Feature Article, Stock Cars — July 24, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Erika Westfield’s All-Star experience (issue 102)

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By Erika Westfield

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This May, I was given an opportunity that many Nascar fans probably will never get to experience.

In April, the community manager for the Gillette Company’s facebook page informed me that Gillette would like to send tickets and credentials for me and a friend to attend the Sprint Cup All-Star race May 19 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Deciding on who would be my “plus one” was a no-brainer: my older sister Liana is as much of a Nascar fan as I am.

She had been to a race before, but this was my first, and I could not contain my excitement. Not only was I anxious to see the race and my favorite drivers in person, but as it is my goal to work in motorsports, specifically in Nascar, getting to visit the Queen City and the hub of Nascar was a dream come true!

Tens of thousands of fans get to experience a live race each week. Having been one of those who had not, I was unprepared for all that was offered to the fans prior to the race. There was just so much to take in, so many people, sights, and sounds.

Across the street from the track, numerous independent vendors sold Nascar merchandise. Most was out-dated, with many products of drivers who no longer race. As most fans can guess, everywhere I turned I saw products featuring Nascar’s “Most Popular Driver” or his father. A couple tents even sold beat-up front fenders from race cars of defunct-manufacturers (i.e. Monte Carlo).

Fans experienced more action across the street outside the gates. Sprint, Nationwide, Toyota, and the SPEED channel each had a fan area.

Sprint offered contest prizes given out by one of the Miss Sprint Cups, racing simulators, a rotating cut-away car, among other attractions.

Nationwide had carnival-type, prize-winning games: bean bag toss, spin-the-wheel, Plinko, and Skeeball.

Both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Championship trophies were on display in their respective areas. I actually got to touch the Nationwide trophy. However, the coveted Cup trophy was encased in protective glass. The Cup trophy featured small plaques of all past winners. This apparently is NOT the one given to the current Cup champion. It travels around as part of the Sprint Experience tour.

Fans competed against each other for prizes at the Toyota fan area, in addition to getting to sit in Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 show car. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 show car also was on display.

The SPEED channel’s Race Day booth gave fans the opportunity to make posters for when they stood behind the stage where commentators, including Larry McReynolds and Kyle Petty, discussed drivers, teams, strategies, or whatever else came to mind (pertaining to racing, of course!). At ALL the fan locations, various drivers or Nascar figures – past or present – made appearances throughout the evening prior to the races.

Elsewhere outside the grandstands were rows of merchandise haulers selling drivers’ memorabilia.

Again, as fans might expect, one particular driver had two, both busy selling items to adoring fans. A kids’ area had a ferris wheel, petting zoo with goats and cows, pony rides, and carnival-type games and booths. The Budweiser Clydesdales trotted down the street amongst fans, pulling an old-fashioned beer wagon stacked high with cases of Bud while a dalmatian sat next to the coachman. As hot as it was that day, I was rather tempted to snatch me a case!

After a quick bite to eat, my sister and I went inside the venue and walked out onto the track at Turn 1. The 24-degree banking was insane and made me feel dizzy looking down – AND back towards the grandstands!

I had been looking forward to seeing in person the gi-normous 200-by-80 foot screen on the backstretch at Turn 2. Oh. My. Gosh. The clarity of the images! I kept thinking, “How many people would love to have THIS in their home?!”

What was interesting was that it looks SO much bigger on TV than it did in person.

We proceeded to walk to the infield, and while the stage for the Blake Shelton concert was being set up, we decided to head towards the garage area.

We each received a “HOT” pass as part of my “package” from Gillette and Nascar. This allowed us entry into the Garages and onto Pit Road before, during, AND after the race. (A fan can purchase this (with endorsement) for a modest $320 each. HA!).

Normally, fans with Pit passes or “COLD” passes have to leave the Pit/Garage areas before a race and are not allowed in during a race.

For those who have never before been in a Nascar garage area, it is a city all in itself. Shop and pit crews, officials, media, drivers, family, friends, and, of course, the fans.

It was crowded and often hard to walk around without bumping into someone. Crews worked on their cars, pushed the cars in or out of garage stalls, carried tools and equipment, hauled tires, chatted or joked with other members or teams, or answered media questions.

Fans walked about, eyeing their favorite driver’s car, crew, and maybe even the driver himself. [Sidenote: very few seemed to be visible or available in the garage area that weekend. Quite a disappointment.]

In the garage building, fans are not allowed in the individual vehicle stalls; however, I was allowed to walk inside and down the center walkway that ran behind all the teams.

A handful of cars were being revved up by shop crew, while they worked on the engine. There is nothing like the sound of 700-horsepower roaring in your ears! It may be a loud noise to many, but frankly, it was quite comparable to the sound of sprint cars in the pit at Skagit Speedway.

I had a huge smile while listening to all the sounds in the garage. As crazy as it may be, if felt like home to me.

Because of all the action “backstage” an official blew a whistle alerting fans of oncoming cars, typically heading to pre-race inspection. I touched a few of the race cars as they were pushed past. I almost got ran over a couple times, too!

Pre-race inspection is definitely a process. I witnessed several cars pushed out of their garage stalls to where the frame is measured with the “claw” by the officials to make certain each car meets Nascar’s standards.

Next, the car is pushed by the crew to an area overseen by officials, where permitted shocks were put on. I reached out and touched Kyle Busch’s actual race car in this area while a couple of his crew members worked on it. I probably was not allowed to, but I did it anyway.

Afterward, the car was then pushed back to its garage stall so the shop crew could tweak various aspects, if need be. The crews took their vehicles to the west end of the garage building for the final inspection.

Out in the pits prior to the races, we watched a number of crews set up their pit boxes.

It often doesn’t appear so on television, but pit road at Charlotte is rather long.

Officials were adamant that fans did NOT cross into the outside pit lane; naturally, I stepped over into the outside lane in rebellion.

The Nationwide commercial with Dale Jr. and Danica Patrick was filmed on this pit road. Fan or not, it was a pretty neat feeling to stand where they stood.

I wanted nothing more than to hang out in the garage and pit areas the ENTIRE night!

After working at Skagit Speedway during the 2011 season, and getting a chance to see the behind-the-scenes action and meeting the drivers back in Pit, I knew I would enjoy doing that at a Nascar race more than watching from the grandstands. [My sister later admitted she would rather sit and watch.]

I enjoyed being able to see all the action of the various pit teams that most do not see while watching a race on television. There was a constant flurry of movement and chaos.

I was able to video record a couple pit stops. Seeing the pit crews move with precision and speed was exciting.

We watched most of the Showdown and All-Star race on the big screen or on a television behind Kyle Busch’s pit box.

I felt chills whenever the race cars restarted. That is SUCH an amazing sound and sensation.

Ironically, while standing in pit, the noise from the cars seemed to lessen then disappear while they raced around Turns 1 and 2. Once they got to the backstretch and Turn 3, it sounded like a swarm of bees. Come Turn 4, they roared back to life!

Initially we were told we needed a special pass to see the drivers’ introductions, so we missed those for the Showdown. Come time for the actual All-Star race, we were let through, so my sister and I got to stand on the start/finish line in front of the stage and grandstands and watch as each driver was introduced, came on stage, and greeted the fans. Some drivers and crew tossed out t-shirts or other items; unfortunately, neither my sister nor I caught anything.

Overall, my first experience at a Nascar Sprint Cup race was fantastic, despite not having everything go according to plan.

I saw only a handful of drivers in the garage/pit areas but never actually met any.

I took some awesome pictures, but I had to do so from four different devices.

Staying in the pit and garage areas where all the REAL action happened was incredible, but in Pit, I had to decide which drivers to watch because they were spread out and pit was fairly crowded.

Receiving free tickets and hot passes for a ‘chance of a lifetime’ was an unbelievable surprise, but I was not able to pass out any resumes or networking cards like I had hoped.

For a big Nascar fan, going to Charlotte Motor Speedway was exhilarating, but I did not get to see or do everything because of time constraints, and all the activities were in too many locations.

So, let this be a lesson to anyone going to Charlotte Motor Speedway (or a Cup race in general). From my experience, I have picked some tips to follow:

(1) Wear comfortable shoes and sunscreen and stay hydrated. This is especially important during the North Carolina summers, because you will be doing a LOT of walking. I got blisters on the bottoms of ALL my toes, despite wearing good sneakers. I did came back to Washington as red as a steamed lobster, primarily because I was so busy walking about that I kept forgetting to put sunscreen on. (I really needed the spray-on type, not the lotion.) Walking all around the outside of the 1.5 mile track and all around the infield, my sister and I walked a total of thirteen hours virtually non-stop. That was a LOT of miles!!

(2) Bring extra battery packs. For your cameras, video recorders, etc. I wish CMS had a ‘rapid charge’ station like Charlotte-Douglas Airport had. Each of our four devices–two cameras, a cell phone, and an iTouch died on us.

(3) Plan accordingly. With so many events or activities or sites to see, utilize the schedule Nascar posts online and decide prior to arriving at CMS what you (and your family) will want to see or do. Map it out or make an itinerary. I wish I had thought of that before flying out.

(4) Just have fun! You may not get to see it all, but doesn’t that leave you something to do for the NEXT time?!

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