- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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"This is a long way from Kannapolis, ain't it?"
Those were the words of Dale Earnhardt 14 years ago as he stepped out of the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel (note the ultra-cool double hyphen) to go downstairs to the ballroom to accept his seventh NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy.
As usual, The Man in Black (this night it was a black tuxedo) was spot-on.
On Friday night, for the 28th time, NASCAR will drop its shop rags and pick up champagne flutes at the world-famous digs at 301 Park Ave.
"When we first walked in there, it was like, 'Whoa,'" says former racer and team owner Junior Johnson, who owned Darrell Waltrip's title-winning ride at the first Waldorf awards ceremony in 1981. "I think some of those people thought we'd come in there raising hell, you know? Maybe they were expecting a bunch of hillbillies. But we must not have been too bad, because they keep letting us come back."
The first four banquets were held in the Starlight Room (Waltrip won the first two), but soon the event outgrew that large but cozy hall and moved into the soaring four-story-tall Grand Ballroom. As the sport has grown, the event has expanded with it, adding live entertainment, celebrity emcees and more penguin suits than "Happy Feet."
So what has worked, what hasn't, and what have the truly memorable moments been? Read ahead. Just don't mind me if I don't stick around. I have to go pick up my tux from some guy named Sal in Queens who says he can get me a killer deal.
In 1995, Jeff Gordon held off Dale Earnhardt to win his first Cup Series title, enduring a season full of cracks from the The Intimidator about his youthful appearance and youngest-ever-champion age of 23. "If he wins it," Earnhardt quipped, "he'll have to toast everyone with milk." On the stage Gordon did exactly that, holding up a glass to his rival and saluting him on a "great season, man." Even if you hated him (and plenty of fans did), it was very cool.
In 2006, Kyle Busch thanked his girlfriend Eva for her support then remembered that her name was actually Erica.
Most Brutal Rite of Passage
After the tragedy of 9/11, NASCAR added NYPD and FDNY appearances to the already-hectic Champions Week schedule. In 2004, the firemen decided to test the "Are racers athletes?" question by taking champ Kurt Busch down to their training facility and running him through the rookie-training obstacle course, which includes hauling a deadweight fire hose up several flights of stairs. "I did it," Busch said. "But all I kept thinking was that it was going to put a damper on the festivities when I had a heart attack and died two days before the banquet."
Best Video Upgrade
After a decade of using music videos to introduce each member of the top 10 in points, the league finally gave in to the pleas of their Emmy-winning television production division, NASCAR Media Group (formerly NASCAR Images), and in 2007 rolled out features and sit-down interviews with all the honorees. Last year's videos included hilarious and sometimes downright touching interviews with the drivers' wives and mothers. "This year's will be more sit-down features, but they're going to be even better," promises NMG Executive Producer Jim Jorden, who used to oversee production at NFL Films. We tried to reach producer Patti Ennis for comment, but she's been locked up in an edit suite since May on an IV drip of Red Bull and Maxwell House.
Best Celebrity Appearance
No matter how you feel about Garth Brooks, when he sang "The Dance" at the 2001 banquet to pay tribute to Dale Earnhardt, who had died just 10 months earlier, there wasn't a dry eye on the isle of Manhattan.
Worst Celebrity Appearance
Actor James Woods served as master of ceremonies in 2002 during a two-year experiment away from the Waldorf in the Hammerstein Ballroom on 34th Street. Because nothing says good times like Hollywood's go-to smarmy bad guy handing out trophies and checks.
Best Use of a Prop
In 1991, Davey Allison and Ricky Rudd were locked in a bitter season-long battle for the points lead that nearly came to blows at Sonoma when Rudd spun Allison to take the lead (though NASCAR black-flagged Rudd and gave the win back). Rudd finished second in the standings, edging Allison by only four points, and at the '91 banquet called Allison up to present him with a "crying towel." A smiling Rudd and the onlooking crowd thought it was hilarious. Davey did not.
Say what you want about Tony Stewart, but he's the only guy who annually ignores the teleprompter and actually tries to be funny, despite the fact that he obviously couldn't care less about finishing in any points position other than first. One year ago he reacted to his video introduction by thanking crew chief Greg Zipadelli for "playing the wife role in my video," and in 2002 the champ poked fun at his midseason altercation with a photographer by producing a camera and snapping a shot of the NASCAR paparazzi sitting on the front row.
Ugh, take your pick. Good guys, yes. Good speakers, no. Bill Elliott annually gave his speeches with all the emotion of a character in Disney's Hall of Presidents. These days, that robotronic tradition is carried on by Kasey Kahne, who reads off the teleprompter in super slo-mo while sweating as if he is wearing underwear marinated in Ben-Gay.
Best Seat in the House
The opera box annually reserved for the crew of the championship driver. While the champ, car owner and crew chief have to sit onstage and stay on their best behavior, the boys get to throw down adult beverages high above the action. Last year, guest presenter Tom Brokaw pointed to the 48 Lowe's bunch and jokingly suggested an intervention from the Betty Ford Center. "Every year I am tempted to take bets," says '99 Cup-winning crew chief Todd Parrott, "on whether or not a drunk tire changer is going to do a crowd dive from up there."
Worst Seat in the House
In 1992, both Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt finished outside the top 10 in points. But they decided to do their duty as the two biggest stars in the sport and made the trip to New York anyway. Big mistake. "We were in the back of the room sitting on the backs of our chairs so we could see," Wallace recalled years later. "It was miserable. Dale looked at me and said 'This sucks. I should have gone hunting.'" The next year they finished 1-2, Rusty trailing Dale by a scant 80 points.
Best Championship Moment
That same year NASCAR's unlikeliest champion made a request that not even the league fun police could say no to and even Wallace and Earnhardt had to admit was pure magic. As independent driver/owner Alan Kulwicki took the stage to accept the Cup, the Grand Ballroom was filled with the sounds of the racer's handpicked walk-up song, Frank Sinatra's "My Way." The house was packed with Kulwicki's peers, many who loathed his lack of people skills. But everyone came to their feet in thunderous applause as Ol' Blue Eyes sang "The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!"
The impact of that image and that song has grown over the years thanks to Kulwicki's heartbreaking death the following April. Anyone who witnessed it on television 16 years ago still talks about it to this day. Those who were in the Grand Ballroom that night can barely talk about it without becoming a little misty-eyed.
There's never been a more genuine moment during what can be a fun but sometimes whitewashed event. Here's hoping we're rewarded with a few more of those moments Friday night.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.