I used to love NASCAR. I mean, I was enthralled by it. I went to my first race, on a whim, at Pocono Raceway in 1989, and instantly became a fan.
But over the years, and a few years after the death of the iconic and legendary driver Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500 in February 2001, I lost interest, and stopped following. In a sport that is known for its commercialism, the telecasts were becoming over-commercialized, if that is even possible. It was impossible to get tickets to the races, and when the opportunity did arise, the tickets were costing in excess of $100 a seat.
But an interesting phenomenon occurred - my 7 year-old son is as much in love with NASCAR now as I was at age 25. He can equate drivers' names with their car numbers and sponsors, by memory. He recreates races in his bedroom with the 15 or so die-cast cars I've passed on down to him. He even is learning his math through NASCAR (An example: the assignment was to create math word problems. He came up with: 10 cars were on the track. 2 got caught up in a wreck. How many cars are left in the race?).
So a few weeks ago, I thought it was time. I asked my son if he'd be interested in seeing a NASCAR race in person. Of course, the answer came back in the affirmative. I warned him that it wasn't like watching a race on TV - it would be hot, it would be loud, and it would be long. He assured me that he didn't mind, and I contacted a friend of mine who I used to attend races with back in the day. His 6 year-old son has the same passion for NASCAR as my son, so it would be a great match.
We got tickets for the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway in Delaware, and yesterday was race day. Our plan was to get to the track on Saturday afternoon, camp out overnight, hit the race at 1 PM, and hopefully be home by bedtime. It went all according to plan, until Sunday morning came.
At NASCAR races, many of the race teams bring souvenir trucks to sell their wares to their fans outside the track. I knew this going in, and pitched this to my son. I told him, that as a treat to him, I'd be willing to spend $50 for any souvenirs he wanted. Sunday morning we toured the trailers, and he was wide-eyed at everything being sold there. And then we ventured in to the Family Fun Zone, an area outside the track that had attractions set up by sponsors to keep people busy before the race. The boys had an absolute blast! So many things to do there, we couldn't even see it all.
Back when I was attending races in the '90s, this wasn't around. The trailers were, but you didn't see many kids, because there just wasn't much for them to do. But I am amazed at how family (and kid) friendly NASCAR has become (or maybe it's just Dover). But something happened yesterday: because of this pre-race experience, I started becoming interested in NASCAR again. I admit, it wasn't the same - the grandstands, which when I was attending races were overflowing, were about 60% full yesterday. The drivers don't have the same personalities as they used to, and I didn't drink nearly as much beer as I used to at races (not a bad thing, believe me). Simply put, there are more kids around, and that's OK.
My brother-in-law gave me a scanner so we could listen to the drivers communicating with their pit crews, and we had great seats above Turn 4 right at the entrance to pit road. It also helped that my son's favorite driver, Jimmie Johnson, had his pit stall right in front of us. When they gave the command to "start your engines", the smile on my son's face was priceless. And when Johnson took the lead around lap 200, his excitement at seeing that was phenomenal.
We didn't make it through the entire race, though. the sun was beating on us all day, and after an almost-sleepless night in the tent, the boys were simply beat. So we headed home around lap 300 and made it home from Dover by 6:30 PM, beating the storms in the process.
But my son can't stop talking about the weekend - so much so that he wants to go to the NASCAR race in Richmond in September. This one is a night race, though, ending around 11 PM, so we need to talk about that one.
I've coached my son for 4 seasons of baseball and one season of basketball. I'm with every day after school, but I can't help but think that this bonding experience was even more special. I see in him the same passion that I had in me some 20+ years ago. It's something we can talk about and have fun with. And although I'd be overjoyed if he'd show this same passion for baseball, I have no problem with him enjoying what I now see as a sport that knows who the target market they'll need to keep in order to continue to thrive - the kids.