“Gentlemen, start your engines!”
40-odd competitors flicked a switch and a stampede roared to life. The vibrations thrummed beneath my feet and my heart sped up.
That was the moment that sealed my fate as a never give up NASCAR fan. It was the first time I attended a stock car race. Oh, I had memorized all the drivers, the teams and already maintained an in-depth knowledge of my favorite hobby, but that sound – the scent – the feel… it stirred something inside me. I thought I had understood, but it was clear I never truly had, not until that moment.
That was almost 15 years ago and yes, I still live for that experience when I’m at the track. But as all things in time, the punch has waned. Now, I’m probably digging in my scanner bag or yelling some unintelligible comment at my husband when the fun begins. We trade jabs about Kyle Busch with our neighbors, pop open our favorite beverage and settle in for the race.
We know exactly how the day will unfold and we show it. We’re veteran fans, tried, true and filled with ennui.
This year, with the unsettled economy and so many veterans choosing not to renew their tickets, I had the opportunity to realize that the world is not entirely populated by aging NASCAR die-hards.
We settled into our usual seats, but instead of fighting elbows and knees with other extra-large Americans, I was surprised to see a foursome of boys sitting next to me, not one of them over eight years old. Each one sported a brand new t-shirt and hat from a variety of drivers. From the bright colors and lack of decoration on their parents, I suspected that each boy selected their shirt based solely on visual appeal. They were laughing and pointing at the cars lined up in pit road and leaning back to ask questions of all the dads arrayed in the row behind them.
Yes, I see families at the track all the time on Saturdays… but for the big event? Not usually. This was unique.
And yes, they knew magic when they heard it. Those engines turned over and eight feet jumped up and down while eight hands clapped over their ears. They smiled and they giggled. They even yelled and twirled their hats in the air as the field passed by.
I left the track that night knowing that four new fans were born that day.
Still, when I logged onto all the chat rooms on Monday, the usual griping lingered colored by disillusionment. It somewhat dampened my excited memories of the weekend. But no! I thought of those boys and smiled. I understood what kept their young eyes glued to the track for three hours.
The next day, I returned to the grind at work, sharing racing quips with the few co-workers that enjoy NASCAR. I’m used to the indifference of the uninitiated. They don’t get it.
And then the guy who services the arcade stopped me. “Hey! Were you at the track?”
I replied with the usual, “Of course I was. NASCAR was in New Hampshire.” I didn’t bother to elaborate. I was actually waiting for the typical, “Why do you go?”
Instead I got, “That was awesome!”
Huh? What happened? It turns out those four boys weren’t the only new fans at the track. Todd scored a pair of free tickets and he figured, hey why not? He couldn’t stop talking about the noise, the competition, the crowd… the entire experience. He’s going back. Over the next week, I met several others who snapped up the cheap or free tickets NHMS sent out in an effort to fill up the stands. Not a single person was disappointed with their day… save for the traffic jam afterwards.
It’s an elemental experience that ensnares our dedication to racing. Maybe the drivers in their bright uniforms and perfectly painted machines are what fill the television screens week after week, but once you’ve been to the track, there’s a whole different set of stimulus that grabs your gut.
It all comes down to something very simple. Take away Jeff Gordon, the Sprint Cup, the NASCAR logo and all the other trappings of the big money show and we’re left with the meat and bones of the sport.
Monsters that live in the engines, speed that rips your hat off your head and hours spent with family and friends.
Each week when the order is given, I think on those four boys and remember their newborn enthusiasm. Maybe the horrid economy sent some fans home, holding tight to their wallets. For me, it provided an opportunity to relive my first time once again.
Gentlemen, start your engines!