Auto racing has always been one of those things for me that I tend to enjoy watching (and participating in the very limited occasions when I get to do so, mostly in video games and the occasional go-karting outing) but that I’ve never gotten myself particularly involved in. This comes mostly from my Dad’s tendency to spend Sunday afternoons on the couch watching races while we were growing up, a habit which continues to this day. Although we got exposed to all sorts of different types of races and different series over the years, it was NASCAR that tended to dominate the Sunday afternoon viewing, mostly because that what was on most of the time. Over time we did tend to pick a few favorite drivers on the circuit (mostly the Roush drivers, and Mark Martin in particular) but mostly we tended to end up rooting more for certain drivers to lose and/or end up in the wall or in the pits with a blown engine. Originally Dale Earnhardt was by and large the chosen bete noir in the Lutz household, but he was soon replaced by Jeff Gordon, who then eventually gave way to Jimmie Johnson and the other Hendrick drivers… Basically whoever happened to be ending up in Victory Lane a lot driving a Chevy. Needless to say, we ended up disappointed a lot.
As for actually going to the races, I have only been to two of them previously, both at Phoenix in the early Nineties when we still lived in New Mexico. On one of those occasions, we actually ended up getting our tickets from a member of Dale Earnhardt’s crew who was handing out some of their extras while we were waiting in line to get a ticket for one of my friends who had joined us at the last minute. We already had tickets, but when we saw that the freebie ticket was in a prime location on the front stretch that was much better than ours in the Turn 3 grandstands, we were able to trade our other tickets for ones in the same location. Sure enough, Earnhardt won that race, but I don’t think we complained too much about that one. Since then I’ve been meaning for a while to try to attend another NASCAR race, but the opportunity hasn’t ever really presented itself. Until now.
Thanks to a surprisingly large number of coincidences, me and my parents just happened to find ourselves in the right place at the right time to get a rather unique opportunity to watch the recent Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway from a condo overlooking the track in turn 1. First of all, we happened to be in the general vicinity, thanks to my brother’s wedding the day before the race. Second, we happened to be in Charlotte the day of the race, since my brother’s return flight was there. Third, my friends were already there with their parents, who own the condo in the first place (my friends’ father has a business that involves working with NASCAR teams on a regular basis,) who extended the invitation for us to join them to watch the race from their condo. Thanks to their invitation and all the various coincidences that had to happen to get there in the first place, we had the privilege of experiencing a NASCAR race from what just may be the best seats in the house that are not traveling at over 180 miles per hour. Naturally, I took plenty of photos. After the jump, a look at some of the sights of a NASCAR race, as seen from on high (and down low.)
Being at one of the highest vantage points available at the track, there was plenty to see down below. In particular, the antics of what became known as the “Couch People” in the Turn 1 infield were a frequent topic of conversation (and rampant speculation.)
With a bunch of people (and couches, and apparently there’s even been a pool table up there at some races) perched on top of some flimsy looking scaffolding, there was some speculation about the potential that the whole thing might fall over at some point during the race. Surprisingly, it didn’t. Also visible in this picture is the giant screen located on the track’s back stretch, currently the largest one in the world at 16,000 square feet and more than a quarter of the size of a football field. From our vantage point it was initially difficult to get a feel for just how enormous this screen really is. That is, until you see the cars passing by on the track looking like Hot Wheels in front of the TV in the living room.
The condo we were watching the race from was located in the building on the right side of this photo. Since our tickets happened to include pit passes, we got a chance prior to the race to take a walk down pit lane.
Even though there wasn’t quite as much to see as you might see in, say, the paddock at an American Le Mans Series race, but you do get a good look at the (partially obscured) cars and all the equipment behind the pit wall.
Even though the cars are out on pit road during this time, they are behind a guarded rope. If you want a closer look, there are usually a number of show cars out to see, both in the pit area and in the vendor/sponsor areas outside of the track (we will get to those later.)
Here is my Dad posing for a photo in the pit for the #99 car driven by Carl Edwards. Later on this trip we would pay a visit to Roush-Fenway Racing (as well as several other race shops,) but that will be a separate post.
If there’s one thing you see a lot of on pit row, it’s tires. Especially in a long race such as this one (at 400 laps and 600 miles, this race is the longest one on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule) the teams will go through many sets of tires over the course of the race. Even under ideal conditions, a race team can easily go through ten sets of tires in a race.
And to keep those tires on the cars, it takes lugnuts. a LOT of lugnuts. Given the number of tire changes the teams go through, and the abuse that lugnuts go through with the high-speed impact wrenches, they generally end up getting used once. As a result of this, the teams seem to end up with a bunch of used ones they have no use for. Here in the pit stall of Kyle Busch’s #18 Toyota, they’re selling them for a donation of $1 apiece. Then again, it’s not clear what exactly the donation is for. For all we know, we’re paying for Kyle Busch’s anger management classes. Then again, as we’d find out later, these ones are rather expensive. On a visit to Michael Waltrip Racing later on, we’d find these in a vending machine being sold at a cost of two for 50 cents, and when we visited Roush-Fenway they were just giving the things away. Oh well, live and learn I guess…
Anyway, following a walk down pit road and back, there was still some time before the race, which meant a trip out to the vendor and sponsor area outside the track.
In this area, a number of show cars were present, including at least one that was set up for gratuitous photo ops. Ironically, this photo off my camera phone turned out better than the “professional” one…
As I quickly learned, it’s really difficult to find much NASCAR merchandise that doesn’t turn you into a walking billboard (which shouldn’t surprise anyone really,) but there were a few interesting items. Perhaps the most interesting ones I found were these models of 60s and 70s stock cars signed by their original drivers in the Ford merchandise trailer. If they didn’t cost $100 apiece I might have seriously considered one…
But ultimately, it’s when you leave the track and head to some of the other places across the street that you start to see more of the interesting stuff. Lots of older merchandise and collectibles (and/or older stuff they couldn’t figure out any other way to get rid of) to be found there…
Then again, there’s also quite a bit of other stuff there that has nothing to do with NASCAR (or much of anything at all for that matter.) I wonder if you could get a package deal if you bought both the “Jesus Loves You” and the Beer Pong flags together?
And then there was also a table full of these presumably non-infringing T-shirts. Seems legit…
Or if you’re looking for something that will take up excessive amounts of space, you can always grab one of these. I might have considered getting one, but I think I already had most of the space in my carry-on taken up by the fireworks from the last post.
At this point, race time was fast approaching. Following all the usual pomp and circumstance that accompanies the start of a NASCAR race (including a flyover by several World War II fighters during the National Anthem) it was time for the race to begin.
Following a few formation laps, it was time to go green. It’s hard to appreciate the sheer amount of noise that an entire field of Sprint Cup cars passing by at 180 miles per hour can generate unless you’ve actually been there, but keep in mind that this video was taken from a pretty decent distance away, and with a pane of glass to muffle the sound somewhat.
A bit later in the race, we went down to track level to get a look at the race from there, where I got this video of a green flag restart (which happened just a couple of laps before the cable-cam incident that red-flagged the race and injured several spectators). It’s one thing to see and hear the cars from on high, it’s another thing entirely to be down at track level with the entire field of cars blasting by less than 20 feet away from you. Another thing you don’t notice until you get up close like that is just how much air all of those cars push around as they go by. Unfortunately, due to the incident we only got to see a couple of laps of green flag racing from here.
Oh yeah, the Goodyear Blimp was there too, but with all the other stuff going on that was just about the least interesting sight of the day.
Eventually they got things sorted out, and got back to (mostly) green flag racing. Particularly with the multiple red flags in this race (there was another red flag later in the race after Dale Earnhardt Jr’s car blew its engine and dropped oil on the track, causing several other incidents) this race ran quite long, and by the time the checkered flag waved, it was getting rather close to Midnight, with Kevin Harvick taking the checkered flag at the end of the race.
To be honest, although NASCAR is far from my favorite racing series these days (I tend to be one of those snobs that prefers stuff that can make an occasional right turn,) it was still quite interesting to see the race in person. Of course, to a generation of race fans used to getting their races in highly polished television form in their living room, watching the race at the track can be a completely different experience. For one thing, it’s a lot harder to follow the race that way. Even from a higher vantage point where one can get a pretty good view of the entire track, it’s still tough sometimes to figure out which of the 43 cars circling the track at high speed you should be paying attention to. And if it’s difficult on an oval track, just imagine how tough it can be on a road course where you really can’t see everything all that well.
Nonetheless, even if it is a bit tough to follow things (fortunately, up in the condo we also had the option of watching the race telecast on the TV) to get a better idea of what was going on,) there are some parts of the NASCAR experience that TV just can’t convey properly. For one thing, the engine sounds. You can crank up the volume on your TV until half the neighborhood can hear Darrell Waltrip’s voice, but you still can’t capture the magnitude of the sound you get at the track. You also can’t properly see just how colorful all the cars really are by watching on TV. As I’ve said before, this isn’t the first NASCAR race that I’ve ever been to, but it was certainly a unique opportunity to see the race from where I got to see it, and I will probably be spoiled by this experience if I ever make it to another NASCAR race again. Then again, I’ve always thought it would be fun to go see one of the short track races at some point…
(Coming up next: Paying visits to some of the NASCAR team shops in the area.)