Corvette owners get thrill of circling track

By DEBORAH CIRCELLI
Staff Writer
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

DAYTONA BEACH -- As a former bartender in the suites at Daytona International Speedway for 16 years, Jennifer Geiger wondered what it would be like to drive on the storied track.

The Port Orange resident got her chance along with 50 other Corvette owners during Speed Weeks. The car owners, the majority from the Ponce Inlet Corvette Club, are escorting the NASCAR drivers around the tri-oval in their shiny convertibles again today through Sunday's Daytona 500 during pre-race introductions.

"It was a ball," Geiger, 52, said Thursday after driving Joe Nemechek in her 1998 amethyst-colored convertible before the first Gatorade Duel. "All the fans were yelling and hollering at the drivers. This time, I remembered to look at my speedometer."

Last Saturday, Geiger was "dumbfounded" when Michael Waltrip and his daughter got into her car , and she forgot to make sure she stayed under 25 mph as required. She dreamed a week earlier that she'd chauffeur Waltrip.

The local Corvette Club was selected to participate in the pre-race tradition previously done by Chevrolet, which backed out of this year's ceremonies to save money, said Terry Dolan, manager of Chevy Racing.

The Ponce Inlet group invited seven other Florida clubs to help, including clubs in Daytona Beach and Flagler County, and three from Ohio, Maryland and Georgia.

"I had butterflies in my stomach. I felt like a 6-year-old at Christmas," said Jan Modzelewski, 56, of Ponce Inlet, who drove Carl Long in her orange Indy Corvette pace car.

Many Corvette drivers were able to quickly shake hands with the racing stars Thursday and get an autograph before the race.

"This was a unique way for us to incorporate the fans in the driver introduction," said Speedway spokesman Andrew Booth.

Larry Dumais, 65, of Ponce Inlet drove Kurt Busch, around the track Thursday in his 2004 LeMans commemorative convertible. Busch signed a picture of Dumais' Corvette, which also has the autograph of Kevin Harvick. Dumais drove Harvick on Saturday, prior to the NASCAR driver winning the Budweiser Shootout.

He'd like to think his car may have given Harvick some good luck.

"You never know. There's a lot of luck involved in that business," he joked.

Arne Ellgard, president of the Ponce Inlet club, was so excited that Brian Vickers told him his 1962 Corvette was gorgeous that he forgot to get an autograph Saturday. He asked Thursday's driver but then couldn't read his autograph. It turned out to be Brad Keselowski.

Geri Petraglia, 43, of Port Orange said all her friends were jealous when they saw her drive three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson around the track last Saturday in her 2005 deep burgundy Corvette.

"Because of all the hoopla, I didn't realize it was him until the end," she said from the track Thursday. "I was concentrating on not flipping him out of my car."

Her husband, Anthony Petraglia, who participated Saturday and will drive his 1995 Corvette pace car this weekend, said it was "absolutely amazing."

"How many people across the country would trade anything to drive their cars on the Daytona track?" he said. "It's a once-in-a-life-time deal."

deborah.circelli@news-jrnl.com