It’s 6 AM in a dark parking lot on the far end of North Carolina’s Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. I’m almost an hour early (as usual) for the charter flight that will carry me and a group of Richard Childress Racing, JTG Daughterty, Swan Racing and other team members southward to the first stop on the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule; Daytona International Speedway.
Two thoughts are wrestling their way through my brain.
First, I wish I had stopped for a breakfast sandwich and a gallon or two of coffee to charge my neural batteries for what promises to be a very long day.
And second, do I really want to do this?
Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. Ever since I saw my first stock car race as a six-year old boy, I have never wanted to do anything but surround myself with race cars. The speed, the noise, the color, the danger; to me, racing has always seemed to be the ultimate in human sporting endeavor. If you screw up in baseball and go all Bill Buckner on a slow-rolling grounder, you lose a game. Maybe a World Series. Screw up in racing and you lose your life.
I have been wildly fortunate to spend my entire adult life working in the sport I love. I learned my craft from the greatest motorsports announcer ever to lift a microphone, Ken Squier, and followed his lead to a life and a career I never could have imagined as a kid sitting in the grandstands at “The Nation’s Site of Excitement,” Thunder Road. I have met and interviewed champions from the earliest days of the sport, and grown to call many of them friends. I have called many of the biggest events in motorsports, and lent my voice to some of the most notable calls of the last 25 years.
I am blessed and I know it. But I’m still not sure I want to get on that airplane.
Used to be, I couldn’t wait for the next race. I would count the minutes until time to head for the track, and once the checkered flag fell, I’d begin counting the minutes until next week’s race. Lately, however, I’m doing a lot less counting.
This was the first offseason in, well… ever that I didn’t get antsy for the road right after the holidays. As I’ve grown older, my priorities have begun to change, and my sense of what’s really important has changed right along with them.
Traveling the NASCAR circuit is no picnic. I know, I know, there are thousands of people across NASCAR Nation who would trade places with me in a heartbeat and do my job for no pay, just to see the things I see and talk to the people I talk to. I get that, and like I said, I understand how fortunate I am to do what I do.
But there’s a price to be paid, is all.
I married young, then spent ridiculous amounts of time on the road chasing race cars while my wife tended to her career, our home and our two young daughters. Perhaps predictably, we divorced young, as well, and I left my now ex-wife to raise the girls while I continued chasing checkered flags. A few years later, another long-term relationship suffered the same miserable fate, still without me catching on to the fact that nobody dreams of spending their life with an absentee partner.
I swore off marriage for good, then met Kelli; a stunningly beautiful, amazingly intelligent, career-oriented woman who loved NASCAR, and eventually, me. I convinced myself that I could make it work this time, that I had learned enough from my earlier mistakes to effectively balance career and relationship for the first time in my life. There have been a few missteps along the way, every single one of them my fault. But shockingly, the guy who once couldn’t focus on anything but the next race has somehow discovered the incredible value of a comfortable chair, a loving wife and a good dog or two.
As I hurtle headlong into my second half-century, I’ve finally begun to see the big picture. I’ve seen longtime friends -- people who devoted themselves heart and soul to racing – struggling to deal with the end of their careers. The inevitable ticking of life’s clock has left them rideless, jobless, and in some cases, penniless. Worse, it has left them without the identity that defined them for so many years.
I’m not letting that happen to me.
Lately, I spend less time on games and more time on life. I’ve traded drinking beer in the Talladega infield for a glass of wine on the back deck. I spend less money on toys and more on the 401-K, making sure Kelli and I never look back on this part of our lives and say, “What were we thinking?” I still enjoy going to work, but I enjoy coming home even more.
My daughters seem to have forgotten what a lousy job their old man did when they were kids, or at least forgiven it. They call often, sharing lives and careers and even asking for advice. My youngest has selected a graduate school in the Carolinas, in part because she wants to live with her dad for the first time since she was four years old. That is beyond awesome.
So yes, I’m excited to be heading to Daytona this morning. I’m anxious to see old friends, and get back to work with the most talented group of colleagues any man could ask for. I’m interested to see how this new Gen-6 race car will work out, and whether big-pack racing will return to the World Center of Racing.
I’m looking forward to Speedweeks 2013. But I’m also looking forward to coming home.
Gentlemen, start your engines!