I am a fan of NASCAR, but I am not a prototypic fan by any means. I grew up in the North, in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1970s. Cleveland was a football and baseball town back then. As a child and teen I was a die hard baseball fan, and still am today. The only exposure I had to NASCAR was occasional coverage of a major race on Wide World of Sports. In fact, I saw more open wheel racing because of the Indianapolis 500 than I ever did of stock cars. While the occasional glimpse of the Daytona 500 was interesting, it didn’t really inspire much more than a passing glance.
As I progressed through my 20s and 30s, I would see occasional references to NASCAR on ESPN. I was 28 when Days of Thunder was released. I saw it in the theater and thought it to be an interesting story, but still it didn’t capture my attention.
Because I am a baseball and football fan, with only passing interest in basketball or hockey, I have a natural lull between seasons. From the end of the Super Bowl until Opening Day of baseball, there is little that interested me in sports. One Sunday, in the winter of 2006, I was flipping channels and landed on a race. I don’t remember which one it was, but I stayed with it a while. That was about 7 years ago, and since then I have become a fan of NASCAR. Here I am going to tell you 5 reasons why I enjoy NASCAR, and why you might as well. There are many other reasons I enjoy the sport, but these are the key five for me.
The danger. Any true fan or NASCAR will tell you that they never want to see a wreck so bad that someone is injured. Every fan will also tell you that the constant possibility of a wreck that alters the makeup of the field, brings out a caution to re-bunch the field, and changes strategies is a huge part of what makes races interesting. There are, at any given moment, upwards of 43 powerful machines hurtling around a track at ridiculous speeds, on the razor’s edge. And, at any moment something can, and many times does, break on one of those cars causing a wreck that involves one or more of the competitors. Many times I have watched as a strong driver, favored to win the race is collected up in someone’s mishap, changing the entire complexion of the race.
The Strategy. Those who don’t know the sport frequently see it as just cars going around in circles. But for the fan who understands that every driver, in every race, on every fuel run, and even on every lap may be playing out a different strategy, the race is fascinating. There are as many ways to win a race as there are competitors on the grid. Sometimes it is pure, raw power. Other times it is played out in pit strategy, and managing fuel mileage. Sometimes it is the cat and mouse game of knowing when to pass someone, and when to ride their bumper until they make a mistake. It took me a few years to get a handle on the various strategies, and I am still learning. Each time I learn a bit more, I become more entranced in the sport.
The Variability of the Venues. The stick and ball sports are played at venues that are essentially the same as each other. Football fields and Basketball courts are all exactly the same. Hockey rinks and Baseball diamonds have some variability, but even they are mostly the same from place to place. Imagine how interesting it would be if, at some NBA arenas the baskets were at 12 feet, or the court was wider or longer than at others. Or, if the net at one hockey rink was wide and low, while at another it was tall and narrow. What would baseball be like if the distance between bases varied from park to park, or even within the same park (i.e. the distance between home and first was different from the distance from first to second)? Well, that is what racing is like. In NASCAR’s Sprint Cup (the highest level of competition), there are 36 races. They are run over a total of 23 different courses. The competitors don’t see a repeat course until the 18th race of the season, or half way.
The courses vary widely among those 23, and no two are the same. Some of the many differences are:
- Length – from under a half mile, to over 2.5 miles
- Surface – some concrete, some asphalt, some both. And because the surfaces are of different ages, each has unique characteristics in terms of bumps and grooves
- Degrees of banking – Martinsville is nearly flat even in the corners, while Talladega and Daytona have high banks even in the straight aways.
- Shape – The shapes range from resembling a paper clip, to a triangle. There are two road courses with turns in both directions. Each track has its own shape.
And the fun doesn’t stop there. For tracks that have two races, the characteristics of the track can be different at each visit. Bristol doesn’t drive the same in the Spring race as it does in August. Oh, and the tracks can change over the course of the race. Some start in bright sunshine and end under the lights. That means that the track temperature will change, and therefore how the tires will react to the surface. Keeping up with how the track changes is a key factor for the driver and crew.
There is only one thing to watch each week. If you are a football fan, and you want to see every game on a particular weekend, you may have to watch 16 games. With each game taking about 3 hours, it would literally take you almost 2 days if you wanted to hear all the commentary, and not miss anything. In NASCAR, every team races in the same event at the same time. You can sit for 3 or 4 hours, and see the entire sport for that week. And, if you have a favorite race team, they aren’t sitting idle during the playoffs. The Chase, which is NASCAR’s 10 week playoff system, includes a full field of 43 cars, any of which could win that particular race. There is rarely a race that you will watch that doesn’t include your favorite driver.
The Noise and Spectacle. This reason is best appreciated by going to a race in person. While watching on TV may give you better insights to the drivers, better access to see things that you can’t from your seat, and faster explanations, there is nothing like sitting in the stands. Television cannot effectively communicate the spectacle of 150,000 (or more) people gathered for a single event. To say that the people watching at a race is fun, is an enormous under statement. And, the track is noisy. I remember the first time I went to a race. We were seated 6 rows from the track at the entrance to turn 1 at Michigan International Speedway. When the engines fired, and the cars were on the warm-up laps, all of us were amazed at the noise. Then the green flag was dropped and it went up tenfold. The second time by, with the cars at full speed, we could FEEL the noise in our chests. That raw power is something I have never experienced at any other sporting venue. I liken it to the grand finale of a really good fireworks show, that lasts 3 hours.
So, those are 5 reasons why I like NASCAR. I will be writing more reasons in future posts, but for me these are the key 5.
If you have never watched a race, give it a try. Find someone who knows a bit about racing and hang out at their house for a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. If you approach it with an open mind, you may just find something that gets your heart racing toward racing.