Racing against racing drivers: how I accidentally took on NASCAR’s finest

The realisation the Toro Dash 10k wasn’t going to be an entirely normal morning run came about ten minutes before the start, when I was queueing for the ever-glamorous portable toilets in Fort Worth’s Panther Island Pavillion on the banks of the Trinity River. That’s when I looked up to see someone who looked remarkably like seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson emerge from one of the toilets.

With my mind focused on the race ahead (and steeling myself to cope with the less-than-fragrant whiff of chemicals cleaner and, erm, stuff that people deposit in portable toilets) it took me a moment to notice that said Jimmie Johnson lookalike was wearing an athletic top bearing the logo of the charitable Jimmie Johnson Foundation. And it also took me a moment to remember that, on the same weekend as the Tarrant County College’s Toro Dash 10k was being held in Fort Worth, the NASCAR Cup Series was in action at nearby Texas Motor Speedway.

As an aside, that latter realisation shouldn’t have taken that long. Part of the reason I found myself visiting Texas (yes, again) on that weekend was in part because it was close to my Fort Worth-residing brother’s 40th birthday, and in part because visiting at that time gave me a chance to catch up with family and attend a NASCAR race.

In short, it took me a few moments, and a furtive second glance or two, to realise that this wasn’t a Jimmie Johnson lookalike. It was actual Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and all-round stock car superstar. And he’d just emerged from a portable toilet with a number pinned to his top at the start of a 10k race I was entered in. After a few more moments, I realised what that meant: I was about to race the actual Jimmie Johnson. Oh my.

Things quickly became more surreal. Because, it turned out, Jimmie Johnson wasn’t alone. In fact, he stopped to chat to a few people just ahead of me in the portable toilet queue. Including someone who looked remarkably like 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. Because, as you’ve doubtless worked out by now, it was 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. And, as I’d later find out, he’d brought a good number of his Chip Ganassi Racing crew with him.

Well, this was going to be interesting: this was my two worlds colliding in a wholly unexpected fashion. As this blog will indicate, running is a passion of mine, but my day job involves working in journalism. I currently write for the world’s oldest road car magazine, but I spent 12 years working in motorsport titles – because I’m a huge motorsport fan. And, despite being British and stock car racing being a particularly American branch of the sport, I particularly enjoy a spot of NASCAR. So suddenly discovering that I was about to race a bunch of racing drivers was a little bit surreal. Still, I tried to convince myself that once the race started it wouldn’t make much difference. After all, it was a big field, and very unlikely I’d really see them in the race.

Having done my stuff in the portable toilet, I tried to focus on my warm-up routine, but my brain was still racing. So I found my brother (who was starting a little further back than me…) and told him, mostly because I was hoping the process of telling someone might convince me of the reality of the situation. And then I went to find my customary starting position.

Now, when picking where to line up for a race – especially one I haven’t done before – I tend to look at the previous year’s results, see what the pace is like, and then pick a spot accordingly. Based on the 2016 results and my expected pace, a top ten finish looked on the cards in the Toro Dash, although I would be some way back from the winner. So I figured second row would do it. Except, when I worked my way towards the start, I found the spot I was aiming for occupied by Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and a host of their NASCAR buddies.

They weren’t exactly hiding, either. While they weren’t drawing attention to themselves, they were happy to pose for photos with a handful of people who recognised them. Meanwhile, I was too busy trying to work out what this meant for my pace and finishing predictions. After all, the current generation of NASCAR drivers aren’t at all like the old stereotypes: you have to be properly fit to hustle a heavy stock car around a race circuit, in incredible heat, for several hours at a time. so, for example, I knew that Johnson was a regular competitor – and a pretty competitive one – in triathlons. It seemed entirely possible that, even though they were clearly doing the 10k as a bit of exercise ahead of their weekend of racing, they might just clear off into the distance.

They didn’t. Well, they jumped ahead of me at the start, but not that far. And then I started to catch them up. And pretty soon I was alongside them. And, not long after that, I was past them. Yikes. I’d just overtaken a pack of NASCAR types (who, true to racing form, seemed to revel in running in a tight drafting pack).

I wasn’t clear though, and once I settled into my pace it became apparent that my 10k pace was very similar to that of McMurray and someone I later worked out to be Josh Wise, recently retired driver-turned-coach. We eventually settled into a small group of our own, without any local Texan runners around us. Spoiler alert: this would shortly become a problem.

The Toro Dash 10k course started on one side of the Trinity River, crossed a bridge, then followed the trail alongside the river for a few kilometres before an abrupt hairpin around a cone took it back up the river. It then went past the first crossing bridge, rejoining the route of the 5k race, crossing back over another bridge, with a few more wriggles before returning to Panther Island Pavilion.

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The slight problem was that, as well as having 5k and 10k versions of the Toro Dash, there was also some form of charity walk taking place on the Trinity River trails that day, which had their own signage. So I was a little confused about which signs to follow when I reached the water station and grabbed a drink.

I was then busy attempting to slurp the water from my cup when I nearly tripped over a cone in the middle of the path, with a big ‘turn around’ sign stuck on it. But with no marshals nearby shouting directions, it wasn’t where I’d expected the turn to be. So I instinctively ran on, since I could see some other runners ahead of me.

It didn’t take long to clock the runners ahead were going too slowly to be at my pace in the Toro Dash. And I couldn’t see any other signage. Had… had I missed the turn? I shouted the question to the two runners I could hear behind me.

Unfortunately, those two runners were McMurray and Wise, who both live in North Carolina and didn’t know the course at all. Worse, because I was short of breath and had my English accent, instead of hearing me shout ‘have we missed the turn?’, they thought I was asking how to dispose of my cup.

By the time we all figured our error and turned around, we’d added about 0.25km to the route – about a minute of extra running, at that pace. Hardly ideal. The slight detour also put us behind Johnson and a young local runner, who knew the course. And it meant all of us were frustrated, and I was particularly annoyed given I felt I’d led two other runners astray. They’d been following me, after all.

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As a result, I did the daft thing: rather than accepting the time was lost, I tried to up my pace and make it up. It took me a few minutes to catch back up to McMurray and Wise, at which I tried to offer some apologies.

“Sorry guys,” I yelled, while gasping for breath. “I was trying to ask if that was the turn.”

“We were following you,” responded McMurray. “I thought you were asking where to throw your cup.”

“I’m sorry,” was all I could respond. “You should never follow the British guy.”

At least Murray say the funny side of that.

Still, the frustration of having lost places from missing a turn was still getting at me, so I was determined to haul in both Johnson and the guy running near him.

By the time I did, with McMurray and Wise still close by, we’d reached the first bridge, where the course merged with that of the 5k. And so we found a vast number of slower runners from the 5k (which had started 15 minutes later) in our path. Trying to pick a path through the heavy traffic was genuinely difficult, so I took to following McMurray and Johnson for a while – after all, if you’ve ever seen a NASCAR race, they’re quite good at such things.

I eventually worked back ahead of Johnson but, as the Texan humidity began to build, I could feel myself paying for pushing too much after my extra 0.25k. Sure enough, with about two kilometres to go, my pace began to fall away – dropping from around 4m 04s kilometres to a 4m 27s in the ninth. McMurray and Wise both went past me, and with just under a kilometres to go I could see Johnson and the local kid were catching me too. That helped spur me to push on, and I eventually crossed the line in 42m 34.2s. A solid effort, especially if you knock off the minute or so of extra running I did.

That time was also good enough for 11th place: not the top ten I thought was possible before the start, but still a great result. And while I’d been beaten by one NASCAR racer, I’d still finished ahead of seven-time NASCAR title winner Johnson. Even better, a friend who looked at the results later spotted that the field also included 2003 NASCAR champ Matt Kenseth. So I can now officially say I’ve beaten two NASCAR Cup champions in a race. I just won’t mention that there were no cars or engines involved…

I hadn’t just notched up a top ten finish, either. I’d won my the male 35-39 year old division, picking up a bonus medal for my second class win (the first also came in a Texan 10k).

But, ultimately, the memory of the Toro Dash won’t be a bit of medal, but the surreal chance to race against a bunch of racing drivers I’ve regularly watched do battle on the track. That was brought home looking at the results later. There were 86 runners in the 10k, the vast majority residing in Texas. 14 of the runners lives in North Carolina or Virginia, marking them out as likely NASCAR personnel. There was only one person in the field who lived in Britain.

Which should be a lesson to Jamie McMurray, really. As I told him a second time when I went to further apologise to him after the race for leading him astray, if you’re doing a race in Texas, never follow the British guy…

Anyway, the Toro Dash turned out to be a day of NASCAR racing (with my niece’s ninth birthday tea party thrown in…). But while I enjoyed the evening Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, it couldn’t match the morning for sheer fun.

 

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: The 2017 Atters Goes Running Awards, part one | Atters Goes Running
  2. Pingback: The 2017 Atters Goes Running Awards, part two | Atters Goes Running

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