This past weekend, as all of Cincinnati geared up for the All-Star Game coming to town, I went to my first NASCAR race, the Quaker State 400 in nearby Sparta, Kentucky. I’ve been to baseball in four different Major League stadiums, but NASCAR is unique among major league sports. For baseball, football, basketball, hockey, or soccer, the action centers on the arena. You show up maybe an hour before hand and leave after the action is over. If you make a day of it, it’s usually at a bar or restaurant near the arena.
At the speedway, once you’re on the grounds, you’re in for the day. Come early, stay all day, and plan to wait for traffic to thin out. Mind you, this was my first NASCAR race, and it was held in tiny Sparta, Kentucky. Yes, it’s close enough to be claimed by Cincinnati and Louisville, but Sparta is tiny, like Mayberry RFD tiny. I saw lots of Kentucky State Police and lots of Carroll County Sheriff’s deputies and even a handful of MPs from Ft. Campbell handling security. It looked like the whole NYPD had mobilized to keep the peace, minus the SWAT teams and bomb squad.
If you walk along the main road surrounding the speedway, there is a lot going on. A couple of cars were out on display. Jack Daniels had a mini-museum on site while a pair of motorcyclists did flips on ramps. You could sample wine, sample whiskey, meet drivers, watch a band.
We had Fan Zone tickets, which included access to pit road, up-close access to the pre-race band (country singer Jared Nieman, who apparently likes his beer), and a Q&A with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Junior was very humble, a bit of a storyteller. One story he told was about getting a garbage bag full of clothes from his father. Anyone who has ever buried a parent, even one as famous as Junior’s father (who was known as the Intimidator for his aggressive driving style), has had to deal with the left over possessions and clothes. Junior was about to toss them at one point when he found out the suit was from one of his father’s best known wins. So now it’s framed and hanging in his home.
After a day of sipping whiskey, touring the infield, and listening to music, it was time for the race. But first, the driver introductions. There were 42 drivers. The first twenty or so were not that well-known and got polite applause. The next ten, guys like Trevor Bayne, received enthusiastic applause. Then we get to the final ten, the Jimmie Johnsons and Jeff Gordons. They either got cheered or booed and quite often both.
The race required earplugs. I had mine in deep, so the cars didn’t bother me. However, at one point, I made the mistake of taking out one plug to hear someone talking. The sound of the cars blowing by was physically painful. Here’s a hint: If you go to auto races, keep your phone charged up to talk to your date or your buddies. No one’s going to hear what you’re saying.
Watching NASCAR on TV (or Indy Car or Formula One) is different from watching it in person. On TV, the camera crew and the commentators keep track of the drivers for you. There are graphics and camera angles to let you know where your driver is, along with a crawl giving the race order. In person? You have to know your driver’s car. The numbers aren’t so clear on the car. There are scoreboards, at least at Kentucky Speedway, that give you the numbers but not the names. So you have to watch carefully. It took me about ten laps (and a caution) to figure out which car belonged to Tony Stewart. (Given my wife’s crush on Smoke, that’s surprising.)
So who was my driver? Well, I usually root for Tony, but he’s having a bad year. I thought maybe Junior, but Junior had some rather high-profile brake issues much to the chagrin of Danica Patrick. I thought I’d like to see Trevor Bayne, an up-and-coming driver who won the Daytona 500 on his first try a couple of years ago. But this was Jeff Gordon’s last appearance at Kentucky. So #24 was my guy.
Kyle Busch won.
I don’t like Kyle Busch.
But it was cool to watch since we sat right above the winner’s circle.