Why Al Pearce’s 54th Consecutive Daytona 500 May Have Been His Last
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Last weekend’s Daytona 500 marked the 54th consecutive time I’ve trekked from Newport News, Va. to Daytona Beach to cover NASCAR’s biggest event for a daily newspaper and/or for Autoweek.
It is a record of which I am enormously proud.
As things stand today, it was probably my last.
See, I’m 80 now, and a mid-December heart attack left me hospitalized for six days at the VCU/MCV Medical Center in Richmond, Va. (I had five-way bypass 23 years ago, but the MCV folks said it had nothing to do with the latest attack). The doctors sent me home saying to act like an 80-year-old instead of trying to deny it. Take your meds, they said; relax on the sun porch with iced tea and some good books; eat better; do cardiac rehab three days a week; quit stressing over whether Kyle Busch and Richard Childress will get along; no long-distance driving; no all-night writing.
I was recovering at home around Christmastime when I realized the Daytona 500 was about two months out. Hey, I thought, I can still make that. I’ll lose weight and do everything the doctors at MCV said. I’ll whip myself back into shape and press on relentlessly, like I have since I began writing about race cars in 1969. I won’t go for the whole week, but a Friday-Saturday-Sunday trip might be doable. No reason to quit at 53 when 54 is so close.
Turns out I was wildly overconfident about being ready.
I had difficulty just walking the 200 yards or so from the media center parking lot to my work station. I was fine once I got inside and sat down and set up my equipment, but my energy level never reached what I needed. I tried to make a full lap of the DIS garage area—it’s quite a trip—but my body stopped me early and convinced me to sit down. My heart enjoyed resting more than walking, and I got weak and ineffective late in the day.
In short, I didn’t do justice to my annual assignment from Autoweek. For that, I apologize and ask your indulgence just this one time. I learned last weekend that I still have a long way to go before I try another superspeedway race with a sprawling garage that needs to be covered. I’m probably okay for Richmond and Martinsville coming up, but that might be it.
As for a 55th consecutive Daytona 500 … one can only hope. After all, I have about 50 weeks to get better than I am now.
While I was in Daytona Beach—hanging on, mostly—these observations came to mind:
• The 500 has become as much an outdoor entertainment festival as a race, as much a show as anything else. I don’t recall the details of my first pre-race in 1970, but I’m confident it didn’t feature the lavish, over-the-top college band performances and trioval grass musical acts that have become s mainstay of 500 morning. The fans with close-up stage access seemed to enjoy themselves, so maybe that’s all that matters. Racing purists, though, might think otherwise.
• A valued colleague posed an on-line question asking whether Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s unlikely victory would silence his haters. Haters, really? I never realized Stenhouse Jr. was relevant enough to have haters. He’s barely acknowledged at driver introductions and is best known as once being Danica Patrick’s very public boyfriend. The 500 for JTG Daugherty Racing was his third Cup Series victory after two at Talladega with Roush Fenway Racing several years ago. If Stenhouse Jr. has haters, it’s hard to imagine why.
• A handful of relatively unfamiliar—and perhaps, undervalued—drivers enjoyed moments in the sun last weekend. They didn’t necessarily finish well, but Ryan Preece, Ty Gibbs and Harrison Burton showed well. A series of multi-car accidents during the double-overtime chaos helped Corey LaJoie, Riley Herbst, Travis Pastrana, Zane Smith and Cody Ware advance and finish better than they might have.
That same late-race chaos ruined perfectly fine days for potential winners Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, plus front-runners Bubba Wallace, Aric Almirola and defending 500 champion Austin Cindric. And seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, back after an abysmal two-year affair with IndyCar, was as good as ever until he, too, crashed late.
• For those of us who have been around for a while, it’s an undeniable truth that Richard Petty remains a national treasure. Just seeing him on the grounds brightens everyone’s day… including mine.
And that’s as good a way of ending this confessional as any.