Hammond enjoys first trip to festival

Jeff Hammond

WINCHESTER — Jeff Hammond had never been to the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival before this year, but he’s hoping his first time won’t be his last.

Hammond, this year’s Firefighters’ Marshal, said he had never heard of the festival before being invited, but he was very glad that he came.

“It’s kind of one of the best kept secrets that I know of, because this is unreal,” Hammond said. “To me, as an adult, it’s almost like going to Disney World, because every time I go around a corner I meet somebody or I see somebody that makes me go ‘wow.’ The idea that this festival has lasted 89 years, and I know there’s people that know about it, but it’s not known about like it should be known about. This is really great.”

The NASCAR commentator for FOX and Fox Sports 1 said he’s really enjoyed meeting the people in the community.

Hammond couldn’t stay for the weekend due to having to work for FOX on Sunday at the race in Talladega, Alabama, but said he really wants to come back.

“This is the kind of thing you could get jazzed up about wanting to come back to,” Hammond said. “There’s a lot of events around the country that I put on my calendar, because I want to go back because they are fun and they are entertaining and this right now is definitely going to be one of them. I want to see more. … The hospitality here has just been mind blowing. I’ve really enjoyed the people, and I think that’s the reason why I love racing so much. Racers are good people and a lot of times they’re fun to be around. This is what I’m starting to find out about the folks here in Winchester that are associated with this Apple Blossom Festival.”

Hammond has been involved with NASCAR since 1974. He started out as a tire changer for Walter Ballard, and moved his way up on the pit crew through the years. He served on the pit crew for a combined three championship seasons for Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.

He said that one thing he learned from working with both of them was that there are different ways to be successful.

“Cale was the kind he would take it and he would manhandle it to do whatever he had to do. Darrell was the perfectionist, and he figured out how you made the car work instead of the driver,” Hammond said. “Two different philosophies, but the end result was the same. You win races, you win championships.”

Hammond became Waltrip’s crew chief in 1982. One of the big highlights for the pair came in 1989 when Waltrip won his only Daytona 500.

“(It was) a dream come true, because I knew how bad he wanted to win that race,” Hammond said. “You can be a champion but at the same time if you can’t win Daytona, then you’re not really the champion that you want to be. … We didn’t do it because we were faster. We did it because we worked together as a group. We realized we couldn’t outrun them. So we said, you know what we can do? We can outsmart them. So we made one less pit stop and stretched that fuel, got that win for him, and basically I think completed his legacy to a certain degree by being able to accomplish that. For me to be able to be part of it is very gratifying.”

Hammond and Waltrip were brought together again in 2001 as commentators for Fox’s coverage of NASCAR. Hammond has done a variety of things for Fox’s broadcasts. From 2001 to 2013, he was an analyst for Fox’s prerace show alongside Waltrip and Chris Myers. In 2014 he began covering stories on pit road throughout the race as they developed, becoming the first former crew chief to serve in that capacity for network television’s NASCAR coverage.

Hammond said that he’s worried about the sport. He said that they are losing fans, and race car drivers today don’t connect enough with fans.

He said that prices have also driven away many fans.

“You can’t take a sport that was predominantly blue collar, and turn it into the ones who can only afford it come kind of scenario and expect it to continue to grow,” Hammond said. “You got to get it back to the family situation where a man and his wife can take their kids and go to the races and it doesn’t cost him an arm and a leg. Back in the day you could take a thousand dollars and you go to four races. Today you could go to one race on that same thousand dollars. There is part of the equation that I consider a real issue, and we got to figure out a way to do a better job to get those people back at the race track.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com