Autograph seekers distract drivers

Posted: Thursday, November 09, 2000

Dale Earnhardt Jr., perhaps too young and too naive to know any better, stood amid the frenzied preparations for pole qualifying at Phoenix Inter national Raceway.

He had a wrench in one hand, and he was making the kind of adjustments on his Chevrolet Monte Carlo that can make a difference at high speed. His intensity couldn't have been higher, his study of every nut and bolt on the race car couldn't have been any keener.

And amid all those preparations, a fan stuck his hat and ballpoint pen into the middle of the commotion. Earn hardt, one of the few drivers who still works on his own car, dropped his train of thought to make the quick scribble.

He's learning the hard way why other veterans, including his famous father, don't hang around the garage area.

A sport that gained popularity by making its drivers accessible is suddenly running for cover. Autograph hounds not only saturate the garage area racing's workplace but they also camp out near the parking lots, motor home compounds and at the drivers' homes.

''I call them ducks,'' said veteran driver Darrell Waltrip. ''If you feed one, you attract a million of them. Then you can't feed them all.''

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series is the only major professional sport that allows such behavior from its fans. And unlike other pro athletes, Winston Cup Series drivers don't sell their autographs.

Autographs are more than a personalized souvenir, they are racing's trademark. Richard Petty's swirling autograph is as famous as his sunglasses and cowboy hat. Drivers are never without autograph pens, especially in public. They walk through the garage area ready to sign postcards, hats, shirts and toys.

More often that not, they sign as they make an escape.

Access to the garage area is supposed to be limited to race crews, media, NASCAR officials and their sponsors. And yet, hundreds find their way in with bags of goodies to be signed. It's forced drivers away from the preparation of their cars and into the safe confines of their motor homes or team transporter.

''The garage area is our locker room," driver John Andretti said. "These people wouldn't walk into a boardroom during a meeting and ask for an autograph. Well, this is our workplace.

''The way I look at it, you might as well have a good time doing it. You can't avoid it, so you might as well accept it as part of the job and have fun with it. When they quit asking, I guess, then I guess I'll worry. But when I'm talking to my crew chief and we're talking about the car, then I mind when somebody sticks a pen in my face.''

Andretti said he usually signs about 1,000 autographs a week, counting the garage area, public appearances and sponsor gatherings. His car owner, Richard Petty, set a standard for accessibility that never will be matched on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

''Richard is a unique and special person,'' Andretti said. ''Stories of him standing at the back gate and signing autographs are legendary. He reached out and won race fans one person at a time.''

But even Petty is growing weary of the demand.

''They're not as discreet as they used to be,'' Petty said. ''I guess it's just that society has changed, and they've changed along with it.''

Until lately, drivers have been careful not to criticize their fans' zealous resolve.

Tony Stewart changed a lot of that by ranting about the demands of his job last May.

Mark Martin, a veteran driver who rarely makes an appearance in the garage area, tries to understand both sides of the problem.

''It's helped the sport become what it is,'' he said. ''At the same time, imagine somebody stepping between Mark McGwire and home plate. They're standing between us and our work. It is probably a larger privilege than they realize.''

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