Once-in-a-lifetime experiences often come down to being in the right place at the right time. But for three NASCAR fans at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, it also came down to meeting the right guy.
Long after the main portion of the Bristol tweetup had finished and the crowd had dwindled from 200 to about a dozen, Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Marcus Smith happened to walk by the group and stopped to chat.
Smith, who also heads Charlotte Motor Speedway and is the son of Bruton Smith, talked with the fans for a few minutes –nothing out of the ordinary – wished everyone well and went on his way.
But a few minutes later, as the discussion was winding down, Smith rolled up on a golf cart and hit the brakes.
"Anyone need a ride to the infield?" he asked.
Race fan Joshua Simmons (who goes by @h2dizzle on Twitter), said somewhat jokingly, "Do you have a hot pass?" (A "hot" garage pass is the only way for fans to access the Bristol infield.)
Smith didn't have any hot passes, but pointed to himself and the golf cart.
"This is about as good as one," he said.
• Simmons, from Florida, was attending his first-ever Bristol race.
• Guevin, from Texas, typically goes to nine or 10 races per year and holds the record for most tweetups attended (more than anyone can count).
• Bledsoe, a Bristol local, used to have to work at a nearby superstore during the race. She would spend the whole weekend outside the track entrance waiting for autographs, but was often forced to miss the race itself (she quit that job last year).
Smith parked the golf cart at the gate and the group began to walk into the track, but there was a problem: Police officers see things in black and white, and none of the three had hot passes.
"What have we got here?" an officer asked Smith.
"These three are with me," Smith said.
"They don't have passes," the officer replied. "They're not going anywhere."
Now, this could have easily turned into a "Don't you know who I am?" moment for Smith. After all, his family owns the darn racetrack and is paying for that officer to be there in the first place. But Smith just nodded and politely asked, "Who else could I talk to about this?"
The officer mentioned someone's name and gestured in the general direction behind him, and Smith walked off to plead his case. As he approached each officer, though, none seemed particularly interested in pointing him in the right direction.
Smith stopped and looked around. At this point, there were 10 minutes until the start of the pre-race drivers meeting – which he had to attend – and there was little time to try and haggle with the police over three fans he didn't even know.
It would have been easier to go back to the fans and just say, "Sorry guys, I tried, but no dice." And they would have understood.
But Smith didn't do that. He walked back to the original officer and again asked which person he needed to speak with. The officer again nodded in the general direction behind him, so Smith just said to the fans, "OK, guys, let's go talk with this gentleman over here."
As the group walked, though, no one stopped them again. Suddenly, Smith and the trio of fans emerged into the daylight and approached the steep banking leading down into Bristol's infield.
It had to be a surreal moment for the group. Less-fortunate NASCAR fans lined the pathway, yelling out at the drivers who were also taking the same route. Brad Keselowski walked right behind the trio down the hill.
Smith cautioned everyone to be careful (Bristol's banking feels like walking down a wall) and he offered his arm to Bledsoe so she wouldn't stumble. She accepted.
A few steps later, everyone was on the flat of the infield. At that point, it's unclear whether Smith planned to say goodbye and let the trio roam the infield (as long as security didn't notice their lack of a pass), but he guided the fans toward the entrance of the drivers meeting.
"Hey guys, come this way," he said. "If you stand here, you might be able to see some drivers up close."
Instead of standing on the outside of the meeting, though, everyone sort of just kept walking right on into the meeting (which takes place in a relatively small, cramped room) with a stream of drivers and VIPs. Security seemed to view the trio of fans as Smith's personal guests – which they basically were – so no one put up a protest.
It was an incredible turn of events for Simmons, Guevin and Bledsoe. Less than 10 minutes earlier, they'd been standing at a tweetup with no expectations; suddenly, each of them was in the drivers meeting for the first time in their lives (and perhaps the only time).
So I got to go to the drivers meeting today.. No big deal... just been on my bucket list for years. ;-) twitter.com/jennifercg/sta…— jennifercg (@jennifercg) August 26, 2012
After the drivers meeting, Smith walked the fans into the media center and asked his staff to set the trio up with hot passes. Fortunately, there were a few left, and the fans spent the rest of the Bristol race in the infield – up close to driver introductions, pre-race ceremonies, pit stops and the post-race chaos.
The whole thing was just a spur-of-the-moment gesture from Smith. He had no idea his generosity would ever be publicized; all of his motives seemed to stem from simply doing something nice for three fans who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Those fans might never get that kind of experience again. But with the memories they made on Saturday night, you can bet they'll be back at Bristol for years to come.
Home and back to normal. This says it all on how the wknd went. twitter.com/h2dizzle/statu…— Joshua Simmons (@h2dizzle) August 26, 2012
Jerry Caldwell saves the day
While the trio of fans was en route to the infield, Bristol Motor Speedway general manager Jerry Caldwell also rolled up on a golf cart and offered a ride.
I hopped on the back of the cart, but suddenly a fan yelled, "Jeff! Jeff!" We stopped, and the fan explained he was trying to contact another reporter from whom he'd won tickets. But since he had no cell phone reception, he couldn't tell the reporter where to meet him for the ticket exchange.
He looked a bit panicked and clearly didn't know what to do next. As I pulled out my phone to try and contact the reporter myself, Caldwell stepped in.
"I'll take care of you," he said. "Go inside that building right there and... (I'm leaving out Caldwell's specific instructions so someone with bad intentions can't try and do the same thing) ... They'll set you up with two tickets."
The fan, who had his young son with him, looked stunned. Appreciative, but stunned.
He started to say thanks, and Caldwell stuck out his hand.
"I'm Jerry Caldwell, the general manager here at the track," he said. "Have a great time tonight."