The view form pit road during the national anthem. (Photo by Travis Durkee)

Saturday night I attended my first NASCAR event, the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. As a member of the media you would think that I wouldn’t get the full experience of a NASCAR event. The grandstands and the fields filled with shirtless tailgaters would be the obvious choice to get the real fan experience, but being in the infield, garages and pit road taught me why the sport has such an incredible following.

I’ll be honest; I went into the day with the usual preconceptions about racing. However, after I finally found my parking lot and way into the infield, the concentration of hairy, shirtless, denim-short wearing men chasing cheap whiskey with Budweiser was much less than expected. Don’t get me wrong though, there were a few.

It didn’t take long to get a taste of the racing culture. I’m pretty sure the gentleman driving the golf cart that transported me into the infield was looking for a personal best time from the parking lot to the media center with no regard to pedestrians or other, much larger vehicles. I pretty sure I bent the bar I was holding onto during his qualifying run. Needless to say, it put me in the racing mood.

By this time it was only 1:30 in the afternoon and the festivities were just beginning. I took a stroll around the infield to check out the campers, some I wouldn’t mind living in for several years and others that were merely old school buses with a lawn chair for a driver’s seat and a couch bolted to the top.

Later, after spending $10 on Bojangles, I ventured into the garage area where the cars are worked on up until race time. This was when the atmosphere really hit me. The sounds of turning wrenches, the smell of grease and rubber, the sight of bug-eyed kids getting the chance to see larger-than-life racing machines up close and the way I could feel the rumble of a revving engine inside of my chest was remarkable.

Then as I walked along the pits I couldn’t believe how close the fans could get to the action. Only a matter of feet separated those in t-shirts and flip-flops from crew members lugging around tires and gas tanks. It was a feel for a sport that I’ve never experienced before. Many fans were walking around wearing radio headsets that allowed them to listen in on conversations amongst crews and drivers. That’s the type of connectedness that even Mickey Loomis longs for. I was still hours away from seeing a single lap of racing and I was hooked.

Then the cars finally rolled out of the garage and onto the track for the Sprint Showdown, basically an appetizer for the big race later in the evening. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race to earn a spot in the All-Star Race but A.J. Allmendinger was the story of the 40-lap sprint.

Allmendinger, who held the pole position for the race, was forced into the pits with a flat left-front tire before the green flag was dropped to start the race. Luckily for me, I stationed myself behind his pit stall and witnessed his crew throw a new shoe on his #22 Pennzoil Dodge fast enough to avoid starting the race a lap down.

After the 40 laps, Allmendinger managed to make his way from dead last of 22 drivers all the way up to second place to earn a spot in the All-Star Race along with Earnhardt Jr. Along with every other media member and fan, I was amazed. This was the type of story I wasn’t used to seeing in the sport. I’m sure it’s happened before but I had a front-row seat for this one. Then the way Allmendinger carried himself in the post-race press conference and how badly he wanted to win made the story even better. For the first time I took a vested interest in a driver. Granted, journalists are supposed to remain objective, but anyone who says they weren’t rooting for him in the slightest is lying.

As the sun went down and the lights came on, everything became even more of a spectacle. Before the start of the All-Star Race I took another trip to the pit area to see just how far my credentials could get me. I ended up walking along pit road when I faintly heard a voice come over the loud speakers, which aren’t very loud since all the speakers are pointed towards the grandstands. Next thing I know, pit crews are lining up on pit road and it finally dawns on me that it was time for the pre-race prayer and national anthem. I frantically jumped alongside the crew for Kasey Kahne. I was standing in the middle of a building nearly two miles around and surrounded by well over 100,000 race fans, something I can’t properly describe. I’ll admit though, I did break out my phone and snap a picture of the scene during the anthem, sorry America.

I managed to catch the first few laps of the race from just behind the short-wall on pit road before I was told that I couldn’t be there. I refused to go back to the media center though, I couldn’t watch the race on television screens when I could find a place to actually hear and feel the action.

I eventually ended up on top of a trailer with a group of strangers, partly for the view but mostly because I was offered a plate of free barbecue. What was I supposed to say?

Atop the trailer all I could really see was turns three and four, but that was plenty for me. If there is a sport that television doesn’t do justice, it’s NASCAR. The sheer speed of the cars going through those turns is unreal to witness in person. And the excitement of the fans I was mingling with was on edge every time the pack of cars came into view. They may have only been able to see a portion of the track, but that portion was theirs and they loved it. They cheered for their driver just as I would Cam Newton or Derek Jeter.

That was when I fully realized how this sport was just like any other. There were fans of drivers and teams, but the difference with racing and what makes it such an event is that there are 43 teams  (23 in this case)competing at a time instead of two. You can’t find that type of competition anywhere else.

So essentially, my night at the track was amazing. I started my drive to Charlotte Motor Speedway as a skeptical media member and left as a new fan that can’t wait to go back next weekend. I may not be ready to cut off my sleeves or shave my favorite driver’s number into my chest hair, but you never know what loud engines and free barbecue can make a man do.