Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Racing Heroes (Part One)

Racing has been a part of my life for the past 19 years, mostly following the action on the NASCAR circuit as well as some of the happenings in the other stock car series like ARCA, ASA, and USAR. Also, from time-to-time, I've kept an eye on the open wheel ranks, curiously watching the Indy 500 action or the championship races that prove to be as dramatic as a Super Bowl contest all tied-up until the last second of regulation.

My heroes have either had their moments of glory or currently compete in the asphalt arenas and dirt bowls of America, leaving it all on the line as they race to the front. Some are accused of being vanilla, while others are willing to do whatever it takes to prove themselves as true racers in their circuits.

I admire those who follow the belief of "working hard, playing hard." One of those drivers who followed that expression was Dale Jarrett, who was willing to drive the wheels off his car while being an ardent student of auto racing from the get-go.

Sure, he had the famous racing name, which probably had him labeled as another lackey in motorsports who was simply given opportunities based off the success of his father Ned, a two-time NASCAR Cup champion. Early in his career, it was hard for the younger Jarrett to shed that label of a "wannabe" competitor, racing in shoddy equipment or shrewd car owners who were better off as spectators of the game.

Still, he was willing to learn about the game and show people that he belonged in Cup racing. He paid particular attention to details from some of the best in the sport, including his father, as well as car owners like Horace Isenhower and Cale Yarborough. Friends like Andy Petree also stood by him, supporting him in his Nationwide and Cup efforts, even if it meant success was hanging around the top-15.

Some wondered if Jarrett would amount to anything. After all, in Winston Cup racing at least, top-15s aren't exactly successful results and the sharks aka sponsors and car owners wouldn't be afraid to find someone else who could get the job done.

Sometimes, opportunities come up with a bit of luck - just by being there at the right place at the right time. That was the case in 1990 for DJ, who got the call originally as interim driver for the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Citgo Ford T-Bird, seen as something of a respectable, highly regarded ride in the likes of the No. 43 STP Pontiac and the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy.

Just imagine at one moment, you're racing for a middling organization whose best days are a rare 10th place finish at some random stop in the tour. Suddenly, you're called up to race for a team whose equipment actually matches your abilities, with every tool for victories and success at your disposal.

Dale Jarrett had to be ecstatic and it showed poignantly. He didn't disappoint, although he had some growing pains in transitioning from a fledgling driver to a formidable contender on a weekly basis. Those years of cutting teeth in mediocre cars paid off, as the second-generation racer became a threat and contender, right up there with guys like Earnhardt, Wallace, Labonte, and eventually, Gordon.

Jarrett would go on to drive for Joe Gibbs, ushering in the prolific three-time Super Bowl-winning coach into NASCAR, as well as legendary car owner Robert Yates and friend Michael Waltrip. Along the way came those two Daytona 500 victories, the 1996 Coca-Cola 600 triumph, two Brickyard 400 titles, and the 1999 Cup championship.

Years later, I learned to appreciate Jarrett as a favorite racer and athlete. His work ethic was equally as impressive as the professionalism and class that he exemplified in his driving career. Respectable, congenial, and most of all, inspirational, he proved that nice guys do indeed finish first and succeed.

Whenever I'm writing an article, preparing for class, or doing about anything activity in life, I try to reflect on the heroes of my life. Of course, my parents are the first and true inspirations of my life. I also reflect on some kid born from Hickory, N.C., who dreamt of becoming a racing superstar and grew up to become quite the legend in his own regard.

If racers need someone to look up to who left it all on the line but left the competitive attitude away from the track, Jarrett's someone who'll forever be extolled as a true hero to anyone who needs that reminder of the human triumph story.

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