Charlene Lapensee’s camper has almost no room left in the front windshield.
There are too many awards. It’s been four years straight now that she has won the Camper Decorating Contest in the infield of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But what makes a champion camper?
For starters, over a hundred custom paintings and murals. Both sides, the main door, every gas can and inch of siding – there’s hardly a square inch of white space.
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“Originally it was my husband who said we should start painting stuff, because he likes my work and said we should start painting stuff for places we go, Lapensee said before Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “Naturally we started coming to NASCAR, so we started to do a NASCAR theme to it.”
Now the signatures of scores of pro drivers, from Richard Petty to Norm Benning, overlap those illustrations. She has long had a Greg Biffle car painted to the left of the front door, but she is done trying to get him to sign it.
“He’s coming off,” she said, “and Trevor Bayne is going on. Actually some Roush Fenway guys came today that are with Trevor Bayne, so they said if I turn that into a Trevor Bayne, they’ll get him to sign it.”
But Lapensee, a native of Ontario, Canada, even goes beyond drivers.
Sunday morning, while out next to her camper, Lapensee noticed a golf cart coming near. The driver? Steve Letarte, a former NASCAR crew member and current NBC color analyst, dressed as in a chauffeur costume. He and Charlotte Motor Speedway general manager Marcus Smith were driving around the infield to raise money for the Dale Jr. Foundation, a charity dedicated to underprivileged youths.
The two stopped by Lapensee’s camper, which stands out in the infield for, among other things, its four extendable flagpoles. The pair noticed one of her more recent pieces, A tribute commemorating the death of former NASCAR reporter Steve Byrnes, who died from cancer in April.
“We did a Steve Byrnes thing for when he passed away,” she said, “and they signed off on that.”
This year’s theme for the Camper Decorating Contest was “Share a Coke, and a Song.” Lapensee and her husband, as per usual, did not disappoint.
Walking up to their camper, it’s hard to avoid the Coca-Cola flags, poster boards and banners adorning the vehicle. There are Coke-filled coolers next to the front door, too, and the wind chimes made from empty cans.
With clouds in the sky, The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” plays loudly over the speakers outside. Lapensee can’t help but look at her camper, and everything that comes with it, with amazement.
She’s spent over 600 hours painting her camper. She’s driven it from Ontario to Charlotte and everywhere in-between for the past four years, collecting signatures and memories.
One of her fondest memories is Chase Elliott’s victory at Bowmanville, Ontario in 2013. The win made him the youngest winner in NASCAR Truck series history. He was 17.
But the part Lapensee remembers most is when the day before the race, Elliott and his entire entourage came by to sign her camper.
“Chase, his dad, his mom” the whole group came out and signed it,” she said.
The past four years have been fun, Lapensee said, but she’s far from finished. Her goal is to clear most of it and redo the artwork. As she spoke, she got her airbrush handy on the table next to her.
“It’s not done,” she said, “but I don’t know if it’s ever going to be done.”
A feat of engineering
Scaffolds are nearly as common in race track infields as crushed beer cans. But there’s nothing common about the platform Mike Browning and Randy Bless have hauled to Concord every May since 1996.
Browning and Bless are contractors from the Salisbury area. They designed the structure with enough room for 20 race fans (and they’ve accommodated as many as 28). It’s big, it’s equipped with a staircase and it might be as sturdy as anything at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The wood structure comes in four pieces, which bolt together. It takes Browning about 45 minutes to reassemble it each spring race. Then they disassemble it for transport back to Salibury on the commercial trailer that serves as the scaffold’s base.
It has becomes the race-day home to an extended family of race fans, including Bless’ dog, Milton, who was there for his 19th Sprint Cup race Sunday.
Real Days of Thunder
About that scene from “Days of Thunder” when fictitious drivers Cole Trickle and Rowdy Burns were forced to make peace over dinner in Daytona …
It wasn’t fiction. In reality, it was a recreation of NASCAR chief Bill France forcing Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine to co-exist.
NASCAR team owners Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress shared that story Sunday during a news conference tied to their induction into the Hall of Fame. Earnhardt (driving for Childress) and Bodine (a Hendrick driver) were so competitive, and disliked each other sufficiently, that their bosses couldn’t keep the two from constantly wrecking each other.
“Richard and I had already agreed we couldn’t control them,” Hendrick said. “We had some situations where we had to walk up to each other and say, ‘We’re not driving the cars.’ It was costing us a lot of money and they made a movie about it.”
Just as portrayed in Days of Thunder, Earnhardt and Bodine were summoned to Daytona to make peace. When France told the two they’d be having dinner together, Earnhardt said he had other plans.
“Mr. France said, ‘There’s the phone, change your plans.’” Hendrick recalled. “Richard and I rode together and Bodine and Dale rode together and we didn’t have any more trouble.”
Hendrick expressed surprise he was chosen for the Hall of Fame this season, in part because he is still active in the sport.
“I figured they’d wait until I retired or died,” Hendrick said. “So I’m glad I didn’t have to retire or die.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell