When Linda Manwaring was a student at Schlarman High School, the first boy she dated took her to the stock-car races in Danville.

It was love at first sight … with the sport of racing, that is.

“I knew then that was exactly what I liked,” she said.

Over the years, boys — and even a husband — have come and gone, but her love for stock cars is still strong.

Manwaring even has a room in her St. Joseph home totally dedicated to NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) memorabilia and more items in storage. She agrees that she’s obsessed with the sport.

“It is the most exciting sport on earth … your heart just pounds,” she said.

With the racing season in full swing, many people in the area share Manwaring’s devotion to the sport and to certain drivers. While many people collect mementoes, few have such an extensive collection.

In fact, she doesn’t even know how many replicas of the cars — in all sizes — she has, but there are hundreds. She started her collection in the mid-1980s and it’s grown to include toys, clothing, pins, posters, pictures, a NASCAR Barbie, lanyards, playing cards, books and many other items.

“Each one tells a story. To me, they’re just priceless,” she said of the items.

Manwaring, a kindergarten teacher at St. Joseph Grade School and a former teacher at Muncie Grade School, said even her students have contributed items.

The collection started when her husband at the time bought her two 1:24 scale die-cast cars. She enjoyed the little cars so much that she started buying more. (The scale means it’s 1/24th the size of a full stock car.)

“It just erupted after that,” she said.

She and her husband liked NASCAR, but the races weren’t shown on television very often at the time; instead, they were broadcast on radio. Today, the races are aired on Fox and NBC all the time, she said.

“I’m screaming at my television or jumping up and down” during the exciting parts, she said.

While she enjoys watching the races on TV because there’s more detail about what’s happening, she prefers to attend the races in person. She tapes the races when she’s attending one in person.

She’s been to every Brickyard race in Indianapolis, except one, and plans to attend the Chicagoland race in Joliet in July.

THE EXCITEMENT

What does she like about going to a race in person?

“The noise and the smell and the excitement … maybe it’s the thrill of the danger,” she said. “It is really exciting.”

Another NASCAR fan, who lives in Fithian, agrees it’s more exciting to attend a race in person.

Someone watching a race on TV might wonder what all the fuss is about, Brad Cannon said. But, at the track, you can watch the crew working hard on the cars, see the drivers up close and feel the competition in the air.

“You hold your breath before and after an accident until you know everyone’s OK,” he said.

The races lose their edge on the TV screen, he said, and it’s more difficult to develop a relationship with the drivers.

Cannon said he and his wife, Jeanie — who are friends with Manwaring — once followed NASCAR closely, but they’ve let up a bit in recent years. Still, they make sure they watch the races on TV, but they don’t care if they miss all the other race-related shows.

“I’ve never been able to bring myself to miss it (a race on TV),” he said.

Cannon was born into a racing family, but hasn’t raced himself. His father Dean, also of Fithian, was on a pit crew with the Indianapolis 500, and his cousins, Larry and Steve Cannon, were well-known sprint-car racers.

BEHIND THE WHEEL

Twice, Manwaring had the chance to ride in a race car at Brickyard. The first time, the car hit 170 miles per hour; the second time, the driver reached 190 mph. The cars went around the track three times.

“You don’t realize how fast you’re going,” said Manwaring, who had to wear a helmet and hot suit.

Manwaring doesn’t have a favorite active driver right now, but she does follow ex-racer Darrell Waltrip, now a commentator. She’s never met him, however.

She does have Kenny Wallace’s autograph. About three years ago, she was at an Indianapolis motel for a conference and saw Jimmy Johnson. However, she was so starstruck that she couldn’t approach him.

One thing she likes about NASCAR drivers is their accessibility to fans.

“They’re not snooty superstars,” she said, and you can call them on a first-name basis. “You feel like they’re your best friend or next-door neighbor.”

Also, all the drivers have a charity or a foundation they help raise money for, especially for children’s causes, she said.

“They use their superstardom for good,” she said.

ALL PRICELESS

Manwaring adds to her collection every time she goes to a race, and when friends and family give her gifts.

One of her favorite gifts came from her son Mike, of Peoria, who got her a tire from Robert Presley’s No. 77 car.

“I was just floored,” she said. “You couldn’t have got me anything I would want more than a used tire.”

That tire now sits proudly in her NASCAR room, with several little cars displayed inside and a telephone shaped like a racing car on top.

She also has a collection of lanyards featuring the tickets from each race; a Coke bottle and a beer can, both with small cars inside; Barbie dressed in a NASCAR suit; an autographed edition of a model car driven by Waltrip (the only one she keeps covered); a stuffed bear with the NASCAR emblem given to her by former student Christian Clabaugh; and a special Waltrip car made for Bristol Raceway in Tennessee (in case of fire, she’d grab that one).

She also has a set of programs celebrating NASCAR’s 50th anniversary in 1998 and a set of newspapers announcing Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death in 2001.

Manwaring’s family shares her interest, too, including parents Pat and Bette Henry, of Lindenhurst, and an uncle, David Henry, of Naples, Fla.

She recommends other people at least give the sport a try.

“I always say if anyone went to a race, they’d love it. It’s a fun thing and I really enjoy doing it,” she said. “I can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t like it.”

Cannon also suggested people try the Speedway racetrack just outside Danville if they want to get an idea of what racing is like.

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