While trying to interview Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Friday following his Nationwide Series qualifying lap, I was suddenly sucked into the middle of a fan mob.
Even if they've only seen it on TV, NASCAR fans are all familiar with the horde of autograph-hungry people who swarm the sport's most popular driver everywhere he goes. And whether I liked it or not, I was right in the center of it.
I sensed that I had suddenly had no control over the situation and was no longer choosing which direction I traveled, like being pulled out to sea by a riptide.
It felt like total chaos. There were hands everywhere, some just grabbing for a touch of Earnhardt Jr.'s firesuit but most thrusting their yet-to-be-autographed programs and diecast cars and garage passes into Junior's path.
"Big hole! He's got to walk right through here!" his public relations representative Mike Davis yelled, trying to clear a path to a waiting golf cart.
There was jostling and bumping and craziness and noise. Many people shouted words of encouragement, some tried to get his attention for an autograph ("Dale! Over here, bud!") and others said bizarre things like, "Nebraska Bonnie Sims says hello!"
Earnhardt Jr. calmly navigated the crowd with ease, signing everything stuck in his face and even continuing the interview as I merely tried to survive.
"I'm just a big paint scheme buff and historian, you know?" he said of driving his dad's famous No. 3 car. "So it's pretty cool. But I didn't get no weird feeling (about being in the car). I doubt I will, unless I win."
I never even heard his answer until I listened to my tape recorder later. Being in the middle of a crowd like that was such a blur, I couldn't seem to focus on anything he was saying.
Suddenly, we reached the golf cart. With every other route blocked by fans, it was the only escape.
"You wanna get on the cart?" a sympathetic Earnhardt Jr. offered.
Earnhardt Jr. hopped in the front seat and the cart driver started to pull away as fans walked quickly alongside with the sport's most popular driver still signing away all the while.
"Guys, that's it! No more running!" Davis hollered.
But a few fans kept running. One broke into an all-out sprint to hand Earnhardt Jr. an orange No. 88 diecast, and the driver grabbed it as the cart pulled away and left the fan in the dust.
Earnhardt Jr. signed it and asked the driver to slow down for a moment. The fan, who would have given Usain Bolt a challenge in the 100-meter dash, caught up to the cart and Earnhardt Jr. handed him the diecast.
"Thank you Junior! Good luck buddy!" he said.
As we finally pulled away from the last of the crowd, a sense of relief washed over me. Earnhardt Jr., though, was had been completely unfazed the whole time.
After all, this was as normal for him as deciding not to shave in the morning. But it gave me a whole new appreciation for how drivers deal with fan demands.
How the heck does anyone ever get used to that?
"For me, I don't know why, but I thought when I first started racing that it was going to be tough to deal with," he said as the cart zoomed along. "But then you get a little further along in your career, and you're like ––"
Suddenly, he interrupted himself and told the driver, "Slow down."
Earnhardt Jr. had spotted a little boy in a wheelchair up ahead, the boy's leg propped straight out in a neon green cast. The boy had an Earnhardt Jr. diecast in his hand.
The golf cart stopped next to the wheelchair and Earnhardt Jr. pulled back the cart's plastic rain cover.
"Sign that for you, buddy?" he asked the boy.
The boy handed it over, Earnhardt Jr. signed the diecast and the cart suddenly took off again.
"Anyway," Earnhardt Jr. continued, "I just started thinking, 'What's it gonna be like when it's all gone?' It's just part of what you do. And it won't always be. I know it sounds ridiculous, but you start to appreciate it, welcome it."
The cart slowed down and took a right turn into the relative peace and quiet of the driver/owner motorhome lot.
I understood what Earnhardt Jr. was saying. But I still didn't understand how he did it time after time. When you're surrounded by madness, how does anyone keep a clear head?
"Well, you just want them to remain cool," he said. "You can only sign 'em so fast, and everybody's like shouting your name and you're like, 'Well I'm here! I'm standing right next to you!'
"But for the most part, you just do as many as you can, but you keep moving. I keep going toward whatever I'm doing. Like if I'm on my way to the drivers meeting, I don't slow my pace down too much. I just try to get as many as I can at a time."
I hopped off the cart, grateful for the insight and the escape vehicle. But while I felt like I'd experienced something new, Earnhardt Jr. wasn't optimistic anyone would want to read about such an everyday occurrence.
"You're going to have a hard time making something out of that," he said with laugh.