I had never been to a NASCAR race before this past weekend. So you could imagine how blown away I was when I got to ride around Atlanta Motor Speedway at 160-plus mph with driver Brad Keselowski, watch Nationwide’s Degree V12 300 from the pits and then take in the Sprint Cup’s Pep Boys 500 from the grandstand.
When I was first invited to Atlanta as a guest of Degree V12, I didn’t know what to expect. When I told friends and family what I was about to embark on, the reactions ranged from excitement, to jealously, to flat out hatred that they didn’t have the same opportunity. (I’m pretty sure that one of my family members won’t be speaking to me at Thanksgiving dinner this year.)
On Friday, along with three other media members, I was taken to Atlanta Motor Speedway via a party bus. When we got there (the track seemingly appeared out of nowhere, which played into the ambiance of the experience), we were driven to the infield and immediately shown the media center. From there, we went to the pits and got suited up for what would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The people from the Richard Petty Driving Experience helped us get into our flameproof suits and helmets, which was definitely one of those moments in my life when I questioned what the hell I was doing. Brad showed up shortly thereafter and immediately asked with a smile, “Is anyone scared?”
Everyone in our group said no, but you didn’t need a magnifying glass to see our hearts trying to jump out of our chests. Then somehow I got nominated to go first. Apparently if the car flipped, the people in our group were fine with me being the test dummy. Jerks.
While doing my best Dukes of Hazzard impersonation, I jumped into the car and got strapped in. The first thing I noticed was that there was very little to the stock car. There were a couple of gauges, some safety bars and that’s about it. I guess when you’re trying to beat 30 other cars on a racetrack the bare essentials are all you want.
Brad jumped in, took the steering wheel off the dashboard and locked it into place.
“You ready man?” he asked.
“Absolutely! Just let me know if you get tired because I’ll take over,” I replied.
He didn’t hear me. My nervous attempt at humor went to waste.
He fired up the engine and my heart went from about 50 mph to 150 mph. He took off and immediately started swaying the car back and forth just making sure that if I were going to throw up the eggs and potatoes I had earlier that morning, I would do so before we got onto the track.
At first, he was probably only going 100 mph so I played it cool by resting my arm on one of the safety bars like I was taking a Sunday joy ride with one of my friends. Then he proceeded to hit one of the banks at 160 mph and my Joe Cool approach went right out the window.
Riding around a track at 160 mph in a stock car is like being on your favorite roller coaster, only on massive amounts of caffeine and speed. As Brad got close to the wall (we seriously couldn’t have been more than two inches away from that sucker), I felt my body being pulled to the side of the vehicle. I tried to keep my body straight, but that wasn’t happening so all I did was sit there, on the ride of my life mind you, with a goofy expression on my face as the grandstands, infield and billboards whizzed by me for three laps.
As Brad slowed down to pull back into the pits, we jerked forward and by that time, my body despised me for what I had just done to it. But it was one of the most incredible feelings of my life.
After we were stationary again, Brad said, “How about that ride?!”
“Freaking amazing,” is about all I could get out of my mouth.
As the rest of our group took their turns going around the track, I talked at length with Brad’s PR people about what it’s like to be on the road all the time. They went into detail about how they were constantly driving to one location to the next, how they were always in and out of different towns and never having the opportunity to stay in one place very long. While I felt bad for how much time and dedication they put in as a member of a NASCAR team, I got the feeling that they wouldn’t trade it for any other job in the world.
After our ride alongs, Brad took us on a tour of the garages. Outside of the mind-blowing experience of riding in the car, this was easily my favorite part of the trip.
“One of the great things about NASCAR is that we cater to the fan,” Brad said. “Everything is on display and you get a great sense as to what goes on behind the scenes, as opposed to Formula 1 racing, where everything is on lock down and you can’t see anything.”
One of my first questions to Brad (who was an open book, a fact that only made the tour that more enjoyable) was whether or not it was an advantage for drivers to race on the same track multiple times to gain experience. I pretty much knew what his answer would be, but what followed was humorous.
“Oh definitely, which is why somebody from another team is probably upset that I just took you on those ride alongs,” he said. “They’re probably calling me a cheater right now.”
One of the more interesting topics Brad covered was how many cars each driver has in their pool. He said that every driver has 10 to 12 cars, but if they wreck one in a race, their pool will be depleted, which is a disadvantage to them in the future. Some cars handle better than others at certain tracks, so if that car is out of commission because the driver wrecked it in a previous race, he’s at disadvantage not having the best vehicle for that particular race.
“So it’s basically in your best interest not to damage any of your cars,” I said.
“Absolutely, which is something that they haven’t learned yet,” Brad said while pointing at a row of cars that were behind him in the garage, which is something else we learned from our tour.
In both Nationwide and Sprint Cup, the drivers with the most points get the top garage spots, which means they get first crack at the parts they need. Drivers at the bottom in points don’t have access to the best parts and therefore are at a disadvantage even before their tires touch the pavement come race time.
On our tour, we also got to check out the trailers from which the crews work in between races. In these trailers, the crews have all the parts necessarily to build another car and all of the technology available to help them make the vehicle lighter, heavier, faster or more aerodynamic depending on how it ran in practice and at qualifying. Each driver essentially has a team of engineers at his disposal to help him perform better on the track.
The tour wrapped up and I came away feeling incredibly impressed with Brad. After driving us around the track, he could have mailed in the 30-minute tour but he didn’t. He was personable, knowledgeable and energetic. He’s also a rising star on the NASCAR circuit and if you were looking for a smart and instinctive driver to pull for, he’d be right up your alley.
On Saturday, Degree V12 took us tailgating for the Degree V12 300 and then on Sunday we did the same for the Pep Boys 500. To help capture what went on in those two days, I compiled a top 10 list of my experience.
1. You can’t go to a NASCAR race without tailgating.
When we first got there on Saturday for the Degree V12 300, we were brought to the top of a hill that overlooked the track. The hill was a paved parking lot and roughly 50 Winnebagos and trailers sat perfectly lined up at the edge overlooking the track. Ryan, one of our gracious hosts, knew an experienced NASCAR tailgater who was going to be there all weekend and invited us to join his crew. When we got to his trailer (which was actually an old school bus, with custom furnishings inside), we couldn’t have asked for better hospitality. College football was on TV, beers were on ice, food was on its way and the company was outstanding. If you’re going to a race, you better make sure the tailgate is right – and these guys did it right.
2. The sounds and feel of the cars going around the track is exhilarating.
As I was enjoying one of the football games, all of a sudden it sounded like thunder was cracking behind me. I walked to the edge that overlooked the track to see that the Sprint Cup drivers were practicing. As the cars passed by, the noise was so loud that you couldn’t hear the guy standing next to you if he was he screaming in your ear. The rumble was so intense that I could feel a small shake in the fence I was leaning against and the speed that the cars were using to whip around the track was insane. As the drivers continued to practice, Asylum.com editor Brian Childs yelled, “How’s your hangover?!”
3. The NASCAR experience is not fun when you’re sick.
On Friday night, we all went out to a great dinner and enjoyed a few adult beverages as we all got to know one another. It was one of the best nights in Atlanta, although I wound up paying for it the rest of the weekend. Call it a hangover, a stomach bug or my body getting its revenge for going on the ride along, but I was freaking sick. It constantly felt like someone just punched me in the gut and the heat, fumes and sounds certainly weren’t helping. While my overall experience was fantastic, I must admit it was tempered a bit by the freaking circus that was going on in my stomach all weekend.
4. The spectacle before the race is something you have to see to believe.
I’ve never seen so many jean shorts, tattoos and hair in one weekend than I did on this trip. But you know what? I digged the culture. NASCAR fans are some of the most passionate people in the world and they love their sport. Many of the sponsors had tents up outside of the track so you could play games, listen to live bands and get your hands on giveaways. Walking around, you got a sense that the race was just one part of the entire experience and what happened before the cars take the track is part of the overall fun for the fans.
5. You haven’t witnessed a pit stop until you’ve watched one from the actual pits.
Degree V12 got us pit passes for the Nationwide race, which for NASCAR fans is the equivalent to giving football fans locker room access at halftime of a game. While we were down there, we watched Dale Earnhardt Jr. make his first pit stop. The speed in which his crew changed his tires and checked over the car was damn near as fast as the drivers were going around the track. Milliseconds are vital to the success of the driver, so zero time can be wasted. That’s why the car hadn’t even been taken off the lift yet and Junior was screeching his tires ready to get back on the track.
6. Watching from a suite brings a different element to the race.
When you’re in the pits, the noise and energy level is unrivaled. But watching from the suite is a unique experience in that you can see how the drivers maneuver around the track and the angles in which they try to gain an edge. If you followed one driver (our entire suite focused on Brad after our ride along on Friday), it was interesting to watch him close in and then pass other cars. The noise and feel of the race is muffled being up that high, but if you’re a diehard fan that has never watched the race from a suite, it might intrigue you. (Of course, suite passes aren’t the cheapest items in the world.)
7. There’s more energy to Sprint Cup races compared to Nationwide.
The Nationwide race was definitely cool, but the Sprint Cup had a different feel to it. The cars were a touch faster, louder and the fans seemed to bring more energy to the track than they did the night before at the Nationwide race. We watched the Sprint Cup race from the grandstand and the fans were into every single lap, yelling for their favorite drivers (or at the ones they hated) and standing up when one of the cars passed another. Gerry Manolatos (from Maxim) and I missed a good 10 laps of the race while people watching.
8. You have to root for a driver.
If you’ve never been to a race, trust me, pick a driver and root for him. If not, the first four laps are great and then you realize it’s still a bunch of cars going around and around a track. If you zero in on a driver, you find yourself getting into it every time he makes a move, stops to pit or moves up a spot.
9. Get to know the drivers.
I realize that not everyone will have the opportunity to drive around a track with Brad Keselowski, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get to know the drivers and their personalities. For example, Kyle Busch (who definitely has a love-hate relationship with fans) is pretty damn funny. During interviews, he goes so far over the top when plugging a sponsor that you’re reminded of Ricky Bobby from “Talladega Nights.” Not unlike other athletes in other sports, NASCAR drivers have a wide range of personalities, so it’s fun to develop a liking or disliking for certain guys.
10. You have to see it live to appreciate the experience.
I’ll admit, before this weekend I was just like everyone else who doesn’t follow NASCAR. I thought, it’s just cars going around in circles for three hours – how could that be exciting? But when you see it live and hear the sounds, see the speed of the cars and get the full experience, you have a greater appreciate for what goes on during a race. There are elements of it that can still be tedious for non-fans, but if you take my advice and root for a driver then you’ll stay engaged the entire time.
Special thanks goes out to Degree V12 and our gracious hosts Ryan Eichler, Jason Sparks, Mark Rasmussen and Lauren Cohen. The experience was incredibly entertaining and insightful and I appreciate how everything was first class. They went out of their way to make sure that we media members had a great time and I thank them for the opportunity and experience.