Think back to your first NASCAR race. The first racecar you saw, the first pair of earmuffs you put on, perhaps the first time you felt your ribcage vibrate solely from the horsepower of rumbling stock cars.
From that point on, for millions, they’ve been hooked on the most popular racing series in America.
July’s Overton’s 400 at Pocono Raceway showed me those first times still exist, even in a challenging modern environment for this sport where attendance and television ratings have been under fire. This event marked the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race for many people, both young and old, plenty of whom will now be in attendance for years to come.
We tracked one girl, 12-year-old Kylie Phillips, to see what her experience would be like.
For Kylie, the 400-miler presented her with a unique opportunity to not only see a race for the first time but get up close and personal behind the scenes. She had no idea what to expect before entering the 2.5-mile track, having never seen a race on TV without help.
“Grandpa made me watch it,” the preteen claimed of NASCAR. “That’s the only time.”
With no prior experience at a racetrack, the sunny, warm Pennsylvania morning, along with colorful NASCAR fandom, were perfectly matched with her energized sense of adventure. Kylie was quickly introduced to a triangular-shaped facility far bigger than she would have ever imagined — with thousands of diverse fans surrounding it.
“I wanted to see how fast I could run around the track,” she claimed of her first impression of the speedway. “They [the fans] looked like hillbillies. One person was wearing overalls with no shirt… it was not pretty.”
Despite the “scary” sight, Kylie was enamored by the track. She continued to the weekly drivers’ meeting, her ticket earning a front row seat to the sport’s starting grid.
For her, one driver stood out among the rest: Danica Patrick.
“I think [Danica] was what really drew her,” said her mother, Karrie Phillips. “The fact there is only one girl in NASCAR. It’s so male-driven, so for a little girl, it really opens her mind to an entire new experience.”
The Phillips clan stopped by Patrick’s No. 10 hauler following the meeting in hopes of snagging an autograph from the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. While they weren’t successful, the instant attraction served as a reminder as to how important a female presence can be in the 40-car field.
“I wish I could’ve met her,” Kylie said. “She’s a girl and likes dogs like me. Next time, I hope to get her autograph.”
But while Kylie never got the signature she craved, there was another unexpected surprise in store.
“After we saw the driver’s meeting, we were standing by Danica Patrick’s hauler,” Karrie said. “Right next to her hauler was [Kurt Busch’s]. Somebody had come out from his team and said ‘hello’ and he autographed something for Kylie. Busch walked out about two minutes later, walked up to her and said, ‘Here, I think you’ll like to wear this.’ He took his hat off and put it on her head.”
Wearing the Monster Energy hat for the remainder of the day, Kylie now had two drivers to cheer on for the race.
After a couple of stops for food and drinks, the Phillips settled into their seats just as the national anthem was about to wrap up. That gave Kylie her last moments of silence before 160 laps of “full-force” stock car action.
After such an impressive behind-the-scenes experience, what did the preteen think of the actual race?
“It was cool,” Kylie said. “It was more intense. Baseball, you can’t get excited until the ending. But it’s intense all-the-way-through in NASCAR. They’re all going full force almost the entire time. It’s kind of scary.”
Karrie said the roar of the engines became the true tipping point in Kylie’s first NASCAR adventure.
“The best feeling for her is when they started,” Karrie said. “They did their couple [pace] laps, then when they went full speed, you could just see her face was as bright as can be. I looked at her and she said, ‘Mommy, this is the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt.’”
Though Kylie is no crier, mother Karrie said she got emotional in the minutes following the wreck, saying it was the “fear of the unknown” that got to her.
“She immediately welled up in tears,” Karrie said. “Everyone in the stands kept saying it was Danica Patrick. She’s like, ‘Mommy, I really hope it’s not her, please. I don’t want it to be anybody, but definitely not her.’ It was probably 15 minutes before she stopped — not really bawling, but she was very emotional, very scared for them.”
Kylie was blunt to say what she was thinking about while the accident took place.
“I didn’t like that,” Kylie said. “I thought they were going to die! I wasn’t thinking they were going to crash.”
Fortunately, all drivers escaped the wreck uninjured. Patrick continued with minimal damage, later notching a 15th-place finish on the day.
“I pointed her out a few times,” Kylie said. “She was going really fast so we couldn’t really tell every lap.”
Time seemed to tick fast for Kylie from that point on. Before she knew it, the checkered flag flew and her time at the racetrack was done.
What was her final assessment? Much better than TV.
“It was just more fun,” Kylie said. “You could actually see what’s happening in 4-D. You could see who is winning, losing. I liked seeing the cameras filming it because you could see them from way up. It was cool.”
Looking ahead, the Phillips do plan to come back to a race. In fact, after seeing her daughter truly enjoy the ups and downs of a NASCAR event, Karrie hopes more kids can experience the same feeling as the sport seeks a new generation of supporters.
“I think every kid has to go to one,” Karrie said. “There is something so different being there than seeing it on TV. It’s the entire experience. Everywhere we went, everyone we saw, she was telling them about the whole day. It wasn’t just the Kurt Busch thing, but the whole experience — that just made it even better.
“She had such an incredible time.”[fb_plugin post href=https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1840212052656040&set=a.161144103896185.36825.100000017898082&type=3&theater]