BROOKLYN, Mich. - Being a stock car driver at the top level of NASCAR can make an absentee father out of any good dad. The demands of travel, sponsor appearances, and the time commitment at the various race tracks on the circuit can eat up all of the daylight hours and more.
David Gilliland and his wife, Michelle, wanted to break out of that formula this summer, so they put together a lengthy family expedition that would carry them from track to track, while taking in the sights and experiences of America with their two children along the way.
There was some trepidation, since the Gillilands would be in mighty close quarters for a month or more, traveling and living inside a custom motorhome. Most of the Sprint Cup Series drivers stay in these maxed-out recreational vehicles in the infield of the tracks, for privacy and convenience, but few ever operate them.
While Michelle jokingly envisioned the possibility of a National Lampoon movie unfolding as the Gillilands planned their journey, their travelogue has played out more like the trip of a lifetime.
"All of my girlfriends were teasing me and saying this is something I should blog about because there would probably be some fireworks, but we've actually been having a lot of fun," she said. "It's a big change from our regular routine, where David is off racing and I'm with the kids, but it has worked out really well."
Gilliland, who will be out on the track here at Michigan International Speedway today qualifying for Sunday's Sprint Cup Series CARFAX 400, pulled his full-size motor coach into the MIS infield in the wee hours of Thursday morning after a six-hour trek from upstate New York, where the family had been camping since last weekend's race at Watkins Glen.
"I've had this motorhome for about four years, but before this trip, I drove it once," Gilliland said. "Someone else put 100,000 miles on it, taking it from track to track. This trip has allowed me to see some of the country with my family, and it's given me a greater appreciation for the job our motorhome drivers do. It is work setting up and operating these things."
As the Cup Series has wound its way from Indianapolis to Pocono to Watkins Glen and then MIS, the family has camped on Grand Island, caught bragging-sized smallmouth bass from the Niagara River, spent three days at Cedar Point enjoying the rides and the water park, and taken the ferry out to South Bass Island.
They also have gone wake-boarding, rented kayaks, and experienced a lot of things along the way for the first time. They haven't been home in about five weeks.
"It's been something different for us, but something that we did with my dad when I was a kid," Gilliland said. "We used to tow the race car and camp along the way. Some of my best memories as a kid came from those trips."
The California native hopes that his children, Todd (10) and Taylor (7), will have similar recollections of this trip. Taylor recently lost a tooth en route, and learned that the Sprint Cup circuit entourage includes the Tooth Fairy, while Todd landed a smallmouth bass in New York that would turn most fishermen green with envy.
"I thought this was a way to have some real quality time as a family, and it has worked out better than we could have hoped for," Gilliland said. "This lets me recharge, then get back at it. I find that I come to the track refreshed. I used to get on a jet, close my eyes, and then wake up and ask somebody where we were. This is a little slower, obviously, but it's really been nice."
Gilliland, who won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2007 and now drives the No. 38 Taco Bell Ford for Front Row Motorsports, said even though his children are getting used to having him around, they still always ask for their mom when they need something. He said their travels together have made him appreciate his family more and reinforced their internal bond.
"It has been a great experience for all of us," Gilliland said. "But my wife is still kind of surprised that we haven't tried to kill each other."
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