By JESSICA CRAWFORD
Just minutes after 11 a.m. Central Standard Time on Monday, Tammy King of Liberal was seen and heard across the nation as she acted in the capacity of Grand Marshal at the Samsung 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the Texas Motor Speedway.
Not only did King have the opportunity to fill a very honored roll, she was also able to honor her favorite driver as she said, “Tony Stewart, oh yeah, and gentlemen, start your engines.” And as any faithful NASCAR fanatic knows, fans will live and die for their driver.
Prior to travelling to Fort Worth, King did some research online for activities to participate in while attending the race. Samsung’s March to a Million Campaign was her answer.
“I have been there five times and I always try to find something different to do,” King said. “It said that if you recycle cell phones that Samsung 500 would be doing a recycling program, they wanted to recycle a million cell phones. So, I started asking people to bring me their cell phones on Wednesday, April 14. I got 27 cell phones by Thursday, April 15.
“When I went to the races, they had a tent and Samsung and Sprint had computers out there, you could give them your cell phones and put in your name and how many you brought,” she explained. “They told me good luck and everything. They told me to be sure to have my phone, they would be calling that night at 7 o’clock. I asked how long I had to reply and they said only an hour.”
That evening, King had no idea just how productive her recycling efforts would be. While eating out with friends, she got the call.
“We went out to eat and my phone rang right at 7 o’clock and said that I was a winner,” she said with a grin. “We didn’t know what I had won. There was a chance to be in Victory Lane after the race, a chance for a pace car ride when the race started and the Grand Marshal.”
It would be Sunday morning prior to the start of the race that she would learn exactly what her prize was.
“Sunday we had to be there at 9 o’clock,” she said. “We were standing on the Speed Channel’s stage with envelopes. On the count of three, the three of us all had to open our envelopes. It told us what we won. I won the Grand Marshal.”
Although the race would ultimately be postponed until Monday morning at 11 a.m. due to inclement weather, King had plenty to do on Sunday. She had high hopes that Tony Stewart just might stop by her particular location. Unfortunately, King said, that was not the case.
“They gave us an ambassador that takes you around to see what you want to see,” she said. “It was raining, so we hung out in the RV where the Samsung VIPs were. I stayed there most of the day because it was raining. They had a big check in the window because Tony Stewart won the poll. I was asking if Tony Stewart would come by and pick up the check, they told me ‘no.’ I kept asking if they were sure.”
For the past eight years, King has been a diehard NASCAR fan, and since the beginning, Stewart was her man. Since the inception of Stewart-Haas Racing in the 2009 season, Stewart went from No. 20 to No. 14, however, King said, she has been unable to collect much of the No. 14 memorabilia as of yet.
“He is a really good driver and I have liked him ever since I got into racing,” she said proudly. “Everything I have is No. 20, I haven’t changed to No. 14 yet because it is so expensive.”
After a long and rainy Sunday, it was King’s turn to begin the show Monday morning. She was told she could say whatever she felt appropriate as Grand Marshal. After much consideration, her decision was made.
“They told me that I needed to put my touch to it because they said I was the first Grand Marshal that was a woman,” she said. “They thought it was cool that a woman got to say, ‘Start your engines,’ because it was getting all the women, a fellow sisterhood, into NASCAR.
“We were talking about what to say and I wanted to say, ‘Tony Stewart, and gentleman,’ but it made it sound like Tony wasn’t a gentleman,” she continued. “So I said, ‘Tony Stewart, oh yeah, and gentlemen,’ like I forgot about everyone else but him.”
King said she received some static from various radio stations regarding the way she worded her introduction. Many said her referring to Tony Stewart before saying the word “gentlemen,” meant she felt Stewart was not a gentleman – quite the contrary.
“A lot of people were saying bad things about me saying that on the radio stations on the way home,” she said. “I didn’t say it to hurt Tony Stewart, I said it because I love Tony Stewart. I thought it would be funny because he knows I am there for him.”
An aspect to the experience King was the most surprised about was the fact she got to greet every driver prior to Monday’s race. She quickly added that she was able to put her arm around Smoke himself.
“I got to put my arm around him,” she said with an excitement that will stay with her for years to come. “Whenever I got there, I was thinking the Grand Marshal was back in a little room. I was with a guy from Sprint and a guy from Samsung and there were all these people.
“I asked the guy from Sprint if he thought I could get Tony Stewart’s autograph,” she added. “He said, ‘Oh, you might get more than that.’ Then I noticed I was right where the drivers came out so I thought I could take pictures. He said I would get to do even more than that. He told me I would get to shake the drivers hands when they came by. I was so excited. They told me I probably wouldn’t have came if they told me that part.
“I was taking pictures, but I didn’t want to miss anything so I could shake their hands,” she continued with a laugh. “So, in the pictures, all I got was everybody’s feet. I didn’t get any pictures of faces because I don’t want to focus my camera so I could shake hands.”
Sadly, after receiving several autographs that day, King went home without the one she truly coveted, Stewart’s.
“I got 24 autographs, but I tried and tried and couldn’t get Tony’s,” she said. “I did get Tony Stewart’s pit crew’s autograph – they gave me the Sharpie.”
King added she was able to find a spot on turn No. 4 for four laps during the race to take pictures before being escorted to her seat. The entire experience, she said, will never be forgotten.
“It was just awesome,” she said. “I was really hoping Tony would have won this year, if he wouldn’t have wrecked, he probably would have won. He only had 17 more laps to go. Then I had to leave early to get back to work on Tuesday, so I didn’t get to see the wreck.
“My throat was so hoarse from yelling at all the guys,” she concluded. “I think it was an experience of a lifetime. I want to thank them for everything, it was just amazing.”