MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

The Daytona 500 was Sunday, I believe. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won, right?

Yeah, he won in overtime.

Overtime? You can do that?

Actually, I know the Daytona 500 was Sunday because I spent the previous week in South Carolina, so it was clear Daytona was on Sunday.

I have always been happy to see NASCAR start because it means baseball season isn’t far behind. I’m not knocking NASCAR, or any other motorsport, because the millions of people who love it can’t be wrong. I just don’t get it.

I’ve tried; I really have tried, and I guess I will try again sometime, but as my ever-growing list of mechanics will tell you, I don’t get cars.

I’ve tried to get it, but I just don’t. Not can’t or won’t — don’t.

My friend, the late Bob Gornall, even tried to help me get it. He took me to a race, inviting me to bring my date, who had made me dateless with her relocation to Baltimore, for a weekend bus trip to Rockingham, N.C. for the 1992 GM Goodwrench 500. Bob really wanted me to get into this, as he also paid for a year’s subscription to a NASCAR publication that he said was the Bible of stock-car racing and would forever change my life.

“After this weekend, you’ll never write about baseball again,” he told me.

So Bill Feeney went in place of my date (he is my best friend, but it wasn’t the same) and we had a great time. Great bus-trip down and back, great barbecue while we were there and, best of all, the greatest fans you could ever want to be around. Everybody was so nice and so hospitable, and so eager for a novice such as myself to learn all I could learn about their sport.

Those fans, both on the bus and at the track, taught me many things about racing that weekend, with “Racecar is racecar spelled backwards,” seemingly the only thing to stick all these years later.

The tailgate was out of this world and during the race, Bill and I sat a few seats down from Bob, who was wearing his red headset so he could listen to the pit crews, or something.

“Whatever you do,” Bob told me, “don’t watch the leader. You won’t be able to follow the race if you follow the leader. You have to follow the middle of the pack to gain full appreciation for what’s going on.

“Once the race begins and they come around the third turn full throttle, you’re going to hear a roar like you’ve never heard before.”

Right. Got it. Watch the middle of the pack, soak in the roar from the third turn, watch the middle of the pack … Okay, I can do this.

I watched the middle of the pack, although I didn’t know what I was watching. So I listened to what everybody around me was saying, but that proved to be as beneficial as watching the middle of the pack.

Bob let me listen to what the pit crews were saying in his red headset. — Greek.

Then Bill and I took turns pointing out weird people in the stands (it’s what we do), and then we watched them throw empty beer cans and chicken bones off the screen surrounding the track.

That, we could relate to.

As for the field coming around the third turn in full throttle, Bob was right. I have still not heard a roar that compares to that one. It was very exciting; so exciting, I just wanted to stand up and roar right along with it.

It was all very exhilarating. Problem is, once your ears adjust to it, once that roar becomes a deep steady hum, and as you sit in warm February sun for the first time of the year somewhat sedated by what was in those empty cans now on Chicken Bone Alley, watching something you couldn’t possibly understand, it also becomes very soothing. Very relaxing, actually.

In fact, it became so relaxing, I fell asleep for about 20 minutes, which did not sit well with my once gracious host.

Bill’s left elbow to my right rib cage jolted me awake, and he pointed down to our right, where Bob, his face now as red as his headset, was leaning forward and shooting me a glare I did not enjoy.

After he accused my parents of not being married when I was born, he called me a couple of other bad names as a preface to, “I’m never taking you anywhere again.”

I did see the end of the race, which Bill Elliott won, and then proceeded to try to suck up to Bob for the rest of the weekend, which he would have none of. And, true to his word, he never took me anywhere again, although he did send me to Game 6 of the 1997 American League Championship Series in a stretch limo with his wife and father-in-law.

The Orioles were eliminated that night by the Cleveland Indians in what was a gut-wrenching, depressing loss that triggered 15 straight losing seasons by the Orioles.

Aside from Bob continuing to call me those bad names, which I actually always took as a great compliment, I’d say we were even.

I’ll miss Bob Gornall forever. But I’ll understand and appreciate his favorite sport never.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT