Let me preface this recap by saying that I live in race country, but I had never even watched a race, let alone attended one. And as an avid fan of “traditional” sports like basketball and football, I even questioned the validity of it. I mean…how can you call something that requires no athleticism a sport?
Little did I know that after just a day and a half spending time with my gracious NASCAR hosts – touring the Rev Racing garage and meeting their drivers, checking out a pit crew demonstration and participating, touring the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and even taking a ride around the track in a pace car – my appreciation and respect for racing would quadruple.
Racing is hardly a sport for pansies and requires more athleticism than you’d think. As a matter of fact, Drive for Diversity pit crew coach and former NBA trainer Phil Horton recruits former college football players to work for them. The drivers also have to stay in good shape in order to endure the physical toll a race takes on the body. Two laps around the track going about 120 mph in a pace car was taxing for me, so I can only imagine what it’s like going upwards of 190 mph around a sharp turn with the momentum forcing your body backwards and then holding it there with a kung-fu type grip and having to do that for as many as 400 laps…CRAZY!
The environment has the same air of excitement that you’d experience at any sporting event – with tailgating, corn hole, and of course LOTS of beer. But it is also very different.
Fans create a community of RV’s on the same infield where the drivers house their garages and camp out there for DAYS, giving NASCAR the honor of being one of the most interactive sports. Fans can purchase passes that allow them to watch mechanics and engineers as they ready the cars for the race and even push them through the crowds to the track. Drivers and owners are scuttled through crowds of fans in the infield and garage area, and you can even stand right in the pit area or winner’s circle. I found this accessibility very impressive and tried to imagine what other sport allows this type of access.
Although I did gain a new level of respect for the amount of time and skill those that work in NASCAR have, and was very impressed with its fan focus, the sport still has a lot of room to grow when it comes to diversity. There are NO drivers of African- American descent at the highest level of NASCAR and only a handful in the truck and K&N series. There are more drivers of Hispanic descent. Women have made strides in the sport with the popularity and subsequent success of Danica Patrick, but there is still more progress to be made. NASCAR does seem to realize this and has placed a focus on the development of minority drivers through its Drive 4 Diversity program and the Rev Racing team that has found recent success with D4D graduates Kyle Larson and Darrell Wallace Jr. Unfortunately, although NASCAR does realize the need for diversity and expansion in the sport, they can’t prevent the discomfort I felt while riding around the infield when I spotted RV’s with Confederate flags flying boldly from the top or men sporting Confederate bandanas. And even though I was greeted with a welcoming smile by a lot of fans, some did let their obvious displeasure show with a reluctant wave or frowned face.
All in all, I must say that I was very impressed with NASCAR as a sport and I will be following it more now and will be attending races. As with golf, the success of just one driver can forever add a little color to the face of racing, and once others gain interest and are able to experience the rush of watching 40 cars racing a few feet from them at speeds of over 190 mph, there’s no doubt in my mind their appreciation will grow as well.