Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series from TWI Editor Greg Little about last Saturday at the NASCAR Nationwide Series race in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Lunch with the vultures
— As part of the experience at Watkins Glen, media representatives are provided lunch in the cafeteria of the media building.
Never one to turn away a meal, and starving to boot, it was off to lunch around 11:30. As my wife Nicole and I sat waiting for them to set up the buffet, it was interesting to see what we dubbed “the vultures.” These are photographers who have envious lenses and are about as obnoxious as they come.
Just sitting in the room with them, you could tell few of them are in touch with reality. Their jobs are so different, most of us can’t even relate to their weekly routine. Many travel the racing circuit and do this for a living. They are the ones who look at people like me and wonder why they’d even let this kind of “journalist” into the building. They remind me a lot of some of the network television people who just think they are above everyone else and it is really annoying. My only solace in all of this is I know I’ve built my career the right way and treating people equally is critical as far as I’m concerned.
The “vulture” moniker became even more apparent when lunch was served. It was a great lunch consisting of a full salad bar and then hot food of beef ribs, chicken, three-cheese macaroni and dinner rolls. They even topped it off with cupcakes for dessert.
As I stood in line waiting for the macaroni, this "vulture" in front of me began spooning his portion onto the plate. Then he spooned about four more portions onto this same paper plate. It reminded me of those buffet places where people don’t understand, “You can get another plate!”
I understand these people work a lot of weekends and basically lead a tough life on the road, but “come on man,” have some common decency and manners.
After stripping the bones of the few ribs we were able to scrounge, it was back to the track.
Luckily for us, the Sprint Cup cars were qualifying for the following day’s race. This meant we were going to see the big stars of racing – up close and personal.
It was the same process as before, with the cars lined up in the pits. Because Watkins Glen is a road course, qualifying is quite different than in most places. They send them out one at a time, however, you can have more than one car on the track at a time, so it’s kind of a staggered situation.
It was during this session that I felt a little star struck. There I was, standing among the great NASCAR drivers. There was Tony Stewart, a fellow Hoosier who, like me, speaks his mind. There was Juan Pablo Montoya, a great driver in his own right but a little more special to me because he has won the Indianapolis 500. There was Jimmie Johnson, arguably one of the greatest NASCAR drivers in the history of the sport.
And then there was Jeff Gordon.
Gordon is a true racing hero in my life. It started with my father, who was a big Gordon fan. He was really into Gordon and my cousin Tiffany was a big Dale Earnhardt fan, so they had quite a rivalry. Even though they lived a thousand miles apart, they found ways to rib each other until the tragic day that Earnhardt died. My dad continued to be a big fan of Gordon and was so until the day he died. At his funeral, a few Gordon items were placed in his coffin.
At the same time, I was “teaching” my wife and new son, Price, the ins and outs of NASCAR, though it was a tough sell.
But part of that sell was around Gordon. I had all the gear and when teaching my young son about Gordon, he came back with “Jeff Gorgon.” To this day, we say “Gorgon” and laugh.
So there was Nicole on Saturday, camera in hand, up close with Jeff Gordon. Of the 300-plus photos she took, there was one in particular which just jumped out and that was of Jeff Gordon, with the camera at an angle, and the blue fence in the background. When I looked at that photo on Saturday night, thoughts of my dad kept racing through my head. I know he would have been proud that day, not only of me being at the race but of Nicole getting that up-close shot of Jeff “Gorgon.”
As qualifying wound down, we headed back up pit road to spot some more of the drivers as they did TV interviews with the vultures.
At one point, I was in awe of seeing Montoya. There he was, a few feet from me. It’s pretty exciting for an Indiana boy. While I was admiring him, I was also standing in front of a golf cart. I think I was probably blocking it from leaving, but I was in another world. As it backed up to go around me, I glanced over and there was Jimmie Johnson in the back getting a ride back to his motor home. More shock on my part.
I guess that’s just another typical day in the pits.
Did I mention that we went to Watkins Glen to actually watch the Nationwide race?
In so many ways, the race is just a part of the entire experience of actually attending in person.
Yet on Saturday, there was a race and we were there to take it all in, photograph it for history and put some words to paper to explain the experience.
As the time approached, it became very interesting to watch just how much entertainment value is put into a race.
You have to understand there was a lot of rain the day before, so Saturday was actually squeezing two days into one.
The Nationwide race was to start not a half hour after Sprint Cup practice.
Yet that didn’t stop organizers from making sure they set up the stage in front of the main grandstands for driver introductions. A semi-trailer was put in place and a large stage was set up faster than I have ever seen. All the drivers made their way to the stage and were introduced one by one to the crowd.
Then in true NASCAR tradition, there was an invocation and then some former American Idol dude sang a pretty good version of The Star-Spangled Banner. Fireworks went off around the track and before you know it, the drivers were given the command to start engines.
Though the cars had been loud all day during practice and qualifying, it was at that moment you realized just how loud this sport is – and how much the fans love the excitement.
One of the difficulties of watching road racing is you can only see a small portion of the track. To solve this, NASCAR erects daytime television screens the size of semi-trailers. It’s awesome of watch something on television and hear it live in the background.
As the cars took their pace laps, you could hear the excitement in the crowd. This is what they had traveled to see. When the pace car pulled off, the green flag dropped and the roar of the engines was deafening. They headed into the first turn and then it happened.
A car got loose and slid into the grass. As it came back onto the track, it was rear-ended by another car. It took a few seconds, but when the big screens showed Danica Patrick's car crunched up, you could hear the collective moan in the crowd. So many had come to watch her race and she hadn’t even made it through the first turn. Those fans were so disappointed.
They tried to fix her car but it was to no avail. They took it behind the wall and she would finish dead last.
Tomorrow: The common man, victory lane and the great folks at The Glen.