NOTE: This article appears in the premiere issue of SPORT LIFE magazine, now available in many book stores.
In so many ways, beginning with its moonshine-soaked roots, NASCAR is different than the traditional “stick and ball” sports. Here are 21 points of differentiation…and reasons to get a ticket to experience a great American sport.
A chess match at 180 MPH: 43 of the world’s most fearless drivers gun their growling beasts around high-banked tracks at hair-raising speeds, wedged closer than you get to your neighbor when parking at the Wal-mart. When they’re up to speed on that first lap, the thundering procession shakes you to the core. “I get goose bumps so bad, I can’t shave my legs before a race,” says Judith Barr of Lexington, SC.
Sensory overload: You don’t have to be a gear head to succumb to the rush from the massive display of American horsepower that whooshes past so fast it could dry your hair. “Absolutely freaking nothing beats the assault on the senses like 43 cars roaring around a race track,” says Amy Marbach of badgroove.com. “Attending that first race in person burned NASCAR fandom into my heart and soul.”
Unparalleled access: Fans can purchase garage and pit passes to get up close to the drivers. Those intent on nabbing an autograph usually succeed. Even from the King, Richard Petty, always on the scene in his trademark shades and Charlie 1 horse cowboy hat.
Trespassing welcomed: Try to go on the field before the Super Bowl. You’ll be arrested. But fans can walk the track before the Daytona 500, or any other NASCAR race for that matter.
The Pits are anything but: Seven highly trained professional athletes scramble “over the wall” to change four Goodyear Tires and dump in 18 gallons of Sunoco Green E15 fuel in less than 14 seconds. It’s crazy, chaotic, and completely choreographed.
A Family Sport: Where else could you spend four hours with your family on a Sunday afternoon and not hear a word they say. (“If you don’t like the family you came with, you can be adopted in no time, jokes Julie Geary, a Tony Stewart fan from southern NJ. “You can have a whole new family before the race is over!”)
Family Feud: Let’s face it. Many drivers, who travel the circuit together week after week, don’t particularly like one another, and will occasionally use a bumper to demonstrate this. Several simmering feuds from the 2010 season portend to boil over this year. “Every driver will remind you of someone in your family; there’s lots to love, and they will drive you crazy, too,” notes Judy Diethelm of Nashville.
No Secrets: Watch NFL coaches on the sideline covering their mouths with their clipboards or baseball pitchers putting mitts over their faces during on-the-mound conferences. In NASCAR, there are no secrets. Heck, fans can listen to all driver-crew chief conversations on Scanners. “There's no other major sport where fan can hear live communication between teammates, during the competition,” observes sports writer Hampton Stevens.
B.Y.O.B. NASCAR tracks allow fans to bring their own alcohol into the venue.
No Time Outs: The action never stops. And there are no interminable, momentum-killing breaks to review a call on replay.
The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: Super Chef Mario Batali said NASCAR is “the Super Bowl meets Woodstock meets the Iowa State Fair.” Indeed, fans start arriving at the track on Wednesday, get the party rolling, and by Sunday afternoon, a pretty good race breaks out.
The longest season in professional sports: Don’t believe your mother. There is no such thing as “too much of a good thing.” NASCAR races for 10 months – a 100,000-person rolling barbeque moving from state-to-state February through November. Fans sweat out a two-month off-season and then get busy for Daytona again.
Watch history being made: While NASCAR is rich in history and tradition (hey, we have drivers of yesteryear named “Fireball” and “Coo Coo”), the sport continues to forge new history. Current champion Jimmie Johnson has won an unprecedented five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series titles during the most competitive period in the sport's history. Making the full field his personal lapdog is an astounding accomplishment.
Drive my car: Few of us can dunk a basketball or wallop a golf ball 300 yards down the fairway. But regular fans can drive it like they stole it in real stock cars at racing schools on the same tracks NASCAR drivers mix it up. Says Chris Stuart of Charlotte, NC: “I have so much more appreciation NASCAR drivers after trying to wrangle a NASCAR stock car...coolest experience ever!”
An Affordable blast: Ticket prices to a race are inexpensive compared to most pro team games. And parking is free. Grandstand tickets for the Daytona 500 are $55. Fans can pre-order $45 seats at the road course in Watkins Glen, NY. Texas Motor Speedway offers backstretch tickets for $20.
Neither Home nor Away: Most sporting events feature two teams, creating a divided crowd. In NASCAR, there’s no home or away team; 43 drivers race to the checkered flag on the same field of play. Ten fans together could be rooting for 10 different drivers.
Miss Sprint Cup. And Miss Coors Light: Any girl who is hot when covered head to toe in fireproof Nomex, is, well….really, truly, genuinely, extremely hot.
A sea of motor homes: The infield is a throbbing shantytown of RVs, trailers, motor homes and repainted school buses, thousands of camping vehicles of varied sizes, shapes and payment schemes. “You can drive your home to the race,” says Chris MacNicol, a.k.a. “Talladega Tireman,” who goes to the track naked except a Goodyear Eagle around his waist.
The Smells: From the late-night campfires to burning rubber on pit road, the smells of NASCAR are totally unique. “The high octane fuel and burning rubber in the pit area and garage – which is our locker room – smells a lot better than old sweat socks and jockstraps,” says long-time fan Paul Harraka, Sr. of Wayne, NJ.
Duty, Honor, and God: From the Stealth Bomber to the Thunderbirds, NASCAR's awe-inspiring pre-race flyovers signal the sport’s diligent support of the U.S. military. War heroes and fresh-faced privates mingle on pit road. There’s even an invocation often praising Jesus Christ. Even if you’re not a Christian, you have to respect NASCAR not caving into the sanitizing forces of political correctness.
NASCAR Nation: Camping in the infield, grown men wade in inflatable kiddie pools. During rain delays, mud wrestling contests occur. Every fan you meet out there would give you the shirt off his back…if he were wearing one. Junior fans aren't necessarily sending Jeff Gordon fans holiday hams, but they all get along. NASCAR and its fans are an altruistic sports community which rallies around good causes, always willing to give back, help and share its good fortune. Put another way: Show me a place on earth with as many empty beer bottles and as few fights as a NASCAR race.