Dale Jarrett visited Talladega Superspeedway on Wednesday for a promotional event with several reporters. Some of us got to ride around the track in a pace car with him. Count me as one of the lucky ones.
Still, it’s kind of like shooting baskets with Larry Bird or throwing a football with Troy Aikman, and having either one give commentary on how to do it like they do.
Jarrett drove about 125 miles per hour, which typically would scare me out of my wits, but when the driver is cool and calm, often driving with one hand as he turns toward me to make a point (even as we’re about two feet from the wall), it actually is kind of hard to get too nervous.
If he’s not afraid of wrecking, then why should I be? At the very least, he kept me distracted from imminent death with the same easy conversation and wit that makes him a popular NASCAR television analyst for ESPN.
“If you’re comfortable driving a car 170, then it’s simple,” Jarrett said. “A race car can literally drive itself when you’re just going around the track.”
He proved that point for another reporter by driving through the straightaway with both hands off the wheel.
“The challenge is when there are 42 others on the track, too. That big wide racetrack becomes very narrow,” said Jarrett, the series champion in 1999.
Sitting in the passenger’s seat, watching Jarrett manipulate the car exactly how he wanted, even though he hasn’t driven regularly on the NASCAR circuit since 2007, it called to mind what Alabama Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame member Clyde Bolton used to say about race car drivers – they’re the best athletes in the world.
As for running, jumping and strength, maybe not, but the hand-eye coordination of a top driver like Jarrett could match up with most any athlete in any sport.
He also has the personality of what we would like to think a NASCAR driver should have. He loves his sport and enjoys talking about it with folks.
He said he sometimes makes his producers at ESPN a little crazy during races because he doesn’t watch the monitor as much as he should. He said he gets excited and stands for the whole race, watching the track and talking about things the network might not have on our TV screens at home.
“That’s when they start talking in my ear,” Jarrett said.
Instead of complaining, maybe they should let him do a little professional golf analysis, too. That sport could use somebody with the personality of Jarrett, who loves golf and has a 2 handicap.
He loves Talladega, too. He won 32 races, including Daytona three times, but his final Sprint Cup series win came at Talladega in 2005.
Because NASCAR requires restrictor plates at Talladega races, which bunches up the cars, wrecks aren’t uncommon. Jarrett said that’s part of what makes the races at the Superspeedway entertaining.
“Your destiny is out of control,” he said. “Drivers like to be in control.”
But Jarrett understand there’s more than that that makes Talladega fun:
“It’s wild. You never know what you’re going to get when you come to Talladega. It’s not just the on-track action,” he said, smiling. “It’s also the exciting social action.”
Maybe the best part of riding with Jarrett came at the start. At least, my family would appreciate it most of all – as I slipped into the car, he waited and didn’t start the car until I was buckled in completely. That’s something all of us should do.
Contact Anniston Star Sports Editor Mark Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.