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Donna Brunow has been collecting NASCAR memorabilia for 55 years. Here, she talks about how she first learned to love the sport.
Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal

Calling her a fan doesn’t even begin to cover it.

When Donna Brunow attended her first car race at the old Danbury Fairgrounds in Connecticut at age 17, she never imagined how much she would enjoy it. She went to the track, where the Danbury Mall now stands, merely to support local racers and have a fun day out with friends. Yet her respectful interest quickly turned into profound excitement when she heard the rev of the engines and got lost in the thrill of the competition.

Since that fateful day in her youth, Brunow has been a lifelong racing enthusiast. At 66, she still vividly recalls the early years when she was just getting into the sport.

“Saturday nights growing up were either the movies or the fairgrounds,” said the Dover Plains resident. “There were a lot of men who were local drivers who we went to see. It was really neat to watch those races and realize ‘I know those names.’”

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Brunow cites Billy Boo, from her hometown of Pawling, and the Bodine brothers, who are now on the NASCAR circuit, as some of her favorite competitors of all time. Of course, her racing interests have long since expanded beyond the Hudson Valley. Nowadays, she is an avid follower of NASCAR at the national level. She tunes in every Sunday, and even some Saturdays, to watch the races.

“I keep a separate calendar just for NASCAR,” she said. “I’ll put in who won last year and fill it in this year.”

In addition to keeping meticulous records and watching every race she can, Brunow also boasts an impressive collection of NASCAR memorabilia. She owns everything from jackets and shirts of her preferred drivers to racing books, shot glasses, watches and toy cars, most of which remain in their original boxes. Although it is difficult to select a favorite from among such an assortment, she has no problem identifying one of the more unique pieces of the bunch.

“I have one teddy bear that is a bear, but if you turn him inside out, he becomes a car,” she said.

Brunow, who has been disabled for approximately 20 years, could not have compiled such an assortment of racing merchandise without assistance from her family. From waiting on line for four hours to get an autograph to picking up NASCAR-related goodies, her extended family, which includes one son in New York and a sister and another son in Florida, has always kept an eye out for unique items to add to the collection.

“NASCAR is a family affair,” Brunow said.

While she may be referring to the number of families that participate in the racing circuit, the statement also holds true in her own life. She personally turned her mother on to the sport about 30 years ago. After retiring on disability and moving to Florida 17 years ago to help her parents, Brunow and her mother bonded over a love and support for the legendary Earnhardt family, three generations of stock car drivers.

She remains the true diehard of her group, though, and refuses to miss a race if she can help it. She has gone to somewhat extreme lengths to ensure she catches all of the action. The most memorable of these moments occurred during a family outing while she was living in Florida. Brunow did not want to leave the house, but her husband at the time convinced her to go with him.

Like a true devotee, “I stayed in the car and listened to (the race) on the radio,” she said. She may not have won any brownie points with her family that day, but she did stay up-to-date with her lifelong passion.

Brunow has been there for the highs and lows of the sport. She remembers all the crucial moments in racing history, from exciting periods when talented drivers, such as her favorite, Rusty Wallace, were just starting out to sadder moments, such as when Dale Earnhardt unexpectedly lost his life on the track during the 2001 Daytona 500.

“When (Dale Earnhardt) was killed, the track was still packed with people,” she said. “Nobody moved, no noise was made, nothing. A guy I worked with was there that day. He said you could hear a pin drop.”

She considers Earnhardt’s shocking death at the Daytona, Florida, track as one of her most profound NASCAR memories, even if it is a sad one. Overall, however, the thrill of watching the races is what continues to draw her to the television every Sunday. After all these years, she still remains in awe of the sport.

“You know darn well that the inside of those cars are amazing,” she said. “The seats are made for the driver. When they climb into the car on a Sunday morning, they are in there.” She admits that while she does not like the format changes to NASCAR this year, she does support the increased safety protocols, since they help prevent accidents similar to the one Earnhardt had.

When it comes to NASCAR, Brunow has seen it all, except for a race itself. Her top bucket list item is to attend a race in person, something she has been unable to do due to her disability.

“My one fondest desire is to attend a race but, being disabled and (the races) being so expensive, I know that it is virtually impossible,” she said.

Until the day comes when she can watch live as her favorite drivers zoom around the track, Brunow is content to catch the competitions from the comfort of her home. She loves getting lost in the excitement and said she hopes that others, even those who have never experienced a race, will love it too.

“If you’ve never seen one, watch one,” she said.

Sabrina Sucato is a freelance writer. Contact her at life@poughkeepsiejournal.com

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