I find it ironic that Phoenix International Raceway is called Phoenix when it is actually located in Avondale Arizona but whatever we will let them call it whatever they want :-).
I still remember vividly walking up to the NASCAR track for the first time. My heart was filled with excitement as I had spent most of my Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons watching races since I was 16 years old and now I was going to watch a race live!
There were swarms of people everywhere as we approached the entry gates. We got through the airport like security lines and walked around the outside of the track. The outside of the track is probably the most overwhelming for a first time visitor. There is much more than just the race to see while attending a NASCAR race. Since we still had some time before the race started we took in the sites around the outside of the track.
There were row upon row of souvenir trailers peddling all sorts of things from tee shirts to diecast replicas of the cars out on the track. You could seriously dump some cash here if you were not careful! I pick up a hat and a sweatshirt of my favorite driver, Bobby Labonte, and a huge Phoenix International Raceway checker flag (don’t ask what I was thinking – I’m not sure either).
The outside of the track also has show cars, cars that represent the cars out on the track. It was pretty neat to get up close to the cars and check them out. Most of them are roped off, so unfortunately we could not sit in one!
As we walked down the final row of souvenir trailers I saw a man with a familiar face sitting inside one of the trailers. It turned out it to be Harry Gant, a famous, but retired race car driver. His career spanned over 21 years with 18 wins in the Winston Cup. Gant is probably most famous for winning all 4 races in September of 1991, earning him the nickname “Mr. September”. I walked up to him and asked him for his autograph and was surprised that there was not a line. I assumed people did not realize who he was or because he was not “new and shiny” like the up and coming drivers of today they bypassed him.
It was time for our first race, the Busch race. The Winston Cup cars were still out on the track practicing for Sunday’s race as we walked up the stadium-like stairs. As I reached the top of the stairs Dale Earnhardt Jr’s car zipped by. The sound of the motor pieced my ears and I remember thinking to myself – where the hell did I put my earplugs!?!?! My mom and I went to our seats and my Grandpa and dad went to their seats (we had separate seats due to the two tickets being given to me by my co-workers and my parents buying two additional tickets so we could all go to the races “together”).
As we sat down and stuffed our ears full of earplugs it was time for the race to start. In hindsight there were two things I wished I would have invested in, a seat cushion and a track-scan headset. You can rent headsets at the raceway or you can purchase a personal set if you wish. I personally think renting is the way to go if you are not an avid race goer. Track-scan allows you to listen in on the drivers and team radio communications. Although you can hear some of what the announcer is saying at the track, with earplugs in and forty three 800 horsepower engines racing around the track, you’re not going to hear much. We did not rent the scanners and I remember watching Dale Earnhardt Jr out front, dominating most of the race, only to slow down on the backstretch and coast into the pits. Sure I should have been able to guess what was going on, but it was not until I got home that I found out he had run out of gas and was coasting in on fumes. If I would have had track-scan I would have heard that he ran out of gas. Either way it was a bummer for him!
We watched both races over a period of two days. It was exhilarating to see the races live. Watching the cars gracefully skate through the corners, coming oh so close to the wall and pulling down to the inside of the track as they hit their marks perfectly. You can not really tell on TV but the cars are “elegantly” sliding through the corners. That line form Days of Thunder “When the rear end’s loose, the car’s fast. Loose is fast, and on the edge of out of control”. That’s a true statement for sure – they all did look slightly out of control 🙂 But I guess if you are driving 150 miles per hour around a mile track you’re probably going to be a little out of control… and slightly crazy.
I will be honest (because I do get questioned all the time how I can waste 4 to 5 hours every week watching races because all they do is turn left) there were moments where I got slightly bored. So much that at one point I found myself looking at turn 3 and said to myself ‘something should happen over there’. I kid you not moments later the #44 car snapped loose and backed up into the wall. Whoopsie. Sorry about that #44.
It was ironic that I did that because after Dale Earnhardt Sr had died at Daytona in 2001 I made a pack with myself to never wish harm on any NASCAR driver. Because what if they got in an accident and died, I was going to feel bad – just like I did with Earnhardt. Just for the record I did not wish him to die, just that he would get a flat tire or maybe lose an engine and be out of the race. I’m not a monster – people!
I also need to admit something, something that could be considered NASCAR blasphemy, but it is true. I was not a fan of Earnhardt Sr (you probably guessed that from my comment above). But I couldn’t stand the guy. He was always crashing my drivers into the wall. He was mean and ruthless. Then when he died I realized something… I loved to hate him. There was, and still is no one out there like him. His nickname was The Inimidator and he could intimidate you like no other! And sure you have the Stewarts and the Harvicks graduating from their anger management classes (and someone should probably send Kyle Busch and Clint Boyer – I’m just saying). But a little piece of NASCAR died along with Earnhardt that day.
After the race was over I was happy and sunburned (it was November and I’m from Idaho – it never crossed my mind to put sun screen on in the middle of “winter”). What now lay ahead of us was the long line of traffic to get out of the parking lot. We took our time getting to the car, even stopping for another autograph, this time for Robby Gordon (no relation to Jeff Gordon). His line was longer as he was an active driver but still worth the wait. I’m sure he was pleased to sign his name next to the legendary Harry Gant 🙂