Hello readership! Glad to be home after a very long night Saturday (though my twenty-minute drive home compares little to the Bruncati's eight-hour round trip home to California). I was fortunate enough to be invited this year to both the 2009 Whelen All-American Series Awards Banquet (http://thirdturn.wikia.com/wiki/2009_Whelen_All-American_Series_Awards_Banquet) and the 2009 Night of Champions Touring Awards Gala (http://thirdturn.wikia.com/wiki/2009_Night_of_Champions_Touring_Awards_Gala), the two banquets that honored champions from the NASCAR lower ranks this year. I would highly suggest you visit the links I just passed along to view all the facts, recaps, quotes, and photos from these fine events (though be forewarned it will probably take a few days for those pages to be properly finished and formatted). This blog will cover witty observations and opinions from those two nights; hope you enjoy the bit of commentary and feel free to comment yourselves.
Before I begin, however; I personally want to thank a few people (might as well get my 'thank you' speech in) for being kind to me as a media newbie. Jason Cunningham and Jason Christley are both great guys from NASCAR PR to work with. As many of you know, public relations sometimes attracts some unfriendly people. But both have been, over email and now in person, great people to work with and talk to. I would also like to thank the DuPonts of The Chrome Horn and NASCAR Media's Herb Branham and Cathy Elliott for being gracious and welcoming people to talk and chat with.
NASCAR knows how to do an awards banquet. There is a polite critique here and there in this blog, but I don't want a single reader to think the banquets aren't second to none. The way they honor the drivers being celebrated allows the greater viewership to feel the weight of these accomplishments while allowing the champions to celebrate in style.
Observations About the Whole Event
* I'll admit that I was skeptical at first when I heard they were moving the banquets to Charlotte, especially the Touring Series Gala. Most of the teams had to travel between 2 to 20 hours to get to the banquet and during a weak economic climate such a move didn't look wonderful. But considering the publicity that arose from it, the turnout for the usually empty All-American Series banquet, and the opportunities NASCAR presented to its drivers, I have to give the decision a two thumbs & a big toe up. The atmosphere the run-up to the banquets created was amazing. And clearly any organization that takes the time to shape the butter spread into the NASCAR logo or spray paint the NASCAR Gala logo onto the chocolate cake is going above and beyond.
* Dick Bergren and Mike Joy, passionate short track fans, made excellent hosts for the event. They truly are pleasant people to listen to, especially when one of them gets on a story. Both did not hesitate to go off script for comedic and personal effect and it made the event seem more genuine. Joy joked with me about his voice after the event Friday night, admitting its strange to hear just how different he sounded twenty-five years ago when I brought up his call of a Harry Gant-Bill Elliott battle at Rockingham.
* Many drivers appeared on screen to offer congratulations to the winners during both nights' banquets. Jimmy Spencer, Kenny Wallace and Terry Cook were the most original. However, it would have been nice to have had at least one driver (maybe a retired one) show up for the event and convey his congratulations in person. The words but not the presence of some major drivers made the effect feel flat.
Observations from Friday Night: Whelen All-American Series
* The creation of the All-American Series Champion banners, similar to those one college basketball Final Four banners, were a very nice touch and helped demonstrate just how much history the series has.
* If you work at the Concord Convention Center and you know where I can find a recipe for that wonderful dessert you served Friday night, CONTACT ME ASAP!!!
*While I know the name of Philip Morris commands respect in the short track racing world, the opportunity to attend the event showed just how deep and sincere that respect was universally among his competitors. If there was a reason why this respect goes beyond professional racing, the answer is evident when listening to Morris speak himself. His respect for his fellow competitors is second to none.
* How the guests interact is interesting because of the way the All-American Series is set up. National champ Morris never had to ever race competitors Keith Rocco nor Nick Joanides. Most drivers sharing tables were from separate states, separate forms of racing, and simply separate forms of culture. There was a tenseness in the reception I would chalk to that reason, as the Saturday night Gala seemed much looser because everyone was able to social with friends from their respective series. Though it was quite funny when some of female drivers were being honored on stage. The pair of very pretty and talented Sloan Henderson and Natalie Sather elicited some polite smirks which, if you had to put into words, would say 'Whoa. I clearly race at the wrong track.'
* Learn these names: Jacob Gomes, Timmy Solomito, and Sloan Henderson. Based off what I saw during the year and their personas during the banquet, all three will be champions very soon.
* Don't forget these names: Mike Rowe, Bruce Yackey, and Kevin Nuttleman. Like Mark Martin, this group continues to prove that veterans can still get it done. Rowe, who won Busch North Series races at Oxford Plains from 1987-1990, finally was a NASCAR track champion there. It was also good to see Nuttleman win yet again at LaCrosse as he indicated this was probably his final year of racing.
* Last but not least, an interesting tidbit about Nebraska state champ Bill Leighton, Jr.. Nebraska racing history is filled with the names of the Kosiski family, perhaps the greatest racing family in the history of this sport (if you think I'm overdoing it with that designation, wait 'til next week D@mn Good Driver segment). Leighton, though, has now won the NE championship two straight years. If you think that's a bad thing for the Kosiskis, think again. Leighton is part of the family as the husband of one of the Kosiski girls.
Observations from Saturday Night: Touring Gala
* I was very impressed with Andrew Ranger (two-time Canadian Tire Series champ), who I sat next to during most of the banquet. Ranger, a native of French-speaking Quebec, clearly wasn't quite in his element with all the speeches (many of which were punctuated with ' y'all's '), but he seemed to be truly honored to be at the banquet and was very attentive during the entire four-hour ceremony. I've been very high on Ranger's talent for the last three years, but his charisma makes him all the more exciting as a racer.
* While everyone being honored was exceptionally happy to be on stage, there were one group of people in particular who I want to give a shout out towards for being truly enthusiastic champions. The Bruncati family from Central California, owners of the Jason Bowles' team, never stopped smiling or posing for pictures. They were also very cordial and conversational. I wish them all the best.
* George Brunnhoelzl, III gave a moving championship speech. While everyone had deep and kind words for their crews, George certainly proved he sincerely appreciated every one of his guys, especially so his father. Every champion is awarded a championship ring and, to show his gratitude for his father's role in his life, George made a championship ring of his own to give to Dad. That was a great moment.
* Eddie MacDonald is the embodiment of the ultimate independent racer. He came down a day early before the banquet solely to get some car parts on the cheap from the Mooresville team. As Mike Joy pointed out, the set-up of the week allowed many drivers to meet major NASCAR team members and get some nice discounts on car parts. Another win-win for the drivers there. As Joy said half-jokingly, many drivers should expect to wake up Christmas morning with a "transmission under the tree". The cordial laughter of the crowd indicated that there was a level of seriousness to Joy's comment.
* The most unfortunate comment of the night award went to Mr. Johns of Michael Waltrip Racing, who accepted the owner's trophy in place of Waltrip. And sadly, he made two of them. First, he teased that anyone who might mistake him for Michael Waltrip needed a designated driver. Considering Mikey was cited in a traffic incident three weeks ago where alcohol was a factor, maybe Johns should have played that one closer to the vest. Yet he topped that silliness by saying a few sentences later that he and Michael would agree that "winning a championship is like your first time". For five tense seconds, we prayed he was referring to your first victory in racing. That hope was quickly snuffed out when Johns pointed out a couple who a comedian had embarrassed earlier in the event and told them they "will understand". Worse, Johns had apparently not been noticing during the comedian's act that the couple was already expecting their first child. Ouch! Michael, though, for his part couldn't resist making a fairly ridiculous comment of his own in a short clip produced to honor East champion Ryan Truex. During the clip, Waltrip admitted three times that the main/only reason he put Ryan in the East Series in '09 was to convince brother Martin Truex, Jr. to join MWR in 2010. Nothing quite says congratulations like "Hey kid. Turns out my scheme to woo your brother to my team turned out pretty good for you too!"
* Ryan Truex was pretty busy after the banquet. He and Martin had traded brotherly jabs at each other during the speeches and Martin's pre-recorded message. Martin caught wind of Ryan's antics and the two were apparently in a texting war while Ryan waited for his team photo.
* The most hilarious moment of the night happened during the tribute clip of Donny Lia. During a September event at Loudon, Lia's car caught on fire in practice. Stopped on the backstretch, somehow the pit crew got to the burning car before the safety team arrived. Impatient and watching their car burn up, one team member asked another member who also happened to be on the New York Fire Department if he knew how to put an engine fire out. Sure enough, the firefighter-crew member simply took off his shirt and started flailing on the engine in an attempt to smother the engine. For those of you who don't know, not only was the team able to repair the car, but they were also able to finish 2nd in the race.
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