By: Adam Niemeyer (FOX19 Sports)
The perception that Elder grads bleed purple is very true, and Phil Bengel can testify to that. The 2001 Elder High School graduate and current teacher at Elder is also huge NASCAR fan. You could say his purple blood is mixed with a little gasoline and oil too.
So, on Sunday in Bristol, Bengel got to live a NASCAR fan's biggest dream as he waved the green flag to start the Jeff Byrd 500.
"My dad brought it up to me on the way home, he said, ‘Do you understand that you had the power to tell your heroes when to go put the pedal to the floor?' And I said, ‘I guess I never thought of it that way,'" Bengel said.
Bengel was alerted on Thursday at 3:15 by Food City officials that he was one of four finalists. He already had tickets for the weekend, so he left with his dad on Friday morning for the hills of Tennessee.
When he arrived at the Food City hospitality tent on Saturday, contest officials explained everything to Bengel.
"All weekend I didn't know, we'd find out live like an hour before the race," he said. "It was pretty intense."
Fans voted for one of four finalists by texting in their vote. Each person got ten seconds on the track public address system to persuade fans to vote for them. After that, the fans had two minutes to vote via text message for the person who got to start the race.
Bengel said he knew what to tell the fans to gain votes.
"I got up there and kept it simple and straight. I just said, ‘Howdy folks. If I wave the green flag today, I guarantee a Dale Jr. victory,'" he said.
"You've got to play the crowd," he added. "And while I'm a fan of Junior and wanted to see him win, I knew I had to get these fans to vote for me, and I got a big roar [from the crowd]."
It was a landslide victory according to the track's public address announcer. Bengel said he got around 43 percent of the votes, and the next closest contestant had less than 25 percent of the vote.
"I was overwhelmed. I just jumped up and down, and the other people were trying to congratulate me," he said. "I was probably too excited."
But who could blame him? Every once in a while NASCAR officials let celebrities and athletes wave the green flag to start the race. This was the first time in Bengel's memory that a fan was chosen to wave the flag.
"The whole time [before the race] I had my plaque and my hot pass and a big smile on my face," Bengel said. "Then Richard Petty walked past and said, ‘Hey man, congratulations on the flag thing.' And I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is cool.'"
"That was pretty cool to be acknowledged by him. It was just awesome at that point."
While Bengel is a Dale Jr. fan, he's also a huge fan of Bristol Motor Speedway. He goes to both race weekends at the track in northeastern Tennessee, and also has attended NASCAR's Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and races at the Kentucky Speedway.
When he was driving up to the track in a vehicle from the Food City promotions tent, Bengel told the driver of the vehicle how much Bristol meant to him.
"Bristol means so much to me being a huge NASCAR fan. This is like the ultimate experience for a fan, next to actually getting out there and racing against the other 43 guys," he said.
And that was the point of the promotion. Jeff Byrd, the former Bristol track president, was all about fan involvement. The green flag contest was one special way to thank a fan for his or her loyalty to Bristol. Bengel said he got the impression from Food City officials that this was a one-time deal, and they wouldn't do it again.
"I was so fired up," Bengel said of his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "I couldn't believe I got the opportunity to wave the green flag. I was like, you've got to be kidding me. It was awesome."
"It was amazing to have those 43 cars coming at you full throttle."