At this point, you've probably heard the story.
If not, maybe you should move to Eugene, OR, Ottumwa, IA, or Salt Lake City, UT. (Actually, scratch that, don't move to SLC...don't even think about it!)
All three of those media markets and dozens of others across the nation carried the story of Rachel Gilbert's 100th birthday in somewhere seemingly as distant and podunk to most Americans as any of those: Loudon, NH.
Last Tuesday, in anticipation of her centennial on April 28th, Gilbert visited "The Magic Mile" here in Loudon.
She stands at less than five feet and you have to listen closely to pick up her soft voice, but she has a personality that will fill up a room and a story that crossed the country.
Gilbert arrived at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway excited by the chance to get an inside look at a sport she's followed for over half her life. Her family had told her she'd be back on July 17 to take in the LENOX Industrial Tools 301, a prospect that already had her giddy. What happened once she arrived was beyond her wildest dreams.
After a brief meet-and-greet with general manager Jerry Gappens, Gilbert accompanied Gappens outside and climbed in the passenger's seat of the NHMS pace car. Gappens and Gilbert headed out on the track with the lights flashing for Rachel's first chance to see how her favorite driver, Carl Edwards, takes in races.
The rest of the gang, including two daughters and two granddaughters, as well as several of her friends from her assisted living home, headed over to the Granite Stripe to cheer Gilbert on as she took her laps around the track.
After a few laps to warm up the track, Gappens stopped the car on the Stripe and told Gilbert to slide around to the driver's seat because it was her turn to drive! She hadn't driven a car in five years and that soon became apparent: as her family spoke to her in the driver's seat, Gilbert inadvertently put her foot on the gas while in park and the engine started to rev. She was ready to go!
They say that things you do instinctively are like "riding a bike," but, in Rachel's case, it's like driving a car. She quickly got her touch back and topped the car out near 55 mph during several laps around "The Magic Mile." Members of the media, as well as both daughters and granddaughters and her son-in-law, to whom she asks all her racing questions, all got to ride in the back seat, while the rest of us snapped pictures and filmed video from a pursuing Toyota Tundra.
Once she was all done, everyone gathered for cake and some "ho-hum" presents, which included suite tickets and pit passes for the LENOX Industrial Tools 301, a visit to the driver's meeting, a NHMS jacket and LENOX hat, and, direct from Roush Fenway Racing, an autographed Carl Edwards shirt!
While that concluded the festivities for the day, the story of Rachel Gilbert was just getting rolling.
Having worked in the media, I knew this was a nice fluff story that you'd tend to see in the C-block of a newscast, the "Big Finish" in Pardon the Interruption, or "The Point After" in Sports Illustrated. Here, at the Speedway, we knew we'd get local coverage and were optimistic we could garner some attention throughout Boston's media. If the story left New England, we'd be ecstatic.
Anytime "New Hampshire Motor Speedway" is referenced on TV, I get an email so I can view and/or share the clip. In this case, I began regretting that I had set my notifications to hourly. By the time I arrived Wednesday morning, I already had nine notifications.
The first emails were as expected WMUR in Manchester and NECN in Boston had both been on the scene, so we knew they'd have the story. However, I then saw a hit from Toldeo, OH, then Colorado Springs, CO. That's when the story really took off, the next thing I knew it was on the air in Oklahoma City, OK, Cincinnati, OH, Iowa City, IA, Wichita, KS, and Little Rock, AR.
By the end of the morning, Gilbert's story had spread to the West Coast in Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Diego. At 12:11 pm, she'd made it completely to the farthest regions of the United States: Honolulu, HI, mentioned her.
Sometimes, you realize when you're going to make big news. Everyone knew when the Red Sox came back against the Yankees in 2004 that history had been made; everyone knows that Jimmie Johnson's streak of five straight Sprint Cup championships is a historic feat.
However, sometimes you just don't anticipate the media swell that's headed your way. Ask Trevor Bayne who drove his own truck to Daytona in February with the expectation he'd just drive it back afterward.
In our case, we hadn't anticipated just how far this great-grandmother's story would travel. CNN's Morning Buzz picked it up, as did the Oprah Winfrey Network, and there are even rumors that Jay Leno is interested in connecting with Rachel about her experience.
Personally, I'm a Conan O'Brien guy, but you go granny, go!
Regardless of whether her story made it to Honolulu or was just a feel good blurb mentioned in the "Local" section of a nearby newspaper, it was a pleasure to have Rachel Gilbert and her family and friends attend the track last Tuesday.
Congratulations on the centennial Rachel! We look forward to seeing you back here for the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 on July 17.