Most fans of big league NASCAR racing never get closer to their heroes than seeing them on TV. In July 2011, four of his fans shared an intimate evening with Tony Stewart.
The New Hampshire Motor Speedway branch of Speedway Children’s Charities, which raises money to benefit local kids in need, had auctioned off the night with Tony to the two highest bidders, each of whom was allowed to bring just one guest. I attended the dinner representing NASCAR on FOX and Speedway Illustrated magazine, along with Greg Kretchmar, the area’s top radio personality.” That was it in the room, just four fans, two media types, Tony Stewart and the folks who created their dinner.
And what a dinner it was, served in Bruton Smith’s suite high above the track. It was prepared by Smith’s personal chef and was as elegant a meal as could have been found in the finest restaurant in New York City. But the food was much less important to those four fans than this up-close one-on-one with their favorite driver.
When Tony first walked in, he spotted one of the fans, 79-year old Jeannine Laroche, and told her in a loud voice, “Well, this is trouble. I’m going to have to call my girlfriend and tell her it’s off. Baby,” he said to Jeannine, “You’re hot!”
That comment brought laughter and set the tone for the evening. When it came time to decide who was to sit where, Stewart insisted that Jeannine sit next to him. She became Stewart’s favorite person for the entire night.
Jeannine’s daughter, Francine Slesinski, had won the auction with a mind to bringing her mother together with her favorite driver. Jeannine had become a big Stewart fan – she thought her son Raymond looked a little like Tony. And Raymond had raced with the number 20 just like Tony had for so many years.
When the evening ended, four fans had memories to last a lifetime. Stewart signed everything the tiny group asked to have signed. He posed for photos. He answered every question. He cracked jokes. He told stories. And he stayed well after dinner was over, engaging this group far beyond the event organizers’ wildest hopes. And he paid more attention to Jeannine Laroche than anyone else.
On Sunday, Tony had a good race, one of his best of the year so far. Mother and daughter, Jeannine and Francine, were in the stands when he qualified second, led 48 laps, and finished second. The Chase for the championship began a few short weeks later and Stewart announced on its eve that he was just “taking up space” because his team wasn’t good enough to win the championship. But, when the Chase started at Chicagoland, Stewart led 35 laps and won the race. It was his first win of the year in NASCAR’s top series.
There was an empty seat next to Francine the following week when the September race began at New Hampshire. Jeannine’s health was in decline and she was unable to attend, but she planned to watch it at home on TV.
Stewart won that race, a stunning second victory of the year and his second win in a row. He came out of the day leading the points.
When the race ended, an excited Francine called home to talk to her mother. But, there was bad news. Francine was told that her mother had just died. She had clung to life just long enough to see Stewart win his second in a row and take the lead for the championship which he ultimately won. When the race ended, she passed away.