I’ve attended several Daytona 500s, the World Series and even rushed the field after my team won the National Championship in college football. But none of them come close to the potent experience that was 1997 at the Homestead Motorsports Complex. It was one rollercoaster of emotion bookended by tragedy and triumph, experienced up close and personal.
For the 1997 Florida Dodge Dealers 400, I was setup as usual in timing and scoring, overlooking the frontstretch and pit road. I was in the back row, updating the track’s official website in real time with scoring and pictures, and making scoring one-sheets every 10 laps or so. On race day, the timing and scoring room fills up with people, mostly women, representing each team and charged with scoring their truck in handwritten form. Some are puffing on some RJR derivative (if they know what’s good for them), and getting down to the business at hand. Most are old pros at this, connected to their respective race team’s communications via headset. Everyone knows each other here. Some laugh and joke while others continue on the conversation they probably started last season. For better or worse, this is a traveling family, galvanized by the stresses of living to race.
I noticed Andrea Nemechek there a couple of rows in front of me sitting on the aisle. She is wearing the family shirt, blue nd emblazoned with the name and number of her brother-in-law John’s truck. He had qualified 9th in the number eight.
The race was packed with rookies, and to be frank, Homestead circa 1997 was no place for an inexperienced truck racer. This was a flat, four-cornered minefield with tons of straight-away speed. You couldn’t go two wide through the corners, so you better figure out who leads on the straights. A glance down the finishing order reveals names long forgotten who never made it: Barry Bodine, Lonnie Rush, Bryan Reffner and Tammy Jo Kirk (remember “Luv-a-bles”?). Many were over their heads on this track, ill-equipped to compete. The nicely painted, aquamarine walls were scuffed many times over the race weekend.
The Florida Dodge Dealers 400 went off as scheduled, but I remember there being lots of attrition. To be honest, the race itself escapes my memory because what happened on lap 143 eclipses everything. I remember looking up at the TV monitor as this white number eight truck lost it in the middle of turn one, spun around counterclockwise half a turn, and impacted the wall. Hard. What took place in timing and scoring slows down in my memory. There is a moment, a realization. These are racing people, and they know. That is not a good impact. Hair stands on end. Everyone knows. No one says it out loud, but everyone knows.
Snapping back into reality, there is a flurry of activity. In terms of timing and scoring operations, this means a red flag. I’m biting my lower lip begging to ask how I should notate this in my scoring one-sheet, but Andrea Nemechek’s scuttling of her headset and hurried exit stops me. This is a moment to chill.
Once the trucks are halted, I end up outside, sneaking a Marlboro Light (not a Winston) and trying to listen in to my scanner. I have NASCAR’s channel programmed, but I am getting nothing but codes and things I don’t understand. I find myself standing near a woman, probably in her late 30’s, eyes red-rimmed. I had seen her before in timing and scoring. I muttered something about that not looking good, and she looks blankly at me and lights the end of her cigarette with the butt of the one she’s just finished. It was a code 2, she said. Not good. I hear the sound of the Metro-Dade Huey rescue chopper warming up in the infield.
We all know what happened to John Nemechek. He died later in the week as a result of massive head injuries suffered in that accident. But there is one thing, one moment, that stands out.
I am there, standing with the red-eyed woman, chain smoking away the stress of the moment. Suddenly, the ringmaster of timing and scoring, Betsy, comes out to where we are and beckons us and the other 15 or so people gathered there back inside. They are restarting the race. And I’ll never forget her words:
“We have to remember what is important here. We have a race to run.”
Nine months later, I see Andrea Nemechek again. This time I am in Homestead’s victory lane taking pictures of her, her husband Joe, and their brand new son, John Hunter. Joe had just won the Jiffy Lube 300, a family triumph for the ages.
I still get chills.