Since before the start of the season there have been several very good articles written throughout NASCAR Webdom about how to grow the sport. Our own James Crooks wrote one entitled, “Get off Your Duff and Go to the Track” that encouraged fans to get back to the tracks. Our Frank Buhrman’s personal post-race reports from area races provides further encouragement to plug back into the sport. And if you are a more “experienced” race fan, Tim Leeming’s “Ghost Tracks & Legends” will get that old motor running again.
Others have written to encourage fans to not only go to the tracks (local or otherwise) but take others along with them. Personally introducing new folks to the sport goes a long way toward making new fans. Besides that personal touch, these articles remind us that few sports have a more compelling or effective “hook” than the sights, sounds and smells that can only be experienced live at the track.
Today, we are blessed to have so many ways to watch a race – from anywhere and on anything from a tiny smart phone screen to a man-cave wall-filling flat screen with surround sound; nothing and I mean nothing captures racing and “hooks” prospective race fans like experiencing a race live.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to “introduce” a few folks to Cup racing or to a new Cup track by attending with them. I’m pretty sure me being there didn’t make much of a difference in their racing experience… except in possibly one area. The one thing I always tried to do with any new or new to that track fan to give them the very best chance to get “it” and get “hooked” was to “Take ‘em to the fence.”
Now before we continue, please understand what I mean when I say, “Take ‘em to the fence.” I’m not talking about watching a race from there or going down there and hanging on the fence. You can’t do that. I know that and you know that. Security won’t allow it; that will push them and that first race experience may not turn out quite the way you planned.
No, what I’m talking about is more like a well-timed pause there, just watching the cars go by for a moment on the way to your seats. Not much more. You won’t need much more than that.
That said, it was there at the fence, the place closest to the track, cars and drivers in action that I hoped they would become fully immersed into the indescribable “it” that makes our sport different. It was there where I hoped the racing would get a good hold on them and they would become race fans… forever.
Two “Take ‘em to the fence” experiences immediately come to mind and I think clearly show its effectiveness. The first was at Talladega. That was my Cup “home” track. Dad and I had seen many races there, but when his health started declining, we stopped going. Without him, I had little interest in ever going back… and didn’t for years.
That changed when a persistent co-worker who had recently become interested in this thing called NASCAR asked me to take him to a race there. I had no interest in going back and declined… repeatedly, but he refused to take my no for an answer and soon a few others joined in, a race trip was organized and we were heading south.
We arrived there at the start of practice and my co-workers initial reaction when he looked out over the sprawling facility and its imposing banked turns was one of amazement. As the first pack of cars left pit road to begin practice, I took a quick look around to see where track security was stationed and then motioned to follow me, down the steps… to the fence.
There at the tri-oval fence we experienced one of the phenomenona found at Talladega. You see the track is so large that when the cars are on the backstretch you can’t really hear them. So as the pack hurtled down the 4000’ backstretch we easily carried on a conversation in the anxious silence.
As the pack climbed the third turn banking I braced for the next phenomenon. My friend had no idea what was coming next as the three waves took aim and locked on us. You see, on that track at those speeds, at the fence you “feel” the cars before you hear them and hear them before you see them. If not ready it can be a bit unnerving.
Moments later as the pack exited turn four, the first wave, the pressure wave that invisibly smothers you and inexplicably builds in your chest, nearly taking your breath hits. Seconds later, the second wave, the growing freight train of sound slammed us before the final wave of bright colors, wind and leftover speedy-dry flashed by. As they roared toward the finish line, the colors and sounds shrank, leaving us in a backwater of burnt Unocal fuel fumes, Goodyear grit and a growing silence.
At the fence, my co-worker experienced racing’s shock and awe. The grin confirmed he got “it”… or more correctly, at the fence, “it” got him.
The next “Take ‘em to the fence” memory took place at Charlotte. This one was totally unexpected as it wasn’t a typical race weekend. I was in Charlotte as a last minute substitute to represent our Department at the three day Interstate Mining Compact Commission meeting. I had no problem spending three days listening to fellow bureaucrats discuss and cuss “paradigm shifts” (the buzz words of that day) in exchange for evenings free in the center of Cup racing. What a chance to head to Concord and scope out the territory, look for new routes into the track, explore backroads as possible post-race short cuts and escape routes and maybe stumble across a race shop or two along the way!
My plans all went out the window the first evening, when as I approached Concord, saw the lights on at the track. I pulled into a nearly deserted parking lot, got out and started going around the perimeter shaking locked gate after locked gate. Finally, I shook one open. Imagine my surprise when I looked in to find a few Cup cars lined up in the pits waiting to practice.
I looked around and there were a couple of dozen “gate shakers” like myself who had found their way in. I grabbed a seat and we sat there and watched the whole thing unfold with no one saying a word to each other. I guess everyone thought if we were real quiet security wouldn’t notice us and ask us to leave.
You can’t imagine how difficult it was to sit through the next day’s meetings. As soon as they were over I flew back to my room to ditch my work gear and change into suitable track attire. I had just locked my door and turned around when I almost ran over two comrades from other states, Virginia and West Virginia. They asked what my plans were for the evening and invited me to join them. I thanked them for the invitation, explained I already had plans and invited them to join me on a road trip back to Concord. Neither were race fans and only one had ever been to a race in person but after some arm-twisting they agreed to join me and give it a try. So it was off to Concord.
The trip there was a continuation of the day’s meeting, with discussions of business, meeting note comparisons and “paradigm shifts”. As we approached the track they got real quiet, not quite sure what they had gotten themselves into.
Tonight, there was no gate rattling required as a set of gates were open and we walked in like we owned the place, only stopping at the top of the grandstands to give them a chance to look out over the Crown Jewel of The Series, shimmering under the Musco lights.
Neither said a word for what seemed like an eternity as they silently took it all in. I finally broke the spell when I said, “Follow me” and they dutifully fell into my draft as we headed down the steps to the ultimate destination. Down past the many rows of “high priced” bleachers with backs, past the rows of backless aluminum bleachers, and finally past the lower ten rows of concrete “seats” to the bottom walkway.
There at the fence, beneath the signs that only a few years earlier encouraged fans to not throw their chicken bones on the track but now had a gussied up message to better suit the sport’s more refined image, we waited. The roar from pit road signaled we wouldn’t be there long, and as the first pack of cars took to the track we stepped closer to the fence with my two friends’ eyes riveted to the pack as they disappeared off of turn two onto the backstretch.
Charlotte is different from Talladega because here at the fence when the cars are on the backstretch you can hear them but can’t see them. That’s why they now have the huge screen TV above this blind spot. I glanced over to see my friends now on tiptoe, trying to catch a glimpse of the fleeting growl just out of sight.
Finally, the cars reappeared in turn three and I braced for what was to come. They had no idea… which was just as well. In a few seconds it would all be over anyway.
Like Talladega, the cars got here in a hurry. Their impact on my friends was just as dramatic. As they blew by, both were open-mouthed and saucer-eyed, first looking at me and then at each other and then back at me as if to say, “What was that?” “Was that real?” That melted into the unmistakable grins that answered the question before I could ask it.
At the fence, they got “it”.
Now, satisfactorily and properly introduced to Cup, we hustled up the steps to find seats. I spent the rest of the evening with one eye on the cars and one eye on my friends. They never took their eyes off the track, they never stopped talking and they never stopped grinning.
At the fence, “it” had gotten them.
The ride back to the hotel afterwards was much different. There was no talk of business or the meeting. Never once did I hear the word “paradigm” and the only time I heard “shifts”, it was in reference to gears. But they were jabbering like my nine year old and his buddies do now when discussing their latest Minecraft seed. It was “Yippity, yippity, yippity… race car.” “Yappity, yappity, yappity… race car.” They were still babbling when I dropped them off and still grinning the next day as the conference ended and we said our good-byes.
I never heard if they ever attended a race on their own after that. There were no IMMC conferences in my future and a job shift ensured it was never to happen again. But I do know taking ‘em to the fence made a lasting impression on them. Whenever they happened to be in town they would look me up and always stop by to say “Hey”, which I greatly appreciated. They always ended those meetings discussing that evening at Charlotte… still grinning from the memories at the fence.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the fence… more years than I care to admit. Thursday, July 6th, I plan to go back to the fence once more. This time it will be to take my nine year old son to his first race-the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series “Buckle Up in Your Truck 225” at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. It is the first event in this week’s Triple Header and should be an ideal introduction. The Trucks put on a good race there, the crowds are small, traffic light, lines short, and race length just right. If things don’t go as planned, the tickets are cheap (kids under 12 are free) and the trip home is quick.
With the overabundance of seats, we should have plenty of room so if he gets tired or bored he can stretch out on the bleachers and rest his head in my lap like my sister and I used to do with our parents when we first started going to races. If Kyle Busch is entered, I may have to stretch out myself. Shouldn’t be a problem.
Thursday is the night I’ve been looking forward to since before he was born. Over the years, as he’s grown I’ve planned what this day would be like. I’ve attended a few races there to get the “lay of the land.” Two years ago, I worked there as a track volunteer for the ARCA and Xfinity races. I wanted to see behind the scenes in hopes of figuring out how to make this time perfect. I’ve prayed he will respond favorably to his first race, hoping that this will be his start to becoming the third generation of race fan in the family.
And of course, I will take him to the fence.
I haven’t decide where it will happen. It won’t be at the start-finish line, as things are too busy there. Maybe we’ll go to the end of the front straight, right before they lift. They’ll be going their fastest there and we can see the dance on the banking in turns 1 & 2. Or I may take him to the exit of Turn Four. We can get some selfies with KFC’s Col. Sanders as he sits there in his front row seat before we head over to get as close as we can to the fence. But at the fence we’ll see if he gets “it.” Hopefully, “it” will get him.
I must admit I’m a bit nervous, as I’m not sure what this will be like for him. No matter how it goes, I plan to go with whatever comes up, take it in stride and do my best to make sure we have the best time possible. No matter if he wants to leave to go play in the playground, endlessly ride the shuttles around the parking lot or loves it so much he tries to climb the fence, it’ll all be good.
Hopefully, taking him to the fence will be a great experience for him. I already know it will be for me. As a father, to see his reaction as the Trucks blast past that first time will be priceless; something I’ll never forget. As a racing dinosaur, “Taking ‘em to the fence” never gets old no matter how many times you do it. It has a restorative effect; an adrenaline loaded reminder of why you came to love it in the first place. That is coupled with a purifying effect as it unmercifully strips away all the nonsense and contrivances that you despise because they have pushed you away from the sport, leaving you with nothing… nothing but the raw power of racing that “hooked” you and made you a race fan all those years ago.
In the weeks leading up to this event, the Speedway has been running radio ads for this week’s events. One has stuck with me. I haven’t seen it on TV yet but it’s on YouTube. It’s not as polished or glitzy as some of the other tracks’ ads and is downright crude compared ones like FOX’s “Daytona Days”, but it is pure. More importantly it shows me that someone in Sparta gets “it”. Entitled “Start Your Tradition Today” check it out and see if you don’t agree. So, Thursday evening, when you tune in to watch the Truck race, say a little prayer that all will go well. If you think about it, look for us.
You can’t miss us.
We’ll be the ones grinning and hopefully, starting a new tradition…
There at the fence.
Thunder On… Stay Safe
Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images (KS Thursday, July 6, 2017)