Ah, Friday. Usually a day of extensive NASCAR practice and preparation, Friday afforded most of the drivers and media members something we won’t have many more times in the weeks ahead – a day off. Sure, there were still SPEED shows like Trackside going on (nearly causing all of NASCAR Nation a panic attack after Elliott Sadler’s fall to end the program) and there was the premiere of the movie Cars. Still, with Saturday and Sunday to head back to Lowe’s, why stay at the track when you’re in North Carolina for the first time? With the Frontstretch schedule clear, my racing buddy Tony and I decided to put the day to good use touring the area, with my notepad in hand"¦
11:00 A.M. After a night out in Charlotte, I awaken back at my hotel to find both Tony’s and my rental car blocked in. The reason? The La Quinta Inn we checked in at is no longer La Quinta anymore. Giant construction trucks are changing the sign…check in at La Quinta, leave at a Quality Inn. Maybe they’ll forget about the bill…
11:50 A.M. Work out the car situation and head out on the road. First destination : Lake Norman, then Mooresville to see as many NASCAR Shops as we can.
12:00 P.M. What is it with Hootie and the Blowfish down here? I haven’t heard one of their songs since the 9th grade dance back in ’95, and in the past two days in Charlotte I’ve heard their songs on the radio five times. I’m concerned.
12:01 P.M. Uh oh"¦bumper to bumper ahead.
12:46 P.M. Yeah, that’s how long it took to go five miles. No wonder every driver owns a freaking airplane. I’d buy a jet and fly myself too if I lived here.
12:55 P.M. Tony and I stop at the Chamber of Commerce in Lake Norman to get some info. Even though the woman there is originally from Long Island, she lights up when finding out we’re both involved with racing. "Oh, I don’t KNOW them know them," she says about the drivers. "But Michael Waltrip is just about to open a shop down the street!" clearly showing the excitement a fan should have when you live in a town where your neighbor is a giant racing facility. Didn’t have the heart to tell the woman that knowing Toyota, there’s probably going to be a giant fence around the whole thing so the Smiths can’t snap digital pictures of the inside while mowing the lawn.
12:58 P.M. Anyone who thinks Charlotte ISN’T the NASCAR mecca, just listen to this argument. The one thing Daytona Beach can’t claim that the Charlotte area can is continued growth that parallels the growth of the sport"¦since the late 1980s, several of the towns in southwest North Carolina have doubled in population, some even more than that. Example : Davidson, a small town just outside of Charlotte, is expected to grow from 8,000 people to 30,000 within the next ten years. Wow!
1:10 "" 1:40 P.M. Rusty Rudder for lunch"¦only say that to recommend it to anyone in the Lake Norman area. Right on the water, great food, fun place.
1:50 P.M. Perhaps the best highway story yet. Take 10 minutes to get onto I-77 because a horse trailer stalls and pulls over the side of the road. The horses look nervous, but they should consider themselves lucky; in Manhattan, they’d get beeped and sworn at. At least everyone has some patience here.
2:20 P.M. OK seriously"¦two minutes away from getting cement and a giant construction truck and making a little lane addition to I-77 myself. Who’s with me? This is making New York City look like driving in the country.
2:40 P.M. Finally"¦at the destination of our first stop in Mooresville, Penske Racing. Time to get a Rusty souvenir for an obsessed little brother"¦and conduct an undercover experiment on the side.
2:41 P.M. Notice a small mailbox at the Penske Racing Shop entrance. How one residential-size mailbox holds the mail for one of the biggest racing organizations in America, I have no idea. I’d certainly love to see the postman stuff it all into the mailbox though"¦
2:42 P.M. There’s also a nature trail here. Do they have their drivers lead the tours? Thoughts of Helio Castroneves leading a bird-watching expedition is enough to leave me in stitches.
2:43 P.M. "" 3:30 P.M. Wow! I can’t believe my theory was right. 45 minutes at what was advertised as a Penske "FanFest," and not a single Kurt Busch fan comes through the facility. How did I know? Talking with people, observing, and simple common sense; the closest anyone came to wearing a Busch-related item was a small child wearing a Kyle Busch hat.
To make matters worse, actual conversation overheard from a fan on his cell phone:
"Hey honey! You won’t believe where I’m at right now! Rusty Wallace’s race shop!"
I guess some fans get a year behind on things. Still, I could somewhat understand his confusion"¦Rusty’s souvenirs far outnumbered Kurt’s, even though he has his own shop! Listen, I don’t have anything against Kurt"¦just making the point that he’s got work to do with his fan base.
2:58 P.M. One other observation from Penske. They think they’re seeing the "top secret" work of the crews"¦except that the body shop, fab shop, and machine shop, places where some of the best creative development goes on, happen to be conveniently out of public view. Also, how weird must it feel to be a member of the crew in this new "public viewing" shop? I can’t imagine having to do real work with thousands of people coming in and looking over my shoulder every day.
4:15 P.M. Now in the Robert Yates Racing shop for the first time, I’m amazed at how much of a presence Davey Allison still commands. All over the walls, you see a picture from every time Allison went to Victory Lane with the team, as well as a framed uniform and several others loose and hanging above the doorway. It’s been thirteen years, but anyone who followed the sport then knows how tragic the loss of Allison is even now. For those who never got to see Allison race, it’s a shame"¦you missed out on one of the greatest, and we all missed out on a future Nextel Cup champion.
5:05 P.M. It’s always depressing to see a big, empty race shop, but no more so than at the former Ultra Motorsports facility. To see a championship team six months ago reduced to one giant void of empty warehouse space makes you realize how fleeting success can be in this business.
Nighttime Wind up the night at the Food Lion Speed Street Festival in downtown Charlotte. With show cars, concert stages, and more people filling a square block than you could count, the 12th year of the festival could certainly consider itself a rousing success (it runs through today). Wind up the night by seeing Staind in concert for free by one of the stages. Not bad!
Alright, it’s Saturday afternoon and it’s time to head back to the track for more interviews and live updates"¦will post more tomorrow.
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