For the first 16 years of my life, I lived within an hour of a NASCAR track. When I turned 15, I bought a 1970 Olds 4-4-2 that I was able to document as being a pace car at that race track. However, until now, I’ve never been to a NASCAR race. How did that happen? I dunno — maybe I was more inclined to cajole my dad to take me to Carlisle and Atco instead. My NASCAR maiden voyage? The United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway.
When I was a kid watching anything with four wheels on TV, NASCAR would broadcast names like Yarborough, Earnhardt, Waltrip and Allison. As I got older, I learned that moonshine seemed to have a way of giving men a way with cars, which contributed to the idea that the last American hero was Junior Johnson (yes!). I also learned that there were three kings of this world: Elvis, Budweiser and Richard Petty.
Back then, stock cars seemed to have a resemblance to production cars (hence the namesake). A lot about NASCAR has changed since the 1980s, including a participating Japanese manufacturer (though no word if Toyota was running sake through the hills of Fujiyoshida). Some may say Bill France is rolling in his grave, though considering he was born in Washington, DC, he’s practically a Yankee anyway.
As France founded NASCAR in Daytona Beach, and as stock car races have reigned in the Southeastern United States, stock car racing continues to be perceived as a Southern sport, though modern times have brought an international fan base.
I entered a dusty parking lot that appeared to be full, though I was surprised at the attendees who carelessly parked their cars without maximizing space, or tailgaters who left two parking spaces’ worth of picnic equipment. Where’s the Southern manners? Since I’m a resourceful chap with a healthy dose of can-do Jersey blood, I cleared the way and parked without a fuss — problem solved.
The walk from Lot 3 was long, but middle of the pack among the lots. Shuttles were available for folks who didn’t wish to make the trek to the stadium. Alas, every shuttle headed to the stadium was full, so my only hope was to catch a shuttle going to farther lots and then loop back. I made the decision to walk the distance as part of my NASCAR ritual, no different than having to wait in line at Pepe’s Pizza in New Haven or spending an hour waiting on hold with my health insurance company. This ended up being a smart decision because, along the way, a guy was distributing Monster Energy’s The Beast Unleashed spiked seltzer — and he didn’t card me! (Please keep this on the DL as my boss doesn’t need to know this …)
When I entered the complex, the race was just beginning. Within the perimeter of the stadium, all I could see were food stands (all of which seemed to share the same graphic designer), T-shirt trailers and some racing fun courtesy of the NASCAR Experience and the NASCAR Kid Zone. But then, all of a sudden, I was overcome by a swarm of sound emanating from inside the perimeter of the stadium. “Vrooooom!” went the mechanical chatter, only to return every 20 seconds or so. It had been recommended that I bring ear plugs, and I immediately understood why.
The T-shirt vendors are an interesting phenomenon compared to those at athletic and musical events. They sold their wares out of trailers, but it didn’t seem they competed with each other because each one was focused on a particular driver or team (and I’ll assume the operation is run by the drivers and/or teams). There even was a motorsports apparel company focused solely on females. Yay, girls!
Exploring some more, I found the usual promotional displays from the likes of, say, a new-age chewing tobacco company (like everything these days, “a fresh new take on nicotine”) and Toyota (which still feels like sacrilege though I don’t have hate in my heart). There even was a trailer for those who wished to get vaccinated, though I would have to say the line was longer for the bathroom than that for a shot.
Finally, I climbed up the stairway into the stadium. I peeked inside the arena to catch a glimpse of the race, then I proceeded to walk around and take in the scene. It looked like a typical sporting event or concert, with the usual vendors serving the usual beer and spirits, and carb- and sugar-laden foods. It bears mentioning that most remarkable thing I noticed is that people were well-behaved — from my encounter, public drunkenness and loud behavior were nonexistent, unlike what I’ve experienced at every baseball game I’ve ever attended. This was quite remarkable considering the level of sponsorship with sin brands.
After taking this all in, I started my adventure to thank the officials who gave me access to my first NASCAR race. I walked into Guest Services and asked for directions to the media center. The lady didn’t know, so she suggested I go to another section and take the stairs down to the elevator. After walking about 400 yards, I could not find the elevator but I did find a lady guarding something we Groundlings were not allowed to access. She told me to go upstairs to (another) Guest Services office, and the lady there directed me back down where the guard was. She let me through without a fuss, though I had a sense I was headed towards no-man’s land except for the privileged few. After arriving at the 5th floor, which was where the box seats were, I quickly encountered a gatekeeper who told me the media center was in the infield.
So, the next question was, am I allowed to go to the infield? I had no idea, so I told the guy at the entrance of the tunnel that I was looking for the media center and this is where I was supposed to go according to someone. He allowed me to enter, with me thinking to myself as I walked underneath the track, how everyone has been so nice or maybe I was too slick for my own good? And then, like on the other side of the rainbow, I was faced with a revelation.
The infield was nothing like I had expected. I imagined it was where the teams and their RVs stationed themselves, but the reality is that the infield was THE happy place for many NASCAR fans willing to pay to get an inside view of the goings-on. Sure, those in the stands could get a bird’s-eye view of the race, but the infield gave you the opportunity to drink in designated sections (no different than an outdoor restaurant) and watch the race on the monitor, have your kids play games, check out the work stations/garages of all the racers and watch the crews from afar.
And visit the media center, too.
Most attendees were not concerned with that. I suspect they found it more interesting to play video games in the Esports Gamer Garage.
For the superfan, you can rent a scanner so you may tune in to your favorite driver and team as the action happens. However, it’s probably recommended that you keep this away from your kids so they don’t learn what kinds of pottymouths the racers may have.
Ever so proper, I eventually discovered my pass allowed me to cross the gate and get up close to the action. All teams were reserved, the crew was always ready and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves — the epitome of what we all expect a winning team to be.
The most action outside of the racetrack was when cars came to the pits. The pressure’s on with pit stops!
Despite the action, there are moments when team members can decompress while the other working elements do their thing.
There are several other ways to view the race that may not be apparent to an outsider. One is the Ridgeline, “a whole new approach to camping.” It’s an area reserved for RVs that’s elevated above the backstretch for a bird’s-eye view. For better effect, you can sit on top of the RV.
Another is watching NASCAR from the Hillside. A ticket gives you access to a hill beside turn one. From the inside, it looks like a bunch of interlopers who didn’t want to pay for a ticket.
“Victory Lane” gives guests the opportunity to ham it up for social media. Yours truly is camera-shy, though I suspect Millennials would embrace this moment on Instagram.
Wandering around some more, you can get a good idea how extensive an operation it is to run a team. A driver with skill is but one piece of the equation.
Though there can only be one winner, those behind the scenes know that, like a quarterback or goalie, success comes from teamwork and not just the person crossing the finish line first. So, perhaps you may have borne witness that William Byron won the race, but it’s those people whose shoulders support Byron and Car 24 who are the winners.
So, am I a NASCAR convert? As I’m not a huge sports guy, probably not. However, I do enjoy attending games on occasion, so I imagine I will return with my family to show them an experience they have yet to enjoy.
But not without watching Talladega Nights for the first time, as it’s been 17 years since that came out so I’m quite overdue.