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Old 10-28-2003, 03:35 PM
Louis Cypher Louis Cypher is offline
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Default ARTICLE: NASCAR says goodbye to Miss Winston tradition

[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 10/27/03 ]

By AL LEVINE
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer


After everything that fell at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, Miss Winston, Brandy DeJongh, hoped to escape victory lane for the last time Monday without any moisture, except for maybe a tear in her eye.

But she got a bubbly sendoff in her final appearance in Atlanta.

To her right, race winner Jeff Gordon popped the cork on a bottle of champagne. To her left, Robby Loomis, Gordon's crew chief, popped the cork on another bottle and began shaking it.

Suddenly, DeJongh was caught in the middle of a champagne shower.

"Thanks, Robby," she said with a laugh, wiping the champagne from her face.

After more than 50 appearances at victory celebrations the past two years, Miss Winston is used to messy endings. Sometimes winners splash champagne, sometimes it's Gatorade, Coke or orange juice.

"After a race, I generally smell like a bottle of champagne," DeJongh said. "I advise anyone sitting around me on the plane to please move. If I need to, I can take a shower before I get home. Generally, I smell pretty interesting. A new kind of perfume."

As R.J. Reynolds' sponsorship of Winston Cup, NASCAR's premier racing series, winds down to three more races, big-time stock car racing is saying farewell to this American icon. This was DeJongh's final Cup race.

"I am sad," DeJongh said. "It's going to be different not being here every weekend or every couple of weeks. This is like a family."

She likes the job so much, she skipped class ("Reporting and Writing for Media") at Baylor, where she's a senior communications major, to be at the storm-postponed Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500. "I have some very understanding professors," she said.

Nextel, the new title sponsorship, still has the phone off the hook on its decision to retain or retire the beauty queen.

"It is kind of the end of an icon," DeJongh said. "There's always been a Miss Winston or a spokesperson that's been there with the drivers, helping to promote the sport."

She is an icon wrapped in regulations. Because she wears the brand of a cigarette on her clothing, Miss Winston can't sign autographs for fans under 21. But she can sign for their fathers. The line was a steady 50-deep Sunday, three hours before the race start.

Her other duties include wishing the drivers well as they are introduced to the crowd and posing for pictures with the race winner.

Gordon could be forgiven for ignoring Miss Winston in the victory celebration. He met his ex-wife in victory lane at Daytona in 1993 -- they dated on the sly; Miss Winston isn't allowed to date drivers -- and that didn't turn out too well: The ex-Mrs. Gordon drove off with $15 million of his winnings in a divorce settlement earlier this year.

Race queens have been a part of stock car racing almost since its beginning. They used to be the only women in the garage area. Tracks would hold beauty pageants in conjunction with races. In 1963, promoter Bill France even invited actress Jayne Mansfield to make the award.

For years, Union Oil sponsored the Union 76 Race Stoppers, three statuesque beauties who waved from a pace car before the race and afterward endured lingering kisses from the macho men of yesteryear.

Some race queens made a career of the role. Linda Vaughan, a big-haired blonde from Dalton, was Miss Atlanta International Raceway at 18 in 1961, then "Miss Pontiac" in 1962, "Miss Pure [Oil] Firebird" in 1963, graduating in 1966 to "Miss Hurst Golden Shifter," representing the company that made floor-mounted gear-shifts. Now Vaughan is in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, and, at 60, she still signs autographs at car shows.

Most Miss Winstons don't last that long. Since 1971, there have been about 50 Miss Winstons. They followed Marilyn Green, a former bank secretary who parlayed the job into her own modeling agency.

She has provided the Miss Winstons since she retired after two years. The current season is so long, 36 race weekends, that it's too much for one queen to handle.

DeJongh, 24, usually worked the Midwest and West Coast races.

The job description remains the same as it was for Green: meet and greet drivers, crew members, NASCAR personnel, corporate sponsors and race fans at Cup events; be dependable, punctual, love to travel and work long days -- and look good doing it.

The experience, DeJongh hopes, will help in a TV sportscasting job.

"I have some possibilities," DeJongh said. "I would love for it to be in racing. This job doesn't require you to be a racing expert, but it's helpful. [Fans are] asking you questions because you're the one that they can actually get to. So I take my time when I'm out wandering around [the track], talking to the teams; I learn about what's going on with the cars, why do they do this with the tires, what are they pressure-gauging, what are the templates explaining exactly."

DeJongh said she's going to miss being Miss Winston, but she won't miss everything. "I won't miss having to be at the track at 6 a.m.," she said.
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