Bro Jackson’s NASCAR expert, Robert Rich, spent the weekend at the race track. All photos included were taken by him.
I have season tickets to Texas Motor Speedway. This means I have a seat for every event on the track’s schedule, which translates to seven races across three weekends. So, unlike having season tickets to, say, an MLB team (which means a seat for 81 games a year), you have to make each one count. Get there early, possibly camp (I live close enough to the track where it’s not necessary), and enjoy the hell out of it. This past weekend was no exception, as NASCAR strode into town for races by the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series.
The only things scheduled for Thursday were two test sessions for the Sprint Cup series and a practice for the Nationwide series. Since the race marked the first time Cup drivers would race NASCAR’s new Gen 6 car at TMS, they were given extra time to practice and get a feel for just how the new cars would handle on Texas’ 17-year-old racing surface. The answer: beautifully.
I had pit passes for the entire weekend, meaning I was able to meander about the pit area all weekend, save for during actual races. The pit area during a NASCAR event is a cluster of people, cars, and sometimes shoddily placed barriers. During Cup practice, the area where the cars came out of the garage and up to pit road was vaguely cordoned off by fencing and policed by a few track officials who, depending on the level of seriousness with which they took their job, kept fans from wandering into areas they shouldn’t, or in front of oncoming cars. Now, the area where the cars actually came back into the garage from the track had no fencing and at one point, I found myself sitting on the curb as cars turned in inches away from me. Had one of them lost a grip on the steering wheel, tapped the gas on accident, or had something break just as they were coming in, I would have been crushed. Sounds like a good way to go though, if you ask me.
Now, pit passes do not get you access into the garage,[ref]NASCAR is very particular about that, and most garage access goes to radio contest winners, drivers’ friends and family members, and lucky sponsor employees who enjoy primo access because their company’s name is on a car.[/ref], but drivers still have to walk to and from the garage to go the bathroom, their motorhomes, and other locations on the track. Often times they’ll commandeer a golf cart to take them, but not always. During Thursday’s test session, very few did. There was the ever-sought-after Danica Patrick sighting that happened as she took a break from testing to go the bathroom and found herself immediately followed by fans seeking an autograph. Matt Kenseth came rushing from the Cup garage after testing to get in his Nationwide series car and practice. And Kyle Busch also took a break during Nationwide practice to visit the john. My dad, who has season tickets with me, compared the whole experience to a groupie following a band, and he’s not far off. And, although I have no interest in sleeping with any drivers, I do get excited to see a one in person. If that makes me a NASCAR groupie, I’ll just have to deal.
Another benefit to pit passes is that, even though you don’t have garage access, if you find the right gate with an attendant who isn’t paying attention or doesn’t quite know what he or she is doing, you can still get in. That’s exactly what happened Thursday, as we found a gate attendant that was otherwise occupied, strode into the Nationwide garage like we knew what we were doing, and took a look around. The hustle and bustle of a NASCAR garage is a tremendous sight, and finding a driver is even better. As we walked around a corner, we saw a massive crowd moving like a school of fish quickly to the exit. A closer look showed that in the middle of the throng was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also raced the Nationwide race over the weekend. Most drivers have some contingent of fans, but if you see a crowd as big as this one was, you can bet it’s going to be Dale Jr. or Danica.
Another decent sized crowd had formed around former extreme sports star Travis Pastrana, who is trying to make it in NASCAR and currently racing his first full year in the Nationwide series. Not only is Pastrana good for the sport, he is genuinely excited to be a part of it. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the guy is constantly on something, but after talking to him, you realize he’s just a California bro who likes to go fast. I got a picture with him and he gave the camera a thumbs up, just like a bro.
Friday morning we headed back to the pits, this time with my roommate in tow, for a full day of practice, qualifying, and the Nationwide race.
- Since Kyle Busch was racing in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races over the weekend, he was often quickly rushing from car to car, making it possible for fans to get a glimpse of him. After Nationwide practice, he parked his car on pit road and let his crew push it back to the garage before he walked over to the Cup side of things. We predicted his moves and followed him. My dad stopped him to get a picture. To his credit, he did stop, but my dad had to actually tell him to smile to get Busch to flash those pearly whites. As he continued walking, my roommate, a Busch fan,[ref]Unfortunately.[/ref] reached out to give him a high five and wish him good luck, and received only a half-hearted wave in return. Busch is the Grumpy Cat of NASCAR.
- Qualifying is a fun experience and a great precursor to the competition of an actual race. As cars go one-by-one around the track to set the field, nothing beats the anticipation of a car crossing the finish line and then looking up at the scoring tower to see if they were able to get to P1. Busch was once again the talk of the town in Cup qualifying, breaking the track record with a lap of 196.29 miles per hour. That’s a mile and a half in under 27 seconds, folks. Think about it.
- We wandered over to the filming of “NASCAR Trackside” on the SPEED channel and I did a little site promoting, because a Bro Jackson writer’s work is never done. Don’t forget that.
- The race itself was fantastic, with great action and battling all night. When it was all said and done, Busch found himself in victory lane after a dominating performance. He’s now won four of the six Nationwide races run in 2013, which is ridiculous. Incensed, I made a bet with the roommate that if Busch could win both the Nationwide and Cup series races, I would wear Busch gear to the Texas Cup race in November. SPOILER ALERT: Making that bet was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.
Sprint Cup race day is an experience everyone should have at some point in their life. Before you continue your ride on the hatred bandwagon, come to a race and see what it’s like. To quote a tweet I received from the wife of one of the writers on staff: “The race is tonight and you’re already there? Damn NASCAR knows how to tailgate.”
Early in the morning traffic was already backed up headed to the race track, a sign that boded well for attendance at the event.[ref]Final estimates put it at around 125,000 in the grandstands. Suck on that NFL/MLB/every other sport.[/ref] The midway outside the track was jammed with people visiting driver souvenir trailers and tents set up by other organizations looking to promote their wares, including all three NASCAR manufacturers,[ref]Chevy, Toyota, and Ford.[/ref], the Dallas Morning News, and the race’s title sponsor, the NRA.
The race being named the NRA 500 was a topic of great debate leading up to the event. Upon further review, I’ll say this: I was wrong. Despite what people–namely, the media–may think, it wasn’t a political statement by Texas Motor Speedway or NASCAR. It was a sponsorship deal made by the track and the NRA, and it truly was a smart one. Texas loves guns. The two times NRA messages were broadcast over the speakers at the track, you could hear nothing but cheers. Despite what the organization is representing itself as in Washington, Texans still view it as the group protecting their rights to own a gun. Nothing more.
The fans at a NASCAR event are a sight to behold. I’m sure you’ve got a picture in your head, and yeah, those folks are there. But there are also children in awe of the speed and power exhibited by the cars. There are the shirtless hippies walking around playing Sublime out of their speaker-equipped coolers. There are the “businessmen” who talk about how they could run a NASCAR team and fix the cars and they just chose to go into their other profession instead. There are the ex-military guys spending inordinate amounts of time at the NRA booth. There are the overweight poster children for American overconsumption stuffing funnel cake after funnel cake down their gullets. And there are the folks who just like racing. I like to think I’m in the latter category, but I’m sure I bleed over several of them.[ref]Ed.’s note: Rob loves his funnel cake.[/ref]
A benefit to being a season ticket holder at TMS is entrance into the “No Limits Garage Party” on Cup race days, a special carnival of sorts that takes place during the day. This particular weekend featured a multitude of food vendors, ’80s cover bands, the always-packed Winstar World Casino Tent,[ref]Winstar, a sprawling casino along the Texas-Oklahoma border, sponsors the Garage Party and always has a tent set up, wherein you spin a wheel to win a prize. I came away with a multicolored plastic party mug, my dad ended up with a bobblehead, and my roommate came home with an insanely soft rally towel[/ref] and lawn mower racing. Before you knock it, look it up on YouTube. Some of those sons of bitches are rocketships.
TMS also puts on a pre-race concert every year. This weekend’s featured artist was Sara Evans, a country artist who . . . sings country music. It was formidable country, I suppose.
Finally, mercifully, it’s race time. Until you’ve stood with 125,000 people during a pre-race prayer, the singing of the national anthem, an amazing flyover of 23 planes trailing red, white, and blue smoke behind them, and NBA star Karl Malone yelling “Drivers, start your engines” while 43 racers fire up 800-horsepower engines, you are not qualified to talk about NASCAR. Fact.
The racing was great, and the Gen 6 car gets a thumbs up from me. Throughout the race, Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and my favorite driver, Jeff Gordon battled and swapped the lead. We were headed for a great finish when Gordon broke a wheel hub with less than 50 laps to go, ending his night. I sank into a great depression and found myself wanting to sports rage on all of the assholes waving goodbye as he took his car into the garage.[ref]Gordon is a very polarizing figure in the sport.[/ref] Then, to make matters worse, Busch jumped to the lead on the final restart and did not lose it, and the full reality of the bet I’d made hit me.
I’m excited for November at Texas Motor Speedway. I am not excited about what I’ll be wearing.