You can’t appreciate where NASCAR came from, where it was on the sports spectrum, where it was so desperately trying to go, unless you were loitering around the sport in the early 1990s, as I was.
You couldn’t fully appreciate it unless you were standing in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, near to that famous elaborate clock that looked to be carved by angels. And there, right next to that clock, in a tuxedo, was Junior Johnson, as out of place as if Sinatra had pulled on coveralls and appeared in Darlington.
You couldn’t fully appreciate it unless you were standing on Park Avenue, in that deep canyon of skyscrapers, and somebody cranked the motor on one of the NASCAR show cars parked outside the Waldorf entrance where the limos usually sleep.
That was where NASCAR celebrated its champions every year, to come to New York to schmooze the Madison Avenue crowd, grab some mainstream national media attention, reward its participants and their wives with some lavish parties and a heavyweight-caliber shopping.
Four times, I rented myself a tux and went to the banquet. And, except for the banquet itself, each trip was memorable.
NASCAR was eventually lured away from New York for Las Vegas. Now, floundering for attention and stuck in COVID-19 world, it’s holding its championship ceremonies in a live telecast that will feature one of those faceless Nashville big-hats to entertain.
I’ll not bother to set the DVR.
However, whenever the NASCAR awards roll around, I can’t resist telling this story:
My companion for the banquet and I were in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria Towers one afternoon, ready to go wander the streets. From the elevator appeared a distinguished woman being pushed in a wheelchair by her private nurse.
The woman overheard us and said, “I recognize that accent. Where are you from?”
When I told her I was originally from Chattanooga, she said she was from Murfreesboro, Tenn.
She then introduced herself.
“I’m Mrs. Douglas MacArthur.”
Sure enough, she and the late general lived in suite 32H for decades.
We chatted briefly, then her nurse said, “Mrs. MacArthur, let’s go for your walk.”
As the nurse backed her out of the door toward 50th Street, Mrs. MacArthur looked up at us and held up one finger. Then, with perfect timing, as if she’d never before uttered the line to awed tourists, she said:
“I shall return.”