Alabama Gang

Photo: Michael Palmer

Friday 5: NASCAR fans on front lines of a pandemic

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After his 12-hour overnight shift as an emergency room nurse ends, after witnessing the life-and-death struggles coronavirus patients face, after the anger, sorrow and joy he and his colleagues share, Michael Palmer goes home and tries to sleep.

When he awakes, he FaceTimes 9-year-old son Mikey “so I can have that motivation and realize that there’s still good in life.”

Soon after, Palmer returns to work at a suburban Detroit hospital for another 12 hours of highs and lows. But there is something that separates him from his co-workers. It’s the No. 48 Palmer writes on his mask and tapes to his face shield, showing that he’s a Jimmie Johnson fan.

Palmer is among many NASCAR fans who work in hospitals, medical facilities and ambulances across the country helping those afflicted by coronavirus. A Chase Elliott fan and his Kyle Busch-rooting wife are EMTs in South Carolina. Another Elliott fan is an ER nurse in Florida. A Matt DiBenedetto fan works in a California maternity ward that has treated infected mothers. A Clint Bowyer fan waits for her symptoms to cease so she can return to work at a New York hospital.

With most Americans under stay-at-home orders, medical professionals treat patients each day amidst the threat of catching the virus. Palmer, 37, turns to racers for inspiration.

Michael Palmer has been an emergency room nurse for 12 years. (Photo: Michael Palmer)

“You know the race car driver mentality?” he said. “They know that there is some sort of degree that they could be in a bad wreck and lose their life, but they don’t think about it. They just get in and they race. That’s kind of how I look at my job. Yes, there is a high risk of contracting corona being on the front lines, but it’s not something I think about.”

Instead, the former firefighter, who has been an ER nurse for 12 years, focuses elsewhere.

“The reason why we do what we do,” Palmer said, “is because we have a love for humans.”

Palmer’s job never has been more challenging. Michigan has emerged as one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots. Palmer’s hospital is located among the counties at the epicenter of the virus’ spread in that state.

“The first week was very rough,” Palmer said of the 60-hour work week. “Just from the get-go for the first seven days … trying to figure out what is the best way to protect yourself, what is the best way to protect others. You don’t really know what is going on. We were setting up tents. The hospital was in a complete lockdown. No visitors were allowed, and you’re seeing people that are coming in that are sick. We’ve lost people.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said this week that she expects the state’s coronavirus cases to peak by the end of April or early May. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday that the state had 21,504 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,076 deaths. Michigan ranks third among states in confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because Palmer is on the frontlines, he has kept away from his son to avoid infecting him and his son’s mother.

Palmer visited his son last Sunday for the first time in three weeks, delivering an Easter basket and gifts since he will work this weekend. Palmer got his son a Kevin Harvick diecast car and hauler. Harvick is among Mikey’s favorite drivers, along with Brad Keselowski, Johnson, Elliott and Busch.

Father and son stood outside several feet apart, abiding by social distancing practices. For an hour, they talked and watched some of the televised virtual Bristol race.

They plan to be in Bristol Motor Speedway in September. Palmer gave his son tickets to the track’s night race as a Christmas present. They first went to a race together on Father’s Day 2017 at Michigan International Speedway.

Mikey Palmer with Jimmie Johnson at Michigan International Speedway on Father’s Day in 2017. (Photo: Michael Palmer)

Naturally, father dressed his son in Johnson attire with a hat and shirt that day. Johnson signed Mikey’s hat before the driver’s meeting. After the meeting, Mikey hoped to get a picture with Johnson but a crowd encircled the seven-time Cup champion.

“Jimmie actually saw (Mikey),” Palmer said. “He stopped, turned around. He put his arm around (Mikey’s) shoulder and pulled him forward and said, ‘Everyone step back, I want to take a picture with my biggest fan here today.’

“I’m glad I had sunglasses on. I had tears in my eyes.”

For now, it is only Palmer’s eyes that patients and colleagues can see when he works. He is covered in gowns, masks, gloves and other gear in the emergency room. Palmer and others work to combat coronavirus and help return the world to a normal way of life as soon as possible.

Without racing, weekends aren’t the same for Palmer.

“Every Sunday or Saturday night, my home, you felt like it was an event,” he said. “It just feels like that is missing now and you don’t realize how much you miss it until it’s gone.”

Palmer can’t wait until the next NASCAR race.

“It doesn’t matter where it’s at,” he said, “whenever they get back, it’s going to be good to see them on track.”

A SCENE AN EMT WON’T FORGET

In more than 20 years as a firefighter or EMT, Chad Pleasant has had his share of emergency runs that still impact him.

“There are days where if I’m at work or if I’m at home … and I happen to ride through an area where I know I ran into a specifically bad call that didn’t have a good outcome, no matter what I’m doing … when I hit a certain spot, it comes back,” Pleasant said. “It’s fresh.

“When it comes to day-to-day, you just rely on your partner to get you through the shift and you lift each other up and you just keep going and keep pushing because somebody else is going to need your help.”

One particular scene during this pandemic sticks with Pleasant.

Part of his role is to transfer patients between medical facilities primarily in and around Spartanburg, South Carolina. He recently transported an elderly woman to a rehabilitation center. The patient’s daughter met them at the rehab center but could not hold her mother’s hand or be near for fear of possibly infecting her.

Chad Pleasant served as a firefighter before becoming an EMT. (Photo: Chad Pleasant)

“It was a little sad for both of us, my partner and I,” Pleasant said of witnessing the moment.

The daughter stood about 10 feet away from her mother.

“She took a picture of her,” Pleasant said, “and said she didn’t know when she would get to see her. Things like that kind of bother you a little bit. These patients that are elderly, you never know if this is the last time they see their family or not.”

The 37-year-old Pleasant and his wife Heather both are EMTs. They have three children: Abigail (16 years old), Chase (13) and Greycie (seven). Protecting each other and their children from potential coronavirus exposure has led to some extreme measures.

Earlier this week, Pleasant’s final call of his shift involved transporting a coronavirus patient. After that was completed and the ambulance cleaned, Pleasant went home. Before he entered his house, he removed his shoes, leaving them outside, and stripped, putting his uniform in a garbage bag. Pleasant took the bag in the house, put his uniform in the washing machine and showered before seeing his family. It’s a routine many health care workers now do when they return home so they don’t infect family members.

While home, he looks ahead to the rest of the NASCAR season. Pleasant — who was a Dale Earnhardt fan, then Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan and now a Chase Elliott fan — has not been to a Cup race since 2012 but had tickets for his family for next month’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was to be his youngest daughter’s first race. Now? Pleasant isn’t sure.

But what Pleasant hopes is to be able to attend next year’s Daytona 500.

“I’ve been there, and I’ve been on the track,” he said of a summer 1999 trip that included a speedway tour, “but I’ve never seen cars on track.”

It would be a scene he would not forget.

PREPARING FOR A SURGE

Brandon Nobles, an ER nurse for nearly two years, spends his shifts cross-training in the intensive care unit to prepare for an expected surge of coronavirus patients at his Tallahassee, Florida hospital.

“Right now it’s the calm before the storm,” the 30-year-old said.

One forecast, based on a University of Pennsylvania model and released Thursday, suggested that hospitals in and around Tallahassee could run out of intensive care unit beds by mid-May and total hospital beds a couple of weeks later.

But such forecasts can change based on social distancing, testing and other factors.

Brandon Nobles and wife Jamie at 2019 Daytona 500.( Photo: Brandon Nobles)

“The biggest thing with this is it is kind of an eerie unknown,” Nobles said.

Because of how contagious the virus is, hospital workers are covered in protective garb and one can only see their eyes. Not seeing a co-worker’s facial expressions is striking to Nobles.

“It’s hard to tell what type of day somebody is having just by looking at their eyes,” he said. “Not being able to see their reaction to things and their smile, their facial expressions. We’re all covered up from head to toe, so going 12 hours, which is our shifts, and just to be able to tell what type of day they’re having based on their eyes, it’s definitely different. You’re used to seeing people smile and see people laugh.”

That’s the new reality in hospitals and elsewhere with the CDC recommending people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

Nobles looks forward to when such measures aren’t needed and life can return to normal, which would include racing.

He became a Jeff Gordon fan during Gordon’s dominance in the late 90s but it wasn’t until July 2000 that he saw his first race in person when he went to Daytona International Speedway.’

“All it took was one race,” said Nobles, now a Chase Elliott fan, “and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

NEW SKILLS NEEDED

While many in hospitals treat patients during their most difficult times, Cindi Scott is with patients during some of their best times. She’s a maternity nurse at a Southern California hospital.

Yet, even there the pandemic’s effects are felt. Some hospitals limit maternity rooms to one guest. In some cases, the expectant mother is alone because her partner must watch other children at home. Family and friends who could have helped are kept away by the threat of COVID-19.

Cindi Scott with Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Leonard Wood at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: Cindi Scott)

“They’re by themselves and this is supposed to be one of the best days of their lives,” Scott said of some expectant mothers. “We’re trying to be everything for them besides being their caregiver.”

That leaves Scott with expanded duties from holding the expectant mother’s hand to coaching and offering encouragement before the baby’s birth.

Once the baby arrives and is healthy, Scott’s role changes.

The 48-year-old, who has spent 22 years as a nurse, becomes a filmmaker. When there are no family members in the room, she’ll hold the phone so others on FaceTime can see the baby. Other times, Scott becomes an IT person, setting up a Zoom conference so friends and family members of the mother can see the child.

But Scott and her colleagues also tend to expectant mothers who have coronavirus or are presumed to have it pending test results. That creates challenges from limiting who has contact with that patient to performing necessary duties in a particular time frame to limit exposure. Before treating such patients, a nurse is observed putting on all their protective personal equipment to ensure no contamination.

All this makes early March seem more than five weeks ago. That’s when Scott and a few female friends camped in the infield at Auto Club Speedway and watched Alex Bowman win the Cup race. They’ve also attended races at Phoenix Raceway. Once racing returns, Scott would like to plan a girls trip to Bristol or Martinsville.

“It’s a girls trip and it’s fun,” said Scott, who was a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan before becoming a Matt DiBenedetto fan. “The feel of the race cars when you’re there at the track, it’s unlike anything else.”

WAITING TO HELP

Amanda Kidd can’t wait for the coming days. The interventional radiologic technologist continues to shows some symptoms of coronavirus even though she tested negative for it.

Until all symptoms are gone, she’s stuck at home instead of working at a hospital near Watkins Glen International.

“It sucks,” the 31-year-old said. “Especially when a lot of your colleagues are there and you are seeing what they’re going through and then you’re stuck at home and not able to help.”

There has been one way she has helped her colleagues. When they set up a drive-thru testing site, they called her to be the first one to see how it would work. She drove to the site, rolled down the window and had a swab in her nostril.

“It feels like they’re tickling your brain,” she said.

Kidd said she hopes to be symptom-free and back to work next week doing what she can to help others.

And she looks forward to being back at Watkins Glen to watch racing. She was a fan of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and then became a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. Now, she likes Clint Bowyer. She includes Bubba Wallace and Kevin Harvick among her favorites but notes that “if I had to pick out one to hang out with, Clint Bowyer would be at the top of the list.”

While at home, she has had virtual watch parties with friends for the NASCAR iRacing events. They’ve communicated through FaceTime, but she longs to see the real action and camp at the Glen.

“I just can’t wait to get back to the track,” she said. “Be around the cars and the people. I think everybody is kind of on the edge of their seat just ready to get back because they miss the community and being there together.”

It can’t come soon enough. That’s also how Kidd feels about her recovery, so she can again help people in need.

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When the ‘Alabama Gang’ took on the Indy 500

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Times have changed in these parts. In a state known for college football and NASCAR, it’s college basketball and IndyCar racing that will be the main attraction this weekend in this state that takes pride in its Southern culture.

Nearly 50 years ago, it was much different.

There were stock car tracks all over the state of Alabama and the most famous of all stock car racers were known as “The Alabama Gang.”

It consisted of Red Farmer, a local stock car hero who continued to race well into his 80s. He’s still a legend at the disputed age of 91. Nobody knows for sure, how old Farmer is, but the International Motorsports Hall of Fame lists his birth year as 1928.

But it was Bobby Allison and his younger brother Donnie (pictured above), along with Hueytown, Alabama neighbor and NASCAR protégé Neil Bonnett that made “The Alabama Gang” something to fear.

When these drivers weren’t winning the Daytona 500 or the Southern 500 or the Talladega 500 or any of the other big-time races on the NASCAR schedule in the 1960s, ‘70s and ’80s, they were racing Late Model stock cars at Birmingham International Raceway and other tracks in the South and around the United States.

So as the NTT IndyCar Series takes over Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham for the 10th Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, let’s look back to when “The Alabama Gang” took on the Indianapolis 500.

To read the rest of Bruce Martin’s story, go to MotorSportsTalk