Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Goodbye but not Farewell (or something like that)

Ranking life's bittersweet days, this one, my final day at NASCAR, easily shoots to #1 with a bullet.

After eight-plus seasons helping to tell the NASCAR story, I've accepted a great opportunity as VP, Strategic Communications for IMG College.

As you may know, college sports are booming – with radiological meltdown to the left of us, wars to the right, our President even found time to fill out his Brackets. This is a chance to take a leadership role with a fast-growing organization transforming the business of college sports. Being Italian, I fully respect an offer not to be refused.

I'm about as excited as one can get nowadays without the authorities being alerted and the building sealed off.

It's not easy to leave NASCAR, especially amid a thrilling season that has 'em cheering in the press boxes. I genuinely love our sport (jeez, their sport in a few hours); heck, I slept with the fans in their converted school buses and wrote a book about it!

From my first race in 2003 at Talladega (hallelujuah, can it be scripted any better), I've smoked the proverbial exhaust and savored every hit. I am blessed to have been surrounded by extraordinary people who may have talked a bit funny to this New Yorker (and me to them as well) but who leave a mark nonetheless.

NASCAR was not a Dickensian gig: It was the best of times, it was the best of times.

There is no breed quite like NASCAR fans. Show me another place on earth with as many empty beer bottles and as few fights as a NASCAR race.

One fan contributing to that heap of empties -- now recycled at an impressive rate, mind you -- calls me "Lucky Dog." The source of my good fortune is the mere fact I work for NASCAR.

He's right about the nickname. Everyone who works in this industry owns it, too, contributing to a continually unfolding great American entreprenerial success story that happens to bring joy to millions.

I will always treasure my Lucky Dog status. My enthusiasm for the sport won't ever wane. I will continue to root for the courageous drivers and hard-working people who bring this immensely enjoyable traveling circus to millions every week for 10-month stretch.

In the meantime, to those partners, colleagues, and media members who have heard this news and have written or called to playfully declare that I am a "jerk," "ass", "peckerhead" or various other body parts that shall go unmentioned, thank you, I am flattered. I will miss you, too. I sincerely hope we can stay in touch, particularly if you owe me money.

As of April 25, I can be reached at andrew.giangola@imgworld.com

I wish each of you, and everyone involved in this wonderful sport, and those who watch, good health and continued success.

As the great Warren Zevon said, Enjoy every sandwich.

Andrew Giangola

Gaby Giangola's horror novel, CYANIDE SMILE is available on lulu.com. Just click:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Matter of Life and Death

Maybe it’s the many hours spent huddled around campfires telling stories. Or because so many NASCAR fans enjoy fishing, and we all know how fishermen exaggerate. The priceless raw material out there – the soap opera playing out in the garage, the late-night revelry in the campgrounds – certainly contributes to it.

Whatever the reasons, NASCAR fans have amazing stories to tell about other fans. There are some bona-fide whoppers.

In sifting through tales of out-of-the ordinary NASCAR fandom, it’s difficult to separate historical truth from possible urban – or in this case, shall we say “rural” – legend.

It’s fitting the most fantastic story I’ve come across, which several high-placed industry sources confirm to be true, originates at Talladega Superspeedway, the track known for the highest speeds, most spectacular wrecks, and biggest, rowdiest fan parties.

Talladega is NASCAR’s largest track, a 2.66-mile tri-oval ringing a large, raucous infield. Tens of thousands of fans come to ‘Dega in RVs, campers and converted school buses, often arriving at the track days before the race, and once there, flying their flags proudly. In fact, when fans set up camp in the infield, the first task is to mark their turf and announce an allegiance by raising their NASCAR flags.

At one Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega not too many years ago, a fan was raising the banners of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and of course his dad, the late great Dale Sr., the ubiquitous black No. 3, a flapping pennant seen at this track and wherever the circuit visits, then and always.

The fan happened to be performing this flag-raising ritual during one of the fierce storms that will, with little warning, tear across the Alabama countryside. This time, the rain and winds were no surprise. The fan saw the sky darken and greenish-black clouds gathering wrath in the distance, low, fast and fierce, like the flyover to come on Sunday. He’d be damned if a little weather was going to prevent the flags of the Earnhardts, NASCAR, and the U. S. of A. from going up before the cars hit the track for qualifying.

In the driving rain, the fan was securing his metal flagpole. An apocalyptic crack of thunder, loud as if the sky had split apart, erupted. It came with a brilliant flash of blue-white light. The searing bolt of electricity beamed into the flagpole.

Even a mild lightning strike generates nearly a billion volts of juice. This unlucky fellow holding the pole was instantly fried to death by the sizzling laser. His buddies inside the camper heard the thunderclap and a thud – the body hitting the ground. They ran outside to discover their burnt and lifeless friend. They waited out the storm, and following a brief discussion featuring mild dissent quickly dismissed, the group made an improbable decision: to dig a shallow grave there in the infield and continue their race weekend plans. After all, “it’s what he would have wanted,” they agreed. One mumbled a joke about it being the NASCAR version of the movie, Weekend at Bernie’s. Since none of the crew had any special religious convictions, did it really harm anyone, including the deceased fellow’s family, to delay a funeral, anyway? Their friend was horribly, tragically dead. Nothing would change that. You can book a church and get flowers and cold cuts anytime in modern day America. After the race, they’d take care of grim details no one wanted to think about just yet. Until then, a race was to be run.

The weather cleared. A southern belle proudly belted out the National Anthem with 180,000 people proudly at attention, hands over hearts then lifted to the sky cheering military jets screeching past. Gentlemen started their engines. The roaring pack of 43 cars freight-trained around the track. There was the requisite big wreck. And one happy driver surged first to the checkered flag.

And then, after the last drops of adult beverages were sprayed in a banshee Victory Lane celebration, a few hundred yards away, the boys dug up and cleaned off their friend. They solemnly reported the death to local authorities. Not many questions were asked. An open-and-shut case of death by lightning strike. No one’s ever charged Mother Nature with murder. Tough to prosecute that one. The boys lowered their flags and drove home with a little more room in the pickup truck than when they arrived a few days earlier.

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans" by Andrew Giangola (Motorbooks, 2010)

Monday, April 4, 2011

The 21 Coolest Things About NASCAR

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.