Now that the thrills of a vacation nearly gone bad are behind me, I get the chance to think about what I intended Monday afternoon. I am finally parked in North Lot on the other side of the railroad tracks at Martinsville. I can see the grandstands peeking over the hill, a few lonely generators are purring and a steady stream of RVs are finding their assigned camping spot on this Tuesday afternoon.
No, I didn’t buy the tickets to Martinsville because of what happened at the Auto Club Speedway—the fantastic racing or the tempers. We packed up the camper on April Fools Day because we haven’t visited the paperclip icon in our fifteen year endeavor to stop at every track on the circuit. Why would anybody want to do such a thing? Spend thousands of miles on the road to watch hours and hours and hours of racing that is said to be far below par at NASCAR landmarks?
Because my journey hasn’t been a disappointment. Not once. Every time we see NASCAR perform in person, there always seems to be something to talk about afterwards.
Does anybody remember the inaugural truck race in Atlanta? Where Bobby Hamilton and Mike Skinner spun across the grass in a wild race to the finish? Yep. Been there, seen it, got the t-shirt. Or when Jeff Gordon crashed coming out of the final turn at Watkins Glen. How Jamie McMurray notched the Brickyard 400 after already winning the Daytona 500 that year?
I literally covered my eyes while Dale Jarrett sat in the middle of the frontstretch of New Hampshire as his spotter yelled in the radio, “Tighten your belts. They’re coming hard!” Yes, they raced back to the yellow that day, but never again. I also witnessed 300 laps of utter boredom when NASCAR thought a restrictor plate might be the answer to stopping the deaths at NHMS.
In Darlington, it was proven that there really are Junior fans out there incapable of watching a race. He hung over the handrailing of the stands, beer in hand, and screamed, “Joooonior!” Every time the No. 88 took a lap. It didn’t matter what place the National Guard Chevy might hold at the moment. His hero was passing by. He was devastated when Kyle Busch in his Indiana Jones colors took out Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In Las Vegas, naught but a couple weeks after Sterling Marlin was caught “fixing” his fender in Daytona, I watched him cheat the commitment cone and win anyway.
Robby was so incensed one day with Michael Waltrip, he threw his helmet at Mikey’s car. Tony Stewart threw a punch at an ambulance driver. Steve Hmiel called Ray Evernham out for treating Jeff Gordon’s tires.
Now, sometimes it isn’t so much about what happens during competition, as it’s the things I learn about our sport by simply being there. Pocono provided me the first glimpses into the garage areas during practice, where you get to see first hand the insane scramble of the teams while they tweak their machines. At Dover, I took my first steps on the racing surface of a high-banked track. I hung onto the wall at the top and looked back down. If my calf muscles protested keeping me upright in this unlikely position, how did the cars do it? Yeah, yeah. Physics take care of that particular problem, but when you reach down and touch the remnants of a burnout on the asphalt, you’re convinced a little magic is probably part of the entire solution.
Magic. Bristol may have its hold on the ethereal award so far. There was something otherworldly about sitting under the stars burning overhead and confetti guns shooting off from the top of the great coliseum. While the stink of unburned fuel and melted rubber lingered, I savored the sweet summer sensation.
And now it is Martinsville’s turn to teach me something new. The train passes by every so often. The track sits down in a depression in the countryside. It sits under the sunshine today empty and silent, waiting for something to happen. The wind blows across the near vacant campground, but there wouldn’t be so many spaces marked if they haven’t been sold. It’s coming. The circus will pull in tomorrow or Thursday.
One week later we’ll head back home with the memory of a new track under our belt and a few of its secrets logged in our scrapbook.
You can’t learn about the uniqueness of every track on TV. FOX manages to create a level playing field with their now generic coverage of each race. But Pocono is not the same as Bristol or Vegas. Our sport lives large across the plains of America. And the only way to truly experience the grand scale of NASCAR is to go.
If you’re a race fan, do yourself a favor. Buy some tickets. Make the trek. Sit on the aluminum benches and inhale the stench of auto racing. I’ll be right there with you, storing new memories and expanding my understanding of my favorite sport, NASCAR.
I’ll see you sitting in the stands.