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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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NASCAR’s Auto Club 500 at
California Speedway


Matt Kenseth & last year’s NEXTEL CUP SERIES Champion – Tony Stewart

By now NASCAR enthusiasts probably know the results of the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway. If not, here they are: Matt Kenseth won the race in his #17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford, driving one of the five different Ford Fusions campaigned by Jack Roush Racing. There were two significant, late race engine failures: in Tony Stewart’s #20 Home Depot Chevy and long-time (168 laps) race leader Greg Biffle’s #16 National Guard/Jackson Hewitt Ford.

Rather than rehash yesterday’s news with an abbreviated play-by-play, ending with the results, I am going to present a different take on the race. We’ll take a look at some of the people who made this day so interesting.

The author takes a break

Loaded up like a pack mule with my camera equipment (but with less heavy stuff than I burdened myself with last year), my first stop was at the NASCAR garage area. On the way I noticed that California Speedway has a new logo this year. It was on the huge water tank, which is visible from almost everywhere.

                            Adding fluids and scuffing tires

The race teams were making final preparations to their cars in advance of the race: adding fuel; making tweaks under the hood; doing who knows what underneath; climbing in and out; and taking wheels, tires and gas cans back and forth; and so on.

NASCAR officials were present, too, especially at the area where cars were being carefully checked for compliance with the official racecar templates.

Start/Finish line with fan signatures

Fans and journalists were taking pictures everywhere. Patience was the order of the day. I knew that they would take their pictures and then move on, leaving me ample opportunities to take mine.

At the Media Center I picked up a Victory Lane sticker to add to one of my credentials and said hi to a few colleagues in the crowded Deadline Press area. Ever wonder how everything gets so well covered in a race, from the on-track action to pit row activity to Victory Lane celebrations and more? Some publications send teams of photographers, so that all areas are covered. In contrast, I just roam around as best I can and hope to be in the right place at the right time.

Race fans were almost everywhere. Some gathered just outside of the Media Center, lining the access road between the garage area and pit lane. No doubt they hoped to catch glimpses of their favorite teams, as racecars were pushed from one place to the other amid the sound of track workers’ whistles and the presence of yellow-jacketed security staff keeping everyone safe.

Racer Bobby Labonte talking with his fans

This year, for a change, I was determined to check out the vendors and exhibits before they started closing up. I got a ride with a shuttle driver and was taken to a large NEXTEL tent. Inside, I watched and listened as NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte talked to his assembled fans and answered some of their questions.

Outside were long rows of souvenir trailers, each with a crowd of fans waiting to buy racing treasures to take home.

Phil Hill, Shav Glick and Carrol Shelby                     Jewel in concert           

That done, I proceeded to pit lane and beyond, taking pictures as the cars, drivers and celebrities arrived. Musical pre-race entertainment was provided by multiple Grammy Awards nominee Jewel.

Tony “Smoke” Stewart, driver introduction stage and Jimmie Johnson

At the drivers’ introductions, if one looked closely behind a lower level curtain, one could see drivers peeking out before they went upstairs to be formally introduced and wave to their fans. I was able to capture a photo of Tony Stewart before he put on his trademark sun glasses.


Skydivers with their colorful parachutes dropped from above. The crowd became hushed for our national anthem. The quiet was broken with the sound of military jets in a fly-by formation. Then the drivers started their engines. I put my earplugs in, where they stayed for the next several hours.



What followed was like a well choreographed play, comprised of drivers, their race team crew members, NASCAR officials, track safety workers, members of the Press and, of course, thousands of colorful, noisy, enthusiastic fans. It was a good, clean, safe race.

Shortly before the race ended I tried to make my way to Victory Lane. An official walked in that direction with two bottles of 2006 NASCAR NEXTEL CUP winner’s champagne, along with a few bright yellow NASCAR NEXTEL CUP baseball caps. Other people were already gathered near the pits.

Suddenly the race was over and a mad stampede of people, some pushing carts stocked with bottles of Gatorade, started running across the track towards Victory Lane. I must have been distracted by the sight because by the time I started to move, it was too late. Security workers wisely stopped me and others from crossing because racecars were coming off of the track and driving towards the garage area. I impatiently waited, but by the time they released us to cross, the initial volley of confetti had already been fired. I missed it.

Jack Roush gets doused with champagne during the ‘hat dance’

I did, however, get plenty of opportunities to photograph the traditional ‘hat dance’ – where the members of the victorious race team line up for group photos. After each set of pictures was taken, everyone would change to wearing another sponsor’s cap. Luckily for me, another brief volley of red, white and blue strips of confetti was fired and I was able to capture it with my camera.

That was pretty much it. About the only thing I didn’t do was try to make my way from Victory Lane over to the post-race Press conference. No doubt some members of the teams of photographers shooting for the major publications were there to cover it. Tired from a good day’s work, and with hundreds of photos filling my cameras’ memory cards, I returned my Press Photo armband, walked back to my car and headed out into the slow-moving river of cars, trucks, motorhomes and racecar haulers. Next stop – San Diego and home.

Picture perfect pit stop

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the race from a people perspective. The next time you go to a race, be sure to look around – not just at the cars but at the people, too.

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


Copyright © 2006 J. R. Wagner – #180r1 AutoMatters

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