Matthew Crowder spent the weekend with his daughter at the Martinsville Speedway. He shares what he learned about NASCAR—and about father-daughter bonding.
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southern Virginia is the quiet little town of Martinsville. Fifty weeks out of the year it is your typical small town, but the other two weeks it turns into a haven for speed enthusiasts. On these weekends, the calm is interrupted by the roar of 43 850-horsepower stock cars. You see, on these weekends, NASCAR comes to town.
I have been a racing fan almost my entire life, but I didn’t find NASCAR until about 15 years ago. Now, most weekends during the NASCAR season, which lasts from February to November, I watch at least one, if not two of the races. Up until a week ago, though, I had never been to a race. I can honestly say that I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I knew a lot about the sport, but in reality I was just scratching the surface, because, to really know NASCAR, you need to experience NASCAR.
Lost in the sponsor endorsements, brightly painted cars, and high octane racing is something that NASCAR does that other professional sports do not. It offers unparalleled access to its fans. I, for one, had no idea it offered so much, but NASCAR gets it. It knows that without fans, it won’t be able to stay in business. For while it is true that sponsors foot most of the bill in NASCAR, it’s the fans that bring the sponsors to the sport. This is why NASCAR takes great care in providing for its fans.
As a single dad who only gets to see his daughter on weekends and breaks from school, it’s important to me that I am able to do stuff with her that will make memories. Going to the race in Martinsville was just such an opportunity, but I didn’t see until it was over how special and important our weekend was.
My daughter, Amarah, is sort of into it when I watch the races on TV, but most of the time she is more likely to be riding her bike or playing with our dogs. She too was excited to go to the race, though, because it was something that we were going to be able to do for the first time. I was initially worried she was going to be bored or not enjoy what was going on, but she started to get more into it as the morning went on and, by the time they fired up the engines, she was totally hooked.
Around the outside of the track are a number of different areas with activities for fans to take part in. The biggest is a large lot where people can park their RVs and camp for the entire race weekend. Some of the larger tracks, like Daytona and Talladega, have the camping areas inside the track, which adds a different point of view to watch the race from. Fans don’t even have to own their own RVs, because some tracks allow you to rent one for the weekend. Not only do these camping areas allow the fans easy access to the track, but they also afford them the opportunity to get close to their favorite drivers. A friend of mine attended the race in Daytona this summer and, while they were sitting outside their RV, a couple of the drivers pulled up on their golf cart and stopped to talk to them. They even enjoyed a beer while they were at it.
Another large area outside the track is what NASCAR calls its “Fan Zone.” Obviously due to their varying configurations, each track is different, but they all have some of the same features. Two of the biggest areas are sponsored by the car manufacturers Chevrolet and Ford. Lined up in front are the models of cars from their 2013 line, which fans can walk around, sit in and get up close and personal with without a salesman bugging them every two minutes. With them are stages where their drivers come and sign autographs, take pictures with and answer the questions of their fans. Mixed in with this are semi-trailers full of merchandise that the fans can buy so that they can be decked out in their favorite driver’s gear before the race starts. NASCAR brings in millions of dollars each year in the sale of t-shirts, hats, die cast cars and other memorabilia.
While all of this is going on outside the track, inside is something even more special and unique to NASCAR. Imagine for a second being able to go out on the field at Lambeau Field or Foxboro Stadium while the Packers or Patriots are warming up before a game. Now we all know that in order for that to happen you would have to be a celebrity or really wealthy. NASCAR offers this very thing to all of its fans. This is where I really began to see how much NASCAR does for its fans. By paying anywhere from 50 to 150 dollars, any fan can walk out on the track and throughout the pit and garage areas. Once there, they can take pictures, get autographs if they’re lucky, and see the cars up close.
This access also extends to being able to listen in on the Driver’s meeting and Chapel services before the race. What I saw there opened my eyes. After watching NASCAR for 15 years or so I have come to think of these drivers as larger than life. In reality, they are just regular men like me. The only difference is what we do for a living. They too understand that their fans are what make it possible for them to keep racing cars. So as fans came up to them, one after another, asking for autographs as they were trying just to have a few quiet minutes with their wives, each one of them signed the autographs without complaint.
Drivers and crew members have a great deal of pressure on them to perform at all times when at the track. This pressure builds on them much the same as it does for us in our everyday lives. Family and work stresses can weigh us down. We have ministers, counselors or therapists that we can see to help us through it. The drivers in NASCAR don’t have that luxury because they are always on the move. What they do have are the people that work with Motor Racing Outreach (MRO). MRO was founded in the mid-80s and has provided religious and other support to the racing community in the form of weekly chapel services, one on one counseling, and Bible schools for the kids so that the drivers can have time with their wives before the race.
I got an opportunity to sit down with Billy Mauldin Jr., CEO of Motor Racing Outreach, and was able to ask him about the services they provide. He told me that the number one thing they do is provide one on one counseling for the racing community. The ability to have the conversations they have with the drivers, owners, crew members, media and officials is vital because so many of them don’t often have the time to have those conversations otherwise.
“This is a workplace, people are busy. They get here at sun up and are here until sun down, working on these cars or writing these stories and doing the reporting. Or working on the tires or whatever their job is. So there’s not a lot of free time. So if they have something going on in their lives that they want to talk about, if they can walk around the garage and find you and grab you, and we’ve done a lot of our counseling just standing up against a stack of tires, against a concrete wall or in a corner somewhere while people just unload what is on their heart that they are struggling with. That is the number one thing that we do as a ministry, is have those conversations with people.”
The race fans can help MRO with their activities. Everything from driving golf carts transporting people around the track, to driving people to the hospital when a family member has gotten hurt or ill at the track. MRO helps to coordinate all of this in conjunction with NASCAR to help not only serve the fans, but to involve them in the process. If anyone would like to help out in some of these areas they can contact MRO on their website and they will do what they can to get you plugged into the action.
One of my favorite parts of the race each week on TV is the Opening Ceremonies. The drivers are introduced and the National Anthem played. What I never noticed on TV, though, was that the fans can get up close during this time. All around us were other fans all wanting a close look at their drivers and looking in and around the cars as they were lined up on pit road. Walking up and down pit road with my daughter I was truly amazed at how it all felt bigger than I had expected. While she was walking around with her camera taking pictures of all of the cars, I could see in how she was acting that she was just as amazed as I was. This was when I really started to get the feeling that something special was happening for us. We were bonding over not just the cars and drivers, but the atmosphere that permeates the track.
What also struck me was how commonplace it was to see the drivers walking by or standing next to you in their multi-colored fire suits, some of them holding their children or with their arms around their wives or girlfriends. I really began to feel what I had heard for so long. NASCAR and the racing community are a family. Everyone from the most famous driver to the regular fan belongs. That’s what makes NASCAR so different from other sports. It wants its fans right down there with the drivers. I didn’t, and other fans don’t, have to worry about security coming up and telling me I’m not supposed to be there. No other sport lets the fans get this close.
Shortly after the pre-race ceremonies my daughter and I made our way to our seats. She had her big pink headphones in her hand trying to hurry me along because she wanted to get there and sit down so that we wouldn’t miss anything. We could already hear the cars going around the track getting lined up to start the race. I quickly pulled us through the first tunnel I could find leading toward the track. We found ourselves looking straight at the cars ready to start. Just as I pulled my daughters head phones on her head, the green flag dropped and 43 engines roared to full throttle and barreled toward us. The sound was deafening. Sound doesn’t really do it justice though. Not only is it extremely loud, but it’s the kind of sound you can feel deep in your core. This powerful noise coming from the cars is something I am not likely to forget.
All around us 50,000 people were on their feet cheering. There was a palpable energy in the stands that had been building up as the day went on and it erupted at the drop of the green flag. All of the energy and noise faded away for me, though, when I looked down at my daughter. Even if I had been wearing ear plugs, I wouldn’t have been able to hear anything anyway, because across her face was one of the biggest and most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. Right then, I knew in my heart that my daughter and I had made a real memory that no one can ever take away from us. Not only was it the first time we had seen the start of a race in person, but we had done it together. I am sure this is the same feeling my dad got when he took me to my first baseball game in Cincinnati.
As a single dad of a young daughter it isn’t easy for me to do that. I often lay awake at night trying to figure out what to do with my daughter because I want her to enjoy her time with me. This NASCAR weekend did this for me in a way that I had not been able to do it before. It was one big three day adventure for the two of us capped off with a drive through the western edge of Hurricane Sandy.
When I told her afterwards that I was going to be writing a story for GMP about our weekend, it inspired her to write a story of her own for school. About two hours after I had dropped her off with her mom she called me and told me that she had already written two pages of what she called “Our Story”. As a fledgling writer myself, I was proud of her for wanting to put her memories on paper. As a father, I was even more proud because I knew that our NASCAR weekend had made a lasting impact on her. Ever since then she has been telling me she wants be a race car driver when she grows up and, if the skills that she already has on the go-kart track count for anything, I think she has a chance at doing it.
If I put down all the details of what I learned at the Martinsville Speedway, I could write several chapters on the adventure my daughter and I had on our NASCAR weekend. But better than me telling you about it, I recommend you go and check it out for yourself. It’s not just a bunch of guys driving around in circles. NASCAR puts on many different events on a race weekend, the race is just an added bonus. But with that added bonus comes the smile that you may start to feel grow across your face when the green flag drops and the cars go thundering by.
Photo Amarah Crowder—mcrowder1978/Flickr