My Brain on NASCAR: Small-town tracks have big-time appeal

col-cathyelliottIt is not uncommon, when one of NASCAR’s rare “off” weekends rolls around – the recent Easter weekend is a very current example — to hear the inevitable complaints, something like, “Aww, man, there’s no race this weekend.”

Or, as my friend Dianne put it (with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek) – “What’s up with that? Who needs family time?”

It is a fact that the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series does not compete every week, and they’re being particularly lazy this year. After having the audacity to enjoy a couple of rare and well-deserved days off to spend Easter with their families, NASCAR’s premier racing series will follow it up with yet another free weekend – at the end of August.

Yes, you read that right. In 2017, from February’s Daytona 500 to the season-ending championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, NASCAR takes a whopping two weekends off. With the first of them, they’ll be thankful for short period of R&R they got during Easter, because the next stop on the circuit – Bristol Motor Speedway on April 23 – is anything but relaxing.

More than two decades ago, the late Jim Hunter, who then served as president of Darlington Raceway, took masterful advantage of what could have been a discouraging situation for a track promoter.

At the same time the race was being run at Bristol in late August of that year, a hurricane was heading up the coast toward South Carolina, where the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was scheduled to run the very next weekend.

The end of the race resembled the Fourth of July more closely than it did the upcoming Labor Day weekend, as Dale Earnhardt basically knocked Terry Labonte out of his way on the final lap to take the checkered flag, creating plenty of fireworks in the process.

Hunter picked up the phone after the race and called an artist buddy, and on the following Monday morning, the editorial pages of newspapers around the country featured a cartoon depicting the cars of Labonte and Earnhardt, along with the famous hurricane weather icon, all bearing down on Darlington.

Phones in the ticket office rang off the hook, as Darlington had reminded people of the things that attracted them to the sport of stock car racing in the first place: excitement; hard-fought, closely-won contests; and the thrill of not having a clue what might happen next.

There are a lot of theories on why short track racing is so beloved by fans. There’s a lot of action, certainly, but it can be frustrating, too, as sometimes it seems there are just as many caution laps in a race as there are green-flag runs.

A lot of the appeal is nostalgia. For legions of fans, the first stock car race they ever saw in person was a local Friday or Saturday night show. Preparation involved grabbing a cooler and a bucket of chicken and heading out to the track early, where there was usually some type of wacky promotion going on to entertain people while they waited.

The venues were small; even intimate, if such a word can be applied to a racetrack. The crowds were enthusiastic, cheering for their favorites and booing everyone else with equal vigor.

The cars weren’t fancy-looking — many of them were pretty beaten up — but nevertheless they shone under the lights. In a venue this size, you could actually hear doors and tires and fenders scraping against both the walls and one another. They kicked up dirt, and you could taste it between your teeth. It felt like the whole place was giving you a big, loud, gritty, smelly hug.

And then someone won the race and everything started all over again, as local tracks typically feature several events each weekend.

If any or all of this sounds familiar, it should. This is the cornerstone of racing, the most basic point where local short tracks and the massive facilities that host Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekends meet. Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond owe a lot of their popularity to these hometown tracks, where almost every famous name that ever graced a Cup Series winners’ wall turned his first lap.

The tracks are all dressed up and glamorous now. Small town promotions have evolved into acres of interactive displays and shows. The cars glitter like the million-dollar jewels that they are.

But you won’t have to look too hard to find coolers, and chicken, and passionate spectators galore. The short tracks in particular wrap themselves around you, making you feel like you’re living in some sort of racing bubble, created just for you, and tens of thousands of your closest friends.

It feels familiar and fun. Once again, you feel like you’re getting that big, loud, gritty, smelly hug, and you love it … because it feels like home.

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