*With the Daytona 500 starting its engines this weekend surebud takes you behind the scenes of our trip to a real live race in real live NASCAR country.
The flight from Dallas to Charlotte was scheduled to leave at 9:40 a.m. the following day. Problem was the travelers were all currently in Houston. The trip had been scheduled for weeks to tour a real life racing facility, meet drivers and watch a Sprint Cup race from the pits with all expenses paid. My brother, who lives in Dallas had won the tickets, four in all, in an auction. He's a big NASCAR fan for reasons that are both unfortunate and mysterious. Two days before the trip, for reasons that are both unfortunate and mysterious, he bailed. That left the three of us, Reid, Derek, and myself to drive to Dallas, catch a flight, spend 2 days and three nights immersed in NASCAR culture.
The lady on the phone was so nice, I'm sure Continental Airlines trains them as such. She then paused as she calculated the cost of changing our flights from Dallas to a Houston departure. "That'll be $1,100.00." I paused and pondered her response. $1,100 bucks to save us seven hours in drive time by picking up and dropping us gently at Bush Intercontinental Airport instead of DFW. Might be doable. After all we weren't paying for anything but a rental car. She then answered a question that I did not ask but should have, "per ticket." Thank you 'mam we'll go ahead and make a seven hour drive, leave at 5:30 in the morning to catch a flight to an event that none of us had a rooting interest in. Thank you.
The three and a half hour drive to DFW was rather uneventful. A stop at Buccees, breakfast tacos, beaver nuggets, and raging debate over Keynesian economic theory. We arrived at the airport in time for Derek to be in what might be considered the desperate need for a restroom. A nice lady told us that from where we were we could go one of two ways to the nearest restroom but that both were a bit of a hike. We chose our path and set off. Racewalking is an Olympic sport whereby men try to walk as quickly as possible without running. Derek, lugging a bag and a carry-on mind you, set off quickly in what seemed to test World Record pace, the heartbreak was that the facility we arrived at was closed for cleaning. After debating a desperate run in the other direction we chose to wait it out, staring at the poor cleaning lady who had to be baffled as to why Derek appeared to be both sweating and dehydrated. Her work finished she let us in without, I assume, a second to spare. For our part Reid and I took turns calling the stall to check on Derek's condition. I think he appreciated that.
For Reid the airplane is a tranq dart to the neck. Immediately after stowing his bag in the overhead bin, buckling his seat belt, and resting his head on the head rest, he's rendered into what we now refer to as a plane coma. It's a gift. Derek is afraid of flying and I, being what some might call big boned, always pray intently that the person who draws the black bean of sitting beside me is 110 pounds. My prayers were not answered as a man, somehow larger than I, looked at his ticket then me, gave a small groan, and wedged himself into the window seat next to me. For the next three hours we sat awkwardly, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, thigh to thigh, each pondering our own life choices. As we got off the flight in Charlotte we gave each other the knowing nod that we would never speak of this again.
We checked into our hotel and immediately set about seeking out a BBQ option for dinner. My understanding from the uninitiated is that North Carolina has something that some consider good BBQ. These are the same people who populate places like Georgia, Memphis, and Kansas City. Someday this will tear our fragile union apart, but for now I am willing to concede that yes, North Carolina, Georgia, Memphis, and Kansas City are somewhat adept at placing meat on large fires and cooking it. I however am from the Nation of Texas therefore I am skeptical of any smoked meat outside of her borders. With this in mind Yelp directed us to Bobee O's.
I've come close to ordering a full forensic investigation into the macaroni and cheese from Bobee O's. The three of us have attempted to dissect it, we have failed as attempts to replicate it have been largely unsuccessful. I'm not one for hyperbole but, this was the greatest macaroni and cheese I've ever eaten. It's the Muhammad Ali of macaroni and cheese. If the macaroni and cheese from Bobee O's were an astronaut it would be John Glenn. If the macaroni and cheese were a Spice Girl it would be Ginger Spice. My stomach longed for it's return when we left. I thought about going back to Charlotte just for macaroni and cheese.
Later than night we headed into Downtown Charlotte to do some recon on possible places to buy an adult beverage and sit amongst young hipsters. Charlotte is a wonderful city. It has a green downtown area with trees
and actual people out walking the streets. Outside of downtown, unlike
Houston there isn't a string of car dealerships and strip centers on
every square acre. The trees provide an efficient camouflage for all
things paved. At some point during our conversation Reid started a sentence with "When I was at Space Camp..." at hearing this I pulled the car over and stopped abruptly out of both shock and the joy of knowing that someone in our party had gone to Space Camp. Derek then asked "Wait, you went to Space Camp?" Why yes Reid replied, "and the cool part was..." but before he could get beyond this leading statement, Derek and I both interrupted saying that NO there was NOTHING cool about Space Camp and that no sentence could ever start with such a phrase. Message sent, the rental car was no place for vulnerability, sharing, or Space Camp talk.
The next morning, as instructed, we met in the hotel lobby at 8:15 sharp for what we assumed would be a full day of NASCAR culminating with the race on Friday night. The more we thought about the potential for the day the more we thought about an alternative. Could we take our own car? Meet the guys there? Get our tickets and go on our own? Fake our deaths? Reid offered to stage a seizure. Derek offered to simply sleep in past the 8:15 start time. I am a drone at heart, when someone tells me to be somewhere at 8:15, I will be there because of a guilt complex from my childhood or some such. After 12 hours in a 15 passenger van with 9 other grown men I would now be willing to watch Reid fake writhe on the floor of the lobby as I attempt fake CPR.
Bob and Rob were our guides. No, those are not their real names. No, I don't know their real names. Yes, I am inconsiderate. Bob worked for a company that makes frozen microwaved biscuits. His company is one of those car sponsors that has paid a premium to place a sticker the size of a credit card on a race car. I liked Bob, he makes microwaved sausage products, it's like meeting Santa Clause for me. Rob, from what I could gather, facilitates these sorts of fan/client experiences. He was "connected" to the racing world. He knew people and listed them for us. I don't know who any of those people were, but they sounded like racing people and others in our group gave a knowing nod when those people were listed. Speaking of our group, it consisted of Bob, Rob, Reid, Derek, myself and four surgeons from the Metroplex. From their 8:15 appearance, the surgeons had had more than macaroni and cheese the previous night. They spent much of their day discretely taking photos of attractive women. Reid would counter this by discretely taking pictures of grandmothers, showing the surgeons, and asking "did you see this one?" The surgeons were not impressed.
As we got in the van Bob asked me if this was my first time at a NASCAR event, I said yes. Rob then said "get ready to get hooked, it's like we're slipping you your first piece of heroin." Question, does heroin come in pieces? I don't know, I got the metaphor, everyone told us seeing an event live would hook us on the sport and I was open to that. I was open to it in the same way I was open to being "slain in the spirit" once at church. The pastor would make his way down the aisle and touch people on the forehead at which time they would fall on the ground apparently passing out. As he got to me, I thought to myself, alright captain cynicism, let's see what you're made of, "God I'm open to being slain in the spirit if that's what you want" I then closed my eyes tried to clear my thoughts as the pastor shoved his hand against my forehead...Nothing. I rocked back forward opened my eyes and he once again, with more force, gave me a forehead shove. Once again nothing, I shrugged at him, he moved on leaving a trail of carnage in his wake, save one large dumb redneck who wouldn't go down. I think this means I'm immortal.
So with clear thoughts and a fresh outlook we took to the van. Trapped with 6 strangers for what would be the better part of 12 hours, heroin might have been the better alternative.
The plan was to tour a real live racing facility, eat a nice lunch at a local winery, go to the track, watch the race, and come back with a tattoo on each of our foreheads acknowledging that we were in fact newly born NASCAR fans, Dale Sr. loving, Jeff Gordon hating by God fans.
We arrived at the racing facility around 9:30ish and my impressions were these, first it was clear that this was quite the financial undertaking and second the race game is a money pit. You need a rich guy to shovel for you. Kevin Harvick's team clearly has that guy or guys. The place was a huge, multi-building facility, with lots of acreage and an animal conservatory. More on that later. They took us to where they build each car for each race for each driver. We learned about chassis and restrictor thingys and tires and other racing stuff that I don't understand. Our tour guide for the day, Tiffany (her real name escapes me) then took us to a restricted area. No, not where a alien was being autopsied but rather where the "Car of Tomorrow Tomorrow" was being fabricated. Yes there are two tomorrows. As best I can tell, and yes I am a NASCAR noob, there is/was a car called "The Car of Tomorrow," which is totally different that the car of tomorrow I saw as a 9 year old at EPCOT Center. The Car of Tomorrow was only used in certain races and was now obsolete because of the Car of Tomorrow Tomorrow. These cars are designed to look more like the actual car you can drive off the lot of your local Chevy dealership, except of course they don't look ANYTHING like the car you can drive off the lot. We were instructed that no photographs were allowed and that these cars would be tested soon for the 2013 season. I asked Tiffany "Why not just call it 'The Car of the Day After Tomorrow." Derek laughed. I found myself to be pretty darn amusing. Tiffany? Not so much.
This conversation set a tone for the rest of the day, which was sad because I have a 15 minute bit I can do on the whole turning left aspect of a NASCAR race. Sadly, no one in Kennapolis, North Carolina will ever get to hear it.
Next stop was a museum and wildlife conservatory. We saw almost all of Dale Sr.'s race cars and then walked through a display of all the animals the team owner and his friends had killed and later conserved by stuffing and mounting. It was impressive. They had conserved the hell out of a lot of animals. Most of the animals were conserved right in the head or chest. That's the way they would've wanted it.
I'm a beer man myself, always have been. Not an exotic, micro-brewed beer man mind you. More of a domestic, free, preferably cold beer man. Wine, much like NASCAR, is not something I understand. We spent lunch at a local winery and had a private tasting. Our hostess had a classic, wonderful back hills twang to her voice and I assume was more of a beer woman were she not paying the bills as a hostess at a winery. So when she said one of our selections was a "Mary-ted-ge" one of our surgeon friends corrected her, "It's French, pronounced Mer-ta-je" she responded that she was from North Carolina, not France, and she called it a Mary-ted-ge. She is currently my favorite North Carolinian. Derek by the way couldn't grasp why were sipping wine and pouring the rest out. Eventually Reid and I began to funnel our left overs into his glass. We did however prevent him from drinking from the spittoon.
The conversation then turned to moonshine. Our hostess said it would probably be at the track but that we should be careful not to eat the "shine fruit." Shine fruit is, based on her description, the fruit that is used to flavor moonshine. Some makers remove the fruit prior to bottling, others prefer to let the customer decide whether he wants to eat the fruit in the bottle, the fruit that has been fermenting in turpentine grade alcohol for days or weeks. Bob or Rob told us that he had in fact eaten a piece of shine fruit at a NASCAR event in Alabama and in a matter of minutes was rendered practically unconscious. I can only speak for myself, but I was now VERY interested in finding moonshine and seeing if I stacked up against the fruit.
Sadly there would be no fruit to be found at the Racetrack that night. We did however sit next to Richard Petty on a golf cart while we ate Bojangle's chicken tenders. I nudged Derek and said, "hey that's Tom Petty." Derek looked over his shoulder to the man sitting four feet away, turned back to me and said, "That's not Tom Petty, but that is somebody." Reid, having grown up closer to the real south than either Derek or I said, "Nope, that's Richard Petty, the King." In a way we almost met Tom Petty. We also met Kevin Harvick, almost got run-over by a golf cart carrying Tony Stewart, and were almost got crushed by a pack of teenagers chasing Joey Logano. We also came within a few feet of Danica Patrick, she's short and the racing coveralls don't do much for her if I can be honest.
I have to say that most impressive part of the race was the fact that these guys, and Danica, were about to climb into a car and drive 180 mph with 40 other guys, and Danica, inches from death or serious injury, and yet before the race they all joked, took pictures and glad handed like they were about to make ceramic bowls or edge their yard. I commented to Rob and Bob about this observation and that I would be balled up in a corner saying good-bye to all my loved ones. Rob shot back, "Not me. I test drove one of these a few years ago and got it up to 167." Yep, you're practically a test pilot Rob. You drove 160, 20 miles per hour less than the pole setter for this particular race, and you did so on a track by yourself. Did you fly inverted over a Mig Rob? I'm sure you did. (That's a Top Gun reference kids)
Watching a race from the pits is interesting. There are about four seconds of race action as the cars zoom by followed by 30 seconds of turning 180 degrees to watch the race on a jumbotron. The pit stops are amazing up close, but the race is kind of like standing next to I-10 when it's moving at a brisk pace. It's a deafening blur. Most folks watching from the pits aren't really watching. They're screaming at each other over the din of the race until either a pit stop happens or a caution flag comes out. The allure seems to be the tailgating around the event and the last few laps. They could just condense it down to a tailgating blow-out followed by a ten lap cannonball run. Also, I would not be opposed if the drivers were actually running fruit 'shine.
We left the race early, much to the shock of those around us, I guess we didn't become fans for life. We passed on the tattoo. We then spent 45 minutes exiting the inner oval of the track and hailing a cab to take us back to the hotel so we could head into Charlotte to be amongst the hipsters. By the time we sat down in the cab, the race was over. Some guy had turned left better than everyone else. (That's just a taste people, I've got about 8 more minutes of turning left humor) We got into Charlotte had a beer at an Irish Pub. (man the Irish are everywhere) I assumed the everyone around us were bankers. I'm sure I was wrong but that's was my assumption. Afterwards, at about midnight, we grabbed a slice of pizza to soak up the liquor. I believe we did so next to a pimp and two hookers. I wanted to ask them what they thought of the race, but I suspected they hadn't seen it or worse, might have been Jeff Gordon fans.
We headed back out to our hotel to catch a few hours sleep before our 6:00 a.m. wake up call. On the drive to airport the next morning Derek asked, "So, Space Camp huh?"