It had been nearly a year since Justin Allgaier had gone to Victory Lane when he had returned to that sacred place in May at Darlington Raceway.
As significant as it was to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series again, this was different from previous triumphs.
Amid smiles, cheers and hat changes, Allgaier repeatedly tugged and pulled the left cuff of his firefighting suit.
“I didn’t realize the meaning,” he told NBC Sports, “until I kept moving it. And it kept moving it. And it kept moving it.”
Then he understood why.
And what was missing that day.
A SPECIAL GIFT
Allgaier smiles when he hears stories of what his father, Mike, was like decades ago. Mike was in the tire business and went to various circuits, supplying competitors.
He chuckles at the story of his father hauling racing tires in a trailer because that was all he had. Or the time his father tied a load of tires to the side of the car he took to the track.
“I remember talking about … how they would literally work on an event just to find enough money to pay for the gas to go home,” Allgaier said.
It was that kind of work ethic that was part of Mike’s makeup. Allgaier says those who have known his father for years will tell him that no one worked harder than Mike.
Something else about Mike in those days: it was not uncommon for him to break a watch and go to a jeweler for a replacement at a reasonable price. But then Mike would apparently be back a month or two after breaking another watch. The cycle repeated for years.
Mike and the jeweler have become friends over time. The jeweler also helped Allgaier’s parents find a new home.
One day about 40 years ago, Mike was helping the jeweler move some things when the jeweler took off his Rolex watch and gave it to Mike, telling him, “You’ll never buy another watch again.”
Mike wore that watch almost every day after.
Then one day the clock stopped.
It was the same day Mike found out that his friend, the jeweler, had died.
Mike Allgaier later walked into the jewelry store that his dead friend had run. He told an elderly woman behind the counter how special the watch was and the story of how she was given to him by the jeweler.
He hadn’t realized he was talking to the jeweler’s mother.
“He started crying,” Mike told NBC Sports. “Then I started crying.”
The watch was repaired and Mike continued to wear it.
Years later, Mike and his wife were cleaning their house when he asked his son a question.
“Of all the things your mother and I have collected over the years and that we have … What is something you want every time we’re not here?”
Allgaier responded immediately.
“Actually, you only have one thing I want.
“I want your watch.”
It was the only object he had been with his father in those early years of struggle. It was there when Allgaier was born, when his father took him to watch races and then took him to go racing.
The watch was more than just a timepiece. It was a symbol of friendship, fatherhood and hard work.
“I think for myself, the dedication to wear the same watch every day,” Allgaier said of why he wanted the watch. “I’m a fan of watches. I love watches. I own a number of watches. I think part of that has to do with the fact that he was wearing this watch all the time.
The longevity of the watch has made it, in a sense, a companion for many of life’s mundane moments and many of the special moments. He connected past and present.
“Very rarely does it turn out that people have that attachment to one thing for so many years – besides, that it has survived so many years,” Allgaier said.
“My father was very careful, I can assure you. There were many days when I watched him load and unload tires from the tire shop and work on race cars and work in the semifinals and do whatever he had to do to get the job done, and this watch went through it all. He was beaten and beaten and kept running. “
Allgaier’s love of racing goes back to his father’s work in the industry, selling tires on the track and in the ARCA series for years.
After Allgaier won the Xfinity race in Indianapolis in 2018, he got excited in his interview with NBC Sports, recounting how his father drove him for 3.5 hours every Wednesday from their Illinois home to the speedway during the winter for the lessons that would make Allgaier a better driver out of the car.
“Dad, I have to do this to help my racing career,” Mike recalls his son said at the time.
“I’ll make a deal for you,” his father said. “I’ll make the effort and take you back and forth if you try hard to get the job done.”
They went for three years. Once, the weather was so bad that the meeting was canceled. Mike got the call less than an hour from Indianapolis.
“Okay,” the caller said to Mike, “then we’ll have the meeting.”
And they did.
During those trips, the routine was often the same. Allgaier did his homework in the car while he went looking and slept on the way back.
Those trips were only among the many shared father and son.
At some point, Allgaier and his father would drive from their Illinois home to Charlotte, North Carolina, and Allgaier would race in a Bandolero car. Then, they would head to Indiana for Allgaier to compete with a Kenyon dwarf. The weekend would feature micro sprint races on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Allgaier would compete with a late model.
“For me,” said Allgaier, “racing has always been a family sport.”
When Allgaier turned 35 in 2021, his father gave him what he always wanted.
Mike told his son that he would rather give the watch to Allgaier now than someone give it to him after his father’s death.
“I can see you having fun just as much as I did,” Allgaier remembers his father telling him when he gave him the gift.
His father does.
“When I wear my watch, I catch him looking at it and I think in some respects he is simply proud to have been able to pass on something I have loved.”
Allgaier wears the watch most days.
“Whenever I look at it, I just think of the memories my father and I have had over the years,” she said. “I who grew up and was just thinking about that watch and how many times was I worried it would lose it, or I was worried it would break. All these little things you think about as a kid, and now being an adult and having this watch and knowing the story behind it is really special to me and something that I will appreciate every day until the day I am gone.
“I hope one of these days, I can pass it on to one of my daughters and they can have as much fun as I can.”
Allgaier often wears his watch even when he runs. He wore it when he won at Darlington earlier this year to break his winless 364-day drought.
It was the watch he kept fiddling with as he repeatedly adjusted the left cuff of his firefighting suit and provided a stark reminder of his father’s absence.
FEAR OF HEALTH
The night before the March Xfinity race at the Circuit of the Americas, Allgaier noticed that something was wrong with his father.
What he didn’t know was that the fluid was filling his father’s head and building up the pressure.
What Allgaier saw was that his father was having a hard time remembering where he was or where he was going. His depth perception was turned off and he was struggling to walk.
Allgaier got his dad with NASCAR medical officials. They advised him to take him to the emergency room. Allgaier was present early in the morning when the problem was discovered. Surgery would be needed.
Suddenly, Mike wasn’t going to be at his son’s races. In over 30 years of racing, it was Mike who took part in most of his son’s races. He was there for the wins and losses.
Now, Mike needed time to take care of his health problem and then recover. He wouldn’t be traveling.
It wasn’t there in Darlington.
“It makes you realize, when they’re not there for something, how much you’ll miss them for everything,” Allgaier said of his father who isn’t in Darlington for the win.
“There have been many things in my life that my dad missed when it comes to milestones just because of life. But I was able to pick up the phone and call him and talk to him about those things, or else I could enjoy those moments with him after they happened.
“I know that, one day, that won’t happen. Having that (winning at Darlington without him) made me realize how great a moment is, how much I’m going to miss those moments when he’s not there.
The surgery went well. Mike said he longer has the painful headaches that have plagued him for years. He feels good. He is back on track, to watch his son run.
Mike’s first race was in June at the Nashville Superspeedway. It is a special song for father and son. Allgaier always wanted the guitar that the song gives to the winner, but he never won there.
Until this year.
Allgaier had one of those days where runners hope but rarely experience it. He had the dominant car. Allgaier led 134 of the 188 laps and won with 4.5 seconds.
His father greeted him in Victory Lane.
“You don’t get races like that very often,” Allgaier said. “Seeing him on Victory Lane, having him help me keep the guitar on Victory Lane, he knows how much I wanted that guitar.
“I could say he knew how much it meant to me, but I also knew how much it meant to him.”