It was an invasion of sorts, although fields of green corn standing tall and blowing in the wind look about the same in August, whether it's Indiana or North Carolina.
The year was 1994, and NASCAR was taking its long-standing show to Hoosierland, going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the very first time.
Tony George, president of Indy, and Bill France, president of NASCAR, had come to terms and even had a name for the race-the Brickyard 400.
All was going well, although we from down South knew some of the highbrows of open-wheel racing figured next to opening the speedway for goat roping and a barbecue festival, stock cars were the worst thing
Why, the next thing you know, they figured, that crowd of Southerners will be trying to hold Saturday night barn dances in our basketball gymnasiums, and three-day fiddler conventions all along the banks of the Wabash.
Most of the Indiana media, or the ones that counted, met regulars on the stock car beat with open arms and were super nice.
On the opening day of qualifying, Rick Mast, not exactly a household name on some streets in South Bend, captured the pole position. The natives were expecting Jeff Gordon, who grew up down the road a ways
Members of the media took their seats in the press room, and Mast, a native son of the great Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia, a son of the soil from Rockbridge Bath, was about to speak
"Yes, Washington and Lee University is near my home. And before you bring it up, I have never been asked to sit in Robert E. Lee's office chair, which is on the campus," Mast said. "I don't live far from Lexington, where both Washington and Lee and VMI are located. We're rather smart people, and it takes two colleges for some of us."
Mast laughed and joked with the media, and told about how he got into racing. He is quick with wit and good with stories. "My daddy and uncle had this little racetrack there close to home," he related. "Man, I wanted to race from the time I was just a kid, but I knew I had to come up with my own racecar. I didn't have much money."
There was a young lady from one of the Indiana newspapers who kept digging and digging, obviously trying to find out from Mast what reform school he had escaped from. She was going to make him a rough-and-rowdy good old Southern boy, whether he was or not, and Mast in no way fits the mold she was trying to put him into.
"How did you get the money?" she asked.
"Well, I had a cow," he explained, "and I traded my cow for my first racecar."
"What was the cow's name?" she asked.
Mast looked at her and smiled just a little. She had stepped over the last log on the way to the fireplace and didn't know it. "Madam, where I come from cows don't have names until about 2 o'clock in the morning."
The press room came unglued with laughter, and Mast became a favorite with all the media, North and South, as if he wasn't already with the stock car press corps.
He is a prince of a guy, still living in this place called Rockbridge Bath, Virginia, just a few miles from Natural Bridge, and not far from a resort called Homestead.
So what is he doing these days? "Just about everything my wife asks me to do," he says.
Rick ran into some problems, or some problems ran into him. Anyway, he was sick for a long time, and is doing well now
His last race was the All-Star Challenge event at Lowe's Motor Speedway in2002.
"I think it began in March of 2002," he says. "I woke up at Bristol and didn't feel well. Things never got better after that. When I ran the Challenge race at Charlotte, I knew I couldn't drive 600 miles. After the 50-mile Challenge event, I could hardly get in my street car."
What Mast had was carbon monoxide poisoning, and it took him a long time and a lot of pain to find out. He had dizziness, headaches and nausea. The doctors were running test after test.
"What I had mimicked a lot of bad diseases, and I was frightened at one time, but now I realize every day is a blessing. That's after going to seven different clinics.
"I spent six or eight months at home. I didn't have a choice in the matter. I was in the bed most of the time, lying there ready to die.
"During that time, I started seeing a different lifestyle, a life that I had never had. I started getting acclimated to that, and as time went on, I wanted less and less to travel."
Mast was 45 when he quit driving. He says there are drivers now 15 years his junior who he thinks are experiencing some of the same symptoms he'd exhibited while battling the poisoning.
Mast called NASCAR president Mike Helton and told him what he had gone through and what doctors discovered.
As a result of Mast's problems, systems have been developed to get fresher air into driver cockpits. According to a NASCAR spokesman, things are much better now.
Mast now owns and operates RKM Enviro-Clean, a company that does site work for underground utilities as well as responds to situations involving hazardous materials.
Mast also has a farm with about 50 cows and five horses. "And," he says, "a thousand cats and dogs."
Ricky, 24, Mast's son, recently graduated from college and works with his father. "I have twin daughters, Kaitie and Sarah, age 11, and they are into everything-horses, soccer, everything," says Mast. "I missed my son growing up, and I'm not going to miss these twins growing up. And I like spending more time with my wife Sharon.
"We also have a half dozen or so ATVs, which we enjoy riding. Ricky and I do some deer hunting around here. We just do a whole lot of whatever we want to do."
Mast won some poles, but never a Cup race. He looks back to the 1989 Daytona 500 and remembers how close he came to winning.
"I was running in the top six all afternoon. Cars began stopping for fuel near the end of the race. Travis Carter, my crew chief, was worried about getting a sponsor for the following year and called me to the pits. We took on gas and finished Sixth in the race. I think we could have won the 500 had we not stopped. After the race, we checked the car, and we could have finished without stopping."Mast says Richard Petty carried the sport during the early part of Mast's career, and Dale Earnhardt carried it the second half of his career.
Mast has a hundred stories to tell his grandchildren. One story he tells shuts up everybody around him. It's about a lady who looked like Elvira and who changed his luck.
She was vivacious and scantily dressed, and sat on the fender of his racecar with her slender legs crossed. And she blew bubbles all over the racecar.
Now if you're not interested in the rest of the story I will just quit. But I sort of figure a little more of the story might interest you.
Finally, she put the lid on the bottle, slipped the ring for making bubbles into her cleavage, uncrossed her slender legs, and said in a very soft, seductive voice, "Your luck will change."
Rick said she frightened him.
I said to Rick, "Why yeaaaah, I'll bet she would frighten me, too."
"She looked just like Elvira," Rick says.
"Yeah, well, go ahead, my man. Don't stop now."
"I don't know who she was or where she came from, and I never want to see her again. It was too scary. If she has the power to turn your luck from bad to good, I don't want to see what else she can do."
Mast was racing NASCAR's Busch Series in 1990, the night the cryptic lady in red showed up at Indianapolis Raceway Park. "I had wrecked, and torn up my car," he says. "I was there with my crew looking at the damage when she walked up and sat on the fender. We just stood there with our tongues hanging out, looking stupid. We could not comprehend what was happening."
The next week he raced at Bristol, and had $52 in his pocket.
"I owed $50,000 and had a house payment," he recalls. My crew even paid their way. We won the race and $12,000. Two weeks later we won at Richmond, and Tuesday of the following week team-owner Richard Jackson called and signed me to a Winston Cup ride with U.S. Tobacco as the sponsor.
"Maybe what the lady said was just coincidental, but go tell it to your neighbor. She convinced me she was for real."
Hey, Rick, you've convinced me, too, and I didn't even get to see her.