2002 Winston Cup fuels speedway fever
Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have finished sixth to Jeff Gordon's first in Sunday's Protection 1 400 Winston Cup race at Kansas Speedway, but to three area children and hundreds of fans who showed up at Cabela's Friday night, Earnhardt is a champion.
As part of a small Cabela's press conference, Earnhardt met and signed autographs for three area youths. Timothy Knight, 19, traveled from nearby Bonner Springs with his parents, Jack and Linda Knight. The teen, who uses a wheelchair, has long been a racing fan.
"Every Saturday he watches the Busch races on TV and on Sundays he watches the Winston Cup races," said Jack Knight.
Knight credited Cabela's merchandise manager Terry Johnson for setting up the family's personal visit with Earnhardt.
About six months ago, the Knights were at Kobi's, a Bonner Springs restaurant, when he met Johnson.
"He introduced himself to me and said we're going to have Dale Earnhardt Junior here at Cabela's, and I asked if he could get an autograph for my son," Knight said.
His answer was better than expected, Knight said. "He said, 'I'll do one better.'"
Johnson took the Knights' phone number and indicated that Timothy would be invited to meet Earnhardt. The Knights received their personal invitation from Johnson last week.
"Wednesday night he did get hold of me," Knight said, adding he was amazed that Johnson had remembered to call him.
"That man is a man of his word," Knight said.
Also meeting Earnhardt was 13-year-old Cassie McKernan, who lives near Chilocothe, Mo. She attended the event with her parents, Rick and Tammy Hussey. Cassie, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, stays active and, when she can, watches NASCAR races on TV.
"She keeps up with Junior," said her mother.
As Earnhardt and his four armed policemen left the conference room to head toward a crowd of fans waiting outside of Cabela's, Cassie, holding an autographed photo, smiled and said, "That marks down one of my wishes."
Her next wish? "To go to an NFL football game," she said.
While Earnhardt, 27, is known from coast to coast, at heart he's still a North Carolina boy.
His Friday Kansas Speedway's qualifying record-breaking speed of 177.924 mph contrasts with his love for racing on the smaller scale local racetracks across the country.
"I admire the technology of the drivers and their ability," Earnhardt said. "I think that's the pinnacle of motor sports."
Earnhardt said the smaller events remind him of his youth.
"I admire short track racing and local stuff, the grass roots that I came up from there's always a local track that has great racing that's where I came from, it's kind of fun going back in time you might say,"
And, during racing's off-season, Earnhardt finds other ways to get outdoors.
"My dad was a huge hunter, so I was brought up around that," Earnhardt said.
He said he enjoys deer hunting and competition skeet shooting.
John Castillo, Cabela's assistant manager, said about 5,000 people came to Cabela's Friday night to see Earnhardt.
"He's a popular driver there was a big crowd," Castillo said. "He brought in a lot of people a lot of race fans and we think we exposed a lot of new people to Cabela's."
And, for a hunting and fishing outfitting store like Cabela's, it was a plus, Castillo said, that Earnhardt is interested in outdoor sports other than racing.
"His dad was real big into hunting and fishing," Castillo said. "It's nice to see he is, too."
Also appearing at Cabela's were drivers Dale Jarrett, who drove in Sunday's Winston Cup, and Hank Parker Jr., a Busch series competitor. Parker, who is the son of well-known fisherman Hank Parker Sr., also has a natural tie in with Cabela's, Castillo said.
Castillo said it's likely Cabela's will remain involved in Kansas Speedway races next year.
"We had a great time with them," Castillo said. "I'm sure we'll do a lot more events that are related to the track."