Prior to 14 months ago, NASCAR was not on Renae Mitchell’s radar at all.
While Mitchell played soccer and basketball in college, the only time NASCAR crossed her path was as a ninth-grade student in Virginia.
“My chemistry teacher was a huge Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. fan,” Mitchell told Frontstretch in May. “She came in (wearing a) full Dale Sr. jacket, all of it. So she gave us extra credit to watch races. So I watched many races in high school because of that. But then I kind of fell off into other things.”
A resident of Baltimore, she stuck out the COVID-19 pandemic with her parents in State College, Pa. During her time there, when sports were on indefinite hold, she discovered something about her parents.
They were avid followers of NASCAR.
“My parents are huge sports fans,” Mitchell said. “But I never realized that every Sunday they watch the races. My mom was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been doing this for years. I can’t believe you never realized it.'”
And because NASCAR was the first national sport to return to action amid the pandemic, Mitchell joined them.
“Then I downloaded the scanner app,” Mitchell recalled. “I just got really involved into it. There’s so much going on. There’s so many different storylines every week that you can follow, and I just got really into it.”
A full-time employee at Under Armour who also works part-time in guest services for the Baltimore Ravens, the ensuing year immersing herself in NASCAR was eye-opening as she learned about the “different avenues of the inner workings” of a sport that’s “so much more than just Sundays.”
Then June happened.
“The social justice stuff also definitely (helped),” Mitchell said. “Black Lives Matter. Banning the Confederate flag. Because of how big NASCAR was when I was in Virginia. … I felt like it was a Southern sport. … So that was kind of one of the reasons why I got into it.”
I’m repping Bubba and 23XI though! So there’s that. pic.twitter.com/eP8Dl3MU2m
— Renae M. (@NittanyScent) May 22, 2021
The love affair only deepened from there. Mitchell began recording every race. She started a collection of Post-It Notes that kept track of drivers who had won races and who she thought would win the next one. In the fall, she had a playoff bracket.
Mitchell latched on to Joe Gibbs Racing, in part because her mother’s Kyle Busch fandom and owner Joe Gibbs’ connection to the Washington Football Team. She also threw her hat into 23XI Racing’s corner after learning about Michael’s Jordan’s ownership role, partnering with Denny Hamlin.
Now, Mitchell is “at the point where I probably would plan my life around NASCAR. … (My family plans) our entire fall around Penn State football and that’s how I feel about NASCAR. I want to start going to as many races as I can. I’ve even been looking at moving to North Carolina to see about possibly getting into NASCAR.”
If that last paragraph had been read to her in May of last year, would she have believed they were her words?
“Not at all.”
What if Mitchell had been told that, in May 2021, she’d make a last-minute trip to attend her first NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway?
“I would be like, ‘No, that’s not happening.'”
‘I just got goosebumps’
Despite a life filled with playing in and attending sporting events, Mitchell has been consistent about one thing.
“Anytime I’m going to a new sporting arena, I always have somebody with me.”
She broke that rule for NASCAR.
“It was weird going to a new venue by myself, because I never would have done that,” Mitchell said.
She had been wanting to attend her first race for a while, even contemplating going to the April race weekend at Richmond Raceway. But she wouldn’t be vaccinated in time.
Living in Baltimore, the next best option was the 1-mile track in Dover, Delaware. It hosted a Cup race on May 16.
“I was gonna go to Dover, but then I ended up going to Boston with my boyfriend instead for baseball (that same week),” Mitchell said. “Then someone (told her), ‘Hey, I’ve got a ticket to Dover.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, let me see if I can get the dog taken care of. Can I make this work? An hour-and-a-half away?’ So 14 hours before Dover, I got it all figured out and was gone on the road next morning.”
With her experience in guest services, Mitchell didn’t feel the need to ask anyone for pointers on attending a NASCAR race for the first time at the last minute.
Also, she’d been paying attention over the last year.
“I know go to the website, the website’s gonna tell you a lot of information,” Mitchell said. “So I just want on (Dover’s) website and kind of looked. But then I’ve also paid attention to when people are posting (on social media) that they’re going to race, like in their pictures they had their headphones, they had their scanner, and just seeing the stuff that they brought. … So I ran to Walmart on my way and grabbed some headphones that I could use.”
What expectations had Mitchell built up for her NASCAR baptism?
“Because of the whole social distancing thing, I was thinking (I would) be far apart from people,” Mitchell said. “I expected it to be loud. I didn’t expect to be able to see as much as I could see. But I ended up having super awesome seats (right next to the start-finish line) and I could walk around …
“Not a lot of people actually interacted with me at all. It was really weird seeing how many people there were. I got lots of smiles, but like nobody really spoke. ‘This is kind of weird.’ But then once the race started, obviously most people had ear protection. So you’re not going to really speak to someone during the race anyways. … I didn’t have any bad interactions.”
When race time arrived, it did not disappoint.
“I took a video when they started the engines,” Mitchell said. “I’ve watched it four or five times since then. And every single time I just get goosebumps. You hear it on TV and it’s an amazing sound on TV. But then you hear it in person, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ And then you smell whatever that smell was … ‘Wow, this is super cool.’ And then when they started doing the pace laps, ‘Okay, this is this is getting real.’ And then the green flag waves and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh.'”
The excitement didn’t diminish over 400 miles.
“I enjoyed it the whole time,” Mitchell said. “I had this big grin on my face.”
I made it!!! This is amazing!!! pic.twitter.com/5HELGKiajZ
— Renae M. (@NittanyScent) May 16, 2021
‘I Didn’t Feel Out of Place’
After the conclusion of her inaugural NASCAR race, won by Alex Bowman, it wasn’t long before Mitchell started receiving messages on Twitter asking about her visit to the Monster Mile. “A lot” were from “people of color.”
“A couple of people that I didn’t even know followed me (asked) ‘Hey, I saw you were going to your first race. Can you like tell me how your experience was because I want to go to a race. But I’m kind of worried about how it would go and how people would react and things like that,'” Mitchell recounted. “For me, I spent 12 out of now almost 33 years in Japan (due to her dad being in the military). We were in Kansas, we were in Virginia. So I’ve kind of been all over. My mom’s from Oklahoma. My dad’s from Massachusetts. So race isn’t something that’s ever been something for me to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, like this is not a good place for me.’
“But as things have progressed over the last few years, it’s something that I’m more cognizant of now. So when they had that question, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, definitely.’ But as a person of color going to my first NASCAR race by myself, I didn’t feel uncomfortable being there.
“I saw it was a very diverse crowd. I saw many families of color. So it wasn’t, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the only Black person here.’ It wasn’t like that at all. So it was really cool to see. So that’s what I told people. For me going by myself, I didn’t feel out of place. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I didn’t feel that anyone was unwelcoming to me. And so that’s one of the things I see a lot is people are, ‘Oh, NASCAR’s for people from the South.’ And I didn’t feel like that at all.”
When it comes to the social issues NASCAR has integrated itself with, Mitchell hopes it doesn’t become bashful.
She recalls June 2 of last year when countless social media accounts changed their profile pictures to a black box.
“But then what did they do past that?” Mitchell asks. “You post a black box on your social media and you didn’t do anything. So you know, you just have to always make sure that whatever you’re doing, you’re backing it up. And it’s something that you’re consistently doing and showing people that you’re doing …
“They need to tell people, ‘This is what we’ve done, brag about it, because the more people see it, the more that they’re going to want to be a part of it.”
As for herself, Mitchell fully intends to try to make it to more NASCAR races this year, possibly the Pocono doubleheader at the end of June.
Whenever her next race is, she doesn’t plan to be alone, hoping to start a “pay it forward” tradition.
“One thing I definitely want to do is whatever race I go to, I want to be able to offer a ticket to someone to go to their first race,” Mitchell said. “I feel like that would be a way for someone who can go their first race and they don’t have to go by themselves. … Then maybe for their second race, they’ll bring someone new … There’s no way that I can not go to a NASCAR race and do that for someone.”
This story is the second in a five-part series that looks back at the events of the summer of 2020 and examines their impact on NASCAR a year later.
Frontstretch will bring you the stories of four Black NASCAR fans who came to the sport as a result of these historic events and what their experience has been in the ensuing 12 months. It will conclude on Friday, June 11 with a look at NASCAR’s efforts to build on the foundation laid in 2020.
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