- Written by Todd Moning
“I've been a race fan since 1968 and introduced Nelson to the sport in 1981,” Paula said. “He has continued to be an avid fan ever since.”
The Grand Prix of Cleveland is one of these FMCA members’ favorite races. It’s staged at Burke Lakefront Airport, on the shore of Lake Erie. The airport is shut down for the week leading up to the race so runways can be transformed into a temporary 2.1-mile street course.
At the 2002 race, Paula’s name was selected from 120,000 fans to be a CART FANatic for the day. The driver name she drew was Dario Franchitti, the defending race champion. She was invited to go onstage with the Scotland native during driver introductions.
“I got to be in what they call the ‘hot pit’ area and the hot racetrack where his open-wheel car was staged and they were getting ready to start the pace lap. Out on the track, I got to be with Dario and his Team Kool Greene crew just before the race started.”
She was told she could stay in the pit box for five laps of the race. But after the fifth lap, a crewmember asked if she wanted to stay until Dario finished the race. “They had us stay until unfortunately his engine blew up right in front of us in the pit.”
Afterward, Paula felt a tap on her back. It was Franchitti. Sounding like Sean Connery, he said, “Well, my dear, I didn’t win this one but I’ll win the next one for you.”
Paula recalled that moment: “I just looked at him and blubbered some stupid thing like, ‘Well, I won’t be at the next race. ... And he gave me a big hug, too.”
Lo and behold, he won the next race, she said. “Dario is truly the real deal, a very nice gentlemen and an excellent driver as well.”
Franchitti won the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and the overall 2007 Indy Racing League championship. He now races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Meeting Franchitti was a thrill, but the DiGennaros’ most meaningful moments at an auto racing event came in 2006, the year of their 25th wedding anniversary.
“We decided rather than doing a 25th wedding anniversary on the actual date, November 28, we would just enjoy the whole year with whatever we could do,” Paula said.
Paula saw the Grand Prix of Cleveland in June as a prime opportunity for an anniversary surprise.
“What makes Burke Lake such a neat track,” she said, “is there’s no point of reference, such as a building, for drivers on the track. It’s just water out there. It’s a fabulous track.”
At a meeting with racing legends on the Saturday afternoon of race weekend, Nelson was surprised to receive an envelope containing special credentials. With the cooperation of race authorities, Paula had arranged for him to ride in a pace car, a Ford Mustang, on the track.
The pace car is the official vehicle that keeps the race cars at a safe speed during warm-up laps and the cautions during the race. Pace car drivers are actual race car drivers from various other racing series.
“Nelson’s comment when he got out from the ride was, ‘Wow, there’s no way I can top this,’ ” Paula said. “I kind of laughed and that was the end of that.”
But Nelson had a plan up his sleeve, too.
Saying ‘I do,’ again
On Oct. 29, 2006, they attended a NASCAR race — the Nextel Cup Bass Pro Shop 500 — at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.
On race day morning, a Speedway vice president picked them up in an SUV and escorted them to the infield, the area in the middle of the track. Paula couldn’t figure out why they were getting this special treatment.
It wasn’t uncommon for her and Nelson to walk into the infield and pits to hobnob; for the past 10 years Paula, as a real estate agent, had been the Lap Sponsor of Lap #1 of both annual Atlanta Motor Speedway NASCAR racing events.
The SUV proceeded through the pit area to the edge of the track. Meanwhile, pace cars were carting various VIPs around the raceway.
Asked which of the six pace cars on the track she liked, Paula pointed to the colorful pace car that starts the race. The car was motioned over to them and the NASCAR official inside introduced himself. Paula and Nelson immediately were transferred into the pace car and rode, or should we say flew, around the track at 120 mph for three laps. (Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of the fastest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.) Approximately 160,000 fans were in the stands.
After the pace car lap, one of the crewmembers of Team Lowe’s/driver Jimmy Johnson, gave Paula a lug nut off of a tire, as a souvenir.
At this point, Paula still wasn’t suspicious. She thought Nelson was simply returning the favor of a pace car ride.
“The pace car drives back into the pits,” Paula said, “and we open the door when this gentleman in a suit suddenly appears. He says, ‘Hi, I’m Bill Brannon and I’m going to be renewing your vows for you.’ Well, now I’m really stunned. It’s like whoa, what is going on.”
Speedway officials opened up the secured Winner’s Circle area, where drivers pull in after they win a race. “We walked up and the minister renewed our vows in the victory circle.”
At the end of the vows ceremony, which was all motor-sports related, the minister asked Nelson if he had a renewal ring that he would like to give to Paula. But Nelson had already replaced Paula’s original ring, about a year earlier.
“… and so I pull out the lug nut and we put it on my little finger,” Paula said. “And what we didn’t know was all this was being shown on big-screen TV all over the track.”
They became aware of their newfound notoriety when they took their seats in the grandstand and other fans started asking whether they had been getting married or renewing their vows.
“So we renewed our vows in front of 160,000 people on NASCAR Nextel Cup race day,” Paula said. “It was a little larger crowd than what we had in our wedding, believe me. … For Nelson to pull something over on me is pretty hard to do, but he topped me on that one, all the way around.”