Saturday, November 21, 2015

Rubbin's Racin'

A lot of what I have seen and written about in this blog over the last almost two and a half years has been some pretty glorious stuff. History. Nature. Art. Architecture. Food. Culture. Discovery. Adventure. I know when I'm older I'll look back on this and savor almost every word I've written here. And then…well, then there's this post which just isn't like most of those other posts. In fact, it ain't nothing close. But it's part of my story of exploring more of our world, so it's in this blog. Read on! If you dare.

In 2002, I watched my first NASCAR race in person. No, let me amend that. First ever. Either in person or on TV. After a few hours watching cars turn left that day on a track in Dover, Delaware and a few more hours just trying to get out of the freaking parking lot (!!!!), I swore I'd never go back and see another one. Never! Four hours or so with a bunch or race crazed drunk 20s to 50s white men sitting in the sun and just as long trying to get on the road to go home. It took from really really early in the morning to about midnight and was a completely forgettable experience. And I meant it when I swore it off for good.

Now my resolution to never sit through another car race in person should have been a pretty easy one to keep, but time sometimes has a way of changing people and in the last 13 plus years I've changed quite a bit. So a couple of years ago, I decided I could maybe sit through another NASCAR race once more in my life under the right conditions. And for me that meant spending the weekend in the middle of a track somewhere in the south of the United States with some of my closest friends. Somewhere I could get completely engrossed in the NASCAR experience and modern southern culture in its most raw form. For me, there was only one place to go: Talladega, Alabama. So I did.

Standing on the wide open track just before the finish line. A few hours later this would be very unwise.
Getting to the track at Talladega is not necessarily simple when you live near Washington, D.C., want to camp in the infield and don't want to drive the whole way. Our journey involved catching a plane bound for Atlanta in the morning; getting a rental car from the airport; driving to pick up an RV in the suburbs of Atlanta; and then driving both the car and the RV down a series of winding backroads in rural Georgia (including Highway 41 just like in the Allman Brothers' Ramblin' Man) until we hit the interstate. 

From there it was a fairly easy trip. A straight shot to the exit for the track except for a quick stop at Wal-Mart to pick up food that we could cook in a microwave, paper plates, plastic knives and forks, some chairs and a little bit of bedding. And a lot of beer. After all, the RV didn't come with any of this stuff. I've definitely eaten healthier than I did those few days down south. I was craving fresh vegetables by the end of the weekend. Oh, and did you know you can get a pillow at Wal-Mart for less than $4? Neither did I but you definitely can. Best $4 I've spent in recent memory too.

I'll admit I had my fears and hopes about this trip. And yes, those two terms are in the correct order. My worst fear was that I would find myself stuck in four nights of St. Patrick's Day-like hell, with irresponsible drunk people behaving badly and making all sorts of noise at all hours of the night. That didn't happen, although it could have if we had picked the wrong spot to park our RV. My highest hope was that I would appreciate the sport of auto racing to a depth that I couldn't before because I just hadn't been immersed at the right level. That didn't happen either. No way did that happen. 

I'll also admit that before the race I thought NASCAR was pretty much a waste of time and resources. Watching cars with average fuel efficiency of less than 5 miles per gallon circle a 2-2/3 mile long racetrack (longest on the NASCAR circuit by the way) for a few hours seemed pretty pointless to me. I'm not sure my opinion has changed on this matter after my Talladega experience but I'll get to that. But I will say I found some things in northern Alabama that opened my eyes and made this trip worthwhile. I don't think I'm doing this again, but I'm glad I did it in 2015.

Our 32' long Coachmen RV. Home sweet home at Talladega for four nights.
What Worked: The Camping

If you are a camper, forgive me. I know you're going to say staying in an RV doesn't constitute camping. Well, I've never spent a night in a tent in my life so to me, sleeping in a vehicle is camping. Yes, the food selection was pretty limited: lots of Stouffer's, potato chips and cold cuts supplemented with super unhealthy stadium fare from the track's food vendors, but other than that life was pretty comfortable. There's not a whole lot to worry about when you are camped inside a racetrack. Getting a shower without having to wait in too long a line and "when's the ice guy going to come by so we can keep our beer cold?" were probably our top concerns.

A huge part of this trip involved spending time with good friends that I have known for a long time. I met three of my closest friends in life 15 or 16 or so years ago at my job and we've been close since the time we first started hanging out in bars together. Over the past decade and a half we've been all sorts of places partially or wholly together with other people: the Caribbean, the Outer Banks, Europe, Kentucky, all the way across this country and more. But just the four of us had never been on vacation together and considering where we are at in life, it may never happen again. This trip was it.

Admittedly, we didn't do much with our time. Eat. Drink. Watch cars. Read a little. Wander around. Go shower. The $15 chairs we picked up at Wal-Mart got a ton of use and the dual cup holders (one on each arm) came in very handy sometimes. OK, so pretty much all the time. We spent a lot of time staring out into space in silence as our group is often wont to do and we managed to make it the whole way without anyone getting testy or panicky with anyone else. But we also passed the time talking about either where we were in our lives or not much in particular except for the one time Larry insisted on having a deep thought Q and A session. I wouldn't have wanted to do this trip with any other crew and they made this trip more worthwhile than anything else.

What we didn't encounter in our time camping was the four nights of hell I'd feared we'd find. The infield of the track at Talladega is enormous and there are a ton of different areas to camp. We decided to prioritize our spending on this trip by getting the most expensive piece of real estate we could find which in our case was in one of the two Frontrunners Club camping areas for RVs only. Our spot ended up being about a couple of hundred feet from the edge of the track itself.

The St. Patrick's Day atmosphere I'd wanted to avoid was out there. We found it easily one night when we decided to take a walk around the infield. But the spot we bought ended up being effectively in a gated community, complete with 24 hour guards and barbed wire topped perimeter fencing. It was quiet when it was supposed to be quiet and definitely a good choice. If despite reading this blog post you are still inspired to spend a long weekend at Talladega, put your money on a decent parking spot. I'm glad we did.

What Didn't Work: The Races

Our NASCAR weekend included two races: one in the Camping World Truck Series on Saturday (everything has a sponsor) and one in the Sprint Cup Series for cars (told you everything has a sponsor). I knew before I got to the track that there would be a lot of time spent watching cars looping around a track, so the ennui caused by that repetitive activity was expected. But I anticipated a little more excitement as the field got spaced out a bit and cars started lapping other cars. I also expected an exciting finish as drivers jockeyed for position around the last curves and crossed the finish line to take the waving checkered flag. To maximize what we expected would be an awesome finish experience we got some tickets pretty much perfectly aligned with the start-finish line. We wouldn't need to go to the photo finish if there was one; we had the perfect angle to see it for ourselves live.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Dead wrong. Because of something called a green-white-checker flag finish, which I didn't even know existed before I sat through two races that finished that way. Let me explain. Briefly, I hope.

Every so often during a race, there may be unsafe conditions on the track. This is most often caused by a crash or some sort of mechanical malfunction of one of the vehicles which leaves debris or liquid on the road surface. Under these conditions, a yellow caution flag is raised, the pace car comes out and all the drivers travel at a reduced speed until the conditions on the track are cleared and it's safe to travel at 180-200 miles per hour again.

Timothy Peters in the number 17 truck burning rubber on the track after his Fred's 250 "win".
Now during a normal caution, all the laps that the drivers travel under the yellow flag count as part of the 250 or 500 miles. But at the end of the race, this condition changes. If a caution extends to the end lap of a race, then an overtime period, consisting of two laps, is instituted and it's a mad dash to the finish line for those two laps once the race re-starts under a green flag. If conditions in those last two laps caused a caution to be raised again, NASCAR used to do the whole thing over again, up to a maximum of three restarts. If a caution occurred after the third re-start, then the race finish order would be determined by the order of the cars at the time the caution was raised. The remaining cars finish driving around the track but cross the finish line at a reasonable speed in a preset order. This is referred to as a green-white-checker flag finish.

However, for the Talladega race this year, NASCAR decided they would change the overtime rule to allow only a single re-start before the green-white-checker, meaning the first crash or incident after a re-start with a bunch of cars or trucks all jockeying for positions (and therefore very crash prone) would end the race. Not at the finish line where we were sitting but at the spot on the track wherever the incident happened.

Of course, that's exactly what happened. In both races!!! Yep, despite sitting at the finish line (see photo above) for Saturday's race and Sunday's race, we got to see no exciting finish. The truck race ended at the end of the back stretch of the track literally about a mile from where we were sitting. Then the next day, the Sprint race ended about four seconds after the re-start just to our right. The ensuing result is figured out by video replay by the track officials. Talk about disappointing endings. I can't imagine another sport that would end their competitions this way. I get that it increases driver safety, but for a fan in the stands for probably his last NASCAR race ever, this was a total letdown. And yes, this sort of ending will ensure these were my last races ever. Sorry. That might not have been very succinct.

Rolling Carl Edwards' number 19 car into place for Sunday's race.
What Also Worked: Qualifying / Pit Pass

As much as I thought and think NASCAR races are a total waste of time and resources, there's a part of me that can get into watching, hearing and smelling a car hurtling around a track at almost 200 miles per hour. I mean I am a guy after all and I do own a sports car. I know there's something deep inside me that feels a small thrill when I feel the power in my 350Z as soon as I press down on the accelerator. And the vehicles we watched racing in Alabama have a lot more of that horsepower than my car does.

For me, the most valuable way to experience the power underneath the hoods of these cars ended up being during qualifying just after the super disappointing green-white-checker finish in the truck race. Qualifying is a pretty simple concept: each car takes two laps of the track and the car with the fastest second lap time gets the first spot in the race, or the pole position. The rest of the field stacks up behind the pole sitter in order of second through 43rd lap time.

The first lap average speed for the cars was about 150 miles per hour; the second lap was much faster, topping out at just over 190. There is something thrilling about watching a car drive solo around a wide open banked racetrack at a very high rate of speed that is very different to me than watching a whole group of cars all bunched up together in a pack doing the same thing collectively. The time for a 2-2/3 mile long lap by the way is less than 60 seconds. Wow! I'd sit through qualifying a lot if I lived near a track. But I'd probably skip most of the races.

Pit boxes in their pre-assembled form...
If you want to get a closer look at these machines, you can spend some time (and $50) a few feet from them if you invest in a pit pass, which allows you access to Pit Road prior to the Sunday race. And you can bet if I'm spending a bunch of money to get down to Alabama and rent an RV for a weekend, I'm forking over an additional $50 for a pit pass. After all, I spent over $100 just on shirts to make me seem like a credible race fan for this trip. No way was I missing out on this experience. Even though I expected it would be a total waste of money. And like my expectations for an exciting race finish, I was wrong again. It was so worth it. Those were words I never thought I'd write.

If watching the cars race around the track from a distance in qualifying was awe inspiring, seeing them up close doing absolutely nothing was equally enlightening. On the outside, these things are precisely engineered works of art. There are small fins, spoilers and other sorts of clear plastic attachments all of which (I'm sure) are designed to minimize air resistance and maximize performance. On the inside, they are pretty much completely empty. There are of course no dashboards with things like CD players and GPSes (I mean why would you need it to turn left 564 times?) but there are also no back seats, no passenger seats and no speedometers. I knew some but not all of this before I set foot on pit road but it was still pretty cool to look inside the cars. They are literally just built to go as fast as possible around an oval-ish track. That's it.

The other part of the pit experience that was fascinating to me was the opening and construction of the pit boxes. During the race, each team has an assembly to the left (as the car travels) of their pit area with a raised platform for the crew chief to coordinate race activities for their driver, including communications, repairs and strategy. On the platform with the crew chief are a series of monitors, satellite receivers and some chairs among other things; below the platform is a box which holds all the tools the crews need to repair vehicles during pit stops.

I assumed these assemblies were delivered to these spots in their race ready form but that's not true at all. Each crew's area starts out as an approximately four foot by eight foot by six foot high box and everything that goes into making the assembly for the race is inside this box. And by that I mean everything. The platform and canopy that sits on top of the box, the monitors, the antennas, tools, ladders, American flags and lots and lots of advertisements. It was like a super complicated puzzle packed into a little container. I guess doing it this way is easier to transport but it was for sure a ton of work to put these things together.

and now fully assembled.
What Really Didn't Work: The Flag

The flag I'm talking about here (which I will not post a picture of) is the red one with the blue diagonal cross with a bunch of stars, otherwise known as the Confederate flag that the seceding states adopted as their national banner during the Civil War. Now in case we need reminding (and please don't debate this without thinking about this thoroughly), the war between the states in the 1860s was purely about slavery, which is of course about one group of people (rich white men) owning another group of people (black men, women and children) as property to be bought, sold, worked, killed or whatever else they chose to do. It's a disgusting and hateful concept.

NASCAR is a sport rooted deeply in the south and southern culture which is of course precisely why I wanted to watch a race in Alabama. Earlier this year, NASCAR to its credit banned the Stars and Bars at all of its racetracks. But understanding there's only so much enforcement that can go on in a property in the south that covers many many acres, I expected to see one or two of these flags here and there. But I'd like to throw out some thoughts for the owner of the flag which had "Heritage Not Hate" written on it which I saw on my way to the shower at the track each morning.

I get that people are proud of being southern. There's something powerful about identifying yourself with a local region of the country; we see people everywhere who do that, whether they are from the west coast or the midwest or California or Boston or New York or Hawaii or anywhere else. The United States is an incredibly diverse nation in many ways and each part of it is worth celebrating. But picking a flag invented by a group of rich white men committed to preserving slavery is probably not the way to celebrate your culture and heritage. I don't think slavery is what the modern south is about, but to some people, that flag will justifiably never mean anything else. I just wish there was some other way that person could express their southern pride. That's probably enough said on this subject for this little post about my vacation.

In October 2015, I watched my second NASCAR race in person. It was way different and way better than my first race in Dover, Delaware in 2002. I still spent four hours or so with a bunch of race crazed drunk 20s to 50s white men sitting outside in the stands but it took a lot less time to get on the road than the four hours it took at Dover, mostly because we were able to leave the next morning. Our time at Talladega lasted from Thursday afternoon to Monday morning and it was not a completely forgettable experience.

I'm glad I went down south to watch this race and to spend time with good friends for a few nights in an RV. But just like I resolved in 2002, I swear I'll never go back to another NASCAR race again. We'll see how strong my commitment to that statement is this time. If I make it just 13 years without going, I'll live with that. But if I ever do get convinced to make it to another one of these things, I'm renting an RV and I'm buying a pit pass. And no way am I missing the qualifying. And I'm bring these guys below with me. Onward!

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