The first time I ever met Nascar driver Ryan Newman, I asked him if he was a cheater and he asked me if I was a thief.
It was 2004 and I was in Daytona Beach, Fla., working on a story for The New York Times about Newman following up on his eight-win season the year before. I didn't know much about him at the time beyond his racing success and engineering degree from Purdue. I certainly didn't expect Newman to have a dry sense of humor. He's from the Midwest, after all.
Newman had drawn suspicion around the garage in 2003 for finding a way to extend his fuel run longer than anyone else. His team was never caught cheating, but the questions about his performance lingered. So I asked him about it in our interview and he laughed at the suggestion, brushing off a certain four-time Cup winner in his response.
At the end of what turned out to be an entertaining interview, Newman took a lighthearted shot at me for some reason. I can't remember exactly what he said, but I'll never forget what happened next.
I warned him in my own deadpanned delivery, "Don't mess with the power of the pen." But as I said it, I looked at the pen and amended myself.
"Don't mess with the power of the Marriott pen," I declared.
He came right back at me.
"You stole that pen," he said.
Stole it? C'mon, it's a Marriott pen! Every sportswriter in America has a backpack full of them. It's what we do, OK?
"They're free," I bluffed; I had never actually asked in all the years I had been taking them. I just stuffed one into my bag wherever I was staying and forgot about it.
We went back and forth for a minute or two before the interview ended. But I walked away feeling curious and just a tad guilty. Am I really a thief? So I wrote to Marriott and asked if the pens were free. Yes, I was told in an email response, guests were allowed to take them.
I printed a copy of the response and put it in an envelope. The next time I was assigned to cover a Nascar race, I handed the envelope to Newman's public relations representative and asked her to pass it along.
It has been a running joke for years now. Whenever I see Newman in the garage, I raise my pen to him and we share a chuckle.
I thought the issue was long settled when I went to interview Newman last week at Martinsville Speedway. But when I met him in his hauler, he immediately took my pen from me and eyed it closely. I hadn't bothered to see which hotel it was from when I grabbed it out of my bag earlier in the day.
Turns out it was from the Tropicana in Laughlin, Nev., of all places. I had stayed there one night a few years ago while visiting family. I can't even believe I still had the pen.
Right away, Newman accused me of stealing it.
Wait a minute! Didn't I win this argument years ago?
Apparently not. As Newman pointed out, it wasn't a Marriott pen. And as he correctly surmised, I had never asked Tropicana if I could take it.
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