Darrol and Lisa Weaver are living their dream. They are driving around the country in their 33-foot Keystone Montana camper, following the traveling circus known as the NASCAR circuit.
On Sunday, 13,000 miles, six months and 17 races after they retired from jobs with the California prison system, sold their house and left Bakersfield, Calif., they will watch the season finale, the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Neither is a Jeff Gordon loyalist, but they are thrilled to be able to witness his attempt to win his fifth series championship in his final race and wish him a smooth ride into the sunset — just like theirs.
“I wanted to see NASCAR and America, and by seeing one I’ve seen the other,” Darrol said. “We haven’t been back home. This is our home. Every week we find a new home.”
He raised his hands and spun around, indicating the vast campground where NASCAR diehards congregate for a long weekend, setting up a village where they swap stories and beers and debate whether Kevin Harvick is a master strategist or a cheating scoundrel for causing a wreck at Talladega that knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
It’s easy to tell the gravel lot off Palm Drive is the scene of a 24-hour NASCAR tailgate party because of the forest of flapping flags adorned with car numbers and logos signifying each fan’s favorite driver. The loud growl from cars and trucks practicing on the track across the street provides background music to their ears. Just about everyone has lawn chairs sitting atop checkered-flag rugs.
Some arrive in gigantic RVs, like ranch houses on wheels. Others, like four friends from Germany wearing lederhosen during their Florida vacation, sleep in tents.
Mark Birmingham of Leesburg has attended 200 races over the years in his 1990 GMC pickup towing a 25-year-old camper, logging some 500,000 miles (the odometer broke at 309,000). At each campground he erects his Pit Stop bar, a portable outdoor saloon complete with stools and karaoke machine, and hands out free shots.
“It’s a lot more fun to have the party come to you,” said Birmingham, a fan of the late Dale Earnhardt and now Earnhardt Jr., but disdainful of Gordon. He displays a female mannequin dressed in lingerie and beads on which he’s taped Gordon’s face and a wig.
“I’ve never cared for Gordon because he’s kind of a pretty boy,” said Birmingham, who grew up racing on dirt tracks in upstate New York.
This un-manly Gordon stereotype pains Birmingham’s friend Cindy Janesy, who runs a NASCAR betting pool that Birmingham has already wrapped up.
“I still love Jeff,” Janesy said. “I got married in a veil and a Jeff Gordon shirt in the NASCAR room of our house. My husband wore his Dale Sr. shirt. Then we went to Daytona and he got all kinds of abuse for marrying a Gordon fan.”
Janesy met her husband during an internet chat when they were intrigued by each other’s email addresses – hers was Ckelly2424 (Gordon drives the No. 24 Chevy), his was racing03 (Earnhardt Sr.’s number).
Jennifer and Chad Akin met at the Daytona 500, got married and now travel to a half-dozen NASCAR events per year from their home in Atlanta. They are making their first visit to Homestead because they wanted to see Gordon’s “historic” exit. She’s a Kyle Busch fan; he was a Harvick fan until what he calls the “dishonorable” incident on the last lap at Talladega, which prompted Chad to disown Harvick, burn all his Harvick memorabilia in their backyard fire pit and switch allegiances to Junior.
“We’re trying to settle on a driver we can both like and cheer for – maybe Joey Logano,” Chad said as a man drove by in a golf cart selling ice and playing “Dixie.’’
Jennifer and Chad knew they were compatible when they were willing to share beer koozies, even though hers was a Kyle koozie and his was a Junior koozie. They discussed getting married at the Charlotte Motor Speedway start/finish line, but decided on a traditional wedding, followed by a deer “hunting-moon.”
“We really enjoy the freedom of the open road,” Chad said.
They have a 32-foot Gulfstream Conquest and like to play Cornhole, meet friends at races and create bigger and bigger beer can piles – the biggest was about 700 cans at Daytona last winter.
They can’t recall any road trip disasters, “except for running out of beer,” Jennifer said.
Among the pilgrims from Wisconsin, Nevada, Texas, and Washington state is a devoted group from Hollywood who have circled their RVs around the same corner of the campground every year for the past 12. For their annual rite of autumn, they set up a mini golf course with nine home-made holes – each named after a driver -- called the Circle of Friends Country Club and a movie theater with a sheet that serves as a screen.
“Most of us are from Broward but we have some Canadian friends, too,” said Laurie Manning.
Jason Ross and his father Jeffrey Ross of Port Charlotte are avid Gordon fans who couldn’t resist coming to see Gordon’s going-away celebration.
“When I was 10, I thought he had the coolest-looking car,” said Jason, 32. “I know he’s going to win the championship. It’s going to be the perfect ending — the guy who changed the sport goes out on top.”
Rick Littlejohn has been a Gordon follower since Gordon was a 12-year-old kid racing dirt sprint cars on Thursday Night Thunder. He and wife Janet drove to Homestead from Wilmington, N.C., to see Gordon’s last race. They’ve got Gordon banners, a Gordon cooler, a Gordon table and a Gordon drink tray fashioned from a Gordon jigsaw puzzle. Rick was nearly heartbroken last week when he broke a Gordon souvenir — a large replica of the Rainbow Warrior car that lit up.
After Sunday, he’ll be faced with a huge decision: Who is he going to adopt as his favorite driver?
“I’ve thought about it and decided I won’t have to change numbers because Chase Elliott will take over,” he said. “I’ll keep my 24 but it’ll be different cheeks in the seat.”
After the season ends, the Weavers from Bakersfield will debate whether to do another NASCAR trek in 2016. They plan to move to Costa Rica, but they’ve had such a good time as NASCAR groupies savoring a gypsy lifestyle. After 29 years guarding convicts (she was a computer technician for the corrections department), he has seen Mount Rushmore and Pocono Raceway, Myrtle Beach and Martinsville Speedway. They’ve made new friends at every stop.
“Everyone is happy and friendly — not like NFL stadiums where there is a lot of hostility and arguments,” Lisa said. “Every night is a pot luck dinner with neighbors you’ve just met. Every night is open house.”
Darrol — a Harvick fan because he went to the same high school as Harvick and grew up near Harvick’s grandmother — is thinking of visiting the tracks next year they didn’t hit this year.
“We’re having a blast, but my liver is mad at my right hand,” he said. “You know, being on the road is tiring, driving is tiring. I can see why Jeff Gordon is calling it quits.”
Ford Championship Weekend Schedule
Racing: Gates open, 9:30 a.m. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, 10-11 a.m.; NASCAR XFINITY Series Ford EcoBoost 300 qualifying, 11:15 a.m.-12:45 p.m.; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 final practice, 1-2 p.m.; Ford EcoBoost 300, 2:45-6 p.m.
Music: La Esencial K-Torce, 10:15-11 a.m.; Diamond Dixie, 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m.; Ricky Valido, 12:45-1:45 p.m. (all prerace performances are on the Smithfield Stage); Postrace concert, 8-9:30 p.m.; Postrace concert, 10 p.m.-midnight (postrace concerts in the RV Lot).
Entertainment: Hot Rods and Reels fishing tournament, 7-8:30 a.m. (on infield lake at the Speedway); Carli Lloyd Q&A and autograph session, 9:45-11 a.m. (at the XFINITY Zone); Monster Energy Snowmobile Show, 10:30-11:30 a.m., noon-1 p.m., 1:30-2:30 p.m.; Meet Tim from Discovery Channel show “Moonshiners,” 11:15-11:30 a.m. (at the FanVision Fan Zone); Rib-eating contest, 7:30-8 p.m. (in the RV Lot).
Racing: Gates open, 10 a.m. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400, 3-6 p.m.
Music: Kate and the Keys, 10-10:30 a.m., 12:45-1:15 p.m. (on the Smithfield Stage); Tim McGraw prerace performance, 1:30-2 p.m.; Postrace concert, 7:30-10 p.m. (in the RV Lot).
Entertainment: Ford car show, 10 a.m. (at the Speedway); Monster Energy Snowmobile Show, 10:30-11:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 1-2 p.m.