Commentary

NASCAR love and TheSix

Updated: April 20, 2012, 3:15 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

I recall sheer bewilderment years ago when I learned Brian Vickers had skipped his senior prom to race a Nationwide event at Bristol Motor Speedway. It just seemed so foreign to me, like pressing a fast-forward button through the cassette tape of innocence. One of life's most celebrated rights of passage -- Prom Night -- was nothing more than a speed bump.

Looking back, I figure it was a solid decision. Vickers had talent, and his parents signed off on the deal. Race car drivers are a hell of a lot sexier than prom kings, anyway. Trust me, I know. I was a prom king.

And Vickers wasn't done. A month later, he showed up late for graduation. Charlotte qualifying took precedence.

That story leads me to TheSix. It is a fantastic tale about another young man choosing to skip (formal) graduation in favor of NASCAR racing.

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Casey Sturgill, an Alabama Crimson Tide graduate student from a map dot called Walnut Cove, N.C., spent his parents' hard-earned money to earn a college degree from Chapel Hill, then supplemented that degree with his own dime to earn a master's from Tuscaloosa. During his time at Alabama, Sturgill discovered he shared a passion for NASCAR with Frank Blewitt of Scranton, Pa. The men forged a friendship, and every year since, they've saddled up and made the 45-mile pilgrimage east to Talladega.

But when they began planning the trip for this May, Sturgill discovered a substantial dilemma: Bama graduation and Talladega Superspeedway fall on the same weekend. So Sturgill had a decision to make: Disappoint the family or disappoint NASCAR Nation?

They broke out the pros-and-cons chart and went to work. NASCAR won out overwhelmingly.

"That's when the idea popped in his head to combine the best of both worlds, which would make for a good story to tell the grandkids someday," Blewitt wrote me in an email.

To achieve the goal, they'll erect a makeshift stage in the Talladega campground, complete with a microphone. Then they plan to rally some random passers-by, and slap caps and gowns on them. Sturgill will be the lone graduate, while his buddies will play the roles of chancellor, president and provost. They'll all say unprintable words about Sturgill, photographs will be captured and video shot, and they'll conclude with a Victory Lane celebration.

It promises to be a festive gathering. Given his devotion to the Fender-Bangin' Faith Revival -- and the fact that he stands on the precipice of entering the workforce -- I deemed it highly pertinent that I grill Mr. Sturgill about his decision-making methodology.

It is quite possibly my favorite interview of the year. Or maybe ever.

1. #TheSix: Why did you choose NASCAR over Alabama graduation?

Sturg (I have no idea whether he goes by Sturg, but at TheSix, we have nicknames -- all of us. So henceforth he will be "Sturg"): Absolute no-brainer. Among other reasons, the cost of caps and gowns is absolutely outrageous. For the cost of an Alabama cap and gown, I can purchase a ticket in the lower-level Talladega section, a seat back and a hot dog. Then we had to consider all the rules associated with graduation: no yelling, no fighting, no air horns, no flags, no charcoal grills -- and they require shirts and shoes. Finally, my best good friends from Stokes County, N.C., and Chapel Hill, N.C., would not consider coming 8.5 hours to party for my Alabama MBA graduation. Would they consider driving 8.5 hours for 2.66 miles at 200-plus miles per hour? Hell. Yes.

#TheSix: Hillbilly Logic reigns supreme. In fact, with rationale like that, Hillbilly Logic must be core curriculum at Bama.

2. #TheSix: What inside your soul, exactly, made you decide that NASCAR racing was more important than walking across the stage in celebration of such an amazing accomplishment?

Sturg: Alabama is an amazing university, and I'm extremely proud of finishing my MBA. But honestly, the way I see it, graduation wasn't going to make the hair on my neck stand up like a football Saturday afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium. In undergrad at UNC, my parents "strongly encouraged" me to walk, and I'm glad they did. I wouldn't trade my graduation day at UNC for anything. But Talladega wasn't happening right up the road when I graduated from undergrad. I'm basically taking a gamble here that moving the ceremonies to Talladega will be more memorable for me and my friends than graduation. And with all due respect to the commencement speaker slated for Bama's graduation, I don't remember the commencement speaker from my graduation at UNC. I actually don't ever remember any commencement speaker at any graduation I've ever attended for friends or family members. Ever.

[+] EnlargeCasey Sturgill
Casey Sturgill Casey Sturgill, in the "I lyke turtles" shirt, and friends party during Hallodega 2010.

#TheSix: A very fair assessment. I don't recall my commencement speaker, either. I was supposed to be a commencement speaker this year, but alas, I was trumped by a politician.

3. #TheSix: Who paid for your undergrad at Chapel Hill and grad at Bama? You, Momma and Daddy, or a loan?

Sturg: My folks, who are the absolute best in the world, paid for my undergraduate studies. I contributed a negligible amount, but it was 95 percent on them. Grad school at Bama is all on me, and I wouldn't want it any other way. The folks have done enough, and I could never repay them in 100 years. I work three part-time jobs now, including one with Frank, to keep the wolf away from the door and to keep my loans manageable. However, I still want to vomit when I get my loan summaries. And I sometimes want to punch people in the face when they say, "Oh, everyone has debt." They should party with out-of-state tuition, and then they'll know what debt is.

#TheSix: We'll supply the beer for you poor souls.

4. #TheSix: What'd your parents say about this decision?

Sturg: Like many decisions I've made, it drew a brief period of silence from my mom. But this was nothing compared to her reaction when she saw the apartment I picked in Tuscaloosa in the summer of 2009. I was and I still am on a tight budget, so I'm living in an apartment "complex" that was built circa 1943 and looks like it should be condemned. My sweet mother cried when she saw it, because "she wants what's best for me … and this place isn't the best." Anyway, back to the graduation decision: Given that T-Town is a heck of a drive from Walnut Cove, N.C., and they got to see me graduate from my dream school, UNC, she wasn't too torn up about my plans to skip out this time around. And you know how most dads are. Pops wasn't upset; he wants me to have a good time. He said, "Roll Tide."

#TheSix: Roll Damn Tide.

5. #TheSix: If you could have any NASCAR personality be your keynote speaker at Dega Commencement, who would it be?

Sturg: I'd say the least divisive NASCAR personality amongst all my friends is actually Tony Stewart. We all love "Smoke." And then there's the Tar Heel on ESPN's staff, Mr. [Brad] Daugherty; he rules. And from an academic point of view, the "Good Doctor" [Jerry Punch] could add academic relevance to our shenanigans. I know you asked for one; I just love NASCAR and I love you guys' crew so freaking much, I couldn't stop. We're so easily excitable, it's unreal.

#TheSix: We know a couple of these folks. We'll see what we can arrange. Stay tuned.

In closing, Sturg enlightened us with this little nugget: His most recent conversation with Blewitt about graduation weekend centered on the plausibility of stuffing a trek to Nashville into the itinerary -- to see the Saturday night Eric Church show.

"That's most likely not going to happen," Sturg wrote. "But … that's why they invented Amp Energy drink and cruise control. Roll Tide. Go Heels. Let's freaking party."

I love this guy.

If I ever create a TheSix T-shirt, Sturg gets first dibs. He embodies TheSix.

Marty,

I love you, brother. You bring the damn truth every day. But why do you always have to talk about Dale Jr? What the hell has the guy done to deserve all that coverage?

-- Gary Herman, St. Louis

It's very simple, Gary: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is captivating and extremely popular. There's no one in the garage who carries his influence. Not even close. Not Tony Stewart. Not Jeff Gordon. Not Jimmie Johnson. Nobody. And that, sir, is the very crux of your argument: Why do we care so much about a guy who hasn't won in four years and whose time at NASCAR's resident powerhouse has been a disappointment?

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. is simply one of the most interesting people in sports.

Folks claim it's the name. It's not. At least not for me. If Junior were boring or indifferent in his analysis of his life's passion, the name wouldn't matter. But he's neither. That guy loves racing. Period.

Far more people want to hear about Earnhardt than don't, and more often than not, he'll sneak in a comment that's so clever you don't catch its impact until you go back later and listen again. Folks voice to me sometimes that his sentences sound uneducated. That's a shame, because truth be told, he's well-read and quite intelligent.

His thought processes are deep and genuine. In a world in which most folks are entirely too calculated, I appreciate his candor very much. I'd interview him every bit as much if his last name were Jones -- you just wouldn't care as much. That's why I refuse to apologize for our coverage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

SONG OF THE WEEK

"Desperately," by George Strait. Listen to it. Monte Warden and Bruce Robison wrote it about Warden's divorce. It is lyrically fantastic. There's a great story about Warden's young son walking up to Strait in the meet-and-greet line and hollering, "Thanks for the cut, Mr. Strait!" Fantastic.

"I make the coffee for one … I turn the radio on …"

It's sacrilege, I know … but I'm not the hugest Strait fan. Sure, he has a trillion No. 1 singles, and that's wonderful. And he's King George. He can sing the phone book. But I love great writers. King sings. King doesn't pen.

MY WEEK: Penske Racing asked me to host a driver forum at its shop this week to discuss the effect of its sponsorship partners on the organization. NASCAR drivers Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. were on hand, as well as IndyCar stars Ryan Briscoe and Will Power. The session was absolutely hilarious. The most memorable thing I learned from each driver:

1. Brad Keselowski: BK's first sponsor? Santa Claus. That's right. Jolly Ol' St. Nick. Keselowski always wanted to race a quarter-midget that a childhood neighbor out in Nowhere, Michigan, used as a yard ornament. But Keselowski's father, Bob, wouldn't let him race until he was certain his boy could tune on the thing. But Brad couldn't tune it without tools. And Daddy wasn't sharing. While working in Bob's shop, Brad would sneak a wrench or two here and there to work on that quarter-midget. But he never had his own set. Until Christmas 1997. Brad was 12, and Santa showed up with a tool set. The rest is history. Keselowski still has the tool set. And the original note is still attached: "To Brad, from Santa."

2. Will Power: I'd never met Power until Wednesday. But he sold me early. I asked the panel members the coolest thing they'd gotten to do because of a sponsor relationship. Power's answer was the opportunity to take in the Super Bowl, which he attended as a guest of his sponsor, Verizon. In describing the circus, Power was wide-eyed and struggled to articulate the spectacle. Then, in true racer fashion, he nailed it: "It's … it's like the Indianapolis 500 of American football." The gathering erupted. Best part? Power seemed to have no idea why. Rock and roll.

3. Ryan Briscoe: In discussing his rise from go-karts to Formula One test driver to IndyCar winner, Briscoe detailed his tour through Europe as a young racer. It was in stark contrast to how stock car drivers from the States move through the ranks. Keselowski and I were quite intrigued. Briscoe quit school in Australia at 15, left home and moved to Italy, where he lived atop his go-kart shop with another aspiring racer. He rode a bike 10 miles round-trip every day to his team's headquarters. His big break came when a teammate was being recruited by Toyota F1, and his team manager told them they should look at Briscoe, too. That led to the F1 testing opportunity, which led to his move to the U.S. to race for Penske. That's nomadic stuff. In fact, his time at Penske is the longest he's been with a racing organization. He has been competing for nearly 20 years. It reminded how remarkably difficult it is to make it in motorsports. It's grain-of-sand odds.

4. Sam Hornish Jr.: Picking Hornish's best story was difficult. He was absolutely on fire, which shocked me. I'd never seen him so talkative. He discussed building his daughter's tree house and the prospect of installing an elevator. He got one from a local church but he's yet to install it, says it'll take some finagling to get it firing again. There's a rope for his kids to climb, but it's13 feet tall. That's a long drop. Then there was the story about his first sponsor, Uniden motorcycle phones, which gave him $250,000 in product instead of cash. So he bought the phones from the team for $65,000 and set forth trying to sell them himself. It was futile. But fortunately Jon Menard -- Paul's daddy, one of the richest men on the face of the planet -- bailed him out. Menard bought 1,700 phones, while Hornish sold 300 to the local optimist club. The remaining 500 were signed and sold separately. Hornish joked that if Menard ever wondered why Hornish was such a thorn in his side during the IndyCar days, Menard should simply look in the mirror, because Menard bought the phones that propelled Hornish to IndyCar legend. Now, about that legend. Once, during Hornish's domination of IndyCar racing, he was courtside at an Indiana Pacers playoff game. During a timeout, he turned around to check out the crowd. Four rows behind him? Peyton Manning. Suddenly Hornish felt pretty cool. And very guilty. "I felt like I should offer him my seat. He's Peyton Manning." Then, after the game Manning approached him to ask whether he could come out to the track. Of course he could. Now Manning and Hornish are buds.

Marty,
You're a music guy and recently the Song of the Week was "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," so I expect you to have some thoughts on Levon Helm. I'd appreciate if you shared them.

-- Kyle Robinson, Memphis, Tenn.

Levon Helm was one of the greatest, most influential voices in the history of rock 'n' roll. He, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and the boys in The Band melded virtually every genre of music into one kick-you-in-the-mouth-this-is-real-life-son stick of dynamite.

[+] EnlargeLevon Helm
Douglas Mason/Getty ImagesLevon Helm brought a lot of smiles to music fans worldwide. He died Thursday of throat cancer.

My good friend Bill Armour, a former sponsor executive in the NASCAR industry who still dabbles around these parts but has his feet firmly planted in music, too, handed me at Bristol The Band's 1983 double-disc, live from Tokyo with the Cate Brothers. Holy smokes. It is masterful.

I read a piece this week in Esquire magazine, written by Charles Pierce, that said Levon was the real Voice of America back in the war-torn Vietnam '60s. America was terribly divided, and Levon was a human lynchpin. It is now 2012, and America is again torn politically. Amazingly, Levon's words have lost zero impact.

Robertson is a ridiculous writer. Some of the yarns that dude spun are so clever you just scratch your head in admiration. It breaks my heart that Levon got so sick and suffered, but does my heart well that Robertson went to see him recently.

I can't imagine the magic we missed as a result of their longtime personal rift.

"Whooooaaaaaaaa you don't know … the shape I'm in …"

Rest easy, Levon … and thank you so much for the passion.

The passion always wins.

Always.

Forgive me, Team. TheSix became The Three this week. Great topics make me ramble. That's my time this week. Thanks for hanging out. And thanks for being NASCAR fans.

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