In a famous article in an October 1960 edition of The New Yorker, marking the final game of the illustrious career of Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams, John Updike referred to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, as a “lyric little bandbox.” For some reason, it was that beautiful description of a storied old sporting venue that kept recurring in my mind as I wandered around the Richmond International Raceway infield for the first time this past weekend. It truly is a beautiful venue for stock car racing and on a picture perfect evening, to boot.
If you’re wondering about the baseball reference, especially if you know I’m a Brit and given you’ve clicked on a NASCAR article, I arrived in Manhattan on the night of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and couldn’t understand (having never seen a game before) how you could win it all on a Luis Gonzalez “bloop” single off the great Mariano Rivera. So, with my curiosity peaked, I decided to learn the sport, at the very least so I could have some office banter with the lads – as none of them had any interest in football (soccer), which is my first love from a sporting perspective.
Anyway, back to the matter in hand before the managing editor gets all hot and heavy with the “delete” key….
RIR first appeared on the schedule in April 1953. Lee Petty won the inaugural 100-mile event, and since then the famed old circuit has hosted some 108 Cup races. Although plenty has changed since that first event, one quick look at this oval shows why it has such staying power on the schedule while other tracks have fallen by the wayside.
Around this time last year, I conducted a very unscientific survey amongst the Frontstretch staff; the subject being which track was their favorite and why. While Darlington edged out Bristol for positions one and two, Richmond was a close third. Much of that is due to the typically excellent side-by-side, short-track “instant classic” style racing. Saturday’s show wasn’t exactly that, but you can’t always get what you want – as the Stones once sang – and when all’s said and done, it was still an exciting finish, however contrived some thought it was.
Since I started working in NASCAR back in 2005, it’s fair to say I’ve missed only a handful of races, but for the most part I watch at home – usually by myself. On Saturday evening, surrounded by 93,000 fellow NASCAR fanatics, I couldn’t help but be reminded I need to make it out to the track more often than I do. Yes, it’s fair to say that attending a race isn’t cheap – especially not recently – but whenever you can, you should get out and support the sport. Don’t worry, I’m not being a shill for the sponsor or the governing body, the simple fact is watching a race live rocks – absolutely rocks.
For a start, there’s the sensory overload. The beautiful smell of burning rubber; the sight of the red-hot brake rotors as the cars barrel into turn 3; the ear-splitting roar of the jet engine flyover (this week, courtesy of two F-15s, 159 Fighter Wing, Louisiana ANGs), the sheer din of 43 carbureted, 750-horsepower engines roaring around the 3/4-mile track, and the whoosh of the wind and flecks of tire rubber that hit you in the face when you stand close to the action as the cars screech past. Good, good times.
A word, too, if I may, on Crown Royal’s fantastic choice to honor a veteran – Heath Calhoun – for the third year in succession. A retired soldier, Calhoun is a double amputee following a RPG attack in Iraq on his Humvee. In the true spirit of what it means to be a soldier, he recovered, learned to walk on his prosthetic legs, and is now a Paralympian skier. Now if that doesn’t demonstrate guts, grit, and heart, well, I don’t know what does. The Crown Royal contest is, according to the blurb, based on the individual’s ability to demonstrate the core values of the military in performing a selfless act that made them a hero, and from what I’ve read of Heath Calhoun, you won’t find many more deserving cases. It’s just a shame more sponsors don’t follow suit.
On a weekend some complete idiot tried and failed to set off a car bomb in Times Square, it’s more important than ever to recognize this country’s true and selfless heroes. One more point on the Times Square incident: It was a t-shirt vending Vietnam Vet who alerted the NYPD to the smoking vehicle. That same Vietnam vet was “too busy” to go out for a thank you dinner with Mayor Bloomberg the following evening at the Blue Fin – another timely example of selflessness.
Anyways, having been to all manner of live sporting events in a number of different countries over the years, I’m always interested to read the recaps in the next day’s papers (well, websites). So, yesterday morning I was particularly interested to see what our own Matt McLaughlin had to say in his uber-popular Thinkin’ Out Loud race recap column – which I might add, are nearly always right on the money. That said, a couple of points to take into account: Matt hates plate racing and New Hampshire (almost as much). But Richmond is a track he loves. Here’s what he said in the survey I referenced earlier: “[Richmond is] perhaps the perfect racetrack configuration, a short track with enough room for multi-groove racing.”
Matt gave Saturday’s race three beers (out of a possible six). Not bad, but not as good as it could have been. Not, of course, that I minded. I was just happy to be there, and even more geeked to be able to park in the infield. One word on that topic: saaaahweeeeeeet. Getting out wasn’t difficult, either. But Kyle Busch winning tends to empty the stands quick smart, so given we stayed through the victory lane festivities, it’s not perhaps so surprising we exited the track in a swift and seamless manner. Thanks, too, to my good friend Dan Leocadi, who was for the third time my “NASCAR road trip” partner. Always a pleasure, brother.
All in, then, if you get the chance, I highly recommend a visit to RIR. Trust me, you won’t regret it – not one iota.
One final point: It’s been a few weeks since I last wrote (well, actually a month but math was never my strong point). And I’m happy to say some of you even noticed my absence. Rest assured, I’m back for the long haul and will bemuse and dazzle you with my continued banality each and every Tuesday for the rest of the 2010 season. Thanks to the boss for the time off; I’m delighted to be back in the saddle, and to be part of, in my humble opinion, one of the very best NASCAR websites.
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