This past week was race week in Charlotte. As is the case every year at my hometown track, so much happens in such a short time, the five-day period surrounding the event just becomes a whirlwind of activity. To give you an idea of how fast things can go by, I decided to do something different and give all of you a firsthand glimpse into what a typical race week at Charlotte can be like… while fellow Frontstretchers Toni Heffelfinger and Tom Bowles covered the race at the track, I covered the week from a fan’s perspective and can offer you a great view of what went on.
Wednesday night offered the opportunity for me to be a part of the inaugural race for Arena Racing in Charlotte with a local team, and I gladly took it. I see your skeptical glance at the computer screen; that’s right, we’re talking indoor racing with ½-scale stock cars on a banked, aluminum racetrack. The series has been running for three years now in Richmond and Norfolk, Va., and has now filtered its way down to Charlotte through the hard work of Joe Gibbs. Drivers Denny Hamlin, JJ Yeley and Tony Stewart were all there racing in cars painted to match their Cup cars, along with Kyle Busch and Mike Wallace‘s daughter, Chrissy. The series is designed to be affordable so anyone can get in and drive; there was even a 74-year-old gentleman entered who had never raced anything before. It was a true cornucopia of racing talent.
My team’s car was slotted in the second heat race and started right behind Hamlin. They dropped the flag, and by the time the pack got to the end of the backstretch there was a huge melee. The seas parted, and my driver went straight through the middle to the lead. Unfortunately, the race was red-flagged without completing a lap, so they lined the cars back up in starting order, put the culprits who started the wreck to the back, and tried again. This time, the start was clean. By the second lap, Hamlin was in the lead, and we were on his bumper. After a couple more laps, Hamlin got loose off turn 2 and we passed him for the lead. As we came around to the flag stand, though, they waved the caution for a spin out of turn 2, and the officials put Hamlin back in the lead for the restart. When we went back to racing, we were right on Hamlin’s bumper again and putting on a heck of a show. The cars were both dirt-tracking sideways through the corners since the new track was so slick. As we were working over Hamlin, we got a little high coming out of turn 2 and bounced the right-rear quarterpanel off the wall. That swung the right front into the wall and broke the right front spindle… our night was unceremoniously finished as a result.
Hamlin went on to win our heat race. Busch won his heat race, while Travis Miller, an experienced driver from Virginia, harried Hamlin into a mistake with two laps to go in the A-Main (called the Top Dog race by the promoter), charging ahead to win the evening’s main event. There were 6-8,000 people in attendance, a heck of a showing for a new series in town during race week when there was a big race going on at the dirt track by the speedway.
Thursday night, the theme was all about good food and good friends. My buddies in town for the race weekend, we headed to dinner at a place one of my buddies had heard about in Salisbury, Ivan’s Steakhouse. It was worth every bit of effort to find it. Awesome food, great atmosphere and excellent wait staff. Well worth the effort if you are anywhere near Salisbury, N.C., in your travels.
As Friday came, so did the annual Fanfest at Joe Gibbs Racing. My buddy wanted to get some autographs from the Joe Gibbs drivers, so I agreed to go with him. We arrived at JGR’s shop at 6:30 a.m. Autograph bracelets would be available at 9:00 a.m. I was 160th in line at 6:00 a.m.!!! There were people in line with grills. I am confident the people at the front of the line had been there since the night before. The line continued to grow as the sun came up and the weather warmed. After the bracelets were handed out, we had some time to kill. We drove the simulator from Nextel and aced some radio controlled cars provided by Timken, scoped out the silent auction merchandise, went through the freebie walk to get samples of several of the JGR sponsors’ wares, and sampled free food from ConAgra. It was a very enjoyable experience. Finally, we got in line to get our Stewart autograph, which was supposed to happen at 11 a.m. Unfortunately, Stewart was delayed and the session didn’t start until 12:15 p.m. We got our autographs and headed on for a Friday of continued fun.
We stopped by Ganassi Racing for Dan Wheldon and Casey Mears to sign a couple of things, and then headed to the Hendrick shops. No drivers were there, but we did get a glimpse of the shops and had the opportunity to tour the Hendrick Museum. It was quite a collection of historical cars and information from the history of one of the most successful car owners in NASCAR.
After that, we headed home to get bundled up for the elements that would confront us during the Busch Series race. We headed out to the track and watched the Busch race (certainly a Friday the 13th-type of affair, I might add), quickly leaving the stands at the checkered flag to battle the traffic that followed. It only took 45 minutes to get home after the race, though, so two thumbs up to the new traffic flow plans at Charlotte. They’re getting a little better each year at getting people out of the track.
Saturday morning, my mom arrived from Indianapolis. She was passing through on her way to the beach for a little vacation. After catching up we packed up and headed to the track for the pre-race pit tours. We spent three hours walking the pits and watching the cars rolled out to the starting grid, then headed to our seats outside turn 2. We watched all of the pre-race pageantry. The introduction of former race winners, the car-eating robot dinosaurs, the driver introductions, the invocation, the anthem, the flyover. Every bit of it was as good as it is every time you get to go to the track.
The race was quite enjoyable. Several cautions early, a green flag with a safety truck sitting on the track, a long green-flag run in the middle followed by a caution that left four cars on the lead lap, and exciting pass for the lead late in the race and the requisite fireworks after Kasey Kahne took the checkered flag.
After a walk back to the car, and a wise choice on direction to take out of the track, we were home in under an hour. I am sure it could have taken much longer if I had gone another way, but I think the traffic flow is still getting better. I’d like to see some more improvements but I still give a thumbs up to the Charlotte folks. Still much better than the first time I attended a race after moving to the area in 1994.
Finally, there was Sunday… the Fall Brawl at Hickory Motor Speedway. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a no-points late model race that is well known for some torn-up sheet metal. The race gets more exciting each time around, and this year’s version didn’t disappoint. 35 cars started… and only eight cars were running at the end. There wasn’t a car on the track that didn’t have some kind of damage when it was over. People got to see several future stars of NASCAR: Danny O’Quinn made the race, and Andy Loden, the Hickory track champion for this year was also there. Marc Davis and Matt DiBenedetto, two young men who still can’t go to R-rated movies by themselves, also showed off some great talent which will put them in a NASCAR ride in the very near future.
All in all, it was another fantastic race weekend in Charlotte… the type of experience I hope every fan can repeat at their hometown track year in, year out.