A NASCAR Weekend
I confess I am an inveterate NASCAR fan. When the last of the 40+ season’s event are over and written into the racing history books, I go through some mild withdrawal symptoms. Hopefully less than others.
Occasionally, I’m able to make it to a track and watch a weekend’s event live and in person.
This year, my son Geoff decided we should go the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, for a weekend indulgence. If some of this narrative seems patronizing, keep in mind that there are some folks who don’t know what the acronym NASCAR means.
My son Geoff made all the seating and ticket decisions and left me with the much simpler task of arranging lodging for us and five other family members.
I collected Geoff at the Ontario Airport on Thursday, March 17, after his two-hour flight from Portland, Oregon; Colleen and her husband Richard brought their eldest son John over from Los Alamitos, California; Phillip and his wife Cindy came from Camarillo, California, only for the Sunday main race. Me, I live in Ridgecrest, California, near the NW corner of California’s share of the Great Mojave Desert.
The weekend actually started on Thursday evening with a parade of the big 18-wheelers used to haul the race cars and support stuff from event to event.
Two races were scheduled for the weekend: Xfinity cars for Saturday, Sprint Cup cars for Sunday. Google those, if you need more information.
Friday was devoted to practice sessions and Sprint Cup Car position qualifications for Sunday.
Practice is a somewhat misleading term. What the drivers and team mechanics are really doing is tuning up the cars for the track. Every track is different and the set up for the Auto Club Speedway won’t be the same for any other track. The tracks vary in length, banking is different in the turns, the pavement surfaces may be bumpier or smoother, the tires will wear differently, the weather is never the same…, I think you get the picture. The drivers will take their car out, run it around the track for a while, and go back into the garage to tweak this or that.
Hopefully, when the time arrives for Sprint Cup cars qualifications, the cars are ready to go as fast as they possibly can. Qualifying can be, at least for me, sometimes confusing, and not always the same procedure. The Auto Club Speedway is, give or take, two miles in length. Qualifying there amounts to three stages. In the first stage, all 40 cars have a certain amount of time to zoom around the track and establish a running time for one lap. When the time is up, the slowest 16 cars are finished and head back to their garages. After a brief time out, the fastest 24 go back on the track for another go. The car speeds always seem to be different and the fastest guy in the first session might end up being one of the twelve cars eliminated in the second round. Another short time break and the third and final session rolls onto the pavement. This time the fastest car earned the position to start the race on the front row with the other eleven lining up behind him according to their speed followed in turn by the next twelve and so on.
Maybe by now, you’ve caught a hint that my favorites are Jamie McMurray, Car #1, and Jimmie Johnson, Car #48. JamieMac because one of his co-sponsors is Cessna Aircraft. My first wife, Florence, picked Johnson because she was born in Southern California (Escondido) and he is from El Cajon a short drive away. After 2008, when she left, I just stuck with #48. She picked a winner; since then he has won six NASCAR Championships.
Saturday was a busy day — lot to see and plenty of walking to get there. Geoff bought us tickets for a Garage Tour.
We were guided behind the scenes and got close-up glimpses of mechanics working on the cars, brief talks about tires and tech inspections, and an opportunity to see some of the stars of the racing world.
When the tour was over, we kind of got mixed up looking for the exit and ended up following another tour group for a second lap through the garages. Purely by accident, eh Geoff???
After some more “practice” by the Sprint cars, the Xfinity did their qualification runs. Not long after that came the running of the 300 mile Xfinity race. The major difference between Xfinity and Sprint is the car engines, with Xfinity running 100-150 less horsepower and the generally lower experience level of the drivers. Some of the Sprint drivers, notable Kyle Busch, drive in many of the Xfinity races. I’m one of the people that think the ‘big boys’ should stay out of it. Especially when they win most of the races in the lower league. Just sayin….
The lower horsepower naturally results in lower speeds; maybe ten MPH less, but the action is exciting and fun to watch. I need to say that I’m not one that goes to the races to see the crash and smash and occasionally occurs. When I say fun to watch, I’m referring to the challenges for position and the general excitement.
This Xfinity race ended in high drama. Just after beginning the last lap, the lead car (driven by none other than Kyle Busch) blew a tire and was quickly passed by the second place car. The drama level spiked up another notch when that car ran out of gas and Busch regained the lead shredding rubber from the blown tire all the while. Crank up the excitement some more as the third place car closed on Busch, now riding on the rim and showering sparks. With the finish line in sight Busch tried to block Austin Dillon but just didn’t have the speed and power. Dillon won the race with by only seven tenths of a second! Drama? Excitement? You bet!
Sunday morning, and the track is virtually dead until race time. Off the track, the crews are wheeling out the cars and staging them for the opening laps. The pits are being prepared with tires, tools and the myriad stuff that may or may not be used during the race, fuel cans are filled, the crew chief’s viewing stand is erected, the opening ceremony stage is hauled into place, and the stands are slowly filling.
In addition to tickets, Geoff bought us “Pit Passes” that allowed us to walk around and see the activities from a close perspective. Better yet, the pit passes gave us access to the track and some of the infield. Time for a bit of trivia: the track’s front stretch is 3,100 feet long with a ‘kink’ in the middle at the start/finish line and is banked 11º.
The four turns are banked 14º. According to NASCAR, the track is exactly two-miles long, but the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) measures it as 2.029 miles, bickering over 153 feet and a few inches. Walking on the 11º banking was kind of weird. The optical illusion made me take baby steps for a while.
After lunching on a 12” spicy sausage purported to be authentic N’awlins Andouille, I got to my seat before the opening ceremonies. While displaying a huge American Flag during a parachute drop is impressive, I have (patriotic maybe) mixed emotions about dragging it across the ground during the landing… and then just wadding it up to stuff in a bag afterwards.
After a three or four warm-up laps it’s time to go racing. When the starter waves the green flag, this happens:
The race isn’t always about being the most skilled driver, or having the fastest car. The cars burn up their fuel (3-5 miles per gallon) and wear out their tires in only 40 laps or less.
So pit stops are a choreographed dance by the pit crews:
Kevin Harvick, always a crowd favorite, had an almost unsurmountable lead with only five laps remaining when… more drama began as none other than Kyle Busch blew a tire and slammed into the wall on turn three to bring out a caution flag. That bunched the field together for a restart.
Harvick’s sure win evaporated when Florence’s guy, Jimmie Johnson, surged into the lead to capture the checkered flag.
Drama? Excitement? You bet!