Ripken soaks up day at Dover

Serving as grand marshal of race named for O's star `coolest' of retirement tour

Auto Racing

September 24, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - When Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken was in high school, he used to go drag racing in a green car he called "The Frog." But, until yesterday here at the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400, he had never been to a Winston Cup stock car race. Never seen a high-banked oval. And never had the attention of 140,000 racing fans.

"For the most part, a lot of good things have happened to me since I announced my retirement plans," Ripken said. "There are a lot of things going on in a lot of ballparks where I'm playing for the last time, and that's neat. But this is probably the coolest thing that's happened to me."

It was the Winston Cup Series' first race since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the day was filled with patriotic tributes.

"I think sports can be a nice distraction and service to help in that way," Ripken said. "You try to be a professional and go about your job. But I haven't been totally motivated. There is still a sadness, and I think everyone can relate to that."

Ripken explained his being at Dover Downs International Speedway started with a simple discussion between Major League Baseball and NASCAR about putting a Cal Ripken retirement logo on a car. It wound up with his being named grand marshal and having the race named after him.

Ripken was accompanied by his wife, Kelly, and children, Rachel and Ryan.

The family stayed on the sidelines as Ripken made his way through the garage and was surrounded by fans, who fell in beside and behind him like migrating geese, as his bald head bobbed above them and led the way.

"It's interesting," said car owner Joe Gibbs. "Fans in this sport are right here, used to getting up beside the athletes, and now it's an unusual opportunity for them to get close to this great baseball star."

Gibbs reacted like most here after meeting Ripken.

"He's tall and a surprisingly big guy," Gibbs said. "If I was still coaching [the Washington Redskins], we could use him as a tight end. Today, I might want him to be our jack man. I think he'd be good at that, but I don't think I could afford his salary."

The Gibbs-owned Interstate Batteries/MBNA car, driven by Bobby Labonte, was repainted Oriole orange and black. The team mascot's bird face was stenciled on the side of the car and the retirement tour logo, with Ripken's likeness on it, was painted on the hood. The team's pit crew wore Ripken shirts with No. 8.

Ripken said the first thing he noticed was the track's high banking.

"The slope is so high," Ripken said. "On the television, it looks so flat. ... I'm looking forward to seeing everything - as long as I don't have to walk up that slope."

He didn't have to walk the slope, but he did have to work. He signed autographs. He and his family, holding and waving American flags, rode around the mile oval in a 1961 Lincoln convertible. He shook every driver's hand as he crossed the stage for introductions. He told the crowd: "This is the coolest thing of all time. Still, I have to get back and play the Yankees so we can beat them one more time."

But, before he left, Ripken also had to wave the green flag to start the race.

Asked whether he was worried about dropping it or if he'd been given any lessons, he smiled.

"I believe, if I dropped it, that would be an error in my business," he said. "I want to do it as best I can and deliver it the best I can. I'll pay attention and exhibit the proper fundamentals."

Other athletes, friends who are involved in racing, have been telling Ripken to look at this sport. Now that he has, could he see getting involved as an owner?

"A couple weeks from now, I'll be a total free agent," he said, smiling. "I'm really looking forward to new experiences and looking for something that will drive me like baseball has done. I know a lot of football and baseball players are involved and get a lot of fun and excitement from it. So, who knows? It could grow into something else."

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