Yes, yes, I know. NASCAR. Before you get your hate on, hear me out. The mayhem and stupidity that is Talladega is not lost on me, and it’s one of the many reasons why I stopped paying attention to the “stock” car series. In the 70s and 80s, I enjoyed watching NASCAR because it WAS a stock car series. The cars they ran were modified versions of production cars that you could go to the dealership and buy on Monday. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday, right? Now all the cars look the same, more or less, and certainly do not resemble the makes and models the decals on their side panels and front bumpers claim them to be. I’m not here to say how wonderful the series is, because I’m still not convinced that it is. I am here to say that not everything in oval-land is bad, and that there are some really great things happening if you choose the right venue and pay attention to the back stories.
This past weekend, the owner of the race team I joined last year, Jeremy Salenius of Dare2Dream Motorsports, invited me to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Go Bowling 400 at the Kansas Speedway. The last time, and only time, I went to a NASCAR race was also at the Kansas Speedway with then owner of OpenPaddock.net and FBC forum regular, Shaun Pechin. Let’s just say I was thankful we brought lots of PBR. It was the most awful and boring thing I’d ever seen. I may have fallen asleep. My second experience was completely different, partially because the racing was different from what I’d seen previously and from the typical wreck-fest that I see on TV, but primarily because of the company I was with.
I had no plans on going to the NASCAR race at the Kansas Speedway. Been there, done that. When Jeremy called me up and offered up a free ticket, though, I thought what the heck. It’s still motor car racing, right? What I didn’t realize at the time was that the weekend involved his role with the Great Wolf Lodge taking part in the Make-a-Wish Foundation. A young man, Michael, and his parents were invited to come to the Go Bowling 400 to see their favorite driver, Kyle Busch. Throughout the weekend, Michael was treated like royalty. He was interviewed by Fox Sports, got to meet all of the commentators including Michael and Darrell Waltrip, and even the King himself, Richard Petty. The afternoon before the race, Kyle Busch invited Michael to spend some time with him in his motorcoach. It was a real treat for him. During that pre-race visit, Kyle said that if he won, Michael would have to come to Victory Lane to help him celebrate. It was an easy promise to make, and one that likely wouldn’t require payment since Martin Truex, Jr. had the fastest car of the weekend by a good margin.
This is where the race got real interesting. The last and only time I was at a NASCAR race, there was little in the way of genuine racing action. Everyone spaced out a few car lengths and circulated in station. It was like IndyCar 2009 all over again. With the newly reconfigured banking, the race this year was completely different, but also very different than a race like Talladega. Rather than 43 cars running in one giant wad waiting for the slightest bobble to cause “The Big One”, the racers battled in groups of two to four cars jockeying for position, changing their lines through the corners, and trying to find every tenth of a MPH advantage in exit speed. It was surprisingly entertaining racing. There was one incident, it is an oval race after all, but it was a minor affair involving only a trio of cars and not the massive mayhem that ensues at the 2-mile and over tracks.
Martin Truex Jr. did exactly what everyone expected. He jumped out to a sizable lead from pole and ran several car lengths out in front of everyone. It is NASCAR afterall, so there were the inevitable “debris” cautions that bunched up the field again, but Truex took his No. 78 machine right back to the front and continued to race ahead of the field. As the race progressed, however, many other drivers and teams were making good adjustments to their cars as the temperature cooled and the grip levels changed. Soon, Truex didn’t have the advantage that he once did, and Kyle Busch in the lower part of the top five all evening started to gain ground. All it took was one bad pitstop and Truex relinquished the lead to Busch, who never looked back. The young Michael was ecstatic! His hero had won!
As soon as we could, we got Michael and his chair down the grandstand steps, over to the flag stand, across the track at the start/finish line, across the grass with the Go Bowling 400 logo, across pit lane, and into Victory Lane. We arrived just in time for the champagne spray and the sponsors’ hat dance. After the post-celebration interviews, Michael got to join his hero, Kyle, up on the podium beside the winner’s trophy while the photographers snapped their flashes. It was a magical moment for the young man and his family, and it was a special thing to get to witness and be a part of. While I’m still not a big fan of NASCAR’s style of racing or their draconian approach to chassis regulation, it was nice to see a good, skill-driven race and see how the racing community, even at the upper levels, give respect and time back to their fans. It was a storybook night with a storybook finish.