- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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LAS VEGAS -- Mike Harmon was standing at the garage gate Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, waiting for clearance to begin work on his Nationwide Series car, when a random lady approached with a bewildering request.
She introduced herself as Mara Brodeur, an ardent race fan from Medford, Ore., who was camping in the infield with a group of friends for the race. But one of those friends was missing -- Big George.
George Helms was a diehard. He loved NASCAR, dreamed of someday attacking the high-banks at Daytona or Bristol or Darlington. But he never got that chance. They called him Big George for a reason. He stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 400 pounds and thus couldn't fit in a racecar.
So when Big George died last December -- of a heart attack at age 54 -- Mara set out to make certain his dream didn't die, too.
Enter Mike Harmon.
"They had his ashes in an urn and wanted me to ride him around the racetrack," Harmon said, with a chuckle, as he stared at the ground as if to deflect the attention.
As a whole, racecar drivers are a superstitious lot. Not many guys would do this, but Harmon has his reasons. He's cheated death. At Bristol Motor Speedway in 2002, Harmon narrowly escaped death in a crash during practice that Kenny Wallace called "the worst wreck in NASCAR history."
And then there was history. Harmon was moved by a tribute performed by Top Fuel drag racer Brandon Bernstein at Bristol Dragway, when he placed the ashes of a fan in the parachute of his car during a race.
"I thought that was so neat, and I thought this was neat too," Harmon said. "Once you're gone, that's it. Anything I can do to make them feel better, I want to do it."
So he took the urn and taped it to the fire extinguisher of his car, and there it rode for the entire practice session Friday afternoon.
Afterwards, overcome with emotion, Big George's friends hugged Harmon and thanked him.
"I'm a believer and when it's your time, you're gone -- I proved that at Bristol," Harmon said. "I know a lot of guys that are skeptical about doing stuff like that, but it didn't bother me. I enjoyed doing it. It made me feel good to see tears in their eyes after it was done.
"I guess if Big George would have seen the crash at Bristol he'd have been scared to death because that area of the car was gone. I hadn't had much luck with the ridealong program after that wreck."
Harmon is certain Big George enjoyed the ride.
"I swear, and I know you'll think I'm crazy, but I'm not kidding -- one time when it [the urn] was in the car I heard somebody squealing when we was going through (Turns) 1 and 2," Harmon said. "I swear I did. I heard a noise I've never heard before. It happened just one time, through Turns 1 and 2."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
2dLaurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders