As Fine As Wine


Who could have possibly anticipated the crowd-pleasing, knock-down, drag-out racing duel of the 2001 NASCAR-by-God-season would occur in an area of these United States known as Wine Country?

It was like having a bluegrass festival at Carowinds, the Charlotte-area amusement park where a young Monte Dutton once saw K.C. and the Sunshine Band perform. (Hey, hey, hey! I also saw Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, not to mention the Miracles sans Smokey Robinson.)

If “Apocalypse Now” – or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for that matter – had been set in the Napa Valley, Robert DuVall would have said, “I love the smell of a nice merlot, with just the slightest hint of vanillian oak, in the morning.”

At the same time, the boisterous lads of the Winston (“Just give it to me straight”) Cup Series were jousting amidst the vineyards, perhaps 40 miles away, the tolerant city-state of San Francisco was holding its annual Gay Pride Parade.

(The Dodge/SaveMart 350 has been held the same weekend as Gay Pride for some years now. The color photography in the Sunday papers is like nothing that has ever been seen in the South, and I’m not talking about the action photos from the Giants game, either.)

Ah, but to each his own. Not something one would write Mother about, however. (I’m paraphrasing Tom T. Hall, a great American.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, uh, road course…

Sometime during the second half of Sunday’s race, perhaps when I was making my lonely way down about 100 yards of elevation from the roof of the track - high above Turn 4 – Robby Gordon turned into Jeff Gordon, and the NationsRent Taurus, i.e., that black car with “yield” signs all over it, morphed into the DuPont Monte Carlo.

While I was desperately attempting to return to the press box without the aid of a burro, I kept hearing the P.A. announcers yelling things like, “Gordon streaks away from Stewart as they head off to Turn 7!” which is a story in itself since there is nothing but a downhill straight from Turn 4 to Turn 7 and logic would dictate there at least ought to be a set of “esses.” (I’ve managed to familiarize myself with that road-racing lingo through the years.)

Now I thought this was Jeff, the Vallejo (or as Sterling Marlin is wont to say, “Valley Joe”) born and Hoosier-raised Junior Johnson of the “Friends” generation.

Little did I know this was Cerritos, Calif.’s own Robby Gordon, the on-again, off-again blip on the Winston Cup radar screen.

I did return to my laptop in time to see the concluding scenes, which I described by the clarity of hindsight. Little did Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart know it at the time, but the race had been scripted by a Winston Cup Scene free-lancer named William Shakespeare. Bet you didn’t know the Bard wrote a lot of that stuff from “Scene on the Circuit,” did you?

Oh, yeah, I probably should offer some explanation of why I had found myself in the position, up above Turn 4, of being asked to shield the wind (I’m eminently qualified) so that the tattoed dude in the Harley regalia could help his old lady get her joint relit.

Well, I just wanted to see me some road racing.

Watching a race at Sears Point – or Watkins Glen, for that matter – from the press box is like being sent to the Masters and watching the greatest golfers in the world take on the pristine Augusta National course on a monitor in a press tent. (That’s exactly how the Masters is covered, by the way.)

To me, it’s boring, and I always write exactly what I see, and when I sit in that press box at Sears Point, with almost the whole track behind a wall and my left shoulder, invariably I write that the race is like cornflakes without sugar and banana slices. (Notice the shameless plug for Terry Labonte. We journalists are such shills.)

So, this year in the Napa Valley, amid the splendor of Wine Country, I wanted to get the full road-racing treatment. I wanted to mingle among the gentle people (“Are you going to San Francisco?”) and see the lovely women with flowers in their hair. Actually, up there at the roof of the course, it was more like that Stones concert where the Hell’s Angels killed a guy (Altamont? Altamahaw? Al Davis?) or, maybe, Johnny Cash “Live at San Quentin.”

The racing was phenomenal, though. I wish I could have watched the entire 112 laps up there, but I had to “dismount” because of East Coast deadlines. (Sadly, my entire livelihood is not provided by this weekly epistle from “The Land of Roaring Engines.”) Just as well, though. As impressionable as I am, it’d be just my luck to pick up a few new vices up there at the West Coast “Rocky Top” where corn don’t grow at all but has been replaced by several herbal alternatives.

Back in the real world (“where the boys don’t always get the girls”), I could appreciate the nonsensical joust between Other Gordon and the Last of the Red-Hot Racers, Kevin Harvick. In fact, I could appreciate it more, because I had been out on the course and actually knew how all those misnumbered turns connected. (I so wanted to pop a NASCAR simulation game into my home computer and try to drive Sears Point again, but, alas, my trusty Dell was more than 3,000 miles away, and when I got back home, I still sucked.)

In the several days since this madcap adventure came to an end, some critics have assailed me for being too hard on Robby Gordon, and maybe there’s something to that.

Let me give you my perspective, though.

A colleague and I (I’m not going to tell you his name, but he’s a good old boy, nice to his mama and them) were watching this incredible exchange of sheet metal between the leading Ford of Robby (no relation to Jeff) Gordon and the lapped car of Kevin (no shortage of testosterone) Harvick, and we both knew what was going to happen.

Robby was going to give the race away. In fact, we both knew this before Harvick even got penalized for speeding into (or out of, whatever) the pits and came out mad as my third-shift-working sister when her young-uns wake her up at noon.

Gordon is one of those guys who’d rather be right than President, and he’s 32 years old and, by this point, it’s unlikely he’s going to change.

My friend and I, by the way, were excited by the prospect of Other Gordon winning. Jeff Gordon had won my past three visits to Sears Point, and if he’d won again, I think I might have had to get on the phone and look up some of the kids who had attended elementary school with him in Vallejo, just for some variety. (“Yeah, Jeff was ‘rad,’ but Mom wouldn’t let me play with him too often because he was kinda rough on skateboards.”)

Writers don’t pull for drivers. They pull for stories. One thing about Other Gordon: He’s good for something different.

And he won. Only it wasn’t an official victory. It was a Moral Victory, and Other Gordon is good at Moral Victories. He got an MV over Felix Sabates and probably another one over Larry McClure. He got an MV when he ran out of gas while leading the Indianapolis 500.

And then there was the final irony. Tony Stewart won the most controversial race of the season, and he had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the controversy. The Tiger sat behind watching the chaps in front of him do their playground antics, and then he pounced with calculated precision.

It just may have been my favorite weekend of the whole darn year.

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