- Old friends are best. John Selden
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The Pure Excitement
There are thrilling moments at any sporting event, but as "Spinal Tap" guitarist Nigel Tufnel said of the volume knobs on his amps, "These go to eleven."
Whether it's Bristol Motor Speedway, Talladega Speedway or some raceway between those extremes, the sound of 43 stock cars coming to life at once can bring chills to the newbie. Truth be told, veteran fans still get their engines revved up every time the drivers hit those ignition switches, too.
And the kicks keep coming. If the outcome of a race is in any doubt whatsoever, the crescendo of crowd noise builds frantically over the last few laps. Most races feature multiple lead changes throughout, and each pass pumps up the crowd with anxiety and/or approval.
At Talladega, it's not uncommon to see the lead change hands multiple times on one lap alone. Whether it's a slingshot pass at Daytona International Speedway or a "nudge" at Martinsville Speedway, fans yell in unison as their favorite driver moves up the scoreboard tower at the center of the track.
Competitively speaking, what really separates NASCAR from every other American sport is the element of danger. While deep down no one wants to see bad crashes, thousands of heads turn instantly on a swivel whenever one occurs. It's human nature. The sights and sounds of cars smashing at top speeds bring people to the tips of their feet.
When the cars roar by time after time, the blur of color and noise can lull the crowd into forgetting the speed of these rigs. But the sound of tires screeching brings the point home in a hurry.
NASCAR presents an interesting blend of individual disciplines, such as tennis and golf, and team sports. Imagine every NFL team playing on the same field at the same time, or 100 golfers trading paint with their golf carts in a race to the 18th hole. NASCAR's unique setup provides an interesting dynamic among the fans.
At a stick-and-ball sporting event, wearing one team's jersey in another squad's home stadium will subject you to hazing of varied degrees. In NASCAR, it may jump-start a conversation and possibly start a friendship. There are no visiting fans in this sport. There are Jeff Gordon fans everywhere. There are Tony Stewart fans everywhere. And they all have learned to get along.
NASCAR is the perfect sport for gift shoppers. Whatever you have on your list, be it a birthday or Christmas or even Mother's Day, it's out there with your favorite driver's name and colors on it.
It started with T-shirts and sweatshirts. Then came miniature cars of all sizes. Now? Just about anything you can think of is available with your driver's image or autograph on it, all emblazoned in the bright colors that adorn his race car.
And the best part is that all of these things are peddled outside each track by countless merchandisers. If you can come back from a NASCAR race without having succumbed to your inner impulse shopper, then you have enough willpower for 20 people.
The thing that has fueled NASCAR's impressive rise among favorite American sports the most is the way it treats its fans. Richard Petty was the King of stock-car racing, but it was his fans that he treated like royalty. Petty would sometimes sign autographs for hours after a race. NASCAR hasn't forgotten this and fans can still take tours throughout the pits and garage area on race weekends.
Imagine Yankees fans getting a tour through the dugout while Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez talk batting stances. Or Colts fans walking by the meeting rooms as Peyton Manning listens to the newest game plan. It just doesn't happen.
NASCAR fans get multiple chances to meet their favorite drivers at every track. If it's not at the track, it's at an appearance nearby that weekend. At Daytona, where many racing teams spend the better part of January and early February preparing for the sport's most famous race, the access is unmatched.
For some people, short-track racing is what it's all about. For others, super-speedway races are the tops. Still others prefer road courses as the ultimate tests of a driver's skills.
NASCAR offers venues of all shapes and sizes. There are tracks shaped like paper clips (Martinsville), small ovals (Bristol), medium ovals (Michigan International Speedway), hangers (Pocono Raceway), twisted hangers (Infineon Raceway) and tri-ovals (Daytona).
Football fans often brag about the tailgating cookouts going on outside their stadiums before the games. Bet they can't match those of NASCAR fans. Grills are everywhere. And so are food vendors.
As for local fare, it varies from track to track. The hot dogs at Martinsville Speedway are famous and delicious. Every track has a variety of dining options, though, and it undoubtedly includes what you crave.
The Human Scenery
A typical weekend trip to Talladega will provide you with sights you won't forget anytime soon. Same thing with Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And Bristol. And every other track on the circuit.
Fans will wear the darnedest things to a NASCAR race. Some look silly. Some look sexy. Some look like they were left behind by the mother ship. But it's all good. A NASCAR race is one of the few places people can wear in carefree fashion a racecar on their heads or go shirtless with a large, red 8 painted on their chests (in recognition of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s vehicle).
Also, NASCAR races have become a magnet to the rich and famous, especially at marquee events such as the Daytona 500 or the Brickyard 400 or either of the races at California Speedway, where Hollywood fans abound in the garage area, on pit road (where crews tend to their team's rigs) and in the luxury boxes. The list of stars who attend the season-opening Daytona 500 is starting to rival those of the Kentucky Derby and the Masters.
The Local Hangouts
Each speedway host city has a handful of inimitable haunts where team members and fans often mingle.
It all starts in Daytona Beach, from the Ocean Deck (127 S. Ocean Ave., Web site) and the Oyster Pub (555 Seabreeze Blvd.) on the beach to the strip full of hangouts that runs in front of the speedway.
Then find your way to T-Bone Steak House (11037 S 19th Ave., Phoenix), which serves cowboy-style cuts, broiled over mesquite, on a mountainside near Phoenix International Raceway. If you're a fan of NASCAR's two feeder series, you can catch them both at Memphis Motorsports Park (5500 Victory Lane, Web site) and hit Charles Vergo's Rendezvous Charcoal Ribs (52 S. Second St., Web site) while you're in Memphis.
If it's seafood you crave near New Hampshire Motor Speedway, stop by Makris Lobster & Steak House (354 Sheep Davis Road, Concord, N.H., Web site) or the culinary variety and cultural ambience that is Fisherman's Wharf (Web site) in San Francisco when tripping to Infineon.
When at Pocono, stop by The Edelweiss (off Route 940 in Pocono Lake, Pa., Web site), where you just might see Rusty Wallace if you're lucky.
Of course, there are cities on the tour that offer too many gathering spots to name. Those that are home to Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway (just south of South Beach) are two such places.
A trip around the NASCAR circuit would give you the full spectrum of Americana, from local culinary delights to sights, sounds and cultural personalities unique to each region.
One of the most impressive sights in all of sports is a national anthem at a NASCAR race. The teams, decked out in their flashy uniforms, line up side-by-side down pit road, facing the flag together as jets fly overhead.
The stands are awash with color, as fans are decked out in t-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets of every hue. Pit road looks like a parade, as cars line up two-by-two in their unique paint schemes.
The Pre-Race Entertainment
Track promoters are getting more and more creative as they search for ways to entertain the tens of thousands of fans who make themselves at home in speedway host cities on race weekends.
Musicians old and new perform for the masses. Contests get the fans' competitive juices flowing before their drivers have even hit the track.
But the best is saved for last. Most likely, someone famous will sing the national anthem and some other familiar voice will get to say "Gentlemen, start your engines!" Jets fly overhead as one of the major undercurrents of this sport patriotism goes on full display.
The end result is one of the best overall experiences in all of sports and why so many in the pilgrimage that is NASCAR's following spend their vacations at the raceway.