It's really great to hear when old friends go on to do cool things.
Brian Whitesell, a former classmate of mine in elementary and high school, will be the crew chief this weekend for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.! When I heard this tidbit of news while listening to the radio today, I felt an immediate surge of pride! A hometown kid makes it big!
While I've been to NASCAR races in Bristol, Richmond and Charlotte over the years, I'm by no means a hardcore race fan (although I do hope Danica Patrick switches from the IndyCar series to NASCAR one day!). But Brian's slow rise in the racing world is a story that I've followed for years now in the "hometown" newspapers. But even before all of this racing fame he's enjoying now, I could tell Brian had "the racing bug" in him.
Back in fourth and fifth grades, I always remember Brian and me drawing "crazy cars," as I called them, in class. His cars were always well thought out. He used rulers to get certain aspects perfect. For the tires, he would often trace around coins to make them perfectly circular. In contrast, my cars always looked like contraptions out of a Dr. Seuss nightmare. As Brian carefully considered the aerodynamics of the vehicle he was drawing, I would be wondering how the sewage line from my car's on-board toilet would hook into the engine's exhaust pipe.
In sixth grade, Brian and I would often join several other classmates, racing Matchbox cars across the classroom floor befpre homeroom. At that time, our school was an overcrowded, dilapidated 1920s era building - a much needed "middle school" was still under construction. This fire-trap of a school (which, ironically, was remodeled and turned into a fire department! ) had wall-to-wall wooden floors, always dirty and dusty. So, by the time homeroom was over, all of us would look like we'd crawled out of a dumpster. About half-way through sixth grade, I drifted away from the joys of Matchbox car-racing - and all the fun with Brian and the guys - for the likes of other pursuits...among them Susan Wellborn and Renee Lavender. But they're another story...
A decade later, when I was working at WSLS-TV in Roanoke and Brian was in his last year at Virginia Tech, I ran into him on a story. He invited me to a "little get-together" he was having at his apartment in Blacksburg. This "little get-together" turned out to be a huge party - even by rival University of Virginia standards. It was then that I realized that Brian was the quintessential late bloomer...and he was headed places.
Brian has now worked in various capacities with Henrick Motorsports for more than 15 years, at times serving as part of the pit crew, then later as a crew chief and even team manager for such famous racers as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers and Terry Labonte. I'm not sure what the circumstances were that led to his sudden, temporary role as crew chief for "Little D," but hearing about it on the radio really made my day.
Be sure to watch this weekend's "Autism Speaks 400" at the Dover International Speedway. Coverage begins at 1:30 pm on FOX Parkersburg, which is cable channel 14 or digital 15.2. And be sure to look for Brian in the pits!
Of course, if Earnhardt's car screws up...I never met this Brian guy in my entire life.