It had been nearly a year since Justin Allgaier went to Victory Lane when he returned to that hallowed ground in May at Darlington Raceway.
For as meaningful as it was to win again in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, this was different from previous triumphs.
Between smiles, cheers and hat changes, Allgaier repeatedly pulled and tugged at the left cuff of his firesuit.
“I didn’t realize the significance,” he told NBC Sports, “until I kept moving it. And kept moving it. And kept moving it.”
Then he understood why.
And what was missing that day.
A SPECIAL GIFT
Allgaier beams when he hears tales of what his dad, Mike, was like decades ago. Mike was in the tire business and went to various racetracks, supplying competitors.
He chuckles at the tale of his father hauling race tires in a horse trailer because that’s all he had. Or the time his father strapped a load of tires to the side of the car that he drove to the track.
“I remember him talking … about how they literally would work an event just to even come up with enough money to pay the gas to get back home,” Allgaier said.
It was that type of work ethic that has been a part of Mike’s makeup. Allgaier says those who have known his father for years will tell him that nobody worked harder than Mike.
Something else about Mike in those days: It wasn’t uncommon for him to break a watch and go to a jeweler to pick up a replacement at a reasonable price. But then Mike would be back seemingly a month or two later after breaking another watch. The cycle repeated for years.
Mike and the jeweler became friends over time. The jeweler even helped Allgaier’s parents find a new home.
One day about 40 years ago, Mike was helping the jeweler move some things when the jeweler took off his Rolex watch and gave it to Mike, telling him: “You’re never buying another watch ever again.”
Mike wore that watch nearly every day after that.
Then one day, the watch stopped.
It was the same day that Mike found out that his friend, the jeweler, had died.
Mike Allgaier later walked into the jewelry store that his friend, who died, had run. He told an older woman behind the counter how special the watch was and the story of how it was given to him by the jeweler.
He didn’t realize he was talking to the jeweler’s mom.
“She started crying,” Mike told NBC Sports. “Then I started crying.”
The watch was repaired and Mike continued to wear it.
Years later, Mike and his wife were cleaning their home when he asked his son a question.
“Of all the things that your mom and I have collected over the years and have … What’s something that you want whenever we’re gone?”
Allgaier immediately responded.
“Truth be told, you only have one thing that I want.
“I want your watch.”
It was the one item that had been with his father through those early years of struggle. It was there when Allgaier was born, when his father took him to watch races and later took him to go racing.
The watch was more than a timepiece. It was a symbol of friendship, fatherhood and hard work.
“I think for me, the dedication of him wearing the same watch every day,” Allgaier said of why he wanted the watch. “I’m a watch fan. I love watches. I own a number of watches. I think some of that has to do with the fact that he wore this watch all the time.”
The watch’s longevity made it, in a way, a companion to many of the mundane moments of life and many of the special moments. It connected past with present.
“Very rarely you find people have that attachment to one thing over that many years – furthermore, that it survived that many years,” Allgaier said.
“My dad was hard on his watch, I can assure you that. There were many days I would watch him load and unload tires from the tire store and work on race cars and work on semis and do whatever he needed to do to get the job done, and this watch went through all of it. It got beat up and banged and just kept going.”
Allgaier’s love of racing goes back to his father’s work in the industry, selling tires at tracks and in the ARCA series for years.
After Allgaier won the Xfinity race at Indianapolis in 2018, he became emotional in his interview with NBC Sports, recounting how his father drove him 3 1/2 hours each Wednesday from their Illinois home to the speedway during the winter for classes that would make Allgaier a better driver outside the car.
“Dad, I got to do this to help my racing career,” Mike recalls his son saying at the time.
“I’ll make you a deal,” his dad said. “I’ll make the effort and get you over there and back, if you make the effort to do the job.”
They went for three years. One time, the weather was so bad that the meeting was canceled. Mike got the call while less than an hour from Indianapolis.
“All right,” the caller told Mike, “we’re having the meeting then.”
And they did.
During those trips, the routine often was the same. Allgaier would do homework in the car on the way to track and sleep on the way back home.
Those trips were just among the many father and son shared.
At one point, Allgaier and his dad would go from their Illinois home to Charlotte, North Carolina, and Allgaier would race a Bandolero car. Then, they would head to Indiana for Allgaier to race a Kenyon midget. The weekend would feature micro sprint races Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Allgaier would race a late model.
“For me,” Allgaier said, “racing has always been a family sport.”
When Allgaier turned 35 in 2021, his dad gave him what he always wanted.
Mike told his son that he’d rather give Allgaier the watch now than for someone to hand it to him after his father’s passing.
“I can watch you enjoy it just as I enjoyed it,” Allgaier recalls his father telling him when he gave him the gift.
His father does.
“When I wear my watch, I’ll catch him looking at it, and I think in some aspects, he’s just ultra-proud that he was able to pass something down that I cherished.”
Allgaier wears the watch most days.
“Every time I look down at it, I just think about the memories my dad and I had over the years,” he said. “Me growing up and just thinking about that watch and how many times I was worried he was going to lose it, or I was worried it was going to break. All these little things that as a kid, you think about, and now to be an adult and have this watch and to know the story behind it is really special for me and something I’ll cherish every day until the day I’m gone.
“Hopefully one of these days, I can pass it down to one of my daughters and they can have as much enjoyment out of it as I do.”
Allgaier often wears the watch even when he races. He wore it when he won at Darlington earlier this year to break his 364-day winless drought.
It was the watch that he kept fiddling with as he repeatedly adjusted the left cuff of his fire suit and provided a stark reminder of his father’s absence.
The night before the Xfinity race in March at Circuit of the Americas, Allgaier noticed something wasn’t right with his father.
What he didn’t know was that fluid was filling in his father’s head and building pressure.
What Allgaier saw was that his father had trouble remembering where he was or where he was going. His depth perception was off and he struggled to walk.
Allgaier got his father with NASCAR medical officials. They advised him to take him to an emergency room. Allgaier was there into the early morning hours when the issue was discovered. Surgery would be needed.
Suddenly, Mike would not be at his son’s races. Through more than 30 years of racing, it was Mike who had been to most of his son’s races. He was there for the wins and losses.
Now, Mike needed time to take care of his health issue and then recover. He wouldn’t be traveling.
He wasn’t there at Darlington.
“It makes you realize, when they’re not there for something, how much you’re going to miss them for everything,” Allgaier said of his dad not being at Darlington for the victory.
“There’s been plenty of things in my life that my dad has missed milestone-wise just because of life. But I’ve been able to pick up the phone and call him and tell him about those things, or I’ve been able to enjoy those moments with him after they happened.
“I know that, someday, that is not going to happen. Having that (win at Darlington without him) made me realize how big of a moment it is, how much I’m going to miss those times when he’s not there.”
The surgery went well. Mike said he longer has the painful headaches that have plagued him for years. He feels good. He’s back at the track, watching his son race.
Mike’s first race back was in June at Nashville Superspeedway. That’s a special track for father and son. Allgaier has always wanted the guitar the track gives to the winner but had never won there.
Until this year.
Allgaier had one of those days racers hope for, but rarely experience. He had the dominant car. Allgaier led 134 of 188 laps and won by 4.5 seconds.
There to greet him in Victory Lane was his father.
“You don’t get races like that very often,” Allgaier said. “To see him in Victory Lane, to have him help me hold the guitar in victory lane, he’s known how much I wanted that guitar.
“I could tell he knew how much it meant to me, but I also knew how much it meant to him.”