Even though NASCAR may be the most popular sport in America, to most people it’s a completely different culture. The only way to fully understand the world of NASCAR is to fully immerse yourself in it. So that’s what I did back in October 2010 when I was lucky enough to have the full-blown NASCAR experience. Like most people who have grown up in the SportsCenter era, I know the names of like 15 drivers. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Tony Stewart, and so on. I had always wanted to go to a race, but I didn’t think I could stomach 3 or 4 hours of watching guys making left-hand turns. I was wrong. Thanks to a close relative who works for the brand new NASCAR Hall of Fame, I got the “behind the scenes” tour of what happens before and during a race. Without a doubt, doing it this way has gotten me hooked.
So as we pulled up to the track, I had NO idea what I was about to witness. We drove down a one lane road through a quiet looking neighborhood, with a few stores here and there. But as we got closer and closer to the track, we became surrounded on each side of the road by massive RV’s and Confederate flags the size of a horse trailer. When we finally navigated through the gauntlet, the Speedway appeared in the distance and I could not believe how big this place was. It was easily three times bigger than any football stadium I have ever been to.
After getting our passes and parking the car, the real fun started. I was finally in the belly of the NASCAR beast. As you would have expected, 90% of the people here were your stereotypical “rednecks”. Wrangler jeans, big belt buckle (if they were wearing a belt), sleeveless plaid shirt, can of beer, and a spit cup. But you know what? They were just like every other sports fan who was fired up for the big game. The atmosphere was great. It wasn’t just a bunch of gear heads or a sausage fest. I was absolutely shocked with how many young girls (18-28ish years old) we there. It probably had to do with their boyfriend/husband/baby’s daddy dragging them there, but still. Young or old, everyone was having a good time. We walked around the hospitality tents and food areas to grab a beer and a bite to eat before heading inside. So like any other southerner, I had a Bojangles chicken sandwich. Mmmmmm, nothing like a triple fried spicy chicken sandwich to get your day started. We weaved through hundreds of blackout-drunk people, past the SKOAL tent, then hooked a right by the Jack Daniels tent. Yes, SKOAL had a tent set up that gave away free tins of tobacco. And yes, those same young girls that I talked about before were going in and getting some chew.
When we walked into the track, we actually walked underneath the track and trough a tunnel that lead to the infield. We were greeted by RV’s lined up as far as the eyes can see. Some were old school buses that were probably bought for $500 and serve this one purpose, others were of the $100k verity. Either way, everyone had the same goal. Climb up on top of the RV and watch the race from there. Some of these RV’s even had modified bird’s nests built on top. All that was missing from a few of these were a surface to air missile launcher. As we got past the first 5,000 RV’s we walked right onto pit road. This was beyond cool. There were nearly 30 cars lined up right in front of me, getting their final battery charges. As you can see from some of the pictures I took, you could literally get within 2 feet of a car that was about to go 200 mph.
With the race about to start, I headed to the hospitality tent that I was lucky enough to be invited to. We were stationed right by turn 4, which is the last turn on the track before the finish line. As they were about to start the engines, I had NO idea what was about to happen. The engines started and you could just hear the power. With no muffler on these 750hp monsters, you could probably hear them from 10 miles away. The drivers took their customary warm-up lap around the track before the green flag was dropped. So as the cars approached turn 4, they put the pedal to the metal and raced towards that green flag. When I tell you that my heart almost skipped a beat as they came into turn 4, I’m not lying. The roar of the engines going into that green flag was one of the most incredible sports experiences of my life. I had no clue that it would such an adrenaline rush. It was like standing next to an F-16 on takeoff.
After my heart got back into my chest, I walked right up to turn 4 to get an even closer look at what 200 mph actually looks like.
Naturally after seeing and feeling that, I thought that it would be awesome to see a crash. I got my wish about 40 laps into the race when Sam Hornish Jr. spun out and into the wall going around turn 3. You could smell the stench of the burnt tires all over the track. It was enough to make you gag. Another 10 laps later, the same thing happened to Patrick Carpenter, and he was out of the race as well.
We decided to head to the exits about halfway through the race and possibly catch the finish on TV. It’s kind of hard to follow everything that is going on in a race from the infield. As we were heading out, I wanted to get one last view of the cars going full speed from close up.
After leaving the race, I didn’t even care who won or anything like that. All I could think of was how cool it was to be at a race. If you are going to experience your first NASCAR race, this is the way to do it. I was lucky enough to get hooked up with these infield passes, but you can purchase them for each race.
One last thing that I want to point out is that NASCAR cares about its fans. I’ve never been to a sporting event other than a golf tournament, where you can get so close to the action. What other sport would let 15,000 people walk through their locker room an hour before the game? None. Sure, it can get a little expensive like all sporting events, but the cost is nothing compared to taking a family of 4 to an NHL or NBA game. NASCAR is so up to date on how it uses technology to get the fans involved that it’s scary. Sprint, being the # 1 sponsor of NASCAR, sells scanners for about $40 per unit, that you can hook up to and listen to every single driver’s communications from driver to crew. Could you imagine if the NFL let you listen to Aaron Rodgers get the play call from the sideline before every single play in tonight’s Super Bowl? Imagine listening to Rex Ryan drop F-Bombs to Bart Scott while calling the next blitz for the Jets?
A few days after going to the race, I went to the brand new NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte. My cousin’s husband is in charge of the exhibits there and he gave me an awesome tour of “Glory Road”, and some great info that I had no idea about. The “Glory Road” exhibit has actual cars from each era of racing, and to go along with it, the cars are positioned on a race track that wraps around a massive lobby. The cars that are in this exhibit are all special to a specific track that is/was on the NASCAR circuit. Now as the track wraps around the lobby, the track starts to bank from zero degrees all the way to 33 degrees. So when you look at a car that won at Watkins Glen, it’s flat on the ground since Watkins Glen is a road course. But as you make your way all the way to the end, you get to see Talladega’s 33 degree incline. It’s incredible to see a car banked at a 33 degree angle and imagine it going 180-200 mph. Another great aspect of the Hall of Fame is that you can touch actual tools and car parts that you would find in a NASCAR garage or pit. I actually got to lift up one of the giant gas cans that u see a pit crew member use to fill up the cars with. You wouldn’t believe how heavy it is when you try to pick it up! If you are ever in Charlotte, I suggest you go, even if you are not a race fan. The Hall of Fame is incredible. There are so many interactive exhibits and you could literally spend hours in there.
Suggestions for going to a NASCAR race
1. Get there early and walk around. Check out all the interactive booths and take in the atmosphere. It may be different, but it’s worth it.
2. Get one of the scanners. It may be pricey, but it’s well worth being able to hear what’s going on along with what you see.
3. Bring earplugs or some type of ear protection. I have extremely good hearing and my ears and head were killing me after about thirty minutes.
4. The most expensive tickets aren’t necessarily the best. Just because you sit real close to the asphalt, doesn’t mean it’s a good seat. You want to sit up a little higher than you think, and maybe by the last turn. This way you can see all the action and see if the race comes down to the end.