A Valentine’s Day/Great American Race Aside


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It’s Valentine’s Day, and the Daytona 500 is minutes away from getting started. Earlier this morning my wife and I exchanged gift certificates for massage and chocolates from the same two stores. And we were both happy: that’s 14 years of good marriage. She’s upstairs cleaning right now and I sit here for a few moments checking in before the vacuum cleaner gets passed to me and I continue my chores down here. (I’ve already cleaned the litter boxes and scrubbed the bathroom.) I’ve also put checks into the check register and the balance which says we’re OK is precarious as always.

Junior Johnson, 1960 Daytona 500 winner and a member of the inaugural class of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, has given the word for all the gentlemen to start their engines. It’s a bright, bright Sunday afternoon, warming into the 50’s from an early-morning near-freeze. The brightest day on earth, ever, possibly, what with NASCAR’s next season a few heartbeats away from getting started.

We heard a month or so ago that couple across the street from us are getting a divorce. Today must be a wonderful day over there. We’re not real close with either of them but it’s sad to see one of the few households on this block that’s regularly occupied by owners breaking up. (It’s mostly rentals and seasonal occupants.). I’ve seen the husband over at the gym lately, growing out his beard, giving me the thumbs-up as he heads toward the weights. Getting back into the fray, I guess.

Sunlight on the field at Daytona is so bright that it’s hard to see the cars. Is that possible? Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are riding the front row, but Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick have been the big guns all week. None of this really matters: it’s a long, long race, with lead and positions changing dramatically as different cars catch the draft. The track is a lot warmer than it’s been in a while and a lot of racin’ has already happened here all week.

Richard Petty-the all-time Dayton 500 winner–is driving the pace car. The stands are full. Sarah Palin is up in the VIP box. Harry Connick Jr. sang the national anthem. Lots of shots of drivers kissing WAGs and children.

There was a time when my wife I had separated. My bad, O my bad. I was sleeping on a bed in a spare room of my mother’s house. I remember one afternoon heading for the lockers at the gym and hearing that Dale Earnhardt Sr had been injured in that day’s running of the Daytona 500. Feb. 18, 2001. I was not then a NASCAR fan. By the time I’d made it to some restaurant bar that afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was dead.

That was nine years ago. A horrible time. Valentine’s Day can freight such ironies with it. Did you know that in the classical myth of Cupid, the lil’ bastard fired arrows barbed alternately in gold and iron, striking the hearts of their victims with desire or its opposite.

Fates at today’s race will fare that way, for better or worse. There will be gold for some drivers, the shredded metal of defeat for others. A lot of money to be made by all, just by showing up.

Fortunately, my wife and I reconciled. We’ve had eight happy years of marriage since. The threat of divorce doesn’t seem close, though when we see others go through it, the chill is palpable. It’s not quite like the chill we felt when one of our occasional neighbors’ husbands was stricken with esophageal cancer and died last February at my age, but love upside down, wronged love or just wrong love is a sad, sad thing, the stuff of cry-in-your-beer country ballads.

Lap 8 and Mark Martin stays in the lead, and Maritn and Earnhardt lead the two respective lanes, and just like that, way in the back there is smoke everywhere and then an accident collects Max Papis, Sam Hornish, Regan Smith, Mike Bliss and Brad Keselowski. Miraculously, Jeff Gordon squeezes through the spinning wreckage

Poor Max Papis. He had barely made the 500 through a good showing in one of Thursday’s Gatorade Duels and he’s out like that. You never know at Daytona. Matt Kenseth was fortunate to still be on the track while most of the field was pitting when it began pouring last year. He won the race.

Making love last may be just as capricious; what keeps a couple together is just as often what splits them apart. People change in the years after saying We Do. Or one does, and the other doesn’t. Money and health are X-factors as perilous as driving 190 miles per hour at Daytona in a pack where cars are separated by inches. Doesey do and round we go.

As I said, I wasn’t a NASCAR fan when the sport’s arguably greatest driver wrecked on the last lap of his last intended race. Tony Stewart, who won yesterday’s Nationwide race, mixed it up with Earnhardt earlier in that race and is moving up and back in the pack. Dale Jr. drove past without knowing that his father had died.

His stepmother Teresa, a former Miss Winston Cup, watched her husband drive into the wall. This from Alex Tresniowski’s People Magazine article “Life After Dale”, January 30, 2003:

“I called him on the radio and he never answered,” says Richard Childress, the owner of Dale’s No. 3 Monte Carlo racecar. Childress radioed Teresa, who rushed to the track’s care center. By the time she got there, Dale was on his way to the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach.

“We figured it was just an injury,” says Dale Jr., who drove with his stepmother to the hospital. But in the somber emergency room “there were a lot of doctors standing around doing stuff. Nobody had to tell us. We just knew.”

Dale Earnhardt died of blunt-force injuries to his head and neck. Those present that day say Teresa was shaken but otherwise in control. When a technician cleaning Dale’s body tried to slip off his wedding ring, Teresa demanded he keep it on.

“I am not one to curl up at any time,” she says. “I do what you gotta do. There’s right and there’s wrong, and you do the best you can.”

You do what you gotta do: Dale Jr. parted company with Teresa Earnhardt’s team Dale Earnhardt Inc., leaving the No. 9 Budweiser car to drive the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

On the restart of today’s race, Juan Pablo Montoya takes the lead, and then Dale Earnhardt Jr. jumps down to the other lane to re-take the lead. Yesterday Dale Jr. wrecked hard on the final lap, but Nationwide cars are generic now like the Car of Tomorrow. He lived to drive toda

It usually goes that way now. Horrific crashes happen frequently but the drivers usually get out fine with no more than bumps and bruises. In affairs of the heart and body, we on this side of the track don’t receive such guarantees.

My wife comes downstairs, done with the cleaning upstairs. Time to go get the vacuum cleaner and get to work. Across the street, our neighbors’ house looks pretty much the way it always does. The secrets of the heart are not readily visible to the rest of the world.

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Time for NASCAR’s next season of dreams to grind itself out, for better or worse.

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