Politicians, celebrities and race owners - male and female - have gotten to say the words. The big important words: "Gentlemen, start your engines!"
Seldom, if ever, has the job fallen to a slight, 16-year-old girl whose only connection with stock car racing is that she loves Winston Cup driver Bill Elliott. But on March 3, at the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 in Las Vegas, Pasadena's Amanda Zimmerman will do the honors.
"It's been my dream," Amanda said. "And now it's going to come true."
But it hasn't been easy to make it come true and, even now, it is something of a miracle that the Anne Arundel County girl is here and able to look forward to that day next year.
You see, Amanda has hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which means she only has half a heart, and it is on the wrong side of her body, a condition known as dextrocardia. She also has situs inversus, which means all of her organs are on the wrong side. The reason for these ailments is that she was supposed to be a twin, but her parents, Kurt and Rose Ann Zimmerman, didn't know they were having twins until one was lost in the womb. It was only then the Zimmermans found out Rose Ann was still pregnant.
"And we didn't know about Amanda's problems until she was born," said Rose Ann, who nearly died giving birth. "They said at the time that most children with her problems don't live past age 2. Now she's 16, and I'm always glad to see her have another year."
The elder Zimmermans have worked for the past five years to find a way for Amanda to be grand marshal for a Winston Cup race. They thought it was arranged in May for the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., but they got a call at the last minute saying a politician would be giving the start-the-engine command. The family went to the race, anyway, and it was there they met representatives from UAW, who have worked to set up this opportunity for Amanda in Las Vegas.
Though Amanda is in need of heart and double-lung transplants, that is not something she likes to think about or talk about.
She leaves the worrying to her parents. Amanda is on oxygen at night. A good day for her is if her usually blue fingers are pink. Her mom gets distressed when casual acquaintances comment on Amanda's purple lipstick. Amanda doesn't wear lipstick. And her dad, who has inspired the entire family to love stock car racing, worries every time they take her in to measure her oxygen levels, which keep getting lower.
"The numbers are just horrible for transplant success," said Kurt, 37. "The heart rejection rate isn't too bad at 12 percent in the first year, but lungs are rejected 90 percent of the time. The doctor who will do the transplants says to just keep her happy and let technology change as much as it can until we feel she can't go any longer."
Amanda, who was attending Chesapeake High School, is now having home schooling. She spends most of her free time concentrating on the Las Vegas trip that will include 20 family members and a birthday party at the MGM Grand hotel that the United Auto Workers are helping plan. And, she is practicing giving the big engine command.
Her sister, Ashley, is helping her with that.
"I tell her to yell louder," said Ashley, 12, who roots for Elliott's teammate, Casey Atwood, and who is very excited for her sister. "She's getting better at it."
And Amanda concentrates on her Winston Cup hero, whom she met six years ago and with whom she has developed a personal relationship.
"Amanda is a special friend," said Elliott, who like Amanda is soft-spoken, mild-tempered and easy to talk to. "I can't remember exactly where we met, but it's just one of those things. We've kept in touch, and I call her on her birthday every year.
"I know she's going to enjoy going to Las Vegas. She'll get a kick out of telling us to start our engines, and I know they're planning a birthday party for her there, so I'm sure we'll see each other then."
Amanda can't wait. Hearing that Elliott said Las Vegas is one of his favorite race tracks, she got very excited.
"That's great," she said. "Maybe that means he'll win in Las Vegas!"
That would really make her day.
Gordon's points chase
If driver Jeff Gordon is to match Richard Petty's record by winning this season's Winston Cup title with four races left, he is going to have to make some serious hay today at Talladega and next Sunday in Phoenix. Petty clinched the title in 1975 with four races left.
No one had done that before him and, so far, no one has done it since.
Going into today's race, Gordon has a 334-point lead. If he finishes 11th or better from here to the end of the season, he will clinch the title at New Hampshire Nov. 23.
Here are the point margins he needs to claim his fourth Winston Cup championship before the end of the season: Phoenix, 741; Rockingham, 556; Homestead, Fla., 371; Atlanta, 186.
Season's last race
Hagerstown Speedway will wrap up its season Saturday and next Sunday with the 14th annual Octoberfest 350.