I’m asked often why I like NASCAR. I get questions like “Do they ever take right turns?”, and the less simple “How can you call it a sport? They’re just driving!” Here in the Northeast, motorsports doesn’t quite seem to have the foothold on popularity as it does elsewhere. Maybe it’s because our seasons are a bit shorter, with snow starting as early as October and melting (hopefully) by sometime in April. It might also be that we have fewer local racing venues than other parts of the country. Whatever the reason, it was twelve years ago this week that I first watched a NASCAR race from beginning to end. It was also the race that would change my perception of motor sports forever.
To me, NASCAR was one of those “secondary sports” that I would watch when there was nothing else on television. Admittedly, I would tune in for the crashes. I knew some of the bigger names in the sport, but never really paid attention to racing. It just wasn’t my thing. Twelve years ago, my son (then two years old) and I had the television to ourselves and decided it was a chance for us to have an afternoon of father and son bonding, around the Daytona 500. As the race started, we were getting more and more interested in the race. I asked him which car he liked the most. Being two, I think he opted for the most obvious on the track. “The orange car”, he stated. During a commercial, I did a little research and told him that some guy named Tony Stewart drove that car. For the rest of the race, we did our best to keep up on how our driver was doing. (As the years wore on, he would defect to the Jeff Gordon camp for a time but has since ventured back to Stewart-Haas racing.)
Before we knew it, the race was almost over with only a couple laps to go. Tony was caught up in a huge wreck earlier in the race in dramatic fashion. One of the bigger names in racing–no–THE name in racing, was still up front. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. He was pushing his teammates along and blocking another driver from getting past him. And then–the crash. I didn’t know a whole lot about racing, but the accident sure didn’t look bad, at least not as bad as the earlier crash. But even I knew, when the car came rolling to a stop on the infield, it wasn’t good. I know it seems odd that the death of one of the biggest drivers endeared me to the sport, but from that point forward, I became a fan of NASCAR. It was because of that accident that NASCAR took more seriously the safety of the product: their drivers. From SAFER barriers to restraint devices, safety became a dominant factor in the race.
Why do I like NASCAR? Fan loyalty for starters. There are still fans that wear the number 3 like a badge of honor, as if he’s running this week. Maybe it was the clerks at my local Home Depot who would yell out things across the store like “Go Smoke” or “Smoke’s running sixth this week” when I went to buy a package of light bulbs, wearing my orange hat. Or, maybe it’s the weekend road trip my son and I took to the mecca of motor sports last summer–Bristol Motor Speedway. It was our first race together. All you have to say is “We went to the night race” and fans know what I’m talking about. Thousands of t-shirts of all colors and teams, all bearing witness to our allegiances. Topping the long weekend was a side trip to Charlotte and the Hall of Fame, and it was a weekend I will never forget, and hopefully, neither will he.
Even though there aren’t many venues in the Northeast, the local tracks we have are the epitome of the loyal fan base that make racing what it is. Crews, hobbled together with families and friends, all working the extra nights under the lights in a local garage to make sure the car is ready for Friday or Saturday night. They roll out on to a track like Lee USA Speedway in New Hampshire. The parking lot, filled with cars of fans looking for a quality, inexpensive evening of entertainment. Hard bleachers are cushioned by foam seats, waiting for the voice of track announcer John Spence to welcome race fans to another evening of racing excitement. Combine that with a cheeseburger, an order of fries, a beverage and the smell of racing fuel – to me, that’s a pretty good night.
So, yes, they do take right turns. They’re called road courses, you fool. And no, they aren’t just driving. They are driving upwards of 200 miles an hour, that’s not just driving. Some people will never understand. However, NASCAR fans do. And that’s all that matters to me.
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