NASCAR is as Foreign as Anyplace (to me)

Ordinarily, I write about visiting foreign places. Places outside of my home in North Carolina, USA. However, it’s been awhile since I’ve felt as far away as when I attended my first NASCAR race a mere 90 minutes south of my house.

The lights are stickers. They’re fake! Who knew?!

For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, it involves lots of (mostly) men driving finely-tuned cars at break neck speeds around a giant oval turning left for between several and many hours. Thanks to a visit from a good friend and business associate who loves the sport, I had an excuse to go. He lives in Phoenix and timed his trip to coincide with a race weekend so my brother and I invited him to join us.

Away we went.

In the days leading up to the event, I wasn’t exactly dreading the experience, but I can’t say I was exactly excited about it, either. The weather forecast indicated we’d be hot and humid. Mixing an already uncomfortable day with searing asphalt surfaces meant I wouldn’t be at my best.

Perhaps some of you think warmth sounds fantastic. I’ve even heard stories of people spending a whole entire day sitting on a beach to “soak up the sun.” I must be the odd man out because that sounds like hell to me. I’ve often said I plan to chase winter in my retirement. You know, Winter in Siberia and then head south to Winter in Patagonia.

This was not that.

Hot. Hot. Hot.

Our colleague needed to be in Atlanta the next day, so he selected a hotel near the Charlotte airport. He ran it by me,

“Is this okay?”

I Googled the location, saw it was five minutes from the airport, and said all was good. My brother and I also decided to stay overnight, so I booked our rooms there, too.

As we pulled into the hotel’s parking lot, I immediately realized I should have done more research. Why? It was adjacent to a facility that billed itself as Charlotte’s “Hottest urban nightclub.”

A quick search on Yelp revealed the truth…

Whoops….

Without violating the family-friendly nature of this blog, let’s just say that during checkin, we were in line with several women who looked like they were there to (ahem) perform. This rather unfortunate turn of events was all the more hilarious when you realize my brother is an absolute germophobe. He told me,

“I don’t want to sleep in a bed with lice and fleas and crabs and whatever.”

Who does? My mind goes back to Guam

Anyway, we quickly left the hotel with our minds on the race.

Despite the heat, it was neat to see the track up close. Did you know they remove the port-a-johns during the race?

When we arrived and checked in, we realized we’d really lucked out.

Our seats were in an air conditioned suite (thank goodness) and came with “Pit Passes.” So, we headed to the race track in a fast-moving (think breeze) golf cart.

As we explored these so-called “Pits” (a/k/a exposed garages where highly paid engineers fuel and fix the cars during races), I began sweating. Profusely. The sun cooked my skin. Just as I was about to pass out, I saw it! Like a desert oasis. On the other side of the track. A trailer filled with drinks. It wasn’t Siberia, but it would do. I dashed over, requested 3 bottles of water and handed over $15. Hydration carries a hefty fee on the racetrack. When the other two guys showed up, I pointed them toward the cashier.

After wandering around, we headed to our seats.

Our seats afforded us a great view with an even better cool breeze (from the air con, of course).

We were directed to an elevator and right before the doors opened, there was a flutter of activity when a short man in a dark suit showed up, his face thick with makeup.

Wow! This sport attracts all kinds, I thought.

Then, all of the sudden, people (including some of the workers) began taking pictures of him just before he hopped into our elevator. He was clearly a celebrity NOT into being photographed.

“Who was that?” I asked as we stepped out.

It was Jeff Gordon, a famous race car driver turned commentator.

Still basking in the glow of our brush with greatness, we were among the first to arrive in the suite. I’m a stickler for following the rules. So, despite the fact that the seats weren’t numbered, I wanted to find the appropriate place for us to sit down. I saw a man in a uniform and asked him for advice.

“Sir, where are these seats? Where should we sit?”

He just stared at me, shook his head, and walked away.

“What’s up with that guy,” I wondered aloud. I guess NASCAR isn’t known for customer service?

It turned out it was another retired race car legend, Bobby Allison. He’s one of the 50 greatest drivers of all time, at least according to Wikipedia. Another on the list? Jeff Gordon, of course.

It turned out, one of the benefits of this particular suite was that winners of past races were invited to join guests. To be honest, the air con was a much bigger selling point for me. But, based on my fellow suite-goers, I was in the minority.

I’d later pose for a picture (at his behest, of course). He’d forgotten our earlier exchange.

As the race began, I looked around the room. There was a giant “No gambling” sign, which I didn’t think much of until I saw a group of old guys at the front of the room gambling. Despite my love for games of chance, I was too afraid to get in on the action. I told myself, “You don’t know any of the players, stay out of it!”

While my mind drifted off toward gambling, my brother’s turned back to our hotel (neither of us were “that into” the race). He did his best to book a room somewhere else, but despite all of his effort, he couldn’t make it happen.

Hot, hot, hot. But we were cool, cool, cool in a suite up there!

At some point, I decided to head to the bathroom. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to engage in conversation in the bathroom. I’m strictly business in there. However, apparently rules go out the door at a NASCAR race. The guy next to me coughed and asked,

“Who do you think’s gonna win?”

Now, as I pointed out earlier, I don’t know any of the players. Are they even called players? Probably not. Whatever. I also know that NASCAR fans are passionate about “their guy” and it’s easy to offend someone by saying the wrong name. I didn’t want to enter into any kind of dispute in my current position. So, even though this was probably not all that dangerous a situation, I imagined how it could quickly escalate. I was, in a word, uncomfortable, afraid, and (quite literally) exposed. In a moment of unparalleled inspiration, I said,

“Who’s gonna win? Whoever gets around the track first!”

The guy looked at me for a bit too long given where we were (I freaked out), turned his head a bit to the right (I freaked out a bit more), tightened his eyes (I completely freaked out), and with an expression that could go either way, started laughing like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard (I breathed a sigh of relief).

Now, I think that whole exchange says a lot more about him than it does about my sense of humor. Because, let’s face it, even though it was a stroke of innovative brilliance, I’m positive I’m not the first person to have made that crack. It’s probably the NASCAR equivalent to a “Dad Joke.”

Once he recovered from his overzealous fit of laughter, he told me that he’d asked Bobby Allison the same question. He’d said “Ellison” would win. I don’t know whether that’s a first name or a last name and quite frankly don’t feel like researching it. Feel free to comment with the answer.

Here’s my new favorite driver, Bobby Allison, in his younger years. I think he’s the one on the right.

All that being said, when Bobby Allison’s name came up again, I thought the best thing I could do was get out of there quickly. Let’s just say, I’m not Mr. Allison’s best friend…

So, when all was said and done, I was just glad to make it out alive.

I don’t know who won. By the end, I was just ready for bed. I was so tired, in fact, that I didn’t even care about the location of the hotel. I’ve absolutely stayed in worse ones.

As my great, great grandmother used to say, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” I think it was my great, great grandmother. Maybe it was someone else?

Oh! The good news? No gunshots that night!

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