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Relief Drivers

Winnebago Coolers and Wild Rides - NASCAR Nirvana!
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By Mark Brune, RJO Guest Writer | 03/27/2014
Category: Relief Drivers
 

Race Journal Online is proud to introduce Mark Brune as a new guest writer for our site. He's been a NASCAR fan for decades, and some of you may know him by his RJO screen name "dataman." Please welcome him, and drop a line or two in the comment section!

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about the state of NASCAR - predominantly, what's wrong with it. I'll admit that I've been one of the folks grousing, just not very loudly because I believe that criticism without a suggestion for improving the situation is just hot air.
 
A brief summary of how I feel:  It's too expensive. The Corporate Spokesperson template applied to all drivers has made most of them rather bland and difficult to get to know. There's too many 1.5 mile tracks which cause aerodynamics to play too great a role which leads to dull racing. NASCAR has abandoned its behind-the-scenes role and has tinkered with the "product" to such a degree that the sport we follow today is scarcely the same thing we followed way back when. The list goes on and on.
 
Most of what I read ends with the same lament: Put it back the way it was. That's a challenging task considering that each of us has a different vision of that bygone nirvana because each of us has something uniquely our own which drew us to love NASCAR racing. I encourage you all to reflect on how your journey began.
 
What follows is the story of how I became hooked on NASCAR.
 
Like most folks of a certain age, I grew up getting my auto racing delivered via short bursts on Wide World of Sports and, of course, through the Indy 500. There was something visceral about watching cars go fast. Mom & Dad didn't get it. Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, and A.J. Foyt were all household names (because I assigned them to my Matchbox cars) but my favorite was Al Unser. With my limited exposure to racing he seemed other-worldly because he was SO GOOD at racing at Indy. 4 wins! Unbelievable! This went on for several years until I outgrew my Hot Wheels. In all that time, NASCAR somehow failed to show up on my radar.
 
Fast forward to 1995. I was taking a well-deserved vacation from work and decided to visit my sister and her husband who lived in Montgomery, Alabama at the time. He had recently discovered NASCAR and was a huge Darrell Waltrip fan. They thought it would be fun to go to the race at Talladega while I was there. I said sure, why not.
 
In retrospect, I have no idea how they were able to score Cup tickets on such short notice but we were soon on our way.
 
Now my idea of a vacation is to wake up in time for lunch and stay up well into the wee hours of the morning. So I was shocked to learn we would be waking up pre-dawn to begin our 85 mile journey. I was accustomed to the ritual for attending baseball games - leave the house 45 minutes before game time, buy your ticket at the gate, and sit down in time for the Anthem - so I couldn't understand why we needed to leave so early. I was assured it was necessary.
 
We arrived right around 10 A.M. and parked within sight of the track. By "sight" I mean the small speck on the horizon was the track. We were far closer to a racing museum, so we spent time there first. The only thing I remember about the museum is that it was air-conditioned. The reason I remember that is because we were without it the rest of the day. Remember, in 1995 the second Talladega race was still held in July. And by 10 A.M. the temperature was already approaching 90 degrees. The humidity was rising nearly as quickly. We soon grabbed our small drink coolers and headed towards the track.
 
I couldn't believe the size of the place. What once was a small speck now filled the landscape in every direction. And there were so many people! Way more than any baseball game I had ever been to. Being a rookie, I would see someone wearing a shirt or hat with a car or number or name on it and have to ask my brother-in-law who it was.
 
"Well, it's not DARRELL WALTRIP!" he would announce while pointing to his own shirt.
 
When it was time to find our seats (which were 7 rows from the track at the exit of turn 4 - we could look straight down pit road) I noticed two things. Coolers - BIG ones - were allowed in the grandstands which made me jealous since the small cooler I had brought was in jeopardy of being empty before the race started. And the seats were metal. HOT metal. Baking all day in 97 degree heat hot. My sister's leg brushed one on her way down the row and I thought I heard a hissing sound when it did. Then the folks with the Winnebago-sized coolers made me jealous again, and demonstrated what novices we were, by producing not cold drinks, but iced towels from their coolers. The Anthem began...
 
So far, I was miserable. My legs and hind-quarters were seared from sitting on the frying-pan seats and I was sweating so profusely that I simply gave up trying to wipe it off. Then the engines fired.
 
Suddenly the place became electric with excitement. My head snapped towards the source of the sound and I immediately stood up - as did everyone else - to try to get a better view. As the cars made their parade laps I was struck by how much brighter the paint colors were than they appeared on TV and by how loud the engines were (I didn't have any earplugs - novice, remember?) and by how I could feel the rumble all the way through my chest. I was captivated.
 
The green flag fell and, for the first time, I experienced what they call "rolling thunder". It takes a bit less than a minute to make a lap at Talladega so the low hum of the engines at full throttle took a while to reach our position. I could see them approaching. Then I could feel them approaching. Then there was about 10 seconds of deafening noise as the cars flashed past. Then all was calm again. Until the next pass. And the next.
 
My discomfort was forgotten, as was my thirst. I strained to see the cars as they came out of turn two and down the backstretch (on a 2.66 mile track, it's a long way away). Lap after lap I found myself using my program to connect cars to drivers. We had some fun with the fact that Geoff Bodine (in the #7 Exide car, I had learned) was having trouble and was by himself trailing the pack by a few seconds. The crowd would cheer as the pack raced by. We would cheer when Geoff rolled past. Then my brother-in-law threw his hands in the air in disgust. Darrell Waltrip's car was rolling slowly down pit road and made the hard left turn into the garage area. He finished last that day.
 
About two-thirds of the way through the race I was straining yet again to see the backstretch when I saw a dirt cloud and then a CAR in the air. Ohmygosh! Who was that? Ken Schrader, as it turned out, had gone for a wild ride at the hands of his teammate Jeff Gordon (learned that while listening to the radio on the way home that night).
 
Sterling Marlin eventually won the race that day, but I didn't know who Sterling Marlin was yet. Or Dale Jarrett. Or Mark Martin. Or Rusty Wallace. Or Jeff Gordon. Or even Dale Earnhardt. Or any of the other drivers racing that day who would occupy so much of my attention over the next two decades. All I knew was that I was stoked. I had never felt such electricity in the crowd or been in such a huge group of people having such fun. I couldn't wait to see another race. And to learn more about NASCAR.
 
The ensuing weeks and months were filled with a near-rabid search for more information. My local newspaper only ran finishing orders. A popular radio station had a once-a-week NASCAR talk show which aired at a time when I wasn't able to listen. Regularly scheduled cable TV shows highlighted bits and pieces of the previous race and previewed the next week's event while providing some insight into the inner workings of the sport. The internet, with all its various resources, became my go-to spot for a regular NASCAR fix.
 
It was there that I learned about the drivers, their stories, and their personalities, the teams, the tracks, and some of the history of the sport. I became familiar with the TV and radio announcers and their networks. Due to the availability of and access to all this information, I felt welcomed into the House of NASCAR in a way I never had with baseball or football.
 
I guess it is because of that familial connection that I, and many others, feel compelled to speak up when we see something that is damaging that relationship. That's why I think it's so important to consider how each of our NASCAR journeys began when we offer our suggestions on how to make things better, whether it's by moving forward or by looking back to the way it was.

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Comments:
SrRaceFan
03/26/2014 5:41 pm (1)
What a great article, Mark! When you started writing about the "rolling thunder", it took me back to my first live race - your words describe it perfectly!

Since my NASCAR fan days go back farther than your's, my disappointment in today's NASCAR goes deeper. As to suggestions for making it better, I guess I'm looking for a hands-off attitude from the brass. Let the guys race their best car in the best way they know how and with the best equipment they can afford. Yes, that shoves some to the rear, but at least it's a real race between the best cars.

Again, great article - am looking forward to reading many more from you! (And thank you, Carol, for introducing him to the Race Journal family!)
FlounderFerg
03/27/2014 12:51 pm (2)
Mark: Awesome article! I actually got a few goose bumps as you described that lovely sound. I got hooked in the 90's by watching a Talladega race on TV with a die hard Nascar Fan and good friend. He was willing to talk the whole race to me about what was happening and why, to teach me about this addiction he had. I fell in love with it. First race in person was in Chicago (at a dreaded 1.5 mile cookie cutter track), and fell in love again when they came around at full throttle, 43 cars making a beautiful noise.

If you write more on Carol's website, I'll sure read it.

Flounder Ferg
Bill B
03/27/2014 8:56 pm (3)
Great origin story Mark.

Put it back the way it was is what most of us would like but that ship has sailed. The only way we will see that is if the ship is sunk and they send up a flare in an act of desperation. I can see the marketing... This IS your daddy's NASCAR.

You are also right that putting it back would mean something different to each person. I feel the 90's were probably the best for fans just because all the races were on tv but the contracts weren't big enough to undermine the sport. When FOX signed that first big contract in 2001 is when tv started to drive/control the sport to an unhealthy level (in retrospect like selling your soul). The internet also opened a lot of doors for fans in the 90's.

And for the record I don't see fans griping and not offering solutions. I see fans griping and offering hundreds of solutions with varying merit. In fact I'd solutions are like,,,,, everybody's got one.

Otherwise, you described the first time track experience which I think anyone that's been to a race can relate. For me it was Dover. Probably 15-20 rows off the track (also a rookie mistake, the higher up the better the view at Dover). I also remember being surprised at how early my friend that had been to some races wanted to leave. Good times.
BNP
03/28/2014 10:47 am (4)
Thanks for the great article. It made me think back to my first "track" experience. Sitting high up in the Seagrave section, at Daytona the last time Richard Petty won there. Your words brought back the feel of the race track and the excitement.

Thank you also for your input on the forum. I am looking forward to more articles from you.
eddo
03/28/2014 10:49 am (5)
Very nice dataman. Someday I hope to get to a place like Daytona or Talledega so I can experience the rolling thunder as you speak. I've only been to Phoenix, and after a few laps the field gets strung out enough that the noise just becomes a solid hum until a caution hits.

:)
aesop
03/28/2014 8:11 pm (6)
Thank you very much for taking me back a few years.My days also go back years before. I can not really believe what the new managment of NASCAR has done to the sport.I know that you can not go back,but this years racing has been much better. thanks again..........

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