There’s a three second pause where, among thousands of spectators, you could be in Pamplona. Amidst forty-three barely tamed beasts, you can hear the garbled voice of the microphone, you anticipate the caged fury.
Instead of bulls following red bandanna-wearing thrill seekers, the sound of 30,000 horsepower kicks in as drivers in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series respond to the “Start engine” command. It is awe-inspiring to hear it because it doesn’t happen all at once, but sounds like a stable of snarling rhinoceri ready to stampede.
There are few racetracks that support major series in the Northeast. In NASCAR, the only three east of Indiana and north of Virginia are Dover (Del.), Pocono (Long Pond, Penna.) and Loudon (N.H.). While other tracks are available for open-wheel racing like the IndyCar series, those three generally draw the biggest crowds in the Northeast because of the draw of NASCAR.
I’m not your typical NASCAR fan, as I grew up in New Jersey and went to school in Florida for a liberal arts degree. But I fell in love with the little pieces that are hard to make out on television and are entertaining to watch. This would be my first live race, the HeluvaGood 200, equivalent to a minor league baseball game.
Even on the way in, I felt a little out of place, as you can understand by the photo below:
The fanbase of NASCAR can be as passionate as any others. Even before the race, you can see the myriad shirts advertising allegiances to various drivers, something you won’t find in nearly any other sport.
Our first surprise was the sheer size of the track and basic amenities offered to most fans. The entrance to the race track is simply aluminum-lined gateways and you’re as likely to enter walking over crushed gravel before you sit on the bench-like seating.
It’s mandatory to like the people around you: NASCAR races allow coolers of alcoholic beverages and smoking is more common than it would be in a bar in North Carolina. But all the anticipation and nerves one feels surrounded by what feels like a different culture vanished when the cars rumble ahead, anchored to a pace car.
In spite of the derogatory comments that often get put on the race cars on the track, NASCAR machines are designed to work in very tight tolerances, meaning the tires and brakes simply don’t work before about 100 miles per hour. As the pace car trundles along at about 50 miles per hour, the two lines of cars snake back and forth, undulating as the drivers try to heat up their equipment. But then, as the pace car dives into the pits, you see this:
Dover is a mile-long oval. Although it may be hard to see, you might notice that from 50 miles per hour to more than 150 MPH, the drivers reach the halfway point on the opposite side of the track in a little over ten seconds. It’s hard to explain just how that looks live, and may be part of the reason why it’s difficult for people who have never been to a race to appreciate it.
The other difficulty in liking the sport is how it is portrayed on television. There, cameras focus on one or two cars at a time. In the real race, you could be accused of thinking that it’s akin to astronomy, with the cars racing in concentric orbits, and moving in and around each other like Neptune does Pluto every several hundred years. The interrelationship of the cars as they race around the track is like a ballet, albeit one comprised of 3,500 pound cars with 700-horsepower engines.
And finally, the pit stop. We have video of Brad Keselowski, a 26-year-old driver who’s gaining a following, as his crew makes adjustments to the car.
The best way to describe the flurry of activity is to compare it to the Erector set contraption the adolescents in Sandlot made to recover their baseball. While NASCAR cars cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make, they are based on decades-old technology and require frequent tweaking to adapt to weather conditions and the driver’s temperament. The guy behind the wheel will tell someone on top of the pit that his car is going into the wall on turns, or about to spin. As we can see in the video, Brad wanted more traction that four tires can give, as well as enough gas to make another 50-lap run.
NASCAR is also known for its crashes and fiery tempers and we saw plenty of those as well. One driver felt that he had been spun out by a competitor, and raced out to take his revenge. It cause several cars to spin out, and you can see the aftermath as the track crews tried to clean up the damage here:
It may be difficult to see at first, but a race offers a lot to people. Someone who appreciates the subtleties of dance or figure skating can imagine the difficulty of drivers who wrestle cars weighing nearly two tons alongside each other through turns at speeds over 150 MPH. Do-it-yourselfers will appreciate the wrench-turning that is required to keep the cars operating smoothly over the course of a three-hour race. And just about everyone can see the competitiveness of drivers who treat $500,000 vehicles like go-karts, bumping into each other at high speeds in a bid for the best position.
If you’re looking for an experience that is nothing like what you’ll find on TV, there are tracks all over the U.S. Parking is free at many events, and the bring-your-own culture means that you can save a lot of money on food and beverages compared to other sporting events. NASCAR is also doing its best to alleviate flagging attendance figures, so prices are comparable to most baseball games and cheaper than almost every NFL stadium in the country.
You may even find your own reasons to love the offspring of bootleggers’ going legit and Southern culture.
[Images and Video: Stephanie Zoltek]