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Courtesy Courtney Brockmiller

Checkered flag keepsake gives 4-year-old fan a new favorite driver in Blaney

An “out of the blue” invitation from family in Charlotte a couple of months ago gave Ricky Brockmiller the chance to take his 4-year-old son, Payton, to his first NASCAR race last weekend. The family made the trek from their home in Colfax, Wisconsin, and witnessed a classic finish. But there was more that made Sunday’s debut for the Charlotte Roval an unforgettable memory.

Payton Brockmiller was front and center in the stands above the start-finish line for Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400, having made the walk down to the bottom row to get a closer look at his favorite part — the burnout. That’s when race winner Ryan Blaney locked eyes with the young fan, handed over the checkered flag and offered a fist-bump and thumbs-up.

“We just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Ricky Brockmiller said Wednesday. “I knew Ryan likes to give out the checkered flag, so when I saw him grab it, I saw him scanning the crowd and I managed to get Payton up as high as I could. I just made my way to the front and guess we got really lucky.”

Lucky, maybe. But perhaps all the coincidences foreshadowed that Payton’s first race was bound to be special. Blaney’s first checkered flag giveaway — after an Xfinity Series win at Dover last year — was also on Sept. 30. His father also works as a body mechanic at a truck equipment company, right across the street from a distribution center for Menards, Blaney’s primary sponsor on his Team Penske No. 12 Ford. And Ricky Brockmiller’s job means plenty of work for Penske’s rental truck division.

RELATED: 360-degree view of Blaney’s last lap

Ricky and Payton Brockmiller at Team Penske headquarters
Courtesy: Courtney Brockmiller

Serendipity aside, the shellshocked look on Payton’s face told the post-race story Sunday. Reached Wednesday by phone, his father said that the meaning of the moment has just started to sink in.

“He kind of gets it, but I don’t know if he fully gets how cool and how big of a deal it is,” Ricky Brockmiller said. “He’s a shy kid, but he’s getting it and liking it. Coming out of the race track, I think he was starting to notice that yeah, it felt pretty cool because everyone’s giving him fist-bumps and shaking his hand. A lot of all these stray people just wanted to take pictures with him. So he’s kind of getting it.”

The post-race accolades weren’t the end of the already heartwarming story, which spilled over into a memorable Monday. The family paid a visit to Team Penske’s shop in Mooresville to pick up souvenirs, with Payton still proudly carrying the flag from the day before. A member of Blaney’s crew noticed him from the shop floor, asking if it was the flag. When the Brockmillers said yes, arrangements were made for a second meeting that afternoon with Blaney, who happily posed for pictures and added his autograph to the checkers.

The Monday photos featured Payton smiling with a No. 12 shirt for his new favorite driver, even though his race-day apparel showed the youngster’s support for Kyle Busch. Blaney, in his weekly podcast for NASCAR.com, joked that he was doing his level best at “converting fans, one person at a time.”

Pressed to name a favorite driver going forward, Payton stammered before blurting out, “Ryan Blaney!” His father admitted that his son’s allegiances were still split.

“At night, he and my wife, they do a prayer,” Ricky Brockmiller said. “My wife will say, ‘All right, who are you thankful for?’ and she’ll put ideas in his head like Mom, Dad, your sister, whoever. He still will say he’s thankful for Kyle Busch although now he has added in Ryan Blaney. I think he’s torn. He likes them both. I think it’s the candy on Kyle’s car.”

Ryan Blaney fist bumps a young fan
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

Once home, Payton Brockmiller unraveled the flag to show to the rest of his family. But now it sits rolled up and hidden away, awaiting his father to preserve both the flag and the race tickets in a keepsake frame.

But there are plans for Payton and his future with racing as well. Ricky Brockmiller said he helps out at Thunder Hill Speedway, a nearby karting track, and that he hopes to get his son up and running in competition in the next two years. Payton’s already making laps in a youth all-terrain vehicle on an oval burned into the field in the Brockmillers’ back yard.

“That’s all that he wants to do is race,” Ricky says, recounting the oft-told anecdote of Denny Hamlin’s rise to NASCAR’s big leagues. Hamlin, as an 11-year-old and a relative unknown finding his way on Virginia’s short tracks, told Coach Joe Gibbs at an autograph session that he’d drive for him one day. It’s a tale that’s resonated with the Brockmillers this week.

“I told my wife this is the beginning of his story,” Ricky says. “Hopefully one day he can come back and run for Ryan Blaney.”

Ryan Blaney greets the Brockmiller family at the Team Penske shop.
Courtesy Courtney Brockmiller