Missing Richmond; Why Left Turns Are More Exciting Than You May Imagine
There was about a five-year run where I’d have been at the Richmond International Raceway at this very moment. Now, as International Raceways are concerned, Richmond doesn’t seem like that fantastic a place. First of all, it’s tiny. The whole thing is short enough around that I could STILL run around it without having to take a break (0.8 miles-ish). It’s not particularly new like the track here in Kentucky or ones in Kansas City and Chicago. Even among the shorter NASCAR tracks, it doesn’t even have the cachet of a Bristol or Martinsville, but it’s a fantastic place to watch a race. You can see everything without working hard, the cars run close and with more speed than at a lot of tracks and even in the age of the atrocious Car of Tomorrow, cars can seem to pass each other there. In the fall, it’s also the home of the last race before the NASCAR Chase for the Championship, so it ends up hosting one of the most interesting races of the year.
I have a lot of friends who think mixing the words “fantastic” and “watch a race” are an oxymoron. And to a certain extent if you’ve only seen races on TV, I can understand that. With the possible exception of hockey there probably isn’t another sport where the live experience translates more poorly to TV than auto racing.
It was never that way for me though. I have been a racing fan from my earliest days. I grew up as mesmerized by the greats of racing — Foyt, Sneva, the Unsers and my favorite Mario Andretti – as I was by my heroes on the Cincinnati Reds. To this day I root for anything with the Andretti name on it. I read every book about race car drivers. I knew all the greats, whether they had driven before I was born or in some cases even if they had died before I was born. But I was always solidly an open-wheel racing (IndyCars, Formula 1) guy.
Most of my open-wheel affection was because when I was a kid, it was the dominant form of racing in America. It’s hard to imagine this now, but at one point all the biggest names were in open wheel and dabbled in stock car racing (both Foyt and Andretti won the Daytona 500 in part-time rides). The idea of a star like Danica Patrick or Sam Hornish before her or Tony Stewart before him leaving IndyCar for NASCAR was ridiculous beyond words. The other reason was the cars. Open-wheel cars looked awesome. They looked like cars of the future or rockets. By comparison, NASCAR was driving Pontiacs around – not sexy.
Like a lot of people, I can track back to the first time NASCAR truly peaked my interest – it was February 18, 1979, maybe the most famous day in NASCAR history. In the first NASCAR race ever televised flag to flag by a major network (CBS, as part of the CBS Sports Spectacular franchise), Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison fought for the lead of the Daytona 500 all the way down the backstretch of the last lap, crashed and then fought in the infield. This was unheard of in IndyCar racing, at least that they televised. Even A.J. Foyt didn’t start punching guys until 1997.
The second NASCAR fandom trigger I can’t really pinpoint the day on anymore. I walked into the family room while my dad was watching a race (or sleeping while a race was on, it could have been either) on one of the smaller tracks (may have been Bristol) and there had just been a crash. The pit announcer asked a crew member who was working on body repairs what he was doing. His response? “I’m beating this fender out with my fist.” Which he was. The follow up question was about how the remaining dents would affect the car’s handling. The answer: “Oh it’ll be fine. This ain’t one of them Indy Cars.”
I probably should have been offended, but by that point open-wheel racing had pretty much slit its own throat with the IRL-CART split, so I was ready for a new racing outlet.
The final straw was Tony Stewart’s full-time NASCAR jump in 1999. Stewart was by far my favorite driver and when he left the IRL so did I (except for the Indy 500, which I continued to watch no matter how horrible the product got – and it got REALLY bad for a while).
What I found was America’s most fan-friendly sport, and a sport that – at least live — combined some of the best aspects of football and baseball and still had fast cars, even if they were still Pontiacs.
First, the live NASCAR experience starts with tailgate parties that make even the most seasoned, southern college football tailgaters look like amateurs. Campers show up as much as a week in advance, fly their driver flags and start the party. There’s also an entire festival area that surrounds the tracks, with games, driver signings and souvenir trailers for every team. If you DO get to a race, make sure you hit the Skoal tent whether you dip or not. It’s worth your time.
When you do go into the track, the smell is every bit as recognizable as the walk into a baseball stadium. It’s just that instead of the smell of ball gloves and fresh-cut grass, you get the smell of burnt rubber, spent gasoline and motor oil. I haven’t been to a race since NASCAR switched to ethanol. I just hope that the greening of NASCAR hasn’t changed the sport’s distinctive aroma. Add to that that NASCAR crowds have the same kind of size (anywhere from 80,000 to well over 100,000) and energy of an NFL game, and you have a fantastic viewing experience. One year at Charlotte, I saw a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan flash Jimmie Johnson the double bird every lap for an entire race. The race was 400 laps long. That’s 800 middle fingers – or nearly one for every one of HER tattoos.
Beyond that, NASCAR has to be the most welcoming of all professional sports. I’ve been to three tracks in my life, a total of six races. You know how much parking was total for those races? $0. Nothing. And that was on track property. In a weird reverse of the standard parking setup, it was actually MORE to park on private lots farther away (up to $25 in Richmond) than it was to park right outside the speedway. Once you get to the track, you are welcome to take your own cooler, food and drinks (including alcohol) inside almost everywhere. Only Kentucky Speedway banned outside coolers when I was there. And now even they allow them (although alcohol is still banned).
During the race, NASCAR actually ENCOURAGES you to get inside the action. My guess is that anywhere from 6 to 8 of every 10 spectators come equipped with scanners and headsets to listen to their favorite drivers, the radio broadcast, whatever.
One of my most enjoyable sports experiences came at my first trip to Richmond. Robby Gordon was charging his way back through the field and even though he was a lap or two down was racing Dale Earnhardt Jr. pretty hard. Junior radioed his crew and said, “What the hell is Robbie doing?” The response from his cousin and then crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was a simple, “It’s Robbie Gordon. He’s being an idiot.” Gordon (who is actually an excellent driver, just has idioted his way out of all the good equipment he has ever had in NASCAR and now struggles to run his own team) later became famous for throwing his helmet at Michael Waltrip’s car after Waltrip had spun him out.
Besides listening to the drivers gossip about each other, fans with scanners can hear the teams talk about their race strategy. This would be unheard of in any other sport. It would be roughly equivalent of NFL teams giving fans the frequency for the helmet radios they call plays on. It just wouldn’t happen.
Add to all of that the great times I spent before and during races with friends, brothers I rarely see and my dad, and when the green flag drops tonight in Richmond on the NASCAR Sprint Cup race, I’ll be missing my seat in the last row of the Old Dominion pavilion between turns three and four. Well, I’ll be emceeing a charity event so I may not notice right at that moment, but you get the point.
And whether you think you like NASCAR or not, I can’t recommend a trip to the track highly enough. You never know when you’ll see a woman with a zillion tattoos flip somebody off for five straight hours.