This East Tennessee city welcomed native son Trevor Bayne back into its soggy and wind-blown arms Monday afternoon.
It was a day on which the weather conditions couldn't have been much worse. Violent storms hammered the area, leaving much of it flooded. There were countless lightning strikes, hail and a report of at least one tornado. Still, hundreds of people made their way to the Knoxville Civic Coliseum, where they celebrated both a homecoming for Bayne and his improbable win in this year's Daytona 500.
This is not so much a sports town as it is a Tennessee Volunteers town, where most everything but the sky is bright orange. And as soon as Bayne flashed across the finish line at Daytona February 20, he became very much a part of the local lore in his hometown.
That kind of pride brought out folks like Robin Smith, who arrived in time to station herself and her family directly in front of the podium. They came early, she said with a smile dampened not in the least by the storms, "before the hail." Asked what could possibly bring her out on a day like this one, she replied very simply, "Trevor Bayne."
"He's just six months older than what my son is," Smith continued. "To see someone so young do such an awesome job ... that's something boys that age just dream about."
A few yards down from Smith was Evan Stone, who'd arrived three hours early to get a good spot. Next to him were Wendi Arnold and her nine-year-old son, David. This was a young man who'd been picked up early from school to attend the event.
David had no trouble putting Bayne's accomplishment into all kinds of perspective.
"Dale Earnhardt only won one Daytona 500, and Trevor's already done that," David quipped, with the shyest of smiles. Then, Wendi added, "Trevor is such a super guy, a good role model for kids. We wouldn't come see everybody. You hear him, and he's just got such a good outlook. I think it's a good thing for [David] to hear."
Bristol Motor Speedway hosted the rally, which was first moved from a downtown plaza due to demand and then indoors at the Coliseum because of the poor weather forecast. The track will offer a $100 "Bristol Bayne Backer" package which includes tickets to its upcoming March Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series events, a T-shirt and question-and-answer session with the driver.
"Man, that is the coolest race track we go to," Bayne grinned. "I used to, when I went to Bristol and they announced my name, I'd just hear crickets in the background every now and then. I'm pumped about it this year. If y'all want to scream your lungs out at Bristol, I would really appreciate it."
The homecoming began with a performance by Knoxville's Central High School Bobcat Company -- a choral ensemble and musical theatre troupe of which Bayne was a member during his freshman year of high school, just before he moved to North Carolina to pursue his racing dreams.
Then came the dignitaries. Bristol Motor Speedway General Manager and Executive Vice President Jerry Caldwell presented the driver with a custom-made, Bristol-themed skateboard. Knox County mayor Tim Burchett and Knoxville mayor Daniel T. Brown both proclaimed it Trevor Bayne Day. Condredge Holloway, who starred in the early 1970s at Tennessee as the first African-American quarterback in the history of the Southeastern Conference, gave the driver a UT football jersey with his name and number on the back.
After that, Len and Eddie Wood made their way to the podium. After Bayne wrecked in practice and the race itself just the day before in Phoenix, Len Wood couldn't resist whacking his young driver down to size a little bit.
"Winning the Daytona 500 really changed things for us," he said in earnest. "Trevor is such an amazing talent. He's got it going on in every direction ... but maybe not at Phoenix yet."
When Knoxville resident and master of ceremonies Dr. Jerry Punch opened the floor up for questions for NASCAR's newest superstar, a youngster asked Bayne if he had a favorite Bible verse. He does, and it speaks volumes on his outlook on Daytona ... and the disappointment of Phoenix.
"One that's really stuck out to me this week after Phoenix is Ecclesiastes 7:14," Bayne began. "It talks about being happy in the good times, but just know He made the bad ones as well. You've got to keep that [perspective] to maintain that mountaintop."
Since winning at Daytona, Bayne has been in a whirlwind of motion, traveling from one side of the country and back again for various media appearances. He got back from Phoenix Sunday night, and then headed straight for Knoxville. It was the first time he'd been back to his hometown since the victory.
His schedule has not allowed Bayne much time, if any, to sit back and reflect on the sheer weight of what he was able to do in Daytona. If nothing else, it was one confirmation for him to stay the course.
"Stay dedicated," Bayne said. "There were a lot of times when [bad] things were happening, and I'm like, 'What is going on here?' ... Don't count it as a sacrifice when these things are going on, because it's going to pay off. Whatever it is, whether it's playing football or driving race cars or singing or going to college, just stick with it. In the end, it pays off."