It may be easy to write off NASCAR as a pseudo-sport, but there are many die-hard fans of the racing league that will do anything to see their favorite driver in the victory lane.
For them, Richmond is synonymous with NASCAR, as it hosts one of the high-stake races. I had the opportunity to work for ESPN at the Air Guard 400 Sprint Cup Series Race, and my attitude took a complete 180 on NASCAR culture and racing. Troy Stephens, an operations coordinator for ESPN, described Richmond as the "classiest" city that the team visits. This reminded me that as students, it is important to embrace the idea that NASCAR has a home in Richmond.
It is unfair for anyone to judge a NASCAR race until you have truly experienced one from beginning to end. Going to "the race" does not mean buying a shirt from Wal-Mart, throwing on some jorts and leaving before the race.
"The sights, sounds, smells and vibration of the race are all kinds of things that you can't put into words unless you have experienced a race -- you have to be about it and feel it," said Richie Denzler, manager of community and public relations at Richmond International Raceway.
On Saturday, Sept. 11, Richmond International Raceway hosted the Air Guard 400 Sprint Cup Series race. The Richmond raceway is a short track; three-fourths mile around in a D-shaped oval. This was the last race before the 10-race Chase for the Cup, where the 12 racers with the most points will compete.
Denny Hamlin was the Sprint Cup Champion and will be the leader of the pack for the cup chase. Four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson finished in third. Johnson will enter the cup chase in second, 10 points behind Hamlin.
Broadcasting a NASCAR event is like "putting on a Super Bowl every week," Stephens said. ESPN alone brings in more than 400 people, in addition to the thousands of people staffed by the raceway.
Once you have the raceway prepared, it's time for NASCAR fans to arrive. A NASCAR fan is typically stereotyped as a Southern, beer-drinking, red-blooded American patriot who likes to have a good time.
"Whether it be the speed, partying or values celebrated, it is the good ol' boys that like to go to NASCAR," said John Miller, a professor at Longwood University who studies NASCAR culture. "Hell, I have a Ph.D. and I go to these races; I don't think you have to be a mechanic to enjoy it."
While the majority of people attending the race are NASCAR fans, there is also a plethora of college students enjoying the festivities. Walking through the tailgating areas, one will see plenty of Greek letters, college stickers and students disguised as NASCAR fans.
"It is Southern life, like tailgating for a football game or going to a Jimmy Buffet concert," Miller said. "You can drink as much as you can, play games, grill and cut loose."
Senior Pat Savery organized a bus for Richmond students to the raceway because it "enable everyone to have a good time," he said. The bus left before the actual race at 5 p.m. To Savery, the experience was more of an entertainment factor, rather than simply watching cars go around in circles.
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If you decide to stay through tailgating, then it is finally racetime, ladies and gentleman.
Like any sport, NASCAR has its stand-out personalities. There are showmen like football's Chad Ochocinco, veterans like Brett Favre and troublemakers like Ben Roethlisbeger.
"The real reason people come is because there are personalities competing and drama is being played out on the track," Miller said.
Stephens said driver rivalries and personalities were how the media made TV production more dramatic and suspenseful. The media uses this to its advantage by asking the same questions and getting drivers' emotions going. Troublemaker Kyle Busch drove a pink car with baby seals, puppies and hearts on it because a little girl won a contest that allowed her to design the No. 18 Toyota. Boy, did the media eat that up.
After a qualifying round and several practice laps on Friday, drivers and their crew were ready to race 400 laps on Saturday night. Each driver's crew has up to 16 men including a driver, owner, crew chief, car chief, strategists, pit members, gas members and jack men. However, only seven members of the crew are permitted over the wall during a pit stop.
Competition among crewmembers is high and time is of the essence. Kevin Harvick's tire-changer took a long time of 17.2 seconds.
I stood on the track when the Christian and patriotic traditions began. Where at most sporting events they will sing the national anthem, NASCAR events start off with two American anthems, the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America," which are followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. On Sept. 11, hearing the songs being chanted proudly and seeing the red, white and blue patterns across the stadium sent chills down my spine.
Because of NASCAR's strong support of the military, there were hundreds of soldiers, a military air show, men parachuting onto the raceway with American flags and patriotism beyond belief.
After the pre-race festivities, it was time for the drivers to start their engines. One of the most surprising things about a NASCAR race is how loud the engines are. If you are not wearing earplugs, it is quite possible you may suffer from ear damage -- no joke.
Each ESPN pit reporter has a pit spotter that offers them race information and public interest stories throughout the race. How is that information delivered? All through handing notes, because no one can hear. I felt like I was sitting in 10th grade history class all over again.
Four hundred laps and several pit stops later, it was time for the drivers to cross the finish line. Although many don't regard the drivers as true athletes, there is certainly an amount of athletic stamina needed to maintain focus in a car for hours.
I ran with the reporter I was working with to get interviews of the top finishers. Then, more than ever, it was clear how NASCAR is one big advertisement. The car, the athlete himself, even down to the drink that perfectly faces the camera is all a part of marketing.
In "Talladega Nights," Will Farrell's contract with Powerade stipulates that he mention the drink at each dinner grace. Though exaggerated for comedic purposes, this scene is a fine reflection of just how much marketing is involved in NASCAR. Drivers are paid based on how many times they take a sip of their Coke, Powerade or water during an interview.
I watched Hamlin pop champagne in the victory lane and celebrate with his gorgeous girlfriend, and realized that it's the drama, patriotism and fun-loving culture of NASCAR that attracts people.
I will always have my "Big Four" in sports teams -- the Capitals, Wizards, Redskins and Orioles -- but now I have another sport to follow and a favorite driver that happened to wink at me when I gave him water -- Tony Stewart.
Contact reporter Amanda Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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