Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: One Writer’s Attempt to Be a Fan in the Bristol Grandstands

In 1986, I was the executive editor of Grand National Scene and, among other things, my task was to assist the publication in its quest for interesting, quality feature stories.

Sometimes it seemed a daunting task. There were all kinds of subjects available, but to cultivate an original idea was not easy.

As the first NASCAR Cup Series race of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway approached, I thought I had done just that.

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I asked myself, “Are these people crazy or what? They are willing to shell out good, hard-earned dollars to sit in heat, cold or rain for hours just to watch loud, rubber-and-grit-throwing racecars go around in circles. And because they do what they do, NASCAR has made a fortune, the speedways show a profit, a big handful of drivers live in elegant comfort and I’m one of the hundreds who is able to make a living from it all.

“There must be something to these people; something as yet unexplored. Why do they do it? How do they get enjoyment?”

Now I had called myself a racing fan for years. But was I? I was privileged in that racing is my job and although the hours can be long. and the hassles of a deadline are strenuous, I had been afforded a great deal of comfort and personal attention from speedways.

No hard concrete seats for me. No heat or cold. No rain. No money was spent on tickets, food or drink. No long lines at restrooms.

Was I really a racing fan? Can I honestly say that I would spend money to see an event, just like the average person in the grandstands? Am I able to do it just like him?

Once at Bristol, I looked to the grandstands, where sweaty people braved the heat by waving programs in front of their faces, occasionally jostling their oh-so-close neighbor with an elbow. I looked at the rows of folks in front of the concession stands and restrooms.

I looked at that teeming sea of people and I knew I had my answer.

I should be enterprising and become the average fan. No press box for me; no special parking and no credentials.

I would come to the track just like the guy from the gas station or the mill. I would do what he does, see what he sees, endure what he endures.

I passed the idea along to Robb Griggs. the publisher of GNS. I confess I didn’t know what his reaction would be.

He fell all over himself in support of the idea.

“Great! You really want to do it?” he said. “Tell you what, I’ll go with you. We’ll have the chicken, the beer, the radios, the whole bit. It will be fun!”

I had my doubts.

So, the strategy was formed.

Equipment: Grandstand seats (best available), headset radio, programs and seat cushions.

Cooler with beer and soft drinks. Binoculars. Food would be purchased at the concession stands.

Attire: Inconspicuous. Jeans, a shirt (preferably with some racing logo) and the inevitable racing cap. To avoid offending any existing sponsor, we selected out-of-date models which are now collector’s items.

Griggs wore a Gillette Atra cap. Gillette hasn’t been around racing for three years. I wore a Buddy Arrington cap. I might get some strange looks, but what the heck, I liked Arrington.

Method of attack: We would walk up to the grandstand entrance, present our tickets, let our cooler be inspected and find our seats, just like the average fan. Once seated we would emulate those around us while I quietly took notes.

We would follow the race as best as possible and once the day was done, we would follow the herd out of the track. Mission accomplished.

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The word got out to many of my associates in the media. They questioned my sanity, but I was determined.

“I am,” I said, “On the brink of a great story.”

“You are,” they replied, “On the brink of a mental breakdown.”

So, once parked, Griggs and I went through the grandstand gates. Our tickets were stubbed and a deputy sheriff went through our cooler to make sure we had no glass containers.

Inside the speedway, we stepped into a carnival. All that was missing were the rides. Barkers peddled their wares everywhere. “Hey, program here! Starting lineups!”

“Earplugs! Getcha earplugs!”

The smell of hot dogs prevailed in the air.

“I’m hungry,” said Griggs.

“You’re always hungry. Let’s find our seats first,” l said.

Once plopped atop my seat cushion, I realized that sitting in the grandstand wasn’t that bad. At least I felt comfortable. But that changed somewhat as more and more people came. Eventually, I was squished into a space 18 inches wide. There was no backrest.

“I feel like I’m in a straight jacket,” I said to Griggs. “Whatever you do, don’t make any sudden moves.”

He didn’t answer. He was eating a hot dog.

As the crowd grew, it took on the appearance of a family reunion. The banter was plentiful and the hot subject on this day was the controversy surrounding drivers Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, who had been in a late-race crash less than two months earlier at Richmond Raceway. NASCAR got into the act with its punishment of Earnhardt for rough driving.

As l glanced at the sky, I knew what there was going to be. Thick, black clouds began rolling toward the speedway. In the distance, lightning flashed.

“We are,” I told Griggs, “About to enter the gates of Hell.”

Cowardice reared its ugly head. I was supposed to be the average fan, meaning I would wait out the coming rain either covered as best as possible in the grandstand or the small refuge underneath. I should not even think of escaping.

But I did. I gulped and said, “If there’s rain, there is no way I’m staying here. I am heading to the press box.”

“That,” said Griggs, “Is not in the true spirit of the adventure.”

Sure enough, only moments after the last car was placed in line, the rains hit and hit. There came a frog-choker.

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I lit out for the press box, taking immense satisfaction that Griggs was right on my heels.

But I paused long enough to look behind me. Most fans brought out umbrellas or zipped up their ponchos. Some even wrapped themselves in what looked like huge, clear Hefty Bags.

They were oblivious to the harsh elements. They braved the gushing water as it swept cans, paper and chicken bones down to the frontstretch wall.

I kept going to the press box. I ran up the steps and dashed through the door to my sanctuary.

Some sanctuary. The minute I was spotted, my media buddies lit into me. They showed no mercy, pausing between bites of huge sandwiches to yell: “Fans in the press box! Hey, fans in the press box! Get ‘em out of here! Working press room! We can’t have this! Interlopers! Somebody call security!”

I stood their taunts only long enough for the rain to subside. I was no fool.

At 1:53 p.m., the rain quit and the race started. I admit I anxiously awaited the green flag.

My headset radio would keep me informed of the action and, with a clear view, I would be able to follow the race easily. However, for me to get a clear reception of the MRN broadcast on the radio, I had to keep my head turned to the left. I soon developed a severe crick.

No matter. The race began and, like everyone else, l was on my feet.

As the day progressed, l marveled at those around me. Nothing, and l mean nothing, escaped them. They knew when pit stops were critical and cheered the first man off pit road. They knew when a man passed another for ninth, eighth or seventh place, not to mention the lead. They knew when a competitor was in trouble and had to leave the track.

When the competition rose into a confrontation among three or more cars, they stood, waving hands, hats or shaking fists.

Even the behind-the-scenes activity did not escape them. If one man learned over his radio what a driver’s specific problem was, or gained some other piece of trivial knowledge, he eagerly passed it along to others. It wasn’t long before such information reached the ears of everyone in the grandstand.

Rusty Wallace became the darling of the crowd. He eventually won, leading the final 101 laps.

The fans knew that he had never won a Cup race and would do so on this day to become the fifth different winner in the first five races of 1986.

Slightly sore from my cramped seat, I felt relief as I rose to leave the track. There was a hum in my ears from the radio and my skin was windburned.

I felt a bit bloated from the beer (I never dared leave my seat for the restroom; I was afraid I’d never get back), but otherwise, I was OK.

“You know,” I said to Griggs as we departed. “There is really something to these people. And I have to admit, I felt a certain excitement out there. I understand a bit more why the people do what they do and what they get out it. You gotta respect them.”

But could I do this perhaps several times per year? Was I a true fan?

I thought a moment. I reflected on the brief but hearty fellowship I’d shared with those around me.

I thought about the lusty cheers over the roar of the engines and the thrills I experienced with my neighbors as we rose as one to watch a close, heated battle.

My answer was obvious.

Hell, no!

But I know and admire what it takes to be one.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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Kevin in SoCal

Awesome. As long as you had fun, that’s what matters. Stinks about the rain though. I’ve been to Fontana, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, and I loved it.

wildcatsfan2016

One year we did 18 Cup races and a few Busch series (before Xfinity took over). By the time we got to October, I was exhausted! Bristol had been on our bucket list & from a fan at New Hampshire (a track I hated going to), we heard about a touring service that ran trips Bristol. They provided transportation, hotel room and tickets to both the Cup and Busch races – the price was $500 per person. It was the best deal I could find and we had an amazing time – even tho it was an 8 hr ride to the track from PA & the hotel was in Christiansburg VA – 110 miles from the track! We went to the August race and the Busch race had a rain delay. We had rain gear (having been cold & wet at Richmond we never went to a race again w/o it). Pulled the rain poncho over me and went to sleep in my seat until they fired up the jet dryers, dried the track & finished the race. Thankfully since we weren’t driving, we slept on the ride back to hotel. The Cup race went off w/o a hitch. No rain and it was so much fun! Thoroughly glad we went. Martinsville was always my favorite track.

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