The Spirit of '97

By Mike Snyder
Thursday, February 9, 2006; 3:45 PM

It's been nearly 10 years since I first felt the raw power and full-throated roar of the engines at the granddaddy of stock-car race tracks, Daytona International Speedway. My first Daytona 500 changed my life. If that seems pathetic, then it's doubtful you've been to a race.

Here's the account of my first trip to Daytona. What follows is all-true -- and mostly factual.

In '97, I was in the throes of deep depression. I was 31 years old. My father had passed away about a year earlier following a long, protracted fight with cancer. I was in the midst of a painful divorce, to boot. I kept on working through it -- 60, 70, 80 hours a week -- who even kept track. Emotionally, I was wrecked, totaled. Spiritually, I was bereft, bankrupt. No gas left in the tank.

As the date for the 1997 Daytona 500 neared, my good friend Joe kept pushing me to go with him to the race. Luckily, I had the good sense to say "Yes." I needed a break. I didn't have a ticket, but why not I'd come along for the ride.

I was a casual fan in those days, whereas Joe had been raised proper by his father, Sammy. Joe had already been to the 500 -- the hajj of NASCAR, in Mecca Daytona.

The first time I'd ever given stock-car racing any real thought was in 1993, as legendary Redskins coach Joe Gibbs's upstart team shocked the racing world when Dale Jarrett drove into Victory Lane. I started following the sport in a low-key way.

My favorite driver was Ernie Irvan, aka "Swervin' Irvan." How could you not, as a casual fan, fall in love with that moniker. Ernie was one of Winston Cup's top drivers at the time. Though his career would end prematurely a few years later due to horrific but thankfully non-fatal head injuries, Irvan definitely still had his "schwerve" on in '97.

Joe and I flew into West Palm Beach, a few hours drive south of Daytona. We were stopping over for a few days in Port St. Lucie, where Joe's German-Italian family had emigrated from New Jersey. Sammy and Dee, Joe's mother, had recently built their retirement home there. Both of Joe's sisters had also purchased homes close by. As with any good Jersey family, their casual conversation could din out traffic noise on I-95. What's a Jersey family without an interstate, anyway.

We were, needless to say, loudly received and well-fed.

We spent the next few days at nearby Jensen Beach, bonding with the bartenders and waitresses. The highlight of the week came on Thursday, when we cut away from the beach early to watch the Twin 125 qualifying races at a bar. There we made the acquaintance of a famous adult film star. She later called Joe's Mom's house to invite us to "party" with her on Sunday. We politely declined. After all, Sunday was the 500. We had priorities.

On Saturday afternoon, I unassumingly hopped into the back seat of a Buick owned and operated by Joe's Uncle "Tink." (Tink was no blood relative, but Joe's father's boyhood best friend from a farming community in Pennsylvania.) Tink, Joe, Sam and I made up a wayward foursome of pilgrims headed for Daytona. Tink was our designated driver.

Sammy, a huge Dale Earnhardt fan, was resplendent riding shotgun in his GM/Goodwrench Earnhardt jacket.

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