They are dotted all over the landscape of America: local short tracks. From Maine to Arizona, from Texas to Montana, in Mexico and Canada, live small bullring ovals where local racing hopefuls can compete with other racers with the dream of making it to the big leagues. Whether they run a hobby stock, which is a four cylinder car with a working radio, or a late model with a motor that meets the specifications of the Busch Series, these local warriors race for one reasonand one reason alone…they love it.
For these races, teams toil in their garage or a small shop at night after they work real jobs during the daytime. They put their heart and soul into a car that they hope will run fast enough to win a trophy, and a small check that won’t even cover the cost of their shock absorbers. It is the stuff that racing was built on, and the stuff it still thrives on today.
This Saturday night is the NASCAR equivalent of a local short track race, with the Nextel Open the equivalent of a last chance qualifier. It is a true last chance, because only one driver will advance to the A main (well, except for one lucky driver voted in by the fans, but we’ll put that aside for now). Everyone else will pack up and simply go home with nothing but broken dreams. The A main, the All-Star Challenge, is a true Saturday night shootout with one slight variation: the winner gets to take home $1,000,000.
Everyone in that race will take home some cash, so it is certainly different from the local track, but the premise is the same: You run what you brung. The fastest guy at the end of the night gets the trophy, a check, and gets to kiss the trophy girl. (Although I don’t think NASCAR has those anymore, unless Crown Royal sponsors the race)
This weekend simply breathes a breath of fresh air into the Cup Series. Drivers will take chances they wouldn’t normally take. Most of them will do whatever it takes to win, harkening back to the old days of NASCAR when the big money wasn’t involved. Drivers raced for pride in those days. Some still made a living at the sport, but only a very few were able to make a truly comfortable living at racing. The old saying, "Bring back the trophy or the steering wheel!" was certainly true in those days. Drivers ran like their lives depended on it…and sometimes it did. There are a number of stories about drivers borrowing money to be able to buy tires, knowing they had to win the races that weekend in order to be able to repay the loan.
In the modern world of NASCAR, there aren’t any such drivers on the circuit. They arrive at the track by plane and helicopter. They stay in multi-million dollar motorhomes, and they are financially set for life as soon as they land a Cup ride. During the year, they race with their eyes on a championship. They won’t put their car in a compromising position because the loss of points from an accident is too great compared to the small gain of advancing one place or winning a race. Saturday night, that is not the case. There are no points…there is only the trophy and the check.
The difference between Saturday night and the Bud Shootout is twofold. First, everyone has a chance Saturday night. Every driver who was in the Top 50 in points last year or the Top 50 in points in the middle of March this year is eligible to compete in the Open. Therefore, almost everyone who fields a team that attempts to make a race in the Cup series on a regular basis has a chance to win the big prize. Granted, it is a longshot for those teams who are in the Open because only one team advances to the Challenge, but the opportunity is there. Secondly, Charlotte is a track that puts the car in the drivers’ hands. Daytona is a plate track. The race is about which team can build the slickest car that can stay stuck to the track. At Charlotte, the driver makes a difference. The driver who can seek out the best line, and keep their foot in the gas that split second longer, is the one who is going to win the race. With the new track surface, there will be multiple grooves so cars can pass each other if the driver can make his car work in a different line from the car in front of him.
If you get the opportunity to only watch or attend one race per year, the All-Star race is the one you should put at the top of your list. It is the closest thing NASCAR gives to the fans that resembles Saturday night short track racing.
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