In less than an hour, NASCAR will officially be kicking off it's postseason schedule (aka The Chase) in my very own backyard. This afternoon, Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, IL will play host to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 (what a ridiculous name for a race...) as sixteen qualified drivers begin their quest for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Any time NASCAR rolls into town, drivers and teams hit the promotional trail hard during the preceding week. Drivers make sponsored appearances to cut ribbons and sign autographs while show cars are towed all across the city to be parked in front of this and that business, all to drive up interest for the upcoming races. Make all the jokes you want about the sport (rednecks, obnoxious sponsorship agreements, etc.), they sure do a lot for the fans to keep interest high.
For instance, last year, in the lead up to the Chicagoland race, I had the opportunity to meet NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth at the local shopping mall, with a full spread of food too, at absolutely no cost. It sure seems like any appearance from even the most journeyman baseball player will at least run you up $20.
Unfortunately, this year, I kind of fell asleep at the wheel and didn't even notice that our local race was approaching. However, a couple of days ago, one event did catch my interest - this one, at a much lower profile than a Matt Kenseth autograph session.
One of those aforementioned show cars was parked at one of our local filling stations, Thorntons to be specific; luckily, that station is immediately across the street from the Walgreen's, a common haunt for the "Burb Herd." A quick heads up from my brother let me know that there was a race car sitting in the parking lot across the street from our pharmacy and my inner child immediately went crazy. There was no way I was going to ignore that opportunity.
So, the fiancee and I sauntered over to the gas station - all it took was the promise of a slushie to convince the lovely lady. It was a win/win situation.
There was no driver appearance scheduled, but had there been, it would have been the pilot of the #62 Thornton's Camaro in the Xfinity Series (the AAA of NASCAR) - Brendan Gaughan.
I was quite surprised to find out that Gaughan was even still in the sport, to be completely honest. When I was first starting to follow the sport in the early 00's, Brendan was a hotshot, young prospect in the developmental ranks. A true athlete, he'd actually been a teammate of Hall of Famer Allen Iverson on the Georgetown basketball team and earned earned All-Conference honors as a placekicker on their football team.
He earned a full-time ride with the storied Penske Racing team in the Cup series for 2004; however, it wasn't pretty. Gaughan was rarely competitive and finished 28th in the point standings, losing his ride at the end of the season. Since then, he's never made more than a cameo appearance at the sports top level.
As my interest in the sport began to wane, I assumed that was where his story ended. Lo and behold, he pulled a Mike Hessman and went back to the "minors" and carved himself out a nice niche. As a full-time competitor in the Xfinity ranks, he's become a weekly threat and won himself a couple of races for Richard Childress Racing, one of the sport's top teams. Good for Gaughan!
I was happy to see that, while Brendan wouldn't be there to sign autographs, the Thornton's promotional team still had plenty of swag to hand out, including the above "hero card." After all, this is a cardboard-based blog and I had to make some tangible tie-in here.
"Hero cards" seem to be unique to motorsports. These over-sized promos are often a large 8x10 (though there's no standard) and, for all intents and purposes, they are essentially just gaudier trading cards that are used to fulfill autograph requests at driver appearances. I don't think I've ever seen the format used for baseball, football, hockey, etc.; however, please let me know if I'm wrong.
For completeness' sake, here's the back of the huge hero:
As you can see, like your standard trading card, you get the driver's vitals and information. Not to mention, with the added "canvas," there's much more room for expanded statistics; thus, you get a lot more career highlights than you would with a 2.5 x 3.5 single from Press Pass or Panini.
Of course, the added space is also used to tout the sponsor, so you also get to learn all about Thorntons and their brand of ethanol as well.
While the oddball hero card was what I was truly after from the swag table, I was also able to walk away with a couple of other novelty items:
I don't know what I'm going to do with the flag (nevertheless, I wasn't about to turn down free stuff); but, the magnet proved to be rather useful, seeing as our refrigerator never has enough of them to hold our greeting cards, invitations and photo-strips.
We also both entered a drawing to win free tickets to the race itself; that said, judging by the fact that I'm sitting here blogging right now should tell you how that went. At any rate, I was able to add a new oddball card to my ever-growing NASCAR collection, acquire some other free swag, get an up close and personal look at a race car and reminisce in nostalgia town... not a bad way to spend an afternoon, in my personal opinion.
Oh and in case you were curious, Brendan Gaughan finished 8th in the 40 car Xfinity field last night at Chicagoland - not a bad showing. Maybe he'll be able to work his way back up to the Cup series again someday.
Anything's possible for this childhood "hero."