Monday, June 17, 2013

My first Darlington race? It was the pits!

Here’s a wonderful thing about racetracks. No matter where a person comes from or where they are going, when you go to a racetrack you have a special bond with everybody there as well as everyone who has ever been.  Every track has its own set of stories to tell. Whether it’s your first visit to a track or you've been going for many years, once you go, you’re part of that track’s history.

Dale Earnhardt once said, “And if you happen to be a racecar driver, there’s no victory so sweet, so memorable, as whipping Darlington Raceway.” NASCAR’s closest ever finish happened at Darlington in 2003 when Ricky Craven edged out Kurt Busch for the win by just two thousandths of a second. At one time, a Grand Slam in NASCAR was winning all 4 of NASCAR’s most prestigious races in one year- the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the Coca-Cola 600, and the Southern 500 which was held at Darlington. While no one ever won the Grand Slam, two drivers, Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon, claimed the Small Slam (winning 3 of the 4 races) with their victory at Darlington and earned $1,000,000.

We drove through miles of countryside to get to the track. It’s almost out in the middle of nowhere! You can feel the history the moment you walk underneath the big iron gateway that says Darlington Raceway. My family did our normal pre-race routine. We checked out driver appearances, visited the merchandise trailers, and went to the tweet-up! I even got my first bag of Dale Jr chips, which are delicious by the way!

 While we were at the tweet-up, I checked my Twitter and saw that I was getting an opportunity I had always dreamed of- hot passes!! We met our guide at one of the gates and walked through the tunnel to the infield.

As we exited the tunnel and the track surrounded us, I could feel the history even more. Our first stop? The media center!  We went inside and looked around for a few minutes.  I can definitely see my future self working in one every weekend! After the media center visit, we went to the Hollywood Hotel. Yes, the exact place where Michael Waltrip, Chris Myers, and Darrell Waltrip do the pre-race show!  We went in and looked around. I even got to sit in Michael Waltrip’s chair!!

Then we made the trek across the garage to the drivers’ meeting. Attending the drivers meeting was 1 best NASCAR experiences I’ve ever had! There is so much to tell about the drivers meeting that I had to make the experience a whole separate post about it here. 

Our next stop was driver introductions. I had seen drivers introductions from the front before, but I had never seen what happened from the other side of the stage before the drivers went were introduced. This race was on Mother’s Day weekend so drivers had the opportunity to have their mom walk out with them and wave to the crowd. I stood with the AWESOME Jeff Gluck, as he judged the crowd’s volume for each driver for his NASCAR noise meter. 

When driver introductions were over, we walked down pit road to see the drivers getting ready to race. Some of them were still riding in the cars they got in after introductions, so we stopped and waved. Greg Biffle even smiled and waved back to me! While we were walking we saw Michael Waltrip do his grid walk for Fox’s pre race show and I was in the background waving at the camera during some of it! I spied clint Bowyer standing next to his car and ran over to talk to him. 

After the prayer and National Anthem, we walked through the garage to find a good place to watch the race. As we were walking by all the haulers, Richard Childress walked by and I got a picture with him. 

We finally found a spot at the entrance of Turn 1. When the cars raced by for the first time, I could feel the rush of the air and the rubber flying off the track. There’s nothing more beautiful than 43 colorful cars roaring through the first corner at the beginning of the race!

After a few laps we walked down pit road and found Dale Jr’s pit box. It was incredible to be so close to the pit stops! It’s a totally different perspective than in the stands and even the up close shots from TV. After a pit stop, the tires get inspected the fuel cans get refilled, new tires are leaned against the wall, and data about the fuel and tires is collected and delivered to the top of the pit box. Everybody on the team had a job they had to get done. The pit box looked like an ant hill for a few minutes after each stop with everyone running around doing their job.

At the end of the race we walked back towards the haulers to try to catch a glimpse of the drivers. Right as we walked by Victory Lane, Matt Kenseth climbed out of his car and Gatorade and confetti went flying! I grabbed a few pieces of colored confetti from the ground outside Victory Lane as a souvenir from a special day! At the haulers, crews were packing up the cars and tools, changing out of their uniforms and scrambling to catch their ride home.

I knew I would love my first trip to Darlington, but I had no idea it hold some of my best ever NASCAR experiences! When a driver scrapes the wall at Darlington and makes that black streak on the wall, it’s known as getting their “Darlington Stripe”. It means they’re gaining experience and it’s the one time drivers are almost proud to hit the wall. Every stripe on the wall has a unique story, just like every fan’s experience at the track. Just a few weeks ago I earned my first of what I hope to be many Darlington stripes!

Follow me on Twitter! @mleben88

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Check on my NASCAR Bucket List!

Every NASCAR fan has a Bucket List. Going to the Daytona 500, meeting their favorite driver, and touring the shops in Charlotte are experiences that are probably on most lists. I have been lucky enough to check all of those off my Bucket List in the last few years. However, I knew that the one experience on the top of my NASCAR Bucket List would be hard to accomplish. I knew that it may not happen until I get my dream job in NASCAR so it is still hard for me to believe that I have already been able to add it in my Bucket!

What could possibly be so elusive that I might not ever accomplish it? The NASCAR driver’s meeting.  This is one of the only ways  that a person can see all 43 drivers for a race in one place. You can  watch as the drivers interact with each other, the crew chiefs, and special visitors. You can observe as drivers and crew chiefs get final instructions from NASCAR officials for the race.  You can feel the excitement in the air as everyone gets ready for the next few hours.

The driver’s meeting was held in a big white tent that seemed much smaller than it actually was because of all the people inside. I arrived early enough to be able to stand at the very front of one side. I watched all the drivers and crew chiefs drift in. They seemed both focused and relaxed at the same time.  I rattled off the names of all the drivers to my parents as the drivers walked in the tent and chatted with each other.  All of them sought out their crew chiefs as they entered the tent and sat beside them as they waited for the meeting to start.  I was starstuck seeing all the drivers gathered in one place. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica sat near where I was standing. Matt Kenseth, the eventual race winner, sat in the back. Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Gordon, and Kasey Kahne sat on the other side of the tent from me, but I still had a clear view of them. Clint Bowyer sat in front of Jeff Gordon. A few minutes before the meeting began, Chad Knaus walked in and looked around for a seat. He walked over towards where I was standing and sat down right in front of me. Not long after, Jimmie Johnson walked in and sat beside his crew chief. I was standing less than a foot away from Jimmie Johnson!! One of the hardest parts during this time was not asking for a picture or an autograph from any of the drivers or their crew chiefs. As fan-friendly as NASCAR drivers are, I didn’t want to disturb them because I knew they were on the job!

The meeting started with Robin Pemberton introducing special guests and then a video was played explaining the rules. In the video, many race details that many fans might not think about are reviewed.  Drivers were reminded of Darlington’s specifics - the locations of the emergency vehicles, the restart zone, pit road speed, green-white-checkered finishes, and pit road timing lines are just a few examples  The drivers were so focused on the video; they didn’t let anything take their attention away from the directions being given.  And it seemed that as soon as it had started, the meeting ended. I stood there watching the drivers and crew chiefs leave the tent - trying to soak in the whole experience and etch it into my memory.

Everyone has things they look forward to…things they hope to experience at some point in their life.  Sometimes, after the event happens, we realize it wasn’t all we hoped it would be and even feel disappointed. This was NOT the case with my experience at the  driver’s meeting in Darlington!  Every aspect of this behind-the scenes was a dream come true and even better than I had imagined it could be!   So, no matter what your dreams…NASCAR related or others….don’t follow them – CHASE THEM!

Special thanks to the gentleman in NASCAR who made this Bucket List dream come true for me- you know who you are and I cannot thank you enough!

Follow me on Twitter! @mleben88

Driver's Meeting

Kevin Harvick

Clint Bowyer and Mike Helton

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Carl Edwards

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson