NASCAR Nation goes global with Dale Jr.'s win
March 04, 2014, Stu Hothem, NASCAR.com
Daytona 500 victory reconnects fan from Belarus with Richmond International Raceway
On Feb. 23, the epicenter of Junior Nation was Daytona International Speedway as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 56th running of the Daytona 500. But the ripple effects from the World Center of Racing were felt across the globe in the early morning hours on Feb. 24 when a connection between a race fan from Belarus and Richmond International Raceway was rekindled.
To set the stage for this international story, go back to the early 2000s as Earnhardt Jr. began his career in NASCAR's premier series. Aliaksandr Bialiayev was a young man growing up in Belarus with a passion for motorsports.
"I grew up in a very hardworking family in Belarus," Bialiayev said. "Although we have never had a luxury of allowing ourselves more than the vast majority of people in our community could, I could watch some Formula 1 races early in the 2000s, but these races were always rebroadcasted from Russian public channels. When in 2004, Belarus failed to reach an agreement with Russia regarding the rebroadcasting rights for sport events in the territory of my country, I was left with no opportunity to feed my passion."
Young Aliaksandr's father saw his son's need for speed and bought a receiver and satellite dish to bring in over-the-air German networks to watch F1 races. After waiting two weeks for a technician to install the equipment, Aliaksandr set up the system himself, learning to rotate the dish and find new channels.
One Sunday night in April 2004, he tuned in to the French AB Moteurs channel with a live broadcast of the NASCAR premier series race from Texas Motor Speedway. Elliott Sadler won the event. Six weeks later, Bialiayev fell in love when he saw his first full NASCAR race.
It was the Chevy American Revolution 400 at Richmond, won by Earnhardt Jr., and it set off a revolution in Bialiayev's world.
"This Saturday night, I was meeting with some friends of mine," Bialiayev said. "I stayed up until 2 a.m. and before I was about to call it a night, I launched my computer to check whether more sports was online."
"I remember me lying on the floor in my parents' room, watching the race with English commentary. I could understand nothing, but the whole atmosphere was pretty much amazing -- 3 a.m., complete darkness, in the middle of nowhere, people around me all sleeping and only me watching something so exciting, somewhere far (away) and in a foreign language. This was pretty much the moment when I became a fan of NASCAR."
In 2005, his family moved to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and it became easier to find NASCAR races and follow both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. In 2008, Bialiayev attended a university in Poland and began studying the English language. He said, "I couldn't take a satellite dish with me" so he followed races on NASCAR.com's leaderboard. For some races, he said he avoided the Internet "for a week or two while waiting for these DVD to be delivered before I could watch them without knowing a winner."
Four years later, Bialiayev saved enough money to see a race in-person at "America's Premier Short Track."
(Courtesy: Aliaksandr Bialiayev)
"In 2012, I finally got an opportunity to realize one of my dreams -- flying over to the United States, to Richmond to be more precise -- to watch a race," Bialiayev said.
While attempting to return to his lodging after the Nationwide Series race, he became stranded at the track, 20 miles away from his hotel. A police officer set him up with a friend who was going in the direction of the hotel "because, as a racing fan, he didn't want me to miss the race on Saturday," Bialiayev said.
Before leaving the premises that night, he visited the track's administration office, where he met John Moreland, RIR's vice president of sales and marketing, and track president Dennis Bickmeier.
Bickmeier was amazed by the "courageous young man" and his story.
"I was just in shock when I first met him and heard about him making this trek to see NASCAR at RIR; however, after hearing his full story and listening about his multiple attempts to one day get here and what it meant for him to achieve this goal, he's become an inspiration to me," Bickmeier said.
On Saturday, Moreland took Bialiayev to the drivers meeting where Bickmeier introduced him, recounting the effort it took for Bialiayev to realize his dream of attending a NASCAR race.
"I told his story a couple of times on race day, including in the drivers meeting, and I got choked up," Bickmeier said. "I've told the story many times since, and still get emotional about it when I think of all the obstacles he overcame. He is an example of the passion people have for our sport, and we should never take that for granted."
Bickmeier commended Clint Bowyer, who went to Victory Lane that night, for taking an interest in Bialiayev and inviting him to take a picture with his No. 15 team.
Bialiayev recalled: "It was an unbelievable experience, standing next to Clint and another legend -- a two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip."
(Courtesy: Aliaksandr Bialiayev)
Since that 2012 fall race weekend, Moreland and Bickmeier have kept in touch with Bialiayev. So it wasn't a surprise when they heard from their friend in the early morning hours of Feb. 24. Bialiayev expressed his excitement after seeing the man who won the first race he watched in 2004 win NASCAR's most prestigious event for a second time.
"Dale Jr. came such a long way to winning his second Daytona 500 so I was extremely happy for him and his team, thus I could not resist the temptation of sharing this excitement with RIR's John Moreland and Dennis," Bialiayev said. "But I like to see other drivers succeeding as well. These incredible Cinderella stories like David Ragan's win at Talladega, Jimmie Johnson's sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship or Tony Stewart's first win at Indy in 2005 (are) what this sport (are) all about."
Currently living in Frankfurt, Germany and working in finance, the 26-year-old Bialiayev is working to "find an application for my hobby to spread (the) word about NASCAR around (to) many fans."
"I think there are millions of people who get inspired when seeing other people do great things in life, art, politics or in sport," Bialiayev continued, "so it is a normal situation (to) look up (to) the best when paving your way into becoming somebody."
Bickmeier agrees, and he knows Bialiayev isn't alone.
"I'm sure there are a lot more stories like Aliaksandr's out there that can be unlocked," Bickmeier said. "Having the distribution capabilities that we have in NASCAR allows us to build a fan base anywhere."
"This proves the old saying ‘you never know who is watching,' and in this case, a young man halfway around the world was inspired by our product, and now maybe he can inspire others."
With a NASCAR Whelen Euro Series race only a 90-minute train ride away at Nurburgring, Bialiayev is considering attending the July 19-20 race weekend at the famed German facility. But his goal is to make it back to the States and the source of his inspiration.
"I definitely plan to visit the U.S. before the season is over to see another race," Bialiayev said. "I still believe that I owe all the best experiences in my life to this evening back in 2004 when I saw a part of a NASCAR race on TV," Bialiayev said.