimate trip to RIR in the fall. Of course, I said yes.
We had a couple come sit with us and we talked as the rain continued to fall. That's the great thing about NASCAR fans, they are like long-lost friends you haven't met yet! My mom was worried I wasn't going to be back in time from the garage tour and suggested we give the tickets to our new friends. They were ecstatic as they had tried to sign up and it was already full. They wished us luck and told us we hope you win, and off we went to find the RIR staff.
Well, they must have been good luck because we won! We met Dennis Bickmeier, the President of Richmond International Raceway, who told us we were the Grand Prize winners, and it was an "Oh my gosh, are you really serious right now?" moment followed by some tears and hugs. Dennis was headed to the Daytona Media Center to announce Fan Appreciation Weekend at Richmond and invited us to join him on stage.
It was a bit nerve-wracking looking out at a group of people who had no idea who I was, but were about to tell my story. One question that stuck out was when a man asked me, "Why do you like Tony? What is it about him that makes you like him?" My initial response was, "Do you really want the real story?" I explained to him that in my junior or senior year of high school, I had a group of friends who were into NASCAR. They would come over on the weekends and watch the race at our house, and they told me I had to pick a driver to root for. At that time, I had a big crush on a guy named Tony, so when I heard the name Tony Stewart it stuck with me. From that moment on, I have been a Tony Stewart fan.
Kimberly Meesters with Sprint also was on hand, and she asked me if they were keeping us from doing anything. In my head, I thought "Absolutely nothing!" because this was the coolest thing ever; but I told her we actually have an area we go to every Daytona race to see the drivers en route to the Drivers’ Meeting. Kimberly asked if we had ever attended a Drivers’ Meeting, and I told her we hadn’t. To our surprise, she then invited us to attend the Drivers’ Meeting — and with a great big smile I said, “Sure!”
Before I knew it, the meeting was over and Kimberly flew up out of her chair to grab Tony to come over and meet my mom and me. Dennis and Kimberly explained to him I had won the first Fan Appreciation giveaway, and was excited to see him at the track where he had gotten his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win. Tony told us Richmond was his favorite track. We also chatted about the Coke Zero 400 race that night, and how he needed to play it smart to get those nine points. He signed my winning case and our hats, and it was the greatest moment for my mom and me to talk to him and have his undivided attention.
After wishing Tony good luck, we went back to the media center and Kimberly had one more surprise for us. On behalf of Sprint, she told us, our tickets were upgraded to the Daytona 500 Club. This is one of those things my mom and I have said we were going to do one day, just to say we did it. We very graciously accepted, and with a great deal of thanks, we headed to the Daytona 500 Club.
As we settled in at the Club, I assume we looked like we didn't have any idea what we were doing, but the staff was very accommodating and made sure we knew all the ins and outs. We finally had a minute of downtime when I could call my husband and my mom could call my dad, and then we sat back and just enjoyed a Coke. My mom's Coke can had the song lyrics, "A moment like this," and it truly was a moment some people wait a lifetime for. A moment that we just had that might never have been, but everything aligned and it was our moment. We went to the top of the Daytona 500 building to listen to the national anthem and watch the flyover and then took our seats on the start/finish line inside the Daytona 500 Club. We watched the cars race by, pit stops so close it felt like we were in the box with the crew, and a beautiful sunset over the track.
The craziest part is I still get to take another amazing trip to a state and racetrack I've never been. I have a countdown clock going on my phone to let me know how far away our trip is. I can't wait to have another amazing experience with my husband, but I'll probably be just as excited to call my mom and tell her all about it! For now, my awesome fan experiences are coming to a pause, but will soon pick back up again when my husband and I get on a plane to Richmond in September. No matter what happens in Richmond or who wins the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, we will be NASCAR fans. We will probably never have a connection to another drive like we do to Tony, and it will take some time to get used to not seeing him on the track. But we will continue to spend our weekends watching races, and making memories as a mother/daughter racing duo for as many years as we can!
Thank you again from the bottom of my heart to all the staff at Richmond International Raceway and Sprint who made the most amazing weekend for my mother and me. You have no idea how much it meant to us!