Exactly a month ago, former University of Maine All-American goaltender Jimmy Howard gave his father, James II, a memorable Father’s Day gift.
Howard, the starting goalie for the Detroit Red Wings, was one of the grand marshals for the Sprint Cup Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, along with Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola, and Howard invited his father to join them.
Howard and his father gave the command to the drivers to start their engines.
“That was the best Father’s Day you could ask for,” said James Howard II. “It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was a blast.”
It came as a complete surprise to James II.
James Howard said his son called him after he returned from playing in the World Championships in Finland for Team USA and asked him what he was doing that weekend.
“I told him I didn’t think I was doing anything and he asked me if I wanted to go with him. I said ‘Absolutely.’ There was no hesitation whatsoever. We don’t get to spend a lot of time together,” said James.
The experience was a fascinating one for father and son, who weren’t race fans before the experience but have become fans as a result.
“I definitely have a greater appreciation for the drivers,” said Jimmy. “Those guys have to be pretty fit to be in a race car for 500 laps. They have to have upper body strength to control a vehicle for that long. I talked to a couple of the drivers and they’re in the gym working out five or six days a week.”
“They don’t have the old racing body shapes,” said James, referring to the stocky frames of the old-time NASCAR drivers. “They can’t because they have to be able to endure 200, 300, 400 laps.”
They spent a lot of time with Landon Cassill, who drives the No. 83 Burger King Toyota Camry for BK Racing.
“He’s a real nice kid. It was cool to be able to pick his brain and see what he has to go through to prepare for a race,” said Jimmy. “There was a rain delay and you could tell how antsy he was. I don’t think drivers like to have their routines changed.”
“He told us he had raced at Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway and I used to go to Super Modified races there every Saturday night,” said James, who lives in Ogdensburg, N.Y. “He said he knew the new owners [John and Eric Torrese]. That was pretty cool. That gave us some common ground.”
The Howards toured the BK Racing trailers and met the other team members. They got to shake hands with all of the Sprint Cup drivers in pre-race activities and said they discovered that a lot of them follow the NHL.
“Some of them knew who I was and seemed to be excited to meet me. It was pretty cool. And I found out Joey Logano used to be a hockey goalie,” said Jimmy, who is back at his home in Dedham with wife Rachel and son James Russell Howard IV.
One of James’ fondest memories was meeting owner Roger Penske and having a picture taken with him.
“He is such an icon in motorsports, open-wheel and NASCAR,” said James. “He was so down-to-earth. He introduced us to Brad Keselowski, who is from Michigan, and he invited us onto this bus. That was cool.”
They got to ride in the pre-race parade and get a feel for the track and the 82,000 in attendance.
“We were in the two lead cars and it was pretty cool seeing the cars make turns behind you,” said Jimmy. “And the place was packed. People in Michigan love racing.”
Jimmy Howard discovered that watching a race live provides a different perspective.
“On TV, the cars look like they’re closer together than they really are,” said Jimmy. “They look like they’re right on top of each other. But there’s actually a pretty good length between them coming down the straightaways.”
He also found it amazing how much computerization and technology is involved in racing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race, ending a 143-race winless drought.
“His last win was at Michigan,” pointed out Jimmy.
James said he is “still basking” in the moment a month later and he has had a lot of feedback about it from people in his community.