Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol would have been like 22 years ago

Imagine a NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend experience like this. You favorite driver has just won the Saturday Nationwide Series race. This is a fantasy, so let’s pretend it’s Dale Earnhardt, who was always my favorite driver. You leave the grandstands, cross over to the pits, and wait for Dale to finish his TV interview in victory lane. You are able to snag him as he leaves the winner’s circle on his way to his Sprint Cup car for Happy Hour testing, and he happily signs your baseball cap. No one else is around, so you get to bench race with the Intimidator for a couple of minutes. When he finishes with you, he climbs right in his black number three and takes to the track.

You think to yourself, “that was kinda’ cool. I think I would like to talk to more NASCAR legends.” Heading through the pits, you see Richard Petty, Harry Gant, Benny Parsons, Rusty Wallace, Ned Jarrett, Dave Marcis, and Darrell Waltrip. All of these guys are hanging around just waiting for you to come see them. Bobby Allison walks by, but you can’t talk to him because you’re too busy shooting the breeze with Neil Bonnet. Every one of these drivers acts like they’re happy to see you, and they all take the time to sign your hat.

The weekend's Sprint Cup race comes along before you know it, and although you have a reserved seat, you have the luxury of sitting anywhere you want. There are only about 40,000 people there. You test out several empty seats in the grandstands, and end up on a blanket on a grassy hill near turn four. It turns out that NASCAR great and car owner Junior Johnson is also watching the race from there, so you go over and talk to him during a caution. Of course, you also have him sign your hat.

The preceding fantasy is considerably different than what you would experience if you attended the NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Bristol’s Thunder Valley this weekend. There will be 150,000 people crammed around the high-banked half-mile oval, and if you even catch a glimpse of Jeff Gordon, you can say you really did something. There are so many seats, there is no room for a grassy hill. Nothing grows in this choking expanse of steel and concrete.

After watching Cup races on TV and attending the local tracks for years, my dad and I decided to jump in a red Camaro convertible and head to Bristol for our first big NASCAR race live and in-person. The year was 1988. Geoff Bodine in the Levi Garrett Monte Carlo Aerocoupe spun Bill Elliott in the Coors T-Bird with just a few laps to go in the “Valleydale Meats 500”. Elliott came back to pass Bodine to take the win on his way to the Winston Cup championship.

Dad and I watched the race from a grassy hill in turn four. As we looked over the 40,000 people in the grandstands, we thought we were surrounded by a “sea of humanity”. Nothing could have been bigger than this. Of course, who could have ever imagined that NASCAR would grow into what it is today.

As always, NASCAR will put on a great show at Thunder Valley this Saturday night. But it certainly won’t be anything like the up-close and personal experience that my dad and I had in 1988. I wouldn’t trade those memories, or that hat, for anything in the world.

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