For the next two weeks NASCAR fans get the opportunity to take in Bristol and Martinsville-two historic and fun-filled venues. Love them or not the half-mile ovals raise the blood pressure of drivers and the thrill factor of their fans.
Guest Column By Cathy Elliott
A little over a decade ago, Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s current vice president of corporate communications who then served as president of Darlington Raceway, took masterful advantage of what could have been a discouraging situation.
At the same time the fall race was being run at Bristol in late August of that year, a hurricane was headed toward South Carolina, where the NASCAR Sprint 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.
Hunter, who was working in his office that night, picked up the phone after the race and called an artist buddy. The following Monday morning, newspapers around the country ran a cartoon featuring 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 Hunter and his staff 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 victories, and the thrill of not knowing what might happen next.
As the editor of a hometown newspaper, I get a lot of press releases in the course of any given week. Recent topics have ranged from spring vegetable-planting timelines to the latest gubernatorial candidacy announcement to how to decorate the perfect Easter cupcake.
And then, I got this one -- "Dillon Motor Speedway opens 2010 to record crowd."
Now, that's what I'm talking about.
Opening night at the Dillon Motor Speedway in Dillon, S.C. comes around each year at about the same time dandelions start popping up on the lawn. It is a harbinger of spring, with many of the characteristics of the season, things like renewal and rebirth, as old rivalries from the previous year resume and new ones are formed.
DMS is a great track, but depending on where you live, you know one just as good. The phrase “record crowd” was the real attention grabber, because it reminds us of something we already knew. Fans just love short track racing, and the Cup schedule has two humdingers coming up back to back, at Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, with Richmond International Raceway not too far behind them on May 1.
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 thousands 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 promotion going on, wacky or otherwise, 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 -- some 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 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 tracks and facilities that host NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekends meet. Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond owe a lot of their popularity to these 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 you’re living in some sort of racing bubble.
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.