My article below appeared in the May issue of Hill Country Happenings.. Click here for more articles and information about happenings in the Texas Hill Country.
NASCAR came to Texas last month and Hill Country Happenings’ Lotta Sports was there behind the scenes! This month’s column is dedicated to the incredible sports experience that I had NASCAR weekend at TMS (Texas Motor Speedway) in April. I will have a tough time conveying this experience but I will try!
Attempting to get the lay of the land, my husband Rick and I took a tour of the complex the week prior to the race. Our tour guide, Paul Rector, was an absolute delight as well as a wealth of knowledge concerning the track, with its twenty-four degree banked turns. One fascinating statistic was that “Jerry’s House” — aka Cowboys Stadium — would fit within the infield area four times. (I later understood the immensity of the infield when it became my home away from home for three days and I was walking everywhere.) The lighting for the track area is equivalent to ten NFL stadiums! (During the races, those bright lights were playing havoc with our attempts for action pictures, sending beautiful designs to the monitors of the digital cameras. On a positive note, I felt those same lights helped to stave off the chill on the infield after the sun went down.) In addition to the track itself, the complex has garage areas, media centers, Infield Care Center (after an accident, if a driver’s car is not drivable, they must ride there in an ambulance), driving schools, offices and high-rise condominiums, luxury suites holding sixty-four chairs each and the Speedway Club. On the comfort/courtesy side, all spectator seats have backrests; however umbrellas are not allowed.
Now, let’s delve into an incredible three day fan experience when NASCAR comes to Texas!! On Thursday, I reported to the media center and got my work area assignment and media schedule of press conferences. Rick and I knew we would busy on Friday and Saturday so we decided to shop and do typical fan activities. The midway was set up with semis full of apparel, decals, license plate holders and stuffed toys for every driver as well as displays of monitoring equipment. I had an internal debate concerning whether or not to rent a headset and scanner to monitor the drivers but I talked myself out of spending the money and later regretted not just going for it. I also talked myself out of a cute pink and white dog with a number 20 (Matt Kenseth’s number), but I did splurge on a T-Shirt. A cute gal snagged me to have a photo made with a choice of six drivers’ photos merged into mine. I chose Greg Biffle since I would be interviewing him the next day. Meanwhile, Rick sampled at a beverage display of almost a hundred different Coke products, and then went to the gal taking the photos merges; typical male, he chose Danica Patrick for his picture. Next stop was the “Changing the Tire” booth. It looks so simple and fast when the pit crews do it. I eyed the display. Next thing I knew, the clock was rolling and I was changing a tire! I proudly finished in fifty-eight seconds but then my elation was shattered when I looked at the record for the day – nine seconds – and then noticed Rick grinning ear to ear. “OK, smarty, let’s see you do it!” I challenged. Fifteen seconds later, he was done! Obviously a tire change should be a guy thing – at least in our household! The rest of the afternoon was spent watching practice runs from the pit. Most thrilling was being mere feet from the cars as they whizzed by to enter the track. Both of us had cameras and were clicking away madly. Why did Rick’s set have ten pictures of Danica while other drivers were totally missing?
Friday the work began. At 9am Rick attended a photo briefing and was issued a blue vest so that he would access closer in on pit row. At 930am was our first press conference with Martin Truex, Jr., Paul Menard and Greg Biffle. After they fielded several typical race questions, I timidly raised my hand. Mic in hand, I said to Greg Biffle, “I saw at Daytona you had two gorgeous boxers just like we do; what are their names and are they here at the race?” I looked over at Rick and saw his look of “You’ve got to be kidding!” followed by relief when Greg grinned and then elaborated on his answer. “Foster” and “Gracie” were on the Phoenix and Las Vegas trips, but “because it became more of a chore, they are home enjoying the pool.” I was dying to know how they selected those names….but I didn’t want to press my luck with Greg or my husband! After the drivers left, we headed to the garage entrance to watch more practice. Rick suddenly realized my absence. He surveyed the crowd and finally spotted me inside the garage area. I was attempting to stay out of the way as cars zoomed in and out of the stalls, all the while snapping pictures and shooting video. As I started to exit the garage, they shut down the track for a clean-up. I was in my element as cars waited in line to exit and I spotted my favorite Nationwide driver, Elliott Sadler, fourth in line. There I was, a yard away, trying to contain myself and not ask him if he owned a dog. There’s a fine line between respecting a celebrity and being a passionate fan interested in dog breeds and names!
It was back to the Media Center to join a press conference with Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers. Carl has the 99 Ford and when he wins, he thrills his fans with a backflip at the Winner’s Circle. I joked with Rick that I was going to ask him to do a back flip and I got the raised eyebrow. Brian is a substitute driver for the 11 Toyota normally driven by Denny Hamlin, currently out on injury. Brian was there with a darling little girl, March of Dimes National Ambassador Nina Centofanti. Sweet Nina was all decked out in a special FedEx team fire suit just like Brian’s. After a late lunch of fried chicken and trying to update my Facebook page without getting grease on the mouse, we headed up to the pit for the time trials for both races. It was just a few hours away from the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, which is 200 laps. I began to realize it was already turning into a very long day. I was on my second pair of shoes, running on five hours of sleep, and the temperature was rising as the bright sun blazed on the track. I scoped out the line of Nationwide cars and lined up with Elliott’s empty car. Then came the “This Could Only Happen to Me!” moment! A soft tap on my shoulder and then a man’s voice said, “May I get through, please?” I slid to the left and two inches from me was Elliott Sadler! Also in that qualifying was my Sprint driver, Matt Kenseth, who was driving in both races. I would soon have to decide whom I would root for in the race that night. During qualifying, someone wrecked on the backside and a gal next to me mumbled, “I hope it’s Kyle Busch.” (Kyle is not well-liked, as during his youthful years he was cocky and made some immature decisions while racing.) The wreck wasn’t Kyle. The two qualifying events ended and we had about an hour to kill so we went through the tunnel and up into the grandstands to try and find our friends, Herbie Witt and Mike Miles, from Kerrville and Mooney Airplane who are season ticket holders. It seemed to take forever to get to their seats at Turn 4. Out of breath and my feet weakening – I can now relate to how Kellie Pickler feels after an hour of practicing the jive — we found their seats empty.
When pre-race ceremonies began, we discovered you cannot hear the invocation, Star Spangled Banner or “Start Your Engines” from down in the pit. You just figure it out through hand-signals by some and action in the pit. We found that Matt Kenseth’s pit area was on a corner and just to the left of the start finish line making it great to see the cars for a brief few seconds! There was also a big screen close by so we could view the race looking straight up. There were eight caution flags, only one of those an accident, which slow the cars down for a few laps while debris is cleaned up. Most drivers take advantage of this to refuel and go through tire changes although some remain out to get credit for leading the lap. Unlike the race the following night, this one had a limited number of tire replacements allowed so the right timing strategy was critical. Matt led for twelve laps and spent much of the race in the top ten. It was exciting to be right there seeing his pit crew work for just seconds to get him back on the track each time.
It was Kyle Busch who owned the race, leading ninety-one laps, one of those being the checkered flag. Matt came in sixth and Elliott, further back than normal, thirteenth. While Kyle burned rubber on the track before going to victory circle, we watched Matt’s crew dissemble the pit stand. The earlier piles of tires, giant Sunoco gas cans, and huge dollies were gone. All that remained was the smell of burnt tires and a little boy asking one of the pit crew for a lug nut. Okay, I had nothing to lose. After the boy walked away, I approached the same guy and introduced myself. I then admitted that I wasn’t twelve years old, but it surely would be nice to have something to share with the Lotta Sports’ readers. He motioned for me to wait and within a minute was back, placing five greasy lug nuts in my hand. The fueler smiled and said, “These are off of the 20 car.” Later when Rick and I discussed the moment, Rick mentioned the silver protective apron which the fueler was wearing. “What apron?” I asked. “I only saw his gorgeous brown eyes!” We laughed and headed off to the media center for press conferences with Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillion, the second and third place finishers followed by another with winner Kyle Busch, his crew chief Adam Stevens, and owner J.D. Gibbs. I was again chosen for a question; to Rick’s visual relief, I asked Kyle if he preferred Day or Night Racing. Kyle got a big grin and said, “That’s a great question.” He responded that car racing actually started with drag racing under the lights and that is his preference.
After another five hours of sleep and what turned into an eventful day three began. It started with the morning news reporting that a senator from Connecticut had asked Fox network not to broadcast the Sprint race since the sponsor was the NRA (National Rifle Association). There was another report that some of the drivers would not appear in press conferences at the media center because of the NRA logo in the background. I was working solo since Rick had to work at his normal job. I also discovered I was missing my camera charger and would have to stop by the store to get another. The negative tone for the day quickly changed when I found the charger still plugged into my outlet at the media center and then an invite to the media to go to the start/finish line and ride two laps in the pace car with former NASCAR driver Brett Bodine. I headed up to the meeting place and found people milling about, but no definite line. I saw another guy with a media badge so I stood with him. Then groups started forming so we relocated to one that appeared more organized. We quickly found out we were in with a tour group and were sent to another spot. A line of media began to form behind me. Meanwhile, the tour groups were given rides three at a time. We were on our fourth relocation so I asked someone who looked in charge if we were in the right place. He told our line to stay put. It was then that I realized the ride I was waiting for was not going to be a gingerly ride around the track. Now, we are talking about someone who doesn’t even like Ferris wheels and had ridden an upside down ride only once at Astroworld! I must have started to look nervous because the gal behind me said, “You can do this and it will be over in no time!” Suddenly I am climbing in the car behind Brett and barely had my seatbelt clamped when we departed! At first I was trying to take pictures and fortunately I changed to the video function. I captured every “Oh my God” followed by a sigh of relief when the car slowed up after leaving Turn 4 the second time. My heart was pounding and legs feeling a little shaky when I climbed back out, but I was glad I did it. The gal who had urged me to go cheered as I exited and off she went, shouting, “I heard the worst place to ride is on the passenger’s side since you go so close to the wall!” Someone must have been looking out after me when I got the seat behind Brett!
Just when I didn’t think the day could get any more exciting, I returned to the media center where a deli was introducing a sandwich named after Matt Kenseth. Matt chatted a while with us and then was open for an informal one on one session. There I was, talking to Matt about the airplane he used to own which was made in Kerrville. I also asked him about his departure from the last pit stop the night before, and then imitated the sound. He laughed and had me repeat it. Why do things never sound as good the second time around? The rest of the afternoon sped by quickly with everyone in the media center diligently working on their stories. The next thing I knew we were all back at pit row as final preparations for the start of the race began. Members of the military were lined up holding a huge flag. Temporary stages were in place at the start finish line and sounds of Sarah Evans in concert filtered through the stadium. Convertibles with each driver perched atop circled the field. Race cars covered with black covers lined pit row with owners, car sponsors and their families jammed around each car. It was impossible to get within twelve feet of crowd favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car. At each driver’s area, their number was being extended and colorful tapes placed on the pavement so the driver would know his small pit stop allowance area. The opening ceremonies started and included the introduction of the controversial sponsor. I had a brief moment of unease, then relief. As the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner filled the air, aircraft in formation flew over with a vapor stream of red, white and blue trailing behind them.
The race itself was three hours, twenty-seven minutes and forty seconds with an average speed of a hundred and forty-four miles per hour, much faster than the previous night’s one hundred and twenty-three. There were seven caution flags, three of them involving accidents. Pit row had its share of excitement when Matt Kenseth exited his pit area and overflow fuel was ignited on the pavement by a hot lug nut. Screams of “Fire!” filled the air. I could only see the intense smoke from two pit areas away but replays of the race showed one crew member’s leg on fire, explaining the protective head to toe gear the pit crew members don for each stop the driver makes. Kyle Busch again was first to see the checkered flag. Martin Truex, Jr. was forced to accept second place since his last pit stop was not turned as quickly as Kyle’s. An emotional Truex, Jr. vented frustration during the post-race interviews, noting the victory would have been his except for the precious seconds lost, determining a difference of two hundred and nine thousand dollars in winnings. Despite this, the exhausting weekend ended on a high-note when I met retired NFL Super Bowl Coach Joe Gibbs, owner of the winning car. And remember the stuffed dog I eyed at the midway? Rick presented one to me the following morning … the perfect closure to an awesome experience!