As someone who normally follows NHRA drag racing, it was quite a change for me to come to the Texas Motor Speedway to cover my first NASCAR event. I went from watching a side-by-side shootout at over 300 mph between two dragsters on a quarter-mile strip to seeing 43 cars all piled together going about 190 mph around a 1.5 mile oval.
Are you kidding? It was great!
Of course, the roots of the two motor sports are a continent apart. NASCAR has distinctly Southern beginnings supposedly based on speed freak moonshine runners plus stock car races around Florida's Daytona Beach. Drag racing's early tire tracks run back to dry lake beds in Southern California.
In the garage on Dickies 500 Sunday, I talked to a fuel guy with Kasey Kahne's Number 9 Dodge car about the appeal of NASCAR versus NHRA. He said that he really likes the fan "party atmosphere" at NASCAR racing - the tailgating, camping, parties and grandstand camaraderie. There's certainly that in NHRA but not on this scale.
The many variables of track racing appeal to him as well; constant adjustments by drivers and teams to track conditions, driving in sun versus shade, reacting to caution flags, reacting to other drivers and reacting to one's own car. There are many adjustments and variables in drag racing, of course, but there aren't hundreds of laps of changes.
As a pit person, he enjoys the team ballet when a car comes in: "It's like synchronized swimming." There is certainly a mechanical choreography to a 75-minute engine rebuild in a drag pit; it's just different from the average 14 second multi-person pit stop boogie.
NASCAR is simply much bigger and there's a lot more money involved, not to mention the cost of a ticket. We're talking about $450 for a good NASCAR seat versus about $60 for a good NHRA seat. Because of the nature of the two sports and the sheer number of stock car fans, you have to pay extra (a lot extra) for a NASCAR pit pass, whereas "every ticket's a pit pass" in NHRA.
I must say, the sheer size of the TMS facility is mind-boggling. The towers and grandstands dominate the skyline just north of Fort Worth. You could fit eight Dallas Cowboy Texas Stadiums into just the TMS infield, and I can attest that schlepping in from one of the outer parking lots is a true human endurance test.
Speaking of money, I saw countless VIP and corporate sponsor tour groups, complete with little tour group signs, being led around the pits and garage. They are often futuristically mike'd to better hear their tour guide. Drag racing certainly has corporate sponsor groups quaffing those complimentary drinks and food in tents near the haulers, but this was an entire sub-industry of VIP coddling.
The main Texas drag strip, the Motorplex in Ennis (near Dallas) is an impressive all-concrete strip and facility, but I'm sorry, it doesn't have condos. Yep, you like the races that much, so you can literally live at the track in one of 76 condominiums in the 10-story Lone Star Tower above Turn Two. If you don't like Texas, there's always the Tara Place Condos at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Get one for yourself in every time zone!
Fan support enriches both sports, but there are more folks who follow NASCAR. Even the tunnel from the infield to the grandstands at TMS has Sharpie odes to favorite drivers: "Junior rocks my world!" and "Angie (hearts) Jeff Gordon."
I spoke with a fan in the grandstands who was decked out in full Jimmie Johnson regalia: jacket, pins and #48 dangly earrings. I asked her how she got involved in the sport:
"Everyone in my office at work was into it but I wasn't," she said. "Then one time I was home sick while the races were on TV, so I watched and got interested."
(I could relate to that, since I started to enjoy college hoops when I was pregnant and had to stay in bed in front of a TV that was tuned to March Madness.)
"Everyone said I had to pick a driver to follow," she continued. "I picked Jimmie Johnson mostly because he was cute. My girlfriend and I are the 'Jiordans' since she likes Jeff Gordon. I like the fact that the sport is fan-based. It needs to stay that way - the drivers must stay accessible to the fans. It's much more than just going around and around a track. I learn something new at every race."
Both sports are incredibly colorful. The race vehicles, the haulers and the team uniforms provide terrific eye candy for the fans. The major difference is that NASCAR vehicles are more logo-dominant. They are colorful, but only as colorful as their sponsor (sunny yellow on the Cheerios car, for example. God forbid you get some sponsor who uses puce or magenta.) Drag racing has more original art around the sponsor logos, a legacy based on sign-painting California pinstriper Von Dutch and his highly stylized flame painting. There are flames on a few NASCAR vehicles, but not nearly as many as the average dragster.
The noise levels are different. In NASCAR, one pair of foamie ear plugs'll do you fine. In Top Fuel or Funny Car, foamies plus ear muffs aren't enough to keep your teeth from chattering with the roaring racket.
At any racing event, strip or oval, you apparently must have scantily-clad babes hawking assorted merchandise. Maybe I wasn't in the right place, but I didn't see as many at this NASCAR track as I see at drag races. A couple of Crown Royal babes in short skirts and black tights just can't compare to those supertanned Skoal women in their black patent-leather bras and miniskirts.
Scanners are unique to NASCAR. Fans can rent something called TrackScan that has "NEXTEL FanView," a handheld device with a tiny TV and access to the frequencies with the chatter between driver and pit crew. They can also rent or buy just the scanner to listen to team audio. I can imagine some of the more colorful language that must come across those things, so if you don't want to hear the purple prose, don't listen in.
Both sports have Budweiser as a major corporate sponsor, so there are plenty of opportunities to buy red Bud gear in support of your favorite team at either the strip or the oval. Full disclosure: I'm a lager or ale person and find Bud beer too watery. Guess I'm outvoted by slightly more than a few million people.
As an unrepentant shopper, I appreciate the opportunity to buy even more gew-gaws at a NASCAR event to go with my lovely John Force Racing, Pedregon brothers and Melanie Troxel T-shirt collection. I got off pretty light -- Reese's Cup stuff for my kids and a Jack Daniel's Racing item or two for me. I skipped the $75 Reese's padded jacket - I like to eat the addictive little buggers, not look like a giant orange piece of candy.
In one important way, however, the drags and NASCAR are exactly alike; you simply must see the races live and in person.
"All drivers to your cars!" Ladies and gentlemen, let's go racing.