When the announcement was made at Atlanta, the whole idea seemed like a side show: a Bandolero race for the wives and girlfriends of NASCAR stars to be held on Saturday, October 15, at Charlotte Motor Speedway as part of the entertainment leading up to the Bank of America 500. The race was for charity, and it seemed like a fun, if frivolous, way to keep fans entertained for a little while.
The women had several practice sessions for the event, and its safety did come into question after Katie Kenseth broke her shoulder when she hit the wall in practice. Bandolero cars are little more than glorified go-karts with bodies built onto them with a roll cage. Top speed is around 30 MPH. Practices eventually continued and the race went off as scheduled.
And what started as a side show stunt became something more than that. The drivers had created specialized paint schemes, some matching their significant others’ racecars, others with unique designs, including a Petty blue miniature Superbird complete with that distinctive rear wing and a hot pink model complete with giant lipstick kisses on the door numbers. Many secured sponsors that adorned the cars. Most had their own firesuits made, complete with sponsors and their name on the belt. There was plenty of trash talk on social media leading up to the event. It was clear that the ladies were taking the event seriously.
Qualifying was by random draw, and the tiny racecars were lined up on the frontstretch at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the way the Cup cars would be hours later, surrounded by drivers, their husbands and boyfriends, a few crew members, friends, and media. There were driver introductions on the loudspeaker, and the top three finishers would go to the media center after the race to answer questions, just as NASCAR drivers do. Standing on the grid before the race, there was an air of excitement. It was evident that the women entered were enjoying the lead-in immensely, but they were also getting their game faces on. The fans who had come out early for the day’s events chose alliances and shared them vocally. The husbands and boyfriends of the drivers looked apprehensive.
The race itself was just good fun. It took a few tries to complete the first lap as cars tangled as their mostly inexperienced drivers jockeyed for position. Ashley Allgaier took an early lead in the 25-lap race on the quarter-mile track, but faded late in the going, which she later jokingly attributed to the tires going away. Jaquelyn Butler (girlfriend of Cup driver David Ragan) held off a last lap charge by Trisha Mears to win and was escorted to a special Victory Lane on the frontstretch, where she received a six-foot purple trophy and sprayed champagne with Mears and Allgaier, who finished second and third. Patricia Driscoll (girlfriend of Cup driver Kurt Busch) and Speed TV’s Wendy Venturini rounded out the top 5.
It _was_ a sideshow.
But it was also something there needs to be more of.
The race itself was simply enjoyable to watch. You had to take it for what it was: some very inexperienced drivers enjoying an aspect of their husbands’ and boyfriends’ lives that they had not experienced before. They aren’t professional racers. Though the ladies all admitted to being nervous before the race as their competitive nature came out, this was purely for fun and a good cause. Their significant others tried to hide their nervousness (and were only partly successful) by helping them strap in and giving them last minute advice. In the end, those racers learned a little about what their loved ones go through every time they strap into a car. And it _was_ fun.
It turned out to be the most plain fun I had at the track all weekend. NASCAR races are necessarily serious. This was different. I watched the race with part of Trisha Mears’ crew and we thoroughly enjoyed the race with some laughs and a few close calls, and the feeling when it was over was simply good. Afterward, the turnabout was truly enjoyable as well: the NASCAR drivers on the sidelines in the media center while their “better halves” took center stage. The pride that Casey Mears felt for Trisha was completely evident as he looked on and held their 3-year-old daughter, Samantha.
What started as a side show was good for the sport. As fan interest in NASCAR has passed the peak it hit a few years ago and some are wandering away from the sport to the next trendy thing, there need to be more fun things surrounding the races. Not because the races themselves need a side show, but because the side show gives fans a glimpse of another side of racing. Whether it’s the Better Half Dash, the autograph sessions that several tracks have held, or showing a dance contest between Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Trevor Bayne on the giant screen at the track, these things, seemingly trivial, give the fans a chance to feel as though they know the drivers even better.
I heard from a fan who had attended one of the autograph sessions. Each fan was allotted two signatures, but whose were determined by a wristband given out at random. This fan had gotten a pair of drivers she hadn’t known much about…and left a big fan of one of them.
At a time when, for many fans, coming to the track is their one big family event of the year, there need to be more “feel-good” events for these fans. Whether it’s meeting a driver or seeing another aspect of that driver’s life, fans should be treated to a little something extra each week. One of the things that has set NASCAR apart from other sports is the way that race fans feel like they know their favorite drivers personally. In the past, that was because drivers like Richard Petty spent countless hours signing autographs at the track for any fan who asked.
These days, drivers have huge time constraints put on them by sponsors and may not have the time for multiple autograph sessions each week, but it would be good for those sponsors to leave room for (and even perhaps require) a time for fans to interact with that driver. Social media have contributed to that personal feeling as well, as drivers and team members post personal details that give fans a glimpse into their lives.
Still, anything that can be done at the track to bring a new piece of racing to the fans can only be a good thing. The current television coverage of races doesn’t show fans an equal representation of drivers, so if fans are to get to “know” those drivers, it needs to happen in other ways, such as the autograph sessions. Those need to happen each week. As for the Better Half Dash, several tracks have a similar configuration as Charlotte, with a quarter-mile oval built into the frontstretch-why not make the event a mini-series next year, complete with a year-end champion? It would certainly provide a small and inexpensive sponsorship opportunity for some businesses. It would allow the NASCAR drivers and their “better halves” an opportunity to see a part of each other’s worlds, and it would be nothing but frivolous, lighthearted fun. In a sport that can be deadly serious, we all need a reminder that there is still a fun side to it as well, that the drivers and crewmen are human and have lives that include so much more than just going around in circles.
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