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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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A Day at the Races

 

 
Sea of parked cars and fans in the stands at California Speedway

Recently I joined 90,000 other race fans and went to Fontana’s California Speedway to cover the “Auto Club 500.” This state-of-the-art facility plays host to several different flavors of racing, and each has their own distinguishing characteristics. Did I ever tell you that I absolutely love watching NASCAR NEXTEL CUP SERIES races? For close competition and exciting on- and off-track action, auto racing doesn’t get much better than this.

As hard as it is for me to comprehend, I know that some of you do not watch these races. Those of you who do have heard the basic rationale before: watching car racing is boring because they’re just going around and around in circles. Please let me explain why you should give it another chance, because on several levels it really is very exciting and interesting to watch.


Jeff Gordon nudges Mike Waltrip

First of all, there are no boring Formula One-type ‘parades’ around the track in NASCAR NEXTEL CUP SERIES races. The race rules, including technical specifications for the cars, are setup to encourage extremely close competition. During the races, caution periods bunch up the field and the rules makers have even instituted a means to let the fastest lapped cars get their laps back. They call it the ‘lucky dog’ rule.

Of course the easiest way to watch the races is on TV. You don’t have to drive to the track, buy a ticket or miss any of the critical events, and you have easy access to your well-stocked kitchen and can watch from the comfort of your favorite chair or couch. You can also watch all of the races – and there are many of them in a season. For an additional subscription fee, Cable even offers a choice of camera shots, so you really can see almost everything. Drivers, crew chiefs and others are interviewed. Knowledgeable and entertaining commentators – past champions among them, keep you informed as to what’s going on during the race, as well as important background information.

What I prefer to do, when possible, is go to races in person and also tape them so that I can fill in the gaps later, when I return home. There are obvious advantages to going to the tracks in person, as opposed to watching them on TV.

 
Race cars coming and going

For starters, the photo opportunities are fantastic. Especially at the ‘circle tracks,’ spectators can see much of the action on the track and also the choreographed, synchronized activity in the pits. Armed with a good telephoto lens on your camera – or binoculars if you’re not a photo buff, you can see much of what you want whenever you want.


Pit stop action

On another level, there is the ongoing race strategy. It obviously begins well before the cars even reach the track. Setup is crucial and in a race series where the cars are so evenly matched, setup must change as conditions change. It really keeps the crews on their toes.

 
Dave Blaney spins & Kasey Kahne wrecked

The decisions made and skills demonstrated during pit stops are critical to each driver’s success in the races. For example, should they take on two fresh tires or four – or even stay out and not pit, hoping for a late-race caution? Two tires take less time to change than four and result in better track position for the driver. Track position, in turn, leads to not being in the wrong place at the wrong time – such as if the ‘big one’ hits: that dreaded wreck that can take out several cars in only a few seconds. But taking on two tires can also lead to having nothing left for the end of the race. Many a driver has watched helplessly as their lead slipped away on the final laps, when drivers with fresher tires seemingly came up from nowhere to pass and win! 

 

Look around in the stands at the colorful, race-themed shirts, jackets and caps that so many fans wear. Before, during and after the race, race fans and collectors can easily satisfy their cravings, thanks to the wide variety of souvenirs and collectibles for sale: from diecast cars to clothing featuring sponsors’ logos and the names of drivers. You can find everything in one place.

The ‘Nextel Experience’ offers race fans the opportunity to visit a 6,400-square-foot, race themed, interactive exhibit at each track. You can also rent scanner radios to get insiders’ perspectives on what’s going on during the race. Afterwards, some lucky fans have even been able to take home the actual tires that were used on the race cars – perfect for a race-themed coffee table.


Eventual race winner Greg Biffle (#16)

This year’s “Auto Club 500” was won by Greg Biffle in the #16 National Guard/Post-It Ford. Californian Jimmie Johnson, in his #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, crossed the finish line .231 seconds later for a close second place.

There’s big money in NASCAR. The total award for Biffle’s successful team effort was $288,650! Even Bill Elliot’s last place finish was worth $75,788 – some consolation for his car being damaged in an accident.

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net. Drive safely and do join me again next time.

 

Copyright © 2005, 2006 Jan R. Wagner – #142r1 AutoMatters

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