For those of us who are fans of NASCAR racing the Sunday February 18th 2007 Daytona 500 was spectacular for the 180,000 fans. This is the most unusual sport in the world in that unlike other sports where the champion event comes as the last event of the season,
in NASCAR the most prestigious race is at the opening of the season. . In this race at Daytona, Florida the sentimental favorite was Mark Martin. At the age of 48 he was in semi retirement and had finish in the top 10 in 16 seasons of racing. He lost the race by about 2 feet and was beaten by Kevin Harwick .In the closing second as Martin and Harwick were in a furious battle when behind them a spectacular multi car crash totally destroyed several cars and saw Clint Boyer literally cross the line in upside down on the roof of his flaming car. Under the rules on the final lap when a caution is called the race ends at that exact instant. There was some controversy that had the Caution been swifter Martin was ahead and would have won. It is interesting to note that the all-time NASCAR favorite was Dale Earnhardt the Babe Ruth of the sport. In 2001 as I watched on TV Earnhardt was killed in front of nearly 200,000 fans as he hit the wall on the final lap of a Daytona .There is irony in that Harwick is the driver successor to Earnhardt.

The race also recalls a wonderful occasion when daughter Lisa Hillenbrand and I rode the track in the Pace Car at Daytona. She invited me to join her while she was covering the 500 for Procter & Gamble (P&G) which had several cars entered in the race. It was a thrill for Lisa and I to go to the Garage and meet so many of the famous drivers. One was a P&G driver Pattie Mooes one of the sport’s first female drivers. It was only hours before a 500 mile 200 lap race at 180 miles per hour pitted against 41 of the most skilled drivers in the world. Amazingly she and the other drives were calm as if they were on the way to a family picnic. She was a delight. At her suggestion I held her heavily callused hand as she demonstrated the strain cause by the friction of the steering wheel on the bumpy 2.5 mile track during a 4 hour race.

Many people criticize auto racing fans on the grounds that the fans are “red necks” that only go to the races to see the crashes. The facts are that NASCAR is profoundly safety conscious. It has pioneered safety features that have improved non-racing vehicle operations. For example Daughter Laura Hillenbrand in recent articles has pointed out that immediately following Earnhardt death NASCAR conducted a massive driver safety investigation. As a result they intuited new head restraints; installed shock absorbing walls; and redesigned the cockpit of the cars. In the following five years not a single driver has been killed. Again in support of NASCAR they have very strict rules to enforce fairness and they are enforced very promptly and cheaters are very heavily fined much to the satisfaction of the fans.

It also reminded me of a much earlier Indianapolis 500 Memorial Day race when son John Hillenbrand and I were the guests of the then Mayor of Indianapolis, Indiana who is now a United States Senator Dick Lugar. The occasion was the Mayor hosting the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) at their first meeting in the US. John and I had the thrill of riding in the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car.

Racing both horse and auto runs deep in our Hillenbrand family. From the earliest days of kids and I went to the Hagerstown Stock Car Races just outside of Hagerstown, MD. Our favorite spot was the first turn on this all dirt track. This was a place for the most action with risky passing and bump and run. They tried to keep the tract moist but with little success. After a few turns it would be great clouds of dust and the kids and I left the track looking like African-Americans. A publicist for the track was our wonderful friend John Fry and he gave me the honor of being flagman and starting the season's first race.

The interest in horse racing really started with daughter Susan who was taking riding lessons and fell in love with her pony sized horse named Silver. She was crushed when it was announced that the owner was selling the pony. It was nearly Christmas time so I secretly purchased the horse rented a horse trailer and parked it in the nearby schoolyard on Christmas Eve. Early the next morning I walked the pony a block to our Moreland Street house. I tethered her in the back yard against a small post. The kids came down and opened a whole pile of Christmas presents. Suddenly Susan glanced out the window into the back yard and for the first time saw Silver. . I will never forget her wonderful shout of joy. We took Silver to the farm where she lived out her days.

Laura of course got very interested in Silver and all horses. Our farm is across the Potomac from the near by Charles Town, West Virginia Shenandoah Downs Race Track. The kids and I often went to the track on a Saturday evening during the annual meet and had a great time both betting and studying the horses. We were very cautious gamblers. We took turns selecting our choice but usually bet on the favorite to show (the most caution bet imaginable). Laura was our youngest and was particularly impressed with the horses and caught up with the excitement of the races and the wonderful variety of racing folk. As they say, the rest is history culminating with her authoring Seabiscuit.

Rev. Bernard F. Hillenbrand

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