I’m a sports fan. It’s pretty difficult to grow up in Los Angeles and not be a sports fan, unless you hate beautiful weather, great sports teams, superstar players, awesome stadiums, popcorn, hot dogs, or beer. And who hates hot dogs and beer, seriously?
Proximity aside, the legacy and success of the L.A. Dodgers, L.A. Kings and (yes, I saved the best for last) L.A. Lakers (last few seasons aside), collectively and individually, make it nearly impossible to live in this city and not get sucked into fandom at some point in your L.A. life. At the very least, every couple of years there seems to be some kind of championship buzz, beckoning those within a 30-mile radius like hypnosis, turning unassuming Los Angelinos into a sports fan, even if only for a short while.
Aside from the biased jerseys hanging in my own closet (Kobe, yes I said it), I tend to enjoy most any sport, even if it’s not one that I regularly follow or have a team to root for. However, motorsports have somehow taken a back seat on my sports-viewing roster. (See what I did there?) All of which to say, that I was elated when I had the chance to attend my very first NASCAR race.
For as sports minded as I claim to be, it’s pretty surprising that it has taken this long to get me on a speedway. Yes, “on”. And that, my dear boys and girls, is where our story begins.
It all started when I was invited to be a part of a charity poker tournament in Daytona, Florida, in support of the NASCAR Foundation. NASCAR is a completely foreign world to me, which is part of the reason I was so excited to attend the function, and quite honored to be asked to host the event. I love venturing outside of my familiar social and professional circles. I thrive on pushing the limits of my comfort zone. Plus, as a poker player I gravitate towards other competitive spirits. I often feel a sense of camaraderie with other professionals who thrive on, and have jobs (albeit in different fields) consisting of the same adrenaline spike, competition element and strategic challenges as mine. Granted, an adrenaline rush at the poker tables and when taking a turn on the Daytona International Speedway in excess of 200 MPH might slightly differ. But I think hitting a one-outer on the river might feel kind of similar…not that I would know.
When all was said and done, we raised $150,000 at the NASCAR Foundation’s charity poker event benefitting the Speediatrics unit for pediatric care at Halifax Health Medical Center. I walked away from that event with several new friends and an appreciation for the sense of goodwill and family that NASCAR personifies.
Having heard that I was a NASCAR virgin, the foundation kindly arranged for me to catch my first race when the Sprint Cup Series took place at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which is basically in my backyard.
I thought I was just going to watch some cars drive fast in a circle, but the NASCAR Foundation had a full day and “NASCAR VIP experience” planned out for me. Let’s just put it this way: if Cinderella were a sports junkie, her Fairy God Mother (Nichole Krieger of the NASCAR Foundation) did her up proper for the ball… err, race… no amenity, luxury or fanfare spared! My friends at the NASCAR Foundation had no intention of letting me walk off the speedway that day as anything other than a total NASCAR convert!
It might sound taboo to have brought a date to the “ball”, but I don’t fancy myself a cliché, so Tiffany Michelle was in tow for my day at the speedway. Having raced around the world with her, it seemed only fitting to bring her along to the actual races! #racepartners4life4realz
Of course, no NASCAR experience is complete without actually hopping in a car for a couple of 120 MPH laps around the speedway (child’s play compared to what the big boys do), which Tiffany and I did not regret waking up at the crack of dawn to get down to the racetrack early for. Needless to say, a Pace Car handles a little smoother and goes just slightly faster than a mouse-drawn-pumpkin-carriage.
After our NASCAR speedway introduction (and when we were appropriately buzzed off of adrenaline – who knew fast cars could do almost the same as alcohol consumption?!) we then received a “NASCAR For Dummies” tour of the pits, garages, trailers, stalls and pit road.
It was electric, walking around the garages and seeing the real time prep and sweat that goes into each race. It was also slightly terrifying, feeling like at any moment I could get whistled out of the way as one of the car quickly gets pushed through or backed up into the walkway. Talk about being in the heart of the action.
The thing I loved most about my NASCAR experience is that it is just that… an experience! While there are plenty of tailgating festivities surrounding many sports, NASCAR races take it to another level.
Families come and picnic on the grass in the center of the speedway before the races start. Certain pass holders can hang out in the pits and garages first thing in the morning, and roam around to catch the pre-race happenings. I’ve never experienced a professional sport that allows its fans so much freedom, and such little red tape. Even during the races we were allowed to stand inside a team’s stall on pit road (out of the way, along the edges, of course) while the pit crew scurried around us. It was unlike any other sporting event I’ve experienced. The equivalent would be sitting on the Laker’s bench or in their locker room during game time.
The overall spirit of NASCAR felts different than other sporting events. The fans, pit crew, drivers, event staff, sponsors, and execs that I encountered were so warm and gracious. They were elated to welcome a newbie into the fold. NASCAR definitely isn’t as hands-off “Hollywood” as some other sports I frequent. I suppose this can be credited to the origins of NASCAR and stock car racing, which stem from the South (namely North Carolina). It was lovely to see that Southern hospitality of NASCAR’s roots still in existence today.
A sense of family and camaraderie that I’m not used to seeing in most competitive environments existed among the drivers. Racecar driving is a highly competitive and aggressive sport, but the drivers and their crews seemed to have a deep respect and sense of courtesy for each other, and were united in their understanding of how fatal their industry can be on any given day. A prayer was said at the end of the driver’s meeting (which I was fortunate to sneak in on) prior to the start of the race, which is a beautiful and entirely rare occurrence to witness in the 21st century.
Everything was a blur after GENTLEMEN, START YOUR ENGINES, as it should be. I spent the first half of the race watching, up close from Pit Road. I got goosebumps when all of the cars began firing up their engines. No earplugs for me. I had no desire to mute the priceless and invigorating experience.
Halfway through the race, I headed up to the Chairman’s suite to catch the bird’s eye view of the race. I loved having both views of the race. For being a total NASCAR newbie, I was glued to my handy little device, which patched me into the driver audio, visual feeds and commentary. Whereas on Pit Road I felt like I was IN the action, the suite view allowed me to see the grand scope of the race and understand the strategic and maneuvering elements to the race.
As you can tell, the NASCAR Foundation succeeded in making a fan out of me! I’m still hopped up on the adrenaline, and possibly gas fumes, and can’t wait for my next visit to the speedway.
I don’t have enough good things to say about the entire NASCAR “family” that I was welcomed into. A term that NASCAR Foundation coined, and taught me, is NAS-KARMA. So, here’s hoping that the kindness that was bestowed on me by everyone I encountered at the Sprint Cup Series, comes back to them all tenfold… NASKARMA!
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