Long, long ago when all I knew were NASCAR’s Cup boys, I labored under a misconception about a race weekend at the track. My friends would tell me, “On Saturday, we can go watch Happy Hour and there’s a race!”
Happy Hour! Awesome! That final 45-minute scramble of cars, crew chiefs and drivers to set the car up for the big show on Sunday. It is a thrilling moment to watch first hand. And way back when, the crowds did show up for Happy Hour. I can recall afternoons spent at NHIS where we filled up the stands to watch the big boys take a few practice spins about the track, and then a great many would depart before the local ranks would take a green. I understood, I mean the whole point of the Cup weekend was to see the legendary stars of our sport up close and personal.
However, like much of our sport, times have changed. And so has the appeal of Happy Hour Saturday. Perhaps it is due to an unending supply of practice coverage of Sprint Cup on the television. Perhaps we have finally learned that it really is just practice. If you’ve come to snap a few photos of your favorite driver and wander the merchandise haulers without the insane crowds of Sunday, Saturday is your chance.
This past Saturday, I found my seats around 11:00 a.m. for a day of automotive entertainment. I had already missed some practice, but that was OK. And so it seemed the rest of the multitudes already encamped at NHMS for the Sylvania 300 thought the same. Single fans spotted the frontstretch while the big boys worked through their paces in Happy Hour. A few more people carried coolers up the steps to pick out the premium spot for… what would come after.
That’s right. The Cup garage would shut down after Happy Hour. This was our last chance to see them on the track before pre-race ceremonies the following morning. And it appeared we just didn’t care.
Come high noon the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour was scheduled to take to the track. Some interloper bearing the name Ryan Newman likes to roll his personal machine onto the grid for these races, but it isn’t for the big name the stands fill up to the point that you might expect a series like the Nationwide or Camping World to be present. No, it’s for Coby, Stekanik, Christopher, Lia, Blewitt and a host of other regional racing stars.
The red and black flags flew for the Cup garage, and still the little red wagons arrived to be chained to the fence outside the gate. More and more people came in. And maybe some fans sitting around us had never watched a modified race, that isn’t so unusual. But they had heard the legend that they were about to watch the best racing of the weekend.
The racing. The side by side, lead swapping, bumping and grinding and payback’s a bitch racing. It’s the kind of competition that brings the crowd to their feet, not because they have the driver’s picture plastered to their bedroom wall, but because you can’t stop yourself. The crowd didn’t shell out the cash just to see something shiny and bright, they came because they’re race fans, no matter who might be on the track.
Sunday also boasted an elbow room only crowd, but then again we are talking about the actual race day. There’s an opportunity for glory and anguish. It’s the moment when taking the car onto the track really matters. The fans have figured this out.
Yes, the Sprint Cup garners all the big sponsor dollars – though at times it boggles the mind how much moolah it takes to run this sport – but it takes race day to generate a return on their investment. It’s nice to hand out wristbands for a coveted autograph, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we’re really only willing to pay those sponsors for action.
It doesn’t have to do with winning. It’s about competing.
The millions of dollars will earn somebody a shiny bus, a massive hauler for the backup car, a team of a hundred people to turn specific wrenches on any given day, but if you remove all the $500 sunglasses and vetted PR releases, we are left with a humble and exciting thing. An infield crammed with men and women who came to run a race, and a grandstand nicely filled with those raring to watch one.
That, my friends, is the best of days spent at the track, no matter how many horsepower you’ve got under the hood.
Author’s Note: I’ve finally made it to Facebook! Come visit with me!
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.
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