The sound. The smell. The exhilaration.
Prior to the 2017 Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway, I had never experienced a race in person. After being sent on assignment to one of NASCAR’s premier tracks, I fully understand why 75 million fans are crazy about this sport.*
Here are the Top 10 highlights from my first NASCAR race:
10. Arriving at the track
I arrived at the track around 1 PM. From the moment I exited my cab, a raspy roar filled the air. It turns out some cars were getting in one last practice for Saturday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. I know race cars don’t have mufflers, but the sound of finely-tuned 5.7L engines with straight pipes was definitely something new to me.
The next thing I noticed was the size of “The Last Great Colosseum.” This place is massive. It has a seating capacity of 160,000, which is almost double the average NFL or college football stadium. After taking a minute to soak it all in, I was ready to become part of the action.
9. Walking around the track
As I made my way around the track, I felt like I was walking through a county fair. There were rows of food trucks, merchandise stands and racing games. Large tents offered seating and a live band was tuning up on a platform stage. It was early (the race didn’t start until 7:30 PM), but there was a buzz in the air. You could tell that everyone was preparing for a big party.
8. Getting my credentials
I’ve been to a few dozen concerts and sporting events throughout my life, but never sprung for backstage passes. Thanks to OneMain Racing, that streak came to an end at the Food City 300.
To be honest, just asking people where to find the credentials tent felt awesome. Once the laminates were placed around my neck, I was ready to show them to anyone who wanted (or was required) to see them.
7. Walking on the track
If you want to access the infield, there are two options: underground tunnels or walking on the track. Although there’s typically a flurry of activity before the race, there are also brief pockets of downtime. I was lucky enough to approach the track during a moment of inactivity and was waved through.
The first thing I noticed was the banking. The corners of the track range from 24-28 degrees and it felt like walking down a very steep driveway. It’s hard to believe the drivers zip around these turns between 70-80 mph.
The second thing I felt was an appreciation of my surroundings. To me, walking on the concrete at Bristol was equivalent to the grass at Fenway Park or the hardwood at Madison Square Garden. So much history has occurred here, and to observe this legendary coliseum from where the action takes place was spectacular.
6. Admiring our replica #1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet
As a car enthusiast, I have a deep admiration for unique and well-maintained vehicles. As a OneMain employee, I feel a deep sense of pride whenever I see our name, logo and company colors. That said, you can only imagine how I felt when I walked up to the replica of our #1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet.
For the record, this car isn’t an empty shell. It’s a full replication of the vehicle that Elliott Sadler drives, engine included. During my walk around, I had the pleasure of meeting race car program manager Mark Williams. Mark not only keeps the replica in showroom condition, he also hauls it around the country to various company branches and events. After enthusiastically explaining the details of his job, Mark fired up the engine to show off its unmistakable roar. Overall, it was a memorable experience to see the replica in person and meet a colleague with the same passion for cars.
5. Exploring the infield
After receiving my credentials, I immediately set course for the infield. To get there, you first had to walk down a gated entranceway outside of the track. I may have disappointed a few people along the fence who were waiting to see someone famous, but it didn’t break my stride.
Once I made it to the infield, I shifted my pace down to second gear. I had no reason to rush and there was a lot going on all around me. You had to keep your head on a swivel because you never knew when a crew member rolling a tire could dart in front of you. It was fast-paced but not chaotic. I was definitely impressed.
4. Getting a tour of the JR Motorsports trailer
After exploring the infield, I met up with Erin Sagester, director of marketing for Drivers Choice Marketing. I was very lucky to have someone so friendly and professional lead me around throughout the day and the JR Motorsports trailer was our first stop. JR Motorsports is the race team and management company for Elliott Sadler, the driver sponsored by OneMain.
This was the first door she (literally) opened for me. Once inside, I was amazed at the cleanliness and organization. Everything from spare parts to snacks and drinks had a designated cabinet, and nothing was out of place. You could tell this was a big-league operation.
During the visit, Erin introduced me to Kristin Bauer, a marketing & sponsor relations expert for JR Motorsports. Listening to Erin and Kristen describe their daily responsibilities was incredible. After leaving the trailer, I had a newfound respect for the hard work and dedication that occurs behind the scenes.
3. Experiencing the pre-race ceremonies from pit row
As the start of the race drew near, I was led onto pit row for the pre-race ceremonies. I’ll never forget how it felt to “step over the wall” and join the crowd. Once I made it to Elliott’s car, the moment really started to sink in. Camera crews. Sponsors. Pit crews. Drivers. I was right in the middle of it all.
The atmosphere really started to heat up during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” All of the noise and excitement came to a brief halt but the anticipation grew stronger and stronger. As the song came to a close, my personal energy level was redlining. I’ve never felt so hyped up before when not actually competing in an event myself. Truly awesome.
2. Watching the race from the pit box
Although the pit box is generally reserved for family and other VIPs, my all-access pass included a headset and one of six seats for non-crew members. In addition to the amazing view, listening to Elliott communicate with his spotter and crew chief in real time added a new element to the race. It was also impressive to watch the engineers follow their monitors and make decisions on the fly.
I admittedly did not watch the entire race from the box. Since this was my first NASCAR race, I wanted to experience it from all perspectives. After Stage 1 ended, I walked around the infield for a bit and then watched about 30 laps from the stands in turn four. One of many great things about Bristol is there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house. I was lucky, however, to have access to one of the best.
1. Meeting Elliott Sadler
The high point of my day was meeting Elliott Sadler, the driver sponsored by OneMain. I was told by many people that he’s down-to-earth, approachable and polite. After rubbing shoulders with the man himself, I can honestly say the accolades are true.
My primary assignment in Bristol was a 20-minute interview with Elliott in his trailer. I wanted to be respectful of his time so I planned to quickly run through my questions and wish him good luck in the race. After introducing himself, Elliott made it very clear that we could keep a casual pace and hang out a bit. By the time I exited his trailer, we chatted for over 45 minutes.
Would you like to know what we talked about? Keep an eye out for next month’s blog, “An Interview with Elliott Sadler: 9 Firsts in Elliott’s Life.”
The checkered flag
Although I didn’t compete on the track that night, I left the track feeling like a champion. Each individual experience felt like a win and blew the doors off my original expectations. Lucky for me, I was able to take a few victory laps and relive the glory while writing this blog.
*StatisticsBrain. “NASCAR Racing Statistics.” StatisticsBrain.com. http://www.statisticbrain.com/nascar-racing-statistics/ (accessed August 22, 2017).
Disclosure: The likeness of the #1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet and the stylized team number, and the names and likenesses of Elliott Sadler are used under license with permission of JR Motorsports, LLC.