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“Really, I’m not,” he protests. “I’m just a NASCAR fan.” To those unfamiliar with the fastest-growing spectator sport and its hardest-core followers, the distinction between aficionado and wacko seems a fine one. And any way you look at it, Toenniessen is hard-core.
In Manassas, a place hardly devoid of gearheads, folks know Toenniessen (pronounced like “Alfred Lord…”) as the guy who tools around town in an auto that sure appears better prepared for a qualifying round at Daytona than it does to haul a working Joe (or Mat) from Point A to Point B. Several years ago, Toenniessen customized his 1978 Camaro—then and now his only motorized mode of transportation—to look just like the Mello Yellow No. 42 car that Kyle Petty piloted on NASCAR’s superspeedways. Right down to the mandated batch of sponsor decals (Raybestos Brakes, Goody’s Headache
Powders, STP, etc.)
that by rule tart up every front quarter panel on the Winston Cup tour, stock car racing’s major league.
Along with commuting to and from work—he’s in public relations for Sunrise Assisted Living, a Fairfax-based chain of old folks’ homes—in the faux-NASCAR car, Toenniessen also takes it, or vice versa, around the country to as many racing events as his time and budget will allow. Car and driver spent the past weekend together at Dover Downs in Dover, Del., taking in the MBNA 500 with a like-minded bunch of around 110,000. Like virtually every Winston Cup stop, Sunday’s race was a sellout, despite ticket prices that began at $90.
“The sport is definitely a lot bigger than most people realize,” says Toenniessen, 33. “And I’m telling you, as fanatic as I am, I’m not half as bad as a lot of the people I see at the races.” Among the examples of fandom Toenniessen regards as being more devout: Two regular attendees at Winston Cup events each have split-personality vehicles, with one side made up just like Alan Kulwicki’s No. 7 Hooter’s car, the other side just like Davey Allison’s Texaco No. 28 car—both drivers died in off-track incidents in 1993.
“I mean, to paint your car like I did, like just one car, is nothing!” he says.
Of course, Toenniessen’s passion shows up in places other than his car’s paint job. He, for example, proposed marriage to his girlfriend at Talledega last year.
“Got her up in the Unocal observation booth in one of the corners and popped the question,” he recalls. “She didn’t have a clue what was going on.”
“Oh, she said yes. Of course,” Toenniessen says. The couple’s marriage is at least a year away. Though Toenniessen has attended weddings of fellow fans that were done in NASCAR themes, he has no intention—at this time, anyway—of wearing a fireproof suit to the service or having a crew chief officiate the ceremony.
Toenniessen swears he’s typical of the ’90s NASCAR fan, but he’s certainly not stereotypical: He’s originally from Philadelphia, not the Deep South, and he got into racing not as a sidelight to moonshining or auto mechanics, but rather as something to relieve the pressure brought on by grad school (he’s got a dual master’s degree from Villanova in political science and history). “I was reading about 10 books a week because I had to, and I was looking for something less taxing to do on weekends,” Toenniessen says.
“At first I started just watching a race on television occasionally, then it became watching racing every weekend, then I actually went to a race at Dover in the fall of 1992, and, well, I was hooked. There’s just something about the sights and sounds and smells of the track. When a pack of 40 cars rushes past you at 200 miles an hour, you can feel it…everywhere. It’s amazing! And I don’t like to use the word addiction, but it’s a feeling you get addicted to. There’s no middle ground. You go from not caring about the sport to being crazy about it in no time. That’s the same story you hear from everybody at the races, basically.”
By the following racing season, Toenniessen had acquired all the tools of fandom: the binoculars, the earphones, even a police scanner. He doesn’t use the latter tool to eavesdrop on law enforcement.
“You need the scanners to listen in on all the different radio communications going on at the track: from the crews to the driver, the track officials to each other, the television director to the cameramen,” he says. “That’s where you learn how much strategy is going on during all these races, how everything the driver does has a reason to it. Like when to pit, how many tires to take during a pit stop, and how a driver picks another driver to draft with coming out of the pits at Talledega. If he doesn’t team up and get a draft, he’s not going to have enough speed coming out of pit row and back on the track. That’s exactly how these races are won or lost! That’s something that the people who see racing at home don’t get. They just think it’s a bunch of cars going around in circles. Believe me, there’s so much more to it, so much thinking.”
Toenniessen may have a couple of advanced degrees, but his political discourse is right off the bumper. His car is laden with a Limbaughesque litany of idiotic idioms: “Spotted Owls Taste Like Chicken,” “Earth First: We’ll Mine the Other Planets Later!” “EPA: Employment Prevention Agency.” But he swears the billboard bumper isn’t meant to offend or provoke, just to get attention and a few chuckles.
“Every one of those stickers was given to me as a joke from friends who I have political arguments with, and I change them weekly,” he says. “I really am politically conservative, but again, I’m not some nut. It’s all for fun, so don’t read too much into them.”
One political issue that he and other racing crazies aren’t chuckling about, however, is the current move by the Clinton administration to hyperregulate tobacco. R.J. Reynolds, which owns the Winston brand, has poured tens of millions of dollars into the sport over the past three decades. (Joe Camel currently graces the hood of Jimmy Spencer’s Smokin’ Joe’s No. 23 car.) If the proposed regulations are ever implemented, the tobacco giant could be forced out of NASCAR, and that revenue would have to come from another source for racing to maintain its currently high-falutin existence. Though he is not a smoker, Toenniessen comes down on the side of the tobacco industry on the regulatory question.
“This attempt by the FDA to infringe on our personal freedoms has mobilized a lot of people at the tracks, whether they smoke or not,” Toenniessen puffs. “Now, these people are afraid that this could change their sport. I really think the FDA awoke a sleeping giant when they messed with NASCAR fans. The government definitely got my attention.”
So much so, in fact, that Toenniessen is now looking to land a PR job with a NASCAR sponsor, preferably R.J. Reynolds, to join the fight against the FDA proposal.
And Toenniessen is well aware that that car of his might help him get such a position quicker than any line on his résumé. “You know, I really can feel like I’m caught in a draft sometimes when I drive the car,” he says. “Especially whenever I’m behind a truck on the highway.”
The thought of traveling a few feet behind a truck at a high speed seems dangerous to the point of ludicrousness to some—like something only a wacko would do—but Toenniessen says NASCAR fans would understand.
“I try to draft trucks whenever I’m on Route 81,” he says. “Now, that’s a straightaway.”—Dave McKenna