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Trevor Bayne had never met Pat Summitt, but growing up in Knoxville, he learned the name and how synonymous it was with the University of Tennessee.
Jerry Caldwell had never met Pat Summitt, but the general manager of Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway saw how she had embodied her motto "Fierce Courage" since her diagnosis last August of early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Brandon Flynn, co-owner of a fan sponsorship company, had never met Pat Summitt, but some of his fondest childhood memories are of riding on his father's shoulders into Neyland Stadium on majestic autumn afternoons. The Volunteers mean a lot to him, too, and Summitt, he said, had represented them beyond well before retiring after last season with eight women's basketball national championships and a record 1,098 victories.
|Legendary coach Pat Summitt retired in April; now she's becoming a NASCAR fan.|
So there they stood with Summitt at a news conference in Knoxville this July, unveiling plans for Bayne's Roush Fenway Racing team to contest Friday night's Nationwide Series race at Bristol in a "We Back Pat"-themed car sponsored by Flynn's company. They arrived there together after a series of well-intentioned acts synchronized in a short period of time.
Caldwell and his marketing team initiated the idea of a tribute to Summitt, calling Roush Fenway, which was seeking sponsorship for Bayne's entry this weekend. Roush Fenway directed Caldwell to Flynn, who contacted the Pat Summitt Foundation and elicited the help of a national claims adjusting company to bolster his fan sponsorship company's effort to fund the car. Once the plan was set, Bristol Motor Speedway announced that Summitt would make her first visit to a NASCAR race as grand marshal.
It's a Tennessee story. But it's also a story for everyone as Summitt and her foundation attempt to raise awareness for Alzheimer's research. The Volunteer orange paint scheme is just a bonus.
"To be honest, I was surprised ... pleasantly surprised," Summitt said in an email to espnW.com. "I never dreamed I would see a race car with my name on it. My family and friends are beyond excited."
Summitt said she was "very thankful for the support in my fight. I welcome the NASCAR community to the team we are building through The Pat Summitt Foundation to fight Alzheimer's on a national level."
Bayne became the youngest to win a Daytona 500 in 2011 when he captured NASCAR's biggest prize at 20 years, one day for the Wood Brothers, one of the sport's bedrock teams.
Personable, marketable and pious, he should have been cued for a launch as a major new NASCAR star, a Tim Tebow with fireproof britches. But circumstances have conspired against him. Farmed out to the Wood Brothers for partial Sprint Cup campaigns since 2010 because Roush has had no room or no sponsorship for him in its Sprint Cup stable, he remains a driver with the most coveted trophy in the sport but without a full-time ride.
Bayne, who joked with Summitt that her next NASCAR race would be anticlimactic after such a ceremonious debut this weekend, called the Lady Vols' coach emeritus "Tennessee's icon."
"She was an awesome lady," he said. "She was friendly as can be, and really nice, seems levelheaded, doesn't go too high or too low. I think that's what makes her such a good coach, is she can stay cool through it all. I told her she needed to come sit on my box and help the crew chief with the pit crew. Maybe she'll come hang out with us."
As grand marshal, Summitt will give the command, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines." Due to the difficulty of getting up the tower, she will not be waving the green flag.
Summitt said she is "quickly becoming a fan of NASCAR."
Bayne is quickly becoming a fan of wearing his Vols hat around the track and shop without incurring the wrath of his mechanics, many of whom root for other SEC teams and have vandalized his Tennessee license plate holder and wired his truck's horn to sound each time he applied his brakes.
"Even the guys in the shop that are Alabama fans, Florida fans, they're stoked about it," Bayne said of the Summitt car. "They give each other heck about it, but I wore that Tennessee hat the first time I went there because I'm a Vols fan, and Tennessee being Bristol and it's my home-track race, I think the fans will love it when we roll it on the track."
Caldwell said the idea originated as "one of those, what if, wouldn't it be neat if, things."
"You never know," he said. "You pass along ideas when you have them, especially if you feel like they have some merit. With this one, my background is from the sales side of things, so a lot of times when you've got a gut feeling on something like this, if it makes a lot of sense, it probably does and will work for other individuals. I felt like it was one that had a solid chance, but you never know what other factors will play in."
Flynn said Summitt "wouldn't know me on a first-name basis," but he feels a connection to the coach because of how she represented his state. The co-owner of a company of a nationwide adjusting firm, he also runs yourracecar.com, which sells fans space for their names or photographs on cars they sponsor for fees from $20-$1,900. Space for roughly 500 names and more than 50 pictures were purchased, he said, after the Summitt promotion was announced. His company is selling "We Back Pat" memorabilia, with 25 percent of proceeds benefitting her foundation and its support of Alzheimer's research. The race car also will be auctioned, with proceeds benefiting the foundation.
"Pat Summit has been Lady Vols basketball coach ever since I was born. I'm 33 years old," Flynn said. "It's been great knowing we're doing it for a good cause in general, but doing it for the basketball coach from the University of Tennessee has made it even more special."