My First NASCAR Race
Yesterday, my 13-year old son and I attended the Dover 400 NASCAR race in Dover, DE.
It was my son who had initiated the outing. I had appreciated how he had pursued his interest in NASCAR for about one year. It is an interest that none of his friends share. The fact that he was willing to pursue interests outside his peer group's, I viewed as a positive that I wanted to support.
And as for me, I'm an adventurer. Shucks, I went to China to learn about Chinese culture. Going to Dover to see NASCAR was an adventure which required far less commitment. Why not?
The race was not like anything I have experienced. The sound emanating from the 43 cars was so loud that talking was pointless. I couldn't hear anyone speak. And if I had chosen to speak, no one would have been able to hear me. Ironically, the cars' sound-that-trumped-all-sound created the functional equivalent of silence. Who would have thought that going to NASCAR had a bunch of similarities with attending a meditation retreat?
It took a lot of concentration and focus just to follow the lead cars and note where my son's favorite driver (Kyle Busch) was in relation to them. At one point I decided to see just how good my concentration skills were. I opened the stopwatch with lap timer app on my iPhone and attempted to time Kyle Busch's laps.
The laps at Dover are one mile long and take about 24 seconds to complete. I tried for about 20 minutes, but only ever managed to time two laps consecutively. The touchscreen on my iPhone may have been part of the problem. But the bigger challenges were the high speeds and the number of cars in close proximity.
There was a kind of down time, when the wall of sound receded and one could engage in conversation. When the yellow flag is up, drivers must slow down from roughly 150 mph to about 50 mph. Yellow flags are raised whenever a car loses control, whether there is a collision or not. At a minimum, rubber is burned and the track service crews need to come out and sweep and make sure there aren't any debris.
A light drizzle also caused the yellow flag to appear twice. Finally, NASCAR itself plans to have a certain number of yellow flags to allow the cars to bunch up and make the race tighter.
The yellow flags were usually up for about 5 minutes. It was during one such yellow flag that a fan took notice of us and said, "You've never been to NASCAR, I can tell; I need to show you some things." He was in his early twenties, one of the roughly 25% in attendance who were not drinking. We were 24 rows up from the track. He told me, "Before the restart (from the yellow caution) I'm going to show your son what these cars are really like. I'm going to take your son down to row one and he's going to take his ear plugs out and be down there for the restart so he can really feel it."
Despite his commanding posture, he was actually asking my permission. I assented after determining that my son indeed wanted to participate. He was thrilled. He described the experience as being much louder than the unbelievably loud muskets we had heard at a parade in Barcelona this summer. He spoke with pride about being hit by a small piece of flying rubber. And I was glad to see that my son put his ear plugs back in his ears, without my having to ask him! The fan offered to take me down to row one at the next yellow, but I pretended I hadn't heard him.
Our new friend noted as we pulled out our lunch, "I have never seen sushi at NASCAR!" Unlike his criticism of our ear plugs, which was made with some disdain, the comment on the sushi was said with some awe. Had we struck some common ground?
It's crazy being with 70,000 fans (note that seating capacity is 140,000) who can't speak to each other or even cheer while the race is on. Any noise they make can't be heard. About 10 - 20% of fans have headsets in which they can listen to the drivers talking or hear the play-by-play. Some of those have a small TV screen where you can see the TV feed. Others come in pairs with microphones so you can have conversation with one other person. But for the most part, there's this odd "silence" created by a massive wall of sound stretching out from the track.
Without the ability to speak, physical actions become your tool to make a statement. The women next to me would stand up every time her favorite driver rode by. Her driver was not having a great day; he was in the middle of the pack. But faithfully, probably 350 out of the 400 laps, she'd rise out of her seat and raise her fist straight up and make a circling motion.
There was a lot of beer drinking. Different from the other sports venues I've been to lately, in Dover, you can bring in your own beer. But we didn't see bad behavior. Which is unlike Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field (where the Phillies and Eagles play) where I've seen bad behavior at every game I've been to.
I'm wondering if the essentially partisan atmosphere of baseball and football (us versus them) promotes negative behaviors that are made worse by the alcohol. The loyalties among the fans at a NASCAR race are divided by 43 drivers.
On the way out I stopped to take a photo of a sign that said, "Drive sober, arrive alive." There were two people who had just opened fresh beer cans and volunteered to pose in front of the sign. I'm pleased to note that the man said, "But hey, you should know we aren't driving home."
What motivated me to write this post was the weird looks and comments I've gotten from people when I told them about my plans to go to NASCAR. It reminds me of when I would tell people my daughter had a rat for a pet. Rats are actually wonderful pets. My daughter learned about not buying in to people's preconceptions about stuff they had no experience with. I'm proud that my son did not stop his own interests from being deterred by others' preconceived notions.
I'm so glad I went. Not just for my son's sake, but for my own. Braving the 55 degree F. chill, my sense of adventure had been fully activated. It felt great to be in a totally new environment and feel that I knew this world just a little bit better because I had followed my son's initiative.