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4 Reasons Why You Need to See a NASCAR Race


4 Reasons Why You Need to See a NASCAR Race

NASCAR is one of those sports that most people don’t just pick up and start following.  For many fans, it is passed down. If a member of your family watched NASCAR when you were a kid, you’re more likely to be a fan as an adult.

I myself sort of fell into it. I attended college in North Carolina, the heart of NASCAR, back in the mid 2000s, which was the peak of NASCAR’s viewership. I went to my first race with a bunch of out-of-state friends, and honestly, we went somewhat ironically.  By the time the green flag dropped, I was hooked. As both a sports fan and car enthusiast, I was immediately drawn to the power and speed of these cars as well as the intense rivalry between drivers.

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This year, I headed to Daytona to experience the Great American Race in all its glory. I wanted to understand what makes this event so special and what makes its fans so passionate. My hope was to get some perspective on how the relationship between NASCAR and its fans is evolving, even as viewership has been steadily declining for the last decade, something the sport is acutely aware of.  But there are still a lot of reasons to give the sport a try both in person and on TV.

The Experience

NASCAR tailgating partyGetty Images

I think we can all agree: You don’t need to be a fan of horse racing to enjoy the Kentucky Derby. The same can be said about NASCAR: You don’t have to be into car racing to enjoy a race.  

Just swap out big hats and mint juleps for cutoffs and Bud, and the principle is the same — an overall experience that can be enjoyed by all. It’s not just the race that makes the sport appealing, it’s the party, probably the biggest party you have ever been to. Tens of thousands of people will set up camp for the entire weekend and none of them have anywhere to be until Monday.  There are actual bars set up in the parking lot, where you can buy a drink and catch up on the other sports of the day. Food, tailgating, camping all right outside the track.  

And the party doesn’t stop once you get inside either. There is typically some sort of extreme sports show before the race starts, along with a concert from a major pop or country act.  Beyond that, you can bring your own beer into the track. How many other events do you know of where you can do that?

This is also an absolute bucket list event. Even with everything else going on to vie for your attention, there is nothing quite like feeling 40 cars screaming past you wide open at 200 mph. You feel it as much as you see and hear it, and it is something to experience.

The Drivers

William ByronGetty Images

From its inception, NASCAR has been built by great drivers and the rivalries between them.  Guys such as Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon are household names to this day. While the drivers of yesteryear have all moved on, NASCAR has ushered in a new crop of young drivers that are a lot of fun to follow, like Austin Dillon and Corey Lajoie, who are full of personality and exciting to watch. Or Bubba Wallace, who at 25 is already one of the most successful African American drivers the sport has ever seen.

NASCAR does a great job building a real connection between the drivers and the fans. For example, William Byron is a 21-year-old who came up through an online racing simulator and did not race an actual car until the age of 15. He ultimately replaced Gordon when the 47-year-old retired, and this year, Byron won the Pole at the Daytona 500.  

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Whether it’s in person or on TV, you really feel like you know who these guys are and what motivates them, which makes it a lot easier to identify a favorite and follow them through a race or a season.  But unlike previous super stars, these guys are serious athletes. Drivers need to be in peak physical condition, as temperatures reach well over 110 degrees inside the cars during a race. Many of these guys will keep a sustained heart rate of about 160bpm, losing upwards of 10 lbs of water weight over the course of a four-hour race.

The Drama

NASCAR race car wreckGetty Images

There are some serious grudges between many of the drivers and those often play out both on and off the track. The WWE-esque mentality has been a part of NASCAR since the beginning and has only gotten more dramatic in recent years.  The first-ever fully televised race back in 1979 ended with the drivers who were running in first and second wrecking each other out of race and fist fighting in the infield grass while the winner crossed the finish line.

More recently, a bloodied Kyle Busch had to be physically separated from Joey Logano and his crew after an on-track incident that spilled over to the pits. (Imagine the benches being cleared at an MLB game, but with actual punches thrown.)  Back in 2014, Tony Stewart threw his car into reverse and backed into Brad Keselowski as they were pulling down pit lane. Keselowski retaliated, ending in two perfectly good race cars being trashed post race.

These incidents are not manufactured, these guys really don’t like each other and it makes the on-track beating and banging for position infinitely more entertaining.  It’s like watching all of your darkest road rage fantasies play out right before your eyes.

NASCAR is well aware of this fact and encourages this behavior to a certain extent. While fines are handed out after an altercation, it is typically just a slap on the wrist. NASCAR openly admits this is good for the sport.

And while there are plenty of drivers to root for, one of the best things about NASCAR are the guys you root against.  You just love to boo racers such as Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. It’s pretty surreal to watch a guy win a race, and be heckled by a hundred thousand people as he gets out of his car to take the checkered flag. Like the wrestlers of the WWE, some drivers embrace the bad boy reputation and play it up with the fans in post-race interviews.  

The Access

NASCAR pit crewGetty Images

There is a ton of information to unpack at a race for the first-time viewer, but NASCAR has a solution for that.  When you watch a race, either at home or at the track, you can access all of the team communications over an open broadcast along with race control data.  Imagine being able to hear a football coach call the plays to the quarterback of an NFL team, or read the signals from the third-base coach and catcher in an MLB game.  

There is a lot more to NASCAR than just going fast and turning left.  With the access provided, you can really dive into the strategy of your favorite driver and understand just how important the next pass may be or why he can’t seem to keep up with the car in front of him anymore.  Beyond the strategy, it can also be pretty entertaining to listen to drivers talk to their spotters high above the track. Most of the conversations revolve around the actual race, but sometimes during cautions, they joke around with one another or vent about the idiot drivers they seem to be surrounded by.  If you wanted to take this a step further, you can also purchase tickets to watch the race from pit lane. Here, you not only get to listen to the teams but also watch them prep for and execute a pit stop from 15 feet away.

If you’re lucky enough to attend in person, you also may get access to the drivers. For example, when I went, I had the opportunity to ride with them. In fact, I was greeted by none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr, one of the biggest icons in the sport. He may have retired at the end of the 2017 season, but is still heavily involved to help fans bridge the gap between the superstars of yesteryear and the up-and-comers of today. He explained to me what a big deal the Daytona 500 was to all the drivers competing while pointing out interesting features of the track, like the 31-degree banking in the corners. He did this while circling the track at 106mph which happened to be the top speed of that truck. And I wasn’t the only one who had this amazing experience — he did this with about 100 others that same day. That kind of experience is not something you’re going to get at many sporting events.

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In terms of the racing itself, NASCAR falls a little short these days relative to the cars of years past, but this is for good reason. As technology has advanced, the cars have gotten faster and handling has improved. Most of these improvements have come from aerodynamics packages that increase the amount of grip a car has on the track.  But as the name implies, aerodynamic packages need specific air flows, if you have too much or too little air the car becomes unsettled and ultimately slower.

Gone are the days of Dale Earnhardt running out of track and having to make a pass through the infield grass.  NASCAR has made a few rule changes like awarding points for winning a specific section of a race or offering a playoff bid to every driver that wins a race to address the lack of action in the short term. Are these things along with highlighting the aspects of sport that have always made it great enough to say NASCAR is again on the rise? I would say it’s a pretty good start but they still have some room for improvement.

The next big step will be the complete car redesign scheduled for the 2021 season with hopes of more exciting racing.  From there, I guess we will see. But even with the aforementioned shortcomings, NASCAR races are still a blast to attend or watch at home, especially once you have a little better idea of what to look for.

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