Stewart hugs his new best girlfriend, Jeannine Laroche, at
NHMS in July.
(Dick Berggren Photo)
DINNER WITH TONY
We invited our friend Dick Berggren to provide a Guest Tearoff on an
unusual dinner he attended last summer.
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!”
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
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.
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.
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.
© 2012 Dick Berggren, Coastal 181
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
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