By Joe Dunn
Ask any race fan what they would want most at a NASCAR race, and most would tell you they’d give almost anything for a garage pass. Now, ask them what track they would most want one at, and 90% would tell you Bristol Motor Speedway.
Of course, as any longtime fan would tell you, a hot pass is out of the question for a normal fan and that pass at Bristol is simply impossible. Well, any fan except maybe Barbara Albert from Camden, Tennessee. Barbara has been a fan since her first NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1993. She attended that race with her husband and by lap 25 she was totally lost. She could not determine who was running where, but she was enjoying the show. It was at that point that she decided that she needed to educate herself about racing and the drivers, which she began doing then.
Now, seventeen years later, at 73 years old, Barbara is a near expert at NASCAR and it’s drivers. But like most fans, she cannot afford to attend a bunch of races each year, so she and her daughter, Tiana Lemons of Nashville have season tickets for Nashville SuperSpeedway and then try to attend one other race per year at another track. This year they picked Bristol for that second race and were looking forward to experiencing the ’Night Race’ in August.
Both mother and daughter living in and near Nashville, they were both quite familiar with the devastation of the floods that struck the Nashville area earlier this year, but they surely never thought the floods would present a rare opportunity for them. As they were preparing to attend the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, the Federated Auto Parts 300 at Nashville they learned of the efforts by Nashville SuperSpeedway, NASCAR, Nationwide Insurance and several of the Nationwide teams to raise funds for the flood relief efforts. Among the efforts was a silent auction to be held at the track on race day, with items donated by several teams. As they perused the list of sheet metal, and various clothing items, Barbara spotted one item that she could not believe, it was an auction for a pair of pit passes at one of three upcoming NASCAR Nationwide Series races.
The passes were being offered by the #70 team of ML Motorsports and driver Shelby Howard. The three race options were at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Gateway International Raceway and the ’Night Race’ at Bristol Motor Speedway. As they made their way through the auction items, they finally found these ’pit passes’ and discovered that no one had bid on them. The silent auction was an open bid system where you signed your name and entered your bid amount. Other race fans then had the allotted time frame to up the bid in an attempt to ’win’ the auction. With this in mind Barbara bid what she hoped was a high enough bid to secure the auction. Each time she and Tiana checked back, they anxiously discovered that no one had bid against them. Finally, just before race time, the auctions were closed and Barbara was notified that she was indeed the auction winner. The choice of which race was simple, they already had tickets for the Bristol race.
Two months later Barbara and Tiana made their way east from Nashville, TN. to the Mecca of Motorsports, Bristol Motor Speedway, early enough to attend the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Wednesday. They set up their tent at nearby Red Barn Campground, showing that they are true diehard NASCAR fans and headed to the track to attend the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. That turned out to be a good night for Barbara as she watched her favorite driver, Kyle Busch win the first race of the weekend.
Thursday they dodged the early rain before heading to downtown Bristol, to attend the Food City Family Day. Mother and daughter took time to do a bit of sightseeing, shopping and then to have lunch. From lunch they headed back to the track and reported to the NASCAR Nationwide Series credential office to be issued those illusive Bristol hot Passes. Later, the evening was capped off as they headed back to the track where they found themselves a place near the track’s south entrance to see the famous NASCAR Sprint Cup hauler parade.
Finally, on Friday, the big day arrived, after working their way through track security, they entered the tunnel to the Bristol infield in search of the #70 ML Motorsports hauler. They had spoken with Jennifer Weaver, Team rep for ML on the phone but they were anxious to meet with her in person. To this point, neither mother or daughter were sure just what kind of access they were really about to have, but they were instructed to report to the team hauler for assistance. While passing through the tunnel they spotted a girl wearing an ML Motorsports shirt and stopped her. The girl was in fact Jennifer who escorted them to the hauler and got them started on their experience.
Excited about the opportunity, they arrived at the hauler bearing homemade baked goods in appreciation for the team members. In disbelief they were invited to join team members in the Lounge area of the hauler where they began to ask just what and where they where allowed to go. Bristol Motor Speedway was really a great choice for this pass, as it is the only track on the circuit where the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series share the same garage area on Friday. When told that they basically had access to all open areas of the garage they happily headed to the Cup side in quest of driver autographs. The first driver they encountered was Jimmy Johnson, then came Jeff Gordon. Tiana managed to track down Bobby Labonte as he was headed back to the hauler after practice. “ I don’t know how those guys do it,” stated Tiana, “ when Bobby was signing his arm brushed against mine, and his driver’s suit was soaking wet.”
As the Nationwide cars lined up for qualifying, they joined the team on pit road to wish Shelby Howard good luck on his qualifying effort. With the #70 car off, they worked their way down pit road, snapping pictures of several drivers along the way. Working their way back to the Nationwide garage area, Barbara was surprised when she was introduced to and asked to pose for a picture with her first winner, Morgan Shepherd.
To their complete surprise, team members invited them to join them on the front stretch of the track where they got to be front and center for driver introductions. Come race time, mother and daughter found themselves the guest of the #70 ForeTravel Motor Coach team in their Pit area, where they had highboy chairs behind the pit box. Interacting with team members, they got to know each one and their duties. During the race, they were both invited to sit on top of the pit box with crew chief Chris Rice. Barbara declined, due to a bad knee, but Tiana wasted no time in accepting the offer and climbing topside. They remained with the #70 throughout the race, and then headed to the end of pit road to see the drivers as they exited their cars and headed toward the haulers.
Saturday afternoon they returned to the track to take their place as ‘normal’ fans for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race festivities. But to each of them, they will never again be ‘normal’ fans. Tiana summed up the weekend and especially their Friday as “An incredible experience that I will never forget.” Barbara said,” I really enjoyed the races, the whole weekend was Fantastic!” “The ML Motorsports team really treated us like Royalty” said Barbara “This whole experience was really much more than I could have dreamed for, and the fact that this was the result of efforts by so many people to help the Nashville Flood victims made it even better“
Barbara and Tiana are not sure just which races they will attend next year, but you can be sure they will be at Nashville SuperSpeedway on April 22 and 23rd.