Editor’s note: This past Saturday, TWI Editor Greg Little traveled to Watkins Glen, N.Y., for the NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Following is his first-person experience about the race. This is the first in a three-part series we will feature this week.

 – It’s just one of those things you have to see to believe.

From the smell of burning ethanol to the intoxicated Budweiser girls to the passion of the fans, a weekend with NASCAR is a unique experience, to say the least.

It all began early Saturday morning when the alarm went off at 4 a.m. This coming off one of the most difficult weeks in memory at The Wayne Independent.

For quite some time, this trip had been planned. A couple of months ago, sports editor extraordinaire Kevin Edwards, at my request, had secured media credentials so I, along with my wife, Nicole, could attend the Nationwide race at “The Glen.” My intention was to do just this, write a personal account of the experience, and have Nicole photograph the action as it unfolded.

As we drove toward upstate New York on Saturday, the fog was as thick as soup. It was no help we left here at 5 a.m., meaning the fog was going to hang around for a long time. And it did.

Driving along Highway 17 in New York, we knew the scenery had to be beautiful but all we could see was the Florida license plates which belonged to some erratic driver we had to endure for a long time. It was frustrating because we really wanted to see where we were going to possibly plan a future trip of pleasure, not the “hard work” we were about to encounter.

By 7:30, we finally found the credentials building and it didn’t take long before we were heading into Gate 2 on the way to quite a day’s adventure.

“Where do we park?” we asked.

“Lot 2,” they said, pointing up the hill to the “media overflow” area. Once out of the car, we hopped onto a bus which took us to the media center at Watkins Glen. (The bus driver would turn out to be one of the brightest spots of the day. More to come on that one.)

When we got off the bus, we headed inside the media center where we signed in. At that point, Nicole had to participate in a required session for all photographers. It made perfect sense because, well, you are dealing in close proximity with very fast racing cars which can cause a lot of damage.

As Nicole observed, many of the photographers just kind of brushed it off because they had been through it all before. She also wisely said the guy who put on the session pointed out many of the basic rules he discussed are broken all of the time by the so-called seasoned photographers.

Once completed, she was issued a blue vest, meaning she had access to almost anywhere around the track. That would prove vital as the day progressed.


Playing it by ear

Since this was the first experience for either of us at a NASCAR event, we kind of had to play things by ear and discover for ourselves where we could go and why we should go to certain places. The access we had was extraordinary as we were able to walk through places where cars were going through technical inspection and you could spot a driver or two here and there.

Of course, the place to be is in the pits. Our passes allowed us to go right into the pits where we could hang out and wait for that great photo opportunity.

At Watkins Glen, the pits are set up in a unique manner when it comes to practice and qualifying. Because it is a long road course, when cars finish a practice or qualifying lap, there is a way for them to come into the pits from the back. What this basically means is there is a back lane in which the cars go the opposite direction. It also happens to be the lane where everyone walks.

Stewards blow whistles and make you step back when one of these metal beasts come roaring through. Their speed seems to depend on how well they did on the track, the worse on the track the faster they go by people standing inches away. I was a little concerned for Nicole about this, given her recent experience during harness racing, but that’s a story for another day.


The Danica factor

As has been well documented in my personal columns, I am a fan of Danica Patrick. I admire her for many reasons, but mainly, contrary to what some would say, it’s for her driving.

In a world dominated by men, Danica became a breath of fresh air when she came onto the scene of Indy Car a few years ago. Her daring behavior both on and off the track made her a worldwide celebrity and she remains in that status to this day.

Her switch to NASCAR this year has been one of the dominant stories in the racing world, and that continues.

What I found amazing at Watkins Glen were the legions of fans wearing her trademark green colors.

From older men to small children in strollers, it was obvious the Danica factor is a strong part of the Nationwide Series. It’s also obvious she has helped boost attendance for that series, which is the “minor leagues” of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, a race which took place the following day.

We had been waiting to get a look at Danica and when the cars were being lined up for qualifying, it was only a matter of time. Before long, there she was standing by her car waiting for her turn to qualify. Nicole had access over the pit wall and she was able to get very close and get some good photos of Danica. While waiting, Danica was talking with Boris Said, a very tall, curly headed guy known for his prowess in road course racing. It was almost comical watching the tall, lanky Said talking with the 5-foot Danica.

At the same time, however, something became very obvious when it comes to Danica. As soon as she walked into pit lane, the vultures began to flock. There were television cameras right in her face and the photographers were on her like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was at that point when I realized her life was not like anyone else who was on the track that day.

In some sense, she seemed sad. Maybe it’s because she is so serious, but I think there has to be part of her who is downright sick of all this attention. No doubt, she’s drawn a lot of it on her own, but I can’t believe even she thought it was going to be like this.

It was interesting how many of the other drivers would mingle right with the crowd in the pits, but Danica had to keep her distance to avoid just being swamped. She stayed on the outside of her car and never once came behind the pit wall to talk to her crew or go up and visit with the fans. I think now I have a better understanding of why that’s the way it has to be for Danica.

As the cars were qualifying, they continued to move them forward and as the line moved, so, too, did the cameras and the curiosity seekers. In so many ways, it changed my entire thought process when it comes to Danica and I realized then just how much pressure she is under to perform and why her season hasn’t gone the way many had hoped. In many ways, the weight of the racing world is on her shoulders and that’s a tough burden to bear.

By the time she was in the front of the line to qualify, you could almost sense the relief she was feeling when that engine fired and she burned out her tires heading onto the track. For her, it must be that rare moment in the day when she gets to do what she loves – drive a racing car. When you think about it, that part of her life actually takes up very little time. The rest is spent doing TV commercials, interviews and most likely trying to find privacy with her family. Though it’s hard to find sympathy for a multi-millionaire who does what she loves, I do have a different perspective about Danica than before Saturday morning.


Coming tomorrow: Vultures, Jeff Gordon and the race itself.