By now, we’ve all seen, heard, read, celebrated, contemplated, and analyzed the relevance of last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. Having Dale Earnhardt, Jr. break his four-year winless streak with a victory in the Quicken Loans 400 – and on Father’s Day, no less – brought balance, goodness, and honor back to the universe. While men wept, women swooned, and children danced in the streets, NASCAR Nation could catch its collective deep breath and rest easy in the fact that all was once again right in our troubled world. After four years of frustration, Earnhardt’s 5.393-second victory over reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart turned muttered rumbles of “You’ll see…” into shouts of “Told you so!”
This past weekend’s Cup race at MIS offered a unique opportunity for NASCAR fans: the chance to watch teams test their cars on the newly-repaved surface of a favorite track among drivers and teams. When I traveled with NASCAR oh-so-many years ago, I’d often hear drivers say that they looked forward to racing at Michigan because the speedway was long, wide, and unrestricted by those pesky plates sometimes handed out by officials on the opening day of practice. Michigan International Speedway was a fast and competitive facility where drivers and crews could truly do what they were paid to do: race.
As the father of a four-and-a-half year old boy who’s wild about race cars (wonder where he gets THAT from?), I’d been looking for a chance to take him to a track to see cars at speed. We’ve been to various race shops and to the NASCAR Hall of Fame to see cars up close, but I wanted him to hear the sounds, smell the smells, and feel the rush that comes from cars blasting past him in all their power and glory. Television can only do so much, and he’s not quite able to fully appreciate the descriptive magic of radio broadcasts, so getting him to a racetrack has been on my radar for quite some time (since before his birth, in fact).
Receiving the press release about last week’s open test/practice day at MIS could not have come at a better time. My son seemed old enough to appreciate such an adventure, and the practice day meant being able to see a full field of cars without the constraints and complications of an actual race day. The crowds would be smaller, the traffic less hectic, and the atmosphere better suited for observation and learning; the teams would be trying different set-up combinations, so cars would come-and-go in manageable packs throughout the day. True… there’s nothing quite like seeing a bunched field of 43 stock cars roaring up to take the green flag, but my son has the rest of his life to experience such sensory overload (hopefully from either behind the wheel of one of those 43 cars, or from atop a pit box calling the shots for opening lap strategies – a father can dream, can’t he?)
Given that there were two practice sessions scheduled for Thursday – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and given that we live more than 250 miles north of the speedway, my wife and I had to work around keeping the trip down to a one-day event, and the idea (tragic, though it was) that we’d have to skip the morning session. We opted to leave early on Thursday, get to MIS by lunchtime, see the afternoon session, and be home – and son in bed – by that evening. With the weather forecast looking good and the speedway promising convenient parking and decent seating, we loaded up the car and headed south to begin a new chapter in our son’s life journey.
During the drive, I couldn’t help but wonder about how my son would take to the sights and sounds of Sprint Cup racing. Part of me thought we should have begun with a few trips to the little dirt track not too far from our home. Starting out small might have been a more logical way to go. I also wondered about my wife. This was going to be her first day around moving NASCAR machines. Suddenly I felt a near state of panic set in as I envisioned her totally hating the experience and vowing to never step foot inside a race track ever again.
I love my wife dearly, but I have to admit that she often finds fault with a business (not a sport) that sells its loyalties to huge corporate sponsors and seems to celebrate its openly-wasteful consumption of limited natural resources over eleven months each year. She sees the thrill and the interest in NASCAR, but she sometimes wrestles with the “pros” of the sport versus the “cons”. As for me, NASCAR is a major part of my life and my career – I guess it’s true that opposites attract.
During the drive, my wife and I kept suggesting to our boy that he take a nap, since peace and quiet would be in short supply that afternoon. He kept refusing us (now there’s a surprise!), explaining that he was just too excited to sleep. I knew how he felt; just the idea of going to MIS had me tossing and turning most of the night.
So there we were, pulling into Michigan International Speedway in search of our specific, test day parking location. The first thing my son noticed was the size of the grandstands and the pedestrian bridges that crossed access roads. My wife was curious about the old school buses that we kept passing en route to the speedway; she noticed that they all had railings around their roofs and that these colorfully-painted vehicles had followed us to the track. She had never seen infield buses like these (although I did point one out to her once when we ate supper at Lancaster’s Barbeque in Mooresville, North Carolina – they have one such bus as a seating area inside the restaurant).
The vibe, so far, seemed positive.
Parking our car and catching the tram that carried spectators to the grandstands in turn three kept the positive energy going. My son thought the Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks pulling the trams were cool, and that the tram-cars themselves were even cooler. No sooner had we boarded a tram, then people all around us began to visit. I was familiar with such gregariousness after decades around NASCAR fans, but I think my wife was a bit surprised by the friendly nature of people joined by a common interest.
Folks teased each other gently about loyalties to manufacturers and drivers, and several on our tram joked about the recent trials and tribulations of Kurt Busch – “my column about Busch had been published on Frontstretch”:https://frontstretch.com/mhowell/39796/ that very morning, but I felt that mentioning it might lead to an afternoon of debate about the issue. My son marveled at the sheer size of everything, especially as we passed a parcel of port-a-potties that numbered in the hundreds; I had to remember that his world – at the age of four – is much larger and more mysterious than the places that are so familiar to me.
As our tram slowed to a stop near turn three, the roar of an engine could be heard from across the infield. The hostess on our tram glanced at her wristwatch and said with a smile, “It’s one o’clock. Enjoy your afternoon!” My son was ready for the day’s activities, asking his mom for his “earmuffs” – the hearing protection that he’d been wearing around the house (so he could “practice” for this trip) earlier in the week. With that, we climbed into the grandstands and found good seats under the bright midday sun.
Despite attending many events at Michigan International Speedway, that was my first time to ever sit in the grandstands. Prior trips always found me on pit road or in the garage area. I was amazed by several things. First of all, MIS personnel were present to answer questions and offer assistance (including the distribution of earplugs). Befitting our current culture of social media and cellular technology, it was curious to see Emergency Text Numbers posted along the front rail of the grandstands. Having never seen such signage, it struck me as a most-effective way to insure safety and satisfaction.
I don’t know if MIS has family-friendly seating options, but a watchful neighbor armed with a Smartphone could be the next best thing.
Secondly, the view from the turn three grandstands was very good; we could see almost all of turn one, all of turn two, the entire backstretch, turns three and four of course, and a decent chunk of the front straight. It’s always odd how being close to the action along pit road is actually too close; you don’t get to fully enjoy the race. I totally understand the seat-in-the-stands idea.
The third thing I noticed was how fans supported their favorite drivers and teams – despite this only being a glorified test session. Many people wore the ubiquitous hats and T-shirts of Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Carl Edwards (I even saw a middle-aged man with a Danica Patrick/Go Daddy T-shirt), but vastly more fans of various ages stood and cheered wildly whenever the No. 88 Chevrolet passed by.
Junior’s fans were by far the most vocal, and they greeted their hero with raised cell phones, soda cans, seat cushions, or whatever else they could grab, hold over their heads, and wave. Dale Jr. returned their greetings by posting several laps in excess of 200 MPH. He’d go on to supply even more gratitude come Sunday afternoon from Victory Lane.
My son interacted with the cars and drivers in his own, four-year-old way. At one point, during a lengthy stretch of laps by the No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet, I noticed my son waving toward the track, but at no one in particular. When I asked him at whom he was waving, he casually replied “Tony Stewart”. While doubtful that Smoke could see a child waving at him from the vantage point of his 201 MPH driver’s seat and the boy’s location about twenty rows up in the turn three stands, let it be known that the little kid smiling and waving at him was my son.
My son’s afternoon at MIS was a huge success. Not only did he get to see race cars in motion, but he got to experience the warmth and kindness of NASCAR Nation. He thrilled to dozens of drivers running record-shattering laps on one of the fastest tracks on the circuit, and he agonized as engines broke under the strain of finding speed (Stacy Compton blew a motor right in front of us, which brought out track cleaners, a jet-dryer, and a lengthy caution period late in the day).
As we walked back to our car, my son looked up at me and asked “So when can we come back and do this again?”
Once the cars fell silent, we began our five-hour drive home. My son fell asleep no sooner than we left the track, and his mother followed him shortly thereafter. As I turned our car northward toward home, and as the noise of the speedway gave way to the silence of rural Michigan, a feeling of déjà-vu suddenly stuck me. The afternoon I had just shared with my wife and son at MIS was eerily similar to an afternoon I shared with MY dad and mom more than 40 years ago.
In the summer of 1971, my parents took ME to watch practice and qualifying for the Pennsylvania 500, a USAC stock car race at Pocono Raceway (an experience I’ve written about previously on this very website). We also sat in the turn three grandstands that day, where we watched the big names of that era (USAC stars like Butch Hartman, Wally Dallenbach, A.J. Foyt, Don White, and Jack Bowsher) take on the challenging triangle in Long Pond. My father explained all the nuances of stock car racing to me that day, and he made the sights and sounds and people real to me – the combination of these elements evolving into the fascination with stock car racing that’s shaped my life. I was five-years-old when my parents took me to Pocono, not much older than the little boy who was asleep in the back seat.
The following day, I called my father – who recently celebrated his 82nd birthday – and told him about our trip to MIS. My son got on the telephone and explained that we went to watch “a test day, some practice, but not the race”, and I could hear my dad chuckle at the news.
“That’s how you got your start,” my dad said to me. “Looks like someone else is hooked…”
It looks like my father is right. Unbeknownst to me, my trip to MIS with my wife and son was the best Father’s Day present I could hope for. Our boy is already talking about next year’s race. I guess we’ve got plans for Father’s Day…