Eric Webler remembers vividly the first time he went to Pocono Raceway.
Just 10 years old at the time, Webler, now 24, can recall the date in a split second.
It was Sunday, June 10, 2007. His favorite Hot Wheels and diecast collectible cars came to life in front of his eyes for the first time. The shear speed of the cars going nearly 200 mph always kept Webler glued to the TV for races, now he got to witness it firsthand.
Webler saw Tony Stewart, his favorite driver, finish fifth in the Pocono 500. As a kid Webler’s favorite color was orange, so he quickly grew to love Stewart and the bright orange No. 20 Home Depot Chevy.
Again at the Tricky Triangle on Sunday, June 27, 2021, Webler had an experience he’ll never forget.
Stewart, who retired after the 2016 season, wasn’t racing, and with over a decade of races under his belt, Webler had experienced just about everything a NASCAR race day has to offer. A 56-minute walk around the 2 1/2-mile track with NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson would change that.
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The walk of a lifetime
Everything came together through Twitter in the days before Pocono Raceway’s Doubleheader Weekend, but the story began sixth months earlier, in January.
Webler, a resident of Binghamton, New York, set out to lose weight. Then weighing 400 pounds, Webler came across the videos of TikTok user Alec Metzger, which introduced him to the concept of calorie deficit, the calculation of a daily calorie goal one maintains to lose weight.
For exercise, he started walking nightly. Webler started with two-mile walks and is now up to four miles each each day.
By June 18, Webler had lost 49.4 pounds. Pocono Raceway’s Doubleheader Weekend was coming up, so Webler decided to shoot his shot and try to get the track involved in his weight-loss journey.
On one of his nightly walks, Webler filmed himself with a simple request: to be able to walk a lap around the track at Pocono Raceway. He posted the video to Twitter where it quickly took off, garnering hundreds of likes and scores of retweets from fellow NASCAR fans.
“It just blew up,” Webler, who works in commercial production for his local news station and as a camera operator for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, said.
The request worked. Within two hours, Webler said he heard from Mike Forde, NASCAR’s managing director of racing communications.
Webler would get to walk a lap around the track the morning of the Sunday races.
When Webler arrived at the track on Sunday, he met with NASCAR communications executives Mike Forde and Chris Tropeano, who were pivotal in organizing the opportunity and would join him on the walk. Also there to join for the walk was Webler’s friend Elijah Burke.
Then came the big surprise.
After finding inspiration from his viral tweet, Earnhardt and Gragson came to participate in the walk. Gragson had reached out to Webler before the walk to express interest in joining, but Earnhardt’s presence was wholly unexpected.
“I just thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to support this guy,'” Earnhardt said. “If he’s going to go walk, I’m going to go walk this track.”
The sextet had formed — Webler, Burke, Earnhardt, Gragson, Forde and Tropeano — and chemistry seemed immediate.
The group talked about craft beers, casinos and, of course, racing. Webler and Earnhardt discussed their shared love of the Washington Football Team despite neither having a connection to the city.
“That’s kind of one of the fun things about the walk, is just the conversation you have,” Earnhardt said. “We got to learn a lot about Eric.”
When rounding Turn One, Gragson and Webler stopped to touch the burned tire rubber, and Gragson explained the differences in stickiness. Before reaching Turn Two, Webler FaceTimed his mom to introduce her to each member of the group.
“This is easily one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Webler said. “I’ve gotten to do some cool things with NASCAR before, this is topping everything I’ve ever done.”
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Second time around
This year isn’t Webler’s first attempt at major weight loss.
In 2017, he set out with the same goal, but a different game plan. Webler tried going cold turkey with a no-carb-no-sugar diet.
“It was just a nightmare,” Webler said.
The nightmare diet showed quick results in the short term, as Webler dropped from 345 pounds to 298 in just three months. The misery of the diet made it unsustainable, though, and when paired with wanting to fully enjoy the end of his college lifestyle after turning 21, Webler put back on all the weight he had lost and then some by the time he graduated in 2019.
This time is different, he said.
The calorie deficit system allows Webler to eat the food he likes, so long as it’s in moderation. He said he’ll indulge in fast food, for example, any time he wants as long as it’s within his calorie limit — a freeing feeling to enjoy himself as he pleases.
“That’s really the big difference this time around, that I like it,” Webler said. “I don’t wake up every day just dreading, like … ‘I’m not able to eat this today.'”
Webler has made some dietary changes, like switching from beef to turkey and converting to diet soda, but has largely stuck to the foods that make him happiest. He’s also found low-calorie alternatives like non-alcoholic beers that he enjoys just as much.
The weight loss is absolutely a journey, Webler said, but being able to enjoy his food and finding a fun way to exercise in walking alleviates some of the journey’s burden.
“I’m making ‘hard’ a lot easier for me,” Webler said. “Going for a walk at night isn’t like a chore, it’s something I really enjoy doing.”
Walking each night offers Webler time to listen to music, write thoughts into his phone or even play some Pokémon Go.
Unlike the stock cars speeding around Pocono Raceway on Sunday, Webler said his mission to lose weight is not a race. The system he’s developed is slower than the nightmare diet from 2017, but its efficiency and sustainability make all the difference in Webler feeling more confident about being able to reach his goal.
That means taking it slow, but never losing sight of what’s ahead.
“Fifty pounds is a quarter of the way to my ultimate goal,” Webler said. “It is a really big number, and, at the same time, it’s like I really do have a long way, a long road ahead of me still.”
Becoming an inspiration
Webler said that embarking on his weight-loss journey in the public eye gives him many people to hold him accountable.
“It’s a little scary,” Webler said. “It’s also, like, really awesome at the same time, because it’s like I don’t want to let anybody down. This is real. This is happening, and I’m liking it too.”
His journey entered the spotlight not only through his viral tweet to Pocono Raceway and NASCAR, but also through TikTok, where he’s engaged with members of the platform’s fitness community and posted updates on his progress.
Webler said the app’s unique “For You Page” algorithm makes it easy to come across similar content that introduces him to others also looking to lose weight or who have already found success. With over 1,000 followers and 27,000 views, Webler has been able to reach a large audience.
“It’s been a cool little support group,” Webler said. “There are people who’ve never even met me that are counting on me to do this.”
To hear people reaching out saying he’s inspired them has been unbelievable, Webler said, but a sensation that pushes him to keep going.
“His little thing, that he’s doing, had a good impression on a bunch of people — me included,” Earnhardt said.
To continue following along Webler’s journey, check out his TikTok page, @ericwebler.
Frank Piscani is the Sports Life multimedia reporter at the Pocono Record. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on social media platforms @frankpiscani.