Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You're a NASCAR fan??

The son of a native New Yorker and a Floridian with deep family roots in Michigan, I grew up in the middle class suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.  I had an early interest in math and science as a kid, and went on to become a meteorologist after getting my degree in meteorology from Florida State University.  I have no discernible accent, and my blue jeans come from Old Navy (I think), not Wrangler.  Despite the fact that at one time as a kid, I had what some might classify as a mullet, most people are surprised when I tell them that I am a diehard NASCAR fan.

Why?  I have no idea.  I understand the sport’s roots, much more than people who criticize it in fact, and to some extent can understand the stereotypes that are placed on its competitors and fans, but it bothers me that every time I start talking about how big a fan I am, I get that same puzzled look and hear, “you don’t strike me as being a NASCAR fan”.  I simply don’t understand what that means, but I also realize that there are a lot of people who have never taken the time to actually learn what the sport is really about, instead of writing it off as a bunch of rednecks driving around in circles as drunken spectators wait for the next wreck.  No, it’s nothing like Talladega Nights (why NASCAR ever endorsed that movie I will never understand). 

This past weekend, I took a group of guys from work to the NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway.  For those who don’t know, I’ve been to at least one race every year since 1985, mostly at Atlanta Motor Speedway with my dad (In fact, this was one of only 3 or 4 races I've been to without my dad).  These guys have heard my stories, and they all wanted to experience the same thing I have every year since I was four years old.  Though all of them had an interest in racing, three of them had never been to a NASCAR race before, and none of them had ever camped in the infield for the weekend.  My job was to show them what NASCAR is all about- not just the racing or the drivers, but the whole NASCAR experience.  Though they will tell you that it was nice having someone with them who knew a lot about the sport and could point out drivers, crew chiefs, owners and media members in the pits and garage, I think just being there was enough to get them hooked.

Here’s an example… When we arrived at the track, a couple of the guys were anxious to use our garage passes (thanks aunt D!) and went in before I could go with them.  Within five minutes, they had not only seen Richard Petty, but gotten his autograph.  One of the guys said he’s not really into getting autographs, but when he saw “The King” he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  As a long time fan, I can assure you that Richard Petty taking the time to talk with fans and give them his famous John Hancock is not unusual, but to these new fans, it showed them how much those involved in the sport care about its fans.  They were quick to point out that all-time greats from any other sport probably wouldn’t have given them the time of day, let alone a free autograph.

Years of telling my stories have piqued the interest of some of my friends, and maybe gotten them to watch a few races, but if you really want to know why someone like me- a well educated, white-collared, south Florida-born regular guy who rarely drinks beer- would be so into NASCAR, do me a favor and go to a race.  Get to know the drivers and where they come from (you’ll find that few are from the south, and most are from the west coast or the Midwest).  Learn the rules and discover the technology involved in building the cars and fixing them to beat the competition, and keeping the fans and competitors safe.  Smell the burning rubber and racing fuel and hear the rumbling of 800+ horsepower as the cars go by.  Be entertained by the sights in the campgrounds, especially at night when the party begins.  Feel proud as an American when the National Anthem is performed and the F-15s fly over the track.  See the up-and-comers, from the 8-10 year-old kids on the quarter mile track racing Bandaleros (like full-bodied go karts) to the “young guns” trying to make a name for themselves in the Camping World Truck or Nationwide Series.  Start a tradition of going to races with your son or daughter that just might last a lifetime, like my dad did with me in 1985. 
It's something that can be hard to explain, but if you're one of the many who "just don't get" NASCAR, take my advice and give it a try.  As their slogan says, "everything else is just a game".  There's something for everyone, even a regular guy like me who until this weekend, had never had a beer at the more than 50 races I've attended (I was outta control after my two Bud Lights Friday night!!).  And if you don't know where to start... just tell me you want to go and I'll help you get there.

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