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!

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