Feature

Center Snapshot - Jeff Pickering
09.08.08
Jeff Pickering. Image above: Jeff Pickering grew up an Indianapolis 500 fan in Indiana but has moved south and adopted NASCAR.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith.


By: Jim Hodges 

 

Walk into Jeff Pickering's office and you would know right away that he's a gearhead, even if you didn't look at the gas pumps in front of the building and the garage doors linking it to the outside world.

There on the shelf to his right is a diecast tractor-trailer with blue as its dominant color and a No. 48 on its side. Jimmy Johnson is No. 48.

Alongside of it is a replica of the No. 24 hauler and matching car. Jeff Gordon is No. 24.

On a credenza to his left is a small figurine of a slim man wearing a cowboy bat and a grin.

"That's the king," says Pickering, and you know he's not talking about Elvis.

It's Richard Petty, who won 200 NASCAR Winston (now Sprint) Cup races, more than anyone else. Pickering, who runs vehicle operations at NASA Langley for Tessada and Associates, is a NASCAR buff of the first order, with an office that looks like a shop of racing mementos: diecast cars and trucks, pictures, clocks, a Jeff Gordon lamp and more.

Pickering came to his NASCAR affinity in the most likely – and unlikely – of ways.

First, there was moving to the South from Indiana, where he grew up near Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That meant he was congenitally interested in two things: basketball and auto racing.

"We'd play basketball outside until we wore the leather off the ball," Pickering said. "And I guess I went to about 12 or 13 Indianapolis 500s. The whole month of May, that was what everyone cared about."

Moving south meant fenders were put on the race cars.

And then there was the wreck.

"Eight years ago, I just happened to be going to the Busch (series) race at Richmond (International Raceway), and as I walked into the stands, Jeff Gordon crashed right in front of me," Pickering said.

That was how he became a Gordon fan, and by extension a Jimmy Johnson fan. Johnson is Gordon's teammate with Hendrick Racing.

But it's not that Pickering limits his rooting interests. He'll support Tony Stewart, Casey Mears, Elliott Sadler, just about anybody …

"… except Kyle," Pickering said. "Not him."

Kyle Busch leads the Sprint Cup standings this season, but he is among NASCAR's least popular drivers.

Pickering isn't in love with Toyotas competing in NASCAR, either.

It's not that he has forsaken his Indiana and open-wheel racing roots. His prized possession is a glass-enclosed, autographed replica of Danica Patrick's car from her first Indianapolis 500. There also is a Patrick picture card.

There are other Indy cars and even a model of John Force's Funny Car from drag racing. "He never stops talking," Pickering said. "He talks more than I do."

For all of that, Pickering doesn't go to that many races – "I'd really like to go to Dover some day," he says – because he has so many other things to do in his life away from Langley. There is another office wall of pictures of his 5-year-old grandson, C.J.; and another wall of hunting poses. He goes after deer in Southhampton County.

"To be honest with you, I don't much care if I shoot a deer or not," Pickering says. "It's just being outside, trying to, that I love."

And on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays, there is work at American Legion Post 368 in Denbigh, where he helps raise money for the organization's baseball team and for outings with patients at the VA Medical Center.

Those Sundays can conflict with watching NASCAR races on television, but he has solved that problem with a bit of ingenuity. "I ran a wire from the kitchen, so I can watch them on a small television," he says.

It hasn't been quite as much fun this year, though. Kyle Busch has won eight races in his Toyota.