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A Summer at Speed

Musings on major American auto racing, from someone who's been there.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I was in Epping, NH in mid June when I had the moment of clarity and bliss. I had just gotten out of my car, and was walking through a dirt parking lot, one of many making the trek.  I looked up when I heard the engines roar, and saw the bleachers.  I was at a race track again.

Summer had finally arrived.

I saw more practice and qualifying sessions than actual races this summer.  That was by design.  It finally hit me that prices are cheaper and access is better (usually) on Fridays and Saturdays than on Sundays.  Well, that was the thought initially.  More and more, I find that it's the off-days and the ancillaries that tell you how much sanctioning bodies and teams care about their fans than anything that happens when the green flag drops.  Oh, sure, it helps if the racing is great, but treat me right when stuff isn't happening on track, and I'll really be impressed.

Ok, the on-track stuff still matters a bunch, too.  I was happy that I got to go up to the NHRA New England Nationals again after not being able to go last year.  Surf the internet too much and you'll find enough hand-wringing about the future of drag racing to make Eucerin consider an Official Cream sponsorship.  1000 foot drags are lame and break quarter-mile tradition, Funny Car is too funny and not enough car, Pro Stock is just flat boring, etc. etc.  The simple fact is this, though: there is no spectating experience in sports like a pair of 10,000 horsepower cars thundering past at 300 mph and literally shaking your heart.  It's such a thrill that over 30,000 fans showed up on Saturday just for qualifying.  It doesn't hurt either that, as the ads say, "Every ticket is a pit pass." The NHRA pits and midway are one in the same.  One minute you're standing there, fingers in your ears, eyes watering from nitro fumes, while Courtney Force warms up her Traxxas Funny Car, the next minute you're by the Traxxas stand watching their guys jump radio controlled trucks.  The AAA people cough and hack from that same exhaust, but not before John Force gets up on their stage and tells the best stories in racing, cursing a blue streak the entire time.

To be honest, Force himself is a big reason why so many fans go to the drags.  NHRA is the only professional motorsport where a driver can be interviewed in the midst of the event, since TV talks with every round winner during eliminations. It's fostered a massive cult of personality with their drivers, and the one-on-one aspect of the racing means rivalries are fierce and well developed.  Also, the driver lineup is the most diverse of any major professional racing series - women not only compete and win regularly but also win championships, and nobody looks at Top Fuel driver Antron Brown as an African-American racer, they just see him as a former champion.  Here, all are united by the One Fuel, the elixir known as nitromethane.

NHRA still has its issues - Pro Stock needs a reboot, since it's deformed bodies make the cars look like really slow Funny Cars - but the future overall is still bright.  They just signed a massive TV deal with Fox Sports that will put 20 of their races on live TV for 2016.  On a Saturday in June in New Hampshire, it was easy to see why.

$10.

That's what it cost me, gas excluded, to spend a Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway during a NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend.  That's not a bad deal - I got to watch qualifying, some practices, and they threw in a Modified All-Star Race (I left 10 laps into the K&N East Series race, however).  I was willing to spend more, though.  Much more, in fact, if they would only let me get closer to the cars...

It used to be that NASCAR was, for a cost, very accessible.  Garage passes were there to be had, fans could actually get to the drivers, so on and so forth.  This year, the only access was a "pit pass" good for 3 hours on Sunday morning, and even that wouldn't get you within a shout of the cars.  Or drivers.  Or anything of value.

That's a big shame, and I think it plays a major role in the amount of seats covered in tarps during the weekend.  My Dad and I waited 7 years from the time we got on NHMS's waiting list in 1998 to when we finally got $150-a-piece tickets for average seats in 2005.  A decade later, you can hit up a ticket booth on the track on Sunday and get similar seats for $25.  Some blame the Chase devaluing individual races. Some blame the Car of Tomorrow for making the racing mediocre.  I blame the fact that it's a 16 hour day to get to and from the track, that the bathrooms and food are disgusting, that it's too damn hot on aluminum benches, and that the drivers and the cars are all still over there and the fans are all still over here.  We dropped our tickets this year, and I didn't go up on Sunday.

Friday would be the perfect day to line up the drivers at some tables and let the fans get some autographs and some pictures.  Or to line up the cars on the front stretch an hour before qualifying and have the fans come on down and take a look.  It would cost the track and the teams and the drivers almost nothing but an hour, and I guarantee attendance on the weakest day of the weekend would rise.

NASCAR has listened to the fans on a lot of things - the cars look great again, race distances have shrunk to reasonable levels, the merchandise is finally starting to get better - but there's still a big fans-as-commodities feel to the sport, like we're nameless, faceless ants who will suck up anything NASCAR.  I don't care how many fights the Chase starts, the ticket sales and ratings aren't turning around until that mindset changes.

The most pure motorsport I saw this summer involved racing for no points, and no prize money.  Nothing but bragging rights.  Oh, and the competitors included giant dog and an evil spaceship driven by a pseudo-Stig.

40,000 people went to Monster Jam at Gillette Stadium this past June.  That number might grow by another 10,000 next year.  Spectacle sells, and when everything is secondary to a 9,000 pound, 12 foot tall truck landing a double backflip while pyro goes off, you're going to sell a hell of a lot.  It's enough that Feld Motor Sports will supplement their big trucks with Supercross in Foxboro next spring.

It seems stupid to compare a series of national relevance like NASCAR to the entertain first, ask questions later world of monster trucks, but consider that Feld had their drivers (Feld owns almost the entire competing field of trucks) out signing autographs for 3 hours before the show, and then another hour after the show.  Monster Jam drivers are so accessible you almost feel bad for them.  The line for Dennis Anderson (aka The Icon, aka "That Crazy Guy in Grave Digger") stretched forever, and always does.  Yet every fan gets a smile from him.  This is partially because Anderson is truly appreciative of all that the fans have done for him and his career, and partially because he knows he has the best job in the world.  A few hours after the pit party ends, he will stuff Grave Digger sideways into a ramp, causing dirt to fly as the truck rolls over, and for this exercise in poor judgment he will be cheered as a conquering hero, awarded the Freestyle competition trophy, and neither have to pay for nor fix the thousands of dollars of damage he caused to his truck.  Feld will pick up the tab, but it will be more than covered by both the ticket sales and the multitude of Grave Digger shirts, hats, Hot Wheels, puff trucks, flags, sno-cone mugs, foam-rubber cotton candy hats, plastic swords, spinner lights, and "Digger Discs" boomerang-things that are peddled throughout the day.

The commercialism of Monster Jam is shameless, and more overbearing than even NASCAR.  This is motorsport designed specifically to sell merchandise.  Grave Digger's debut in the 1980s redefined how monster trucks could be promoted as characters that transcend their physical being as machines.  It was almost two decades later before Feld's predecessors figured out how to capture that lightning in a bottle and create further marketable stars. Now there's Zombies and El Toro Locos and Monster Mutts, all of whom have a legion of children dressed in their officially licensed garb.  Still, when the Monster Energy branded truck cartwheels off a jump, lands on it's wheels and keeps going, twice, it's the adults who are on their feet, cheering the loudest.  That's because, at it's core, Monster Jam plays to the most basic appeal of motorsport: watching men and women pushing outrageous automotive vehicles to their limits.

Like I said, pure.

Until lap 179 at Pocono, I was having another amazing weekend at an IndyCar race.

I will not dwell on it too long here, but the worst part of being a racing fan is knowing that every time you watch, you run the chance of witnessing a driver's final moments. It doesn't make it any easier when the inevitable occurs. Losing Justin Wilson was a gut punch, a one-in-a-million occurrence that I never wanted to be present for and never want to be again.

Up to that point, though, IndyCar was spending the entire weekend reminding me why I've committed so heavily to being a fan of their series over the last few years.  Going to Pocono is an expensive proposition for me - three nights at a hotel, lots of eating out, 3 full tanks of gas, premium race tickets and paddock passes - but for all that money I get two glorious days of simply ridiculous access.  The garage area lets you mull about while million dollar race cars roll by and legends of the sport hold court.  Pocono Raceway ups the ante by making the pits fully accessible (to adults) during practice and even qualifying.  That's priceless.  Nowhere else in motorsports can you get that close to pit work, nor can you get that close to cars peeling out, turbos popping and tires smoking as they head back out to the track.  Wings and sidepods are out for full inspection, and there's a bunch of great photo locations.  Watching cars roll in from qualifying runs at the north end of pit road (while a driver, whom shall remain nameless, used the portable toilet behind us) was the single coolest hour or so of spectating I've done in years.

On race day, IndyCar gets all of it's drivers out to the Fan Zone for an hour long autograph session.  If you have a race ticket, and some patience, you are almost guaranteed face time with your favorite driver.  Again, this is de rigeur for Monster Jam, who has promised autographs for every fan who wants them for decades, but after experiencing just how fenced-off NASCAR is now, I still felt like I had hit the fan jackpot.  I'll admit that autographs are kind of dumb to collect, and I didn't go for them for a long time, but I've come to realize that it's not the Sharpie ink on a card that make them cool, it's getting to have a few brief moments with your favorite drivers, and getting a big smile out of them.  Those are experiences that people tell their friends about, and that word of mouth is starting to shore up IndyCar's long flagging numbers.

It's no secret that IndyCar has struggled to find an audience since assimilating ChampCar in 2007, compounded by weak ratings while Versus grew into a legitimate sports network.  Thankfully, it seems things bottomed out about two or three years ago, and now the slow climb to relevancy is beginning.  Overall ratings were up sixteen percent this season, and over thirty percent on NBCSN, where IndyCar benefited from increased interest due to aerokits, a compelling championship fight, and most importantly, a bump from NASCAR's debut on the network.  Attendance at road courses was also up, at least anecdotally, though attendance at oval venues is still a major weak point.

For that reason, Pocono is still 50/50 for being on the schedule in 2016.  Which is fine, because I probably wouldn't attend in 2016 anyhow.  Not for anything they've done, just simply that one year from now IndyCars will be screaming down D Street and the Haul Road in Southie, walking distance away from where my parents live.  Purists will disagree, but having attended the now-defunct Baltimore Grand Prix twice, I find street races to be phenomenal.  It's a street festival with auto racing going on around it, and the vibe is fantastic.  The series didn't draw well up-country at NHMS, but it's high-tech cache should play better in the big city, and at a minimum there will be a big curiosity factor.  I hope it sticks.  It deserves to stick.  IndyCar deserves it.

The worst part about summer is that it ends.  My racing season will go on past Labor Day this year, since I still have plans to get back up to Loudon for the September NASCAR weekend, but I know that soon enough, I'll be frozen inside, getting my fix from TV and PlayStation.  But I hibernate soundly in the knowledge that next summer will come.  NHRA, NASCAR, and Monster Jam will all make return engagements.  IndyCar will create a new tradition in my hometown. Even IMSA will get in on the act, bringing the full-on war that is the GTLM class to Lime Rock.  I will get out of the car, hear the engines, and see the bleachers.  And life will be wonderful.

Man, is racing awesome.